Experience: Civilization V is one of my favorite games of all time. I have put over 500 hours into the game and its two expansions, and it’s a large part of why I first got into videogames. I have also played a fair amount of Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword. I enjoyed the game, but it couldn’t pull me away from Civilization V. I also played some Civilization: Beyond Earth when it came out, and I did not like it at all. (This is something new I’m doing because I think my experience with a franchise or genre is important to contextualize my reviews.)
The history of human civilization is one full of conflict and destruction, but it’s also full of wonder and artistry. Even with all of its faults, it is something to marvel at. It is important to see how far we have come and reflect upon and admire those who got us here. The Civilization series is a celebration on this history. By cherry-picking some of the greatest and most influential people, places, and things from humanity’s past, Firaxis have consistently distilled everything to love and to hate about our history into 500 turns. Civilization VI continues this decades old tradition.
The reverence that Firaxis has for human history is what makes Civilization more than just a great strategy game. The orchestral score evolves over time, adding more instrumentation to your nations theme as you progress through the eras. You start the game with music that is calm and relaxing and end with a triumphant and inspiring symphony. When completing a wonder, you are rewarded with a beautiful time-lapse animation of it being built. Each leader talks to you in their native tongue with incredibly expressive animations. The art style is more cartoonish than it was before, and it hits a great balance between being light-hearted and inviting while maintaining a classical feel. I do take issue with some of the quote choices for when you finish researching a technology or civic, find a natural wonder, or build a world wonder. Having the creator of Dilbert who does overtime as an angry guy on the internet provide the quote for engineering doesn’t really feel right. I felt similarly upon discovering Mount Kilimanjaro and being greeted with a quote about Wi-Fi that apparently comes from a random blog. But the large majority of the quotes that Sean Bean delivers, even the ones played for laughs, fit right in. Civilization has never been an accurate simulation of history and is based on very European ideas, but the developers of Civilization VI love their romanticized version of history, and that shines through in the game’s presentation.
The biggest addition to Civilization VI are districts. In previous games, every building you built went into your one-tile city. Now you have to choose other tiles within your borders to build districts on. If you want to build a library, you have to build the science district, called a research campus, first. Some districts gain bonuses based on their adjacency to other districts, mountains, or resources. They can also only be built on certain tiles. For example, the military encampment cannot be built next on a tile adjacent to your city. Adding another layer of strategy to this system, a lot of wonders can only be built next to a corresponding district and also have specific terrain that they must be built on. All of this means that you have to pre-plan much more than in previous games. If you know you are going for a culture victory and are going to want to build the Bolshoi Theatre, you must make sure that you place your theater square next to flat land and keep that tile empty until you build the wonder. This is planning for something four to five hours in future, and it is a layer of strategic depth that makes me want to keep playing Civilization VI.
The other major change is the way that research works. There is now a civics tree in addition to the technology tree. The civics tree mainly unlocks government policies as well as cultural, entertainment, and religious buildings and wonders. The new government system has you choose from a number of different governments that you unlock over time and fill them with a set number of military, economic, and diplomatic policies that give you bonuses. It is much more adaptive and active than the social policy system in Civilization V. You unlock new civics through culture as opposed to science. Science is used to progress through the technology tree which primarily gives you scientific, production, and military advances. The early eras of the science tree incorporate more than this, but once you reach the Atomic Era almost everything is a military unit or part of the space race. I like this because it allows for further specialization late in the game. Every victory in Civilization V required you to have a good science output. Now, if you want a culture or religious victory, science helps, but it doesn’t need to be your main priority. You won’t lose out on cultural wonders because of a low science output.
The other thing that makes these new research trees so great is the eureka/inspiration system. With a few exceptions, every technology and civic has a boost that you can earn, dubbed eureka for technologies and inspiration for civics. You earn this boost by achieving something in the game. This can be killing a unit with a spearman to gain a boost for the military tactics technology or growing a city to 10 population to boost the civil service civic. When you do this it completes half of the required research for that technology or civic. This made me change the way I played and go out of my way to do or build certain things. It makes sense to never research something you have not boosted. You are wasting culture or science by doing so. Wanting to maximize my science and culture use, I would research civics that weren’t imminently necessary or research half of a technology and then move on to another one and wait for the eureka. Civilization VI still has some moments where you are hitting next turn without anything happening, especially if you are pursuing a science victory, but this feature makes the game more active than the series has previously been. It seems like a small difference, but it determined the way I played the game more than anything else.
Firaxis has ditched many of the mainstay leaders like Alexander the Great and Napoleon in favor of famous but not obvious choices like Trajan and Teddy Roosevelt. They even include more obscure choices such as Tomyris of Scythia, a nomadic ruler who is said to have brought death to Cyrus the Great. In total, there are 20 leaders from 19 civilizations (Greece has two leaders to choose from), and the only ones returning from Civilization V are fan favorites Gandhi and Montezuma and Pedro II of Brazil. Plenty of them have been in older Civilization titles, but I still appreciate the attempt to change things up and give recognition to some lesser known leaders. Despite this there is still an issue with the lack of geographical diversity. There are only six civilizations that do not come from Europe or the Middle East consisting of 1 from Sub-Saharan Africa, 3 from East Asia, and 2 from the Americas. Civilization V tried to address this by including Siam at launch, and it is disappointing to see Firaxis take a step backward in the area.
