Fashionably Late: Civilization 6 and the joy of progress

I haven’t played Civilization since shortly after the fifth game launched. It turns out that was nearly eight years ago, and now I’m sad, because HOW EVEN?

This weekend, I got a bunch of notifications telling me a small pile of cash had exited my bank account to cover my Humble Monthly subscription, and in exchange I was given access to the first few thingies in March’s bundle o’ mystery games. As it turns out, one of those first few thingies is Civilization 6.

And so, at 11pm on a Saturday night, I started a fresh game of Civilization 6 as Mvemba a Nzinga, leader of the Kongo. When I regained consciousness, it was 3am, and somehow, I was still playing. And I hadn’t even finished the tutorial.

If you’ve played Civilization, you’ll know this feeling all too well. “Just one more turn” is practically the Civilization mantra, and the same goes for all great games in the 4X genre. The premise is fairly simple. You pick a civilisation/leader from a list of humanity’s most renowned civilisations/leaders. You start with nothing, and must gain everything.

How you choose to do this is the foundation for the game’s complex, immensely satisfying, turn-based rhythm. Wanna be an overly aggressive knobwallet and bully everyone with your overwhelming military might? Do it. Would you prefer to win over the world with your fascinating culture, and convince everyone that your civ’s pants are the best pants to wear? That’s cool too. Is religion your thing? Well then, put on your fanciest hat, fashion your dogma to your liking, and then drum it into peoples’ brainbits until everyone’s worshipping your omnipotent cuttlefish in the sky.

You’ll build and manage cities. You’ll interact with rival civilisations. You’ll research cool new tech, fiddle with different styles of government, found new religions and bash people over the head with assorted blunt instruments. You’ll take your fledgling tribe from the ancient era to the space age. And sometimes, you’ll get dicked over for forgetting to leave some warriors behind to protect your favourite city. Oops.

Obviously, this sort of thing isn’t for everyone. It’s methodical, and thoughtful, and it ticks along at a leisurely pace (at least at first). It’s also pretty intimidating if you’re a newcomer. But there’s a reason 4X games are still around, and why each new entry in this decades-old franchise still grabs headlines. There’s endless joy to be found in games like Civilization, in creating something where there was nothing and watching it either evolve into something majestic, or collapse in a pile of snotty, overambitious goo – and it’s all influenced by the moment-to-moment decisions you make along the way.

It’s really therapeutic, actually. Civilization repeatedly taps into the parts of your brain that light up when you accomplish Something Important in The Real Life – getting a raise, falling in love, buying a house, finding out you passed that exam you were SO SURE you’d failed, gradually working your way up to plus-size dildos – you know, the sort of thing that makes you feel like you’ve just moved up a life-notch, like you’ve just levelled up, like you’re finally not a gaping asshole anymore.

Obviously, there are many other games from many other genres that’re capable of hitting those very same buttons, like unlocking a legendary skin in Overwatch, or… I don’t know, getting thrown out of a strip club in Grand Theft Auto. But in a game of Civilization, this is constantly happening in a bunch of different ways. Maybe construction of that granary you ordered 16 turns ago has finally finished. Maybe your civilisation’s finally learnt how to write (or hold spears, or farm with rice, or walk without falling over its own feet, or whatever). Maybe Catherine of France has somehow just agreed to a peace treaty, even though you started this war in the first place and she could murder everything you own with a single sneeze.

Whatever it may be, Civilization is constantly tickling that desire in all of us to achieve progression, advancement, and, like, self-actualisation or whatever. A single game of Civilization can take dozens of hours to play out, is set on a massive map, has its roots in human history, and spans thousands of in-game years – so even though it’s not actual, meaningful progression and it’s unlikely to have any sort of real-world application, it still manages to feel more substantial than what most games out there are able to accomplish.

It’s not just your own progression in a game of Civilization that’s captivating either – observing the actions of the other civs, whether they be AI-driven or human-controlled, is equally compelling. People like Grey’s Anatomy, right? Because this is kind of like that, except instead of watching doctors repeatedly cycle through a list of available sexual partners and get shot sometimes, you’re watching civilisations poke each other with spearmen and subliminally infiltrate one another via the careful application of religion. Good times!

Civilization 6 is no different. As you’d expect, it brings a flurry of changes, tweaks and enhancements to the trusted formula, and I’m loving all of them. At its core, it’s still a game about being handed the keys to a fledgling empire, and clumsily guiding it from humble beginnings to whatever hellish mess it ends up becoming. If that sounds even remotely intriguing to you, give it (or one of the many, many fantastic 4X games out there) a go.

If you’ll excuse me, I’m off to do just one more turn, because I think I’m about to finish my research on bronze working. Also, Peter the Great is amassing troops at Gandhi’s borders, so I’m guessing something magical is about to happen.

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