25 years after the launch of the original, Civilization VI proves Sid Meier and his crack team of strategy gaming experts have still got it. This is an epic turn-based strategy title full of complexity, depth and real-world history, and its several different 4X gameplay systems work in harmony to create one of the most engaging digital board games imaginable.
As a massive fan of 2001’s Civilization III, I’ve been on and off the series since, but the sixth entry has proven too addictive to pass over. At first glance, gameplay looks familiar to 2010’s Civilization V, aside from the controversial art-style change, but many new mechanics and technical improvements have been introduced. Along with refinement of existing content, it has refreshed the status quo in a way that new players and returning ones will ease in at their own pace – that’s not even considering the new content on offer yet.
First thing’s first: The core 4X gameplay loop of explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate still forms the basis of Civilization VI. Governed by a turn-based system, players choose from 20 civilisations with 20 leaders inspired by real-world figures, and compete with A.I. opponents or real players on a randomised hexagonal-based map grid. The goal? Build the greatest civilisation of them all. The formula involves establishing cities and gathering resources from surrounding terrain to sustain them, exploiting environmental tiles to boost food, productivity, culture, faith, population, science and gold (to name a few things), creating military units to defend and take over other city-states and players, researching new technologies and policies to unlock more advancements, and building other cities and structures to expand your borders and civilisation’s overall power. Negotiation, espionage and interaction with other civilisations and city-states are necessary to succeed through a variety of different gameplay systems too vast to summarise in another sentence, but all which work together to provide a complex level of choice.
Resources are key to the many different gameplay systems at work (culture, religion, war). They allow players to decide which path they wish to build their civilisation and achieve victory. You can conquer foes by capturing all opposing capital cities in domination, achieve a scientific milestone, overwhelm them with the most influential culture or religion, or win based on overall score if the game’s maximum turns expire. I’ve always enjoyed the many different play styles you can adopt in any given game in Civ, and the sixth entry doesn’t let up on player choice. You can be a pacifist, striving for cultural domination, or a militaristic tyrant intent on spreading your religion to everyone on the world map even if they don’t like it, or any number of scenarios. Before the game starts, you also have full control over its parameters, such as difficulty, number of opponents, and overall map size, so everything always feels fresh and randomised.
As a player familiar with the recurring elements of Civ from past games, I did find the number of new or otherwise modified gameplay systems overwhelming at first. Thankfully, Civ VI has a handy advisor and tutorial feature which really proved handy in explaining what I needed to accomplish and how I needed to do so. It helped ease me into what is arguably the biggest change in the formula; buildings and wonders are now unstacked like units. Called districts, they require their own tiles close to the city to develop a certain sector, and each house specific types of structures. Commercial hubs have banks and markets, military encampments have armouries and barracks, and Holy Sites have monuments and temples. There’s 12 district types to micromanage and all have differing build requirements, bonuses awarded and optimal placement to consider. Because they’re permanent once placed, careful management is necessary to optimise your settlements while still remaining productive and linked to terrain bonuses. Workers (now called builders) have also been changed for the better, able to improve surrounding tiles, for districts and more, and expire after a certain number of uses so that players don’t have a ton of unused redundant workers standing around in the late-game.
Districts were definitely a major challenge to get used to during review (builders weren’t – I love it!), but as a fan of Civ V’s unstacking of units into their own tiles, I found it adds a whole new level of welcome strategy and meta-gaming to the table, and it ties in with the changes and refinements made to the research trees. Civics and technology are separate branches focusing on science and culture, and depending on what research you complete first (all with potential boosts which lower turn time for research and unlock under certain accomplishments) can dramatically change the long-game and short-term objectives of any player. The civics line, in particular, unlocks several policies, which grant different bonuses depending on the style of governance you choose for your civilisation. It was fun tinkering around with policies allowing faster production times for buildings and wonders, and then switching to a more militaristic outlook with better bonuses for military units and wars under a Monarchy when the time came for absolute war.
Speaking of war, one thing I still found lacking was the A.I. For review, I played a series of games at ‘Standard’ turn length (750 turns) with varying levels of A.I. difficulty and found the choices of several computer-governed opponents baffling no matter the setting. Foes are better at scouting and advance-planning for when they sense blood in the water, but their competency in on-field combat tactics vary. Several times my capital was (stupidly) left unprotected and yet the A.I. deigned to retreat more than five or six full-health units instead of pillaging and punishing me for my mistakes. With the nature of PC gaming and patching these days, I’m sure certain values can and will be adjusted in the near future, and their competency in the overhauled diplomatic screens are the complete opposite. With every leader having two agendas (one known, one randomised), knowing why opponents hate or fear or respect you is a lot easier. Egypt’s Cleopatra, for example, always dislikes weak militaries, so whenever I faced her on the field I knew to be ready for blood if I focused too much on commerce or culture.
These are just some of the new systems, changes and elements of Civ VI that I’ve had the pleasure to enjoy, and it’s almost impossible for me to go into detail of all of the rest: the smart changes to City-States, the overhauled Government system, the importance of Great People, the new time-and-day feature complete with sunsets, the elegant soundtrack, the new English narration by Sean Bean of Game of Thrones fame, the witty quotes accompanying new civics and technology unlocks, and the UI overhaul which makes accessing information so much more seamless. Discovering all of these elements and playing with them over several different saves made me appreciate the level of content Firaxis placed into Civ VI, and it certainly feels like a more complete package than its predecessor did at launch. Coupled with the technical achievements of running a variety of lower and higher-end computers with less issues than previous entries and providing a number of graphical options (including an in-game benchmark tool), it’s been a long while since I’ve been satisfied with a PC-game launch like I have been with Civ VI.
That said, not all changes or new design choices have gelled completely with me, but it may be up to personal choice as I don’t believe any of them fundamentally detract from the game’s overall quality. For example, the change in artstyle from something more grounded and realistic in Civ V to accusations of being too ‘cartoony’ in Civ VI will divide many players, but the stellar animations of units, buildings and wonders is undeniably better in every way. Some UI hiccups with overly persistent notifications and unclear directions to find the Civilopedia also irked me, and the removal of the dedicated city screen to something more streamlined took a lot of getting used to.
The Final Verdict
Civilization VI is a refreshing reminder video game franchises as classic as Sid Meier’s classic turn-based strategy series can keep evolving in complexity while still remaining accessible for players, both returning and new. Combined with its relatively stable launch and a ton of content on offer, it’s easily the best PC game I’ve played in years.