Interacting with these leaders is more fun than it was in the past. In Civilization V the leaders all had predisposed personalities that would be consistent from game to game. Most of these were obvious from the outset, and the others you could pick up on repeat playthroughs. However, there was still a lot that didn’t make sense. It was hard to know why another leader was angry with you or declared war. In Civilization VI, that is all brought to the forefront via a tab on the leader screen that shows what makes them like or dislike you and how much that changes their opinion of you. Additionally, they all have a historical agenda based on their actual history. Cleopatra likes civilization with strong militaries, Phillip II of Spain likes civilizations that follow his religion, and so on. This creates an added sense of character, and it also changes the way you play the game. If I’m choosing to play fairly peaceful but start near Cleopatra, I’m going to divert more resources towards building units than I would have otherwise in order to avoid a war with her. This system is a great addition, but it is a little broken at times. It results in situations where Gorgo gets mad at you for not declaring a war in the first twenty turns or Catherine de Medici chastises you for not using the spies that you haven’t unlocked yet. The leaders also have a hidden agenda chosen randomly from a pool that you can learn about by gaining a higher access level. Access levels are another new aspect of diplomacy that allow you to learn more about other leaders and civilizations through diplomacy or espionage. All of this combined with casus bellis which allow you to declare more “justified” wars make diplomacy highly improved in Civilization VI. The leaders are fun to interact with, and I found myself forming personal vendettas or bonds with them as I played. It still isn’t perfect, and I wish there was a diplomatic victory option that put more emphasis on using the system, but diplomacy is finally a positive aspect of the game.
The improved diplomacy with your opponents is great, but it also shines a greater light on how bad their strategic thinking is. Don’t worry when the leader with the largest army declares war on you. As long as your cities are in reasonably defendable locations, then all you have to do to fend them off is build a few ranged units. The AI is woefully unprepared to take cities, and their general decision making is poor. Playing at a higher difficulty doesn’t change this, it just gives them a bunch of advantages to compensate. I lost a couple of games of Civilization VI, so I’m not saying the game is too easy. But every time I lost I didn’t feel like I was outplayed. The AI always seemed to fall backwards into a victory.
On the topic of victory there are four victory options in Civilization VI: domination, culture, science, and religion. Domination is what it has always been. You need to control every original capital through militaristic means. Science has been slightly expanded upon. Instead of building a bunch of spaceship parts you now need to launch multiple missions that end with you colonizing Mars. It’s ostensibly the same as before, but it is more active over a longer period of time. Religion is the new one of the four, and it requires you to convert the majority of each other civilization to your religion. This is by far the easiest victory as it is not hard to spam missionaries across the globe. It makes sense the way it works, but I do think it should be much harder to achieve as the game goes on. In the Information Era when most civilizations have stopped focusing on religion, your missionaries should not have the same impact they had during the Medieval Era. But the culture victory is the one that needs the biggest tweak. I actually like the culture victory in concept. As you build up your tourism you attract tourists from other civilizations. At the same time, every civilization is building up their own number of domestic tourists. You win when you have attracted more international tourists than anyone else has domestic tourists. My problem is that it is hard to see what contributes to all of this. Your tourism per turn is built up through collecting great works and building wonders, but I couldn’t figure out in the game how it determines your domestic and international tourists.
In fact, the game as a whole has a problem with presenting information. It’s not too obtuse to be impenetrable to newcomers. In fact, I actually think that most of the user interface problems would bother experienced players more. It’s mostly small things like the lack of tool tips when you hover over certain items. As an example, when you enter the production menu for a city and hover over an item to build, it pops up a tool tip that tells you everything about that building, unit, wonder, etc. But let’s say you select something to build and then a few turns later go, “Wait, what exactly does that do again?” You can go to that city’s production screen and hover over every other item to get a full description, but if you hover over the one currently being built it gives you a condensed version. The only way to then find out what it does is go to the civilopedia which isn’t always the most useful tool. There are other small nitpicks like this that add up over time and make the game unnecessarily frustrating.
There are small changes in Civilization VI that I appreciate. The amenities system replaces the nation-wide happiness system and doesn’t punish you for expansion. City-state alliances can no longer be bought, and city-states will actually contribute to your wars. Barbarians are more of a threat and make the early game more exciting. Walls give your city a new layer of defense. Support units and an army mechanic make combat more dynamic. Builders having limited builds lessens the issue of having builders with nothing to do and makes sense with the district system. There are more things for you to do with espionage. You now compete for a limited number of great people. These are small changes that would not justify a whole new game, but as secondary focuses they all make Civilization VI much better.
It’s also worth noting that Civilization VI retains almost every feature from Civilization V: Brave New World. Religion, espionage, and trade routes were all major selling points for the two Civilization V expansions. They all appear in Civilization VI in a form that is either basically the same or slightly improved. The only major feature that didn’t make its way over is the World Congress, something that I think could take great advantage of the historical agendas. But when considering how much Civilization V lost from Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword, this is minor in comparison.
The Civilization series has always provided some of the best 4x strategy on the market. Civilization VI does nothing to change this. The game’s presentation and strategic decision making are better in every way than its already fantastic predecessor. I plan on losing many more hours to Civilization VI over the next few years. It does nothing to revolutionize the 4x genre, but it keeps me coming back for one more turn.
Final Score: 4 Stars