It’s difficult to believe that Civilization V launched six years ago. In that time we’ve seen more CODs, Assassin’s Creeds, Next Big Thing indie games, and craft beer festivals than what any sane person could consider reasonable. During that period, Firaxis released three major titles across its set of studios: Civilization: Beyond Earth, XCOM, and its sequel XCOM 2. If there’s anything you should realise from this, it’s that the people at Firaxis like to take their time, and the feature-loaded Civilization VI is testament to that.
I can picture the many boardroom meetings that no-doubt took place during Civ VI’s development: hordes of excited developers vying for a chance to pitch their Must-Have Features for the game, producers trying to fend them off with whips and budgets, and a well-dressed gaggle of suits from 2K standing in the corner, not sure if they’ve stepped into a goldmine or a sinkhole. To put it directly: Civ VI is packed with content, features, and new stuff to play with – more so than any Civilization title before it. The burning question here then, is: does all this stuff work together, or does it feel like a jumbled mess of content? Blissfully, thankfully, just-one-more-turn-ely, it works very well.
Civ VI’s new content borrows both from Civ V’s array of expansions and the better bits of Beyond Earth, but at its heart is an entirely new system of city management: Districts. Cities are no longer built on a single hex in the game world (this is now regarded as the City Center), but can occupy several hexes spread across districts including Industrial, Campus (research), Holy Sites (religion), Encampment (military), and Commercial Hubs (trading). These districts occupy their own hex entirely, destroying any worker-built improvement and/or natural resource that was there before. Some bonuses for adjacency to other Districts or resources are also given – for example, Campus Districts benefit from proximity to mountains or forests. In a similar way, worker-built improvements like farms and lumber mills play a big role in the success or failure of a city: now more than ever, the layout and location of a city is a vital, ongoing decision-making process. For that reason, workers themselves have been revamped: each now provides a limited number of insta-build improvements before vanishing into the aether, and can no longer be automated. This reinforces the notion that a city’s nearby improvements are very much part of the city, rather than something you can simply throw money at until it looks respectable.
I’ll admit that I found the concept of decisive city planning to be a little daunting at first, but as my many civilisations grew over the centuries I played them, so did their access to new Districts and improvements. I found myself continuously adapting my cities to their surroundings and new discoveries. This lends city-building in Civ VI a level of historical burden and consequence, and a sense of growth despite some of the worst challenges. I’ve seen small colonial port cities, buried under dense jungle and the oppression of nearby barbarian villages, rise to become industrial and military powerhouses in a new age. If you build it, they will come. Just bring a machete.
While the changes to city management are broad and clear, updates made to combat and overall war strategies in Civ VI have been shifted in far more subtle ways – tending towards a general slowing down of warfare. Units now take a full turn before they begin to reap the benefits of fortification, and likewise their turns will end should you claim a field promotion gained through experience. The “stack of doom” makes a modest return: units can now be combined into two- and three-strong stacks once the relevant research has been performed, but this doesn’t create overwhelmingly powerful units: their hitpoints are just increased moderately. Similarly, stacks (and indeed any units) of significantly lower tech levels than their opponents are close to useless: there’s a rapidly spiking mitigation of damage from the technologically inferior when battling units of a more advanced civilization.
In a way, this technological inequality is the heart of Civilization VI: your chosen path to victory (or defeat, if you’re not careful) can vary greatly from those of your opponents, and will sometimes put you at a real disadvantage. A religious conquest can only come at the expense of science, cultural, or political advancement, but might have a healthy military component. Likewise a scientific lead might actually work hand-in-hand with a religious one (if you’re the right civilization), but will leave your soldiers weak and outdated, prone to a surprise declaration of war, and your coffers will be drained too far to allow for the emergency deployment of troops. But perhaps you’ve chosen the Theocratic system of government, which allows you to purchase units with Faith – religion’s own resource.
Where things fall just a tad flat are some of the more esoteric features in Civ VI. Tourism, for the most part, feels half-baked, and I was surprised to see that this potential victory condition would be so disconnected from the rest of the game. Acquiring great relics and works of art, either through your own achievements or by theft from other civilisations, is a fun idea, but their addition to the game feels ineffectual and last-minute. A cultural victory can be achieved with little interaction with other civilisations, and these achievements have only slight presence in the game world. Compared to the activities of religious, scientific, or domination victories, there’s remarkably little glory in winning because you’ve got nice beaches and a bit of a museum.
Regardless of the minor downsides, the options available to the player, and the sense of accomplishment given for finding effective ways to play in a unique way, is perhaps the most rewarding aspect of Civilization VI. Perfectionists will of course argue that there’s a best way to play, but I’ve never found strategy guides a welcome part of my Civ experience – and I absolutely adore the fact that Civ VI gives the player the freedom to explore, fail, try again, and eventually succeed with a plan that worked despite being doomed from the start. Civ VI is for those who like to combine creativity with strategy, and have the patience to see it through.