Thoughts: Civilization VI

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God help me, but I was actually looking forward to Civilization VI. After experiencing both Civilization V and Beyond Earth at launch I really shouldn’t have been; both were eventually patched into a decent state and after two expansions Civ V even went on to surpass its predecessors, but at launch they were flawed, buggy messes with plenty of basic functionality missing. Given Firaxis’s previous track record here it seems foolish to have expected great things from Civilization VI on launch, but after peeking at the development videos I just couldn’t help myself. The lead designer is the guy who pulled Civ V out of the muck. As a headline idea I can’t exactly call unpacking city management onto the world map inspired since Endless Legend got there first, but it’s potentially completely game-changing and Civ VI looked like it was going to explore the concept in far more depth. And in a departure from previous Civs they weren’t going to leave trade, espionage and religion for the expansion packs and instead integrated them into Civ VI as core features, essentially making it a Greatest Hits version of Civ V post-expansions. How could this possibly go wrong?

Well, if you have any familiarity with Firaxis whatsoever all I need to do is say “It’s Firaxis” and you’ll probably just know what’s wrong with Civilization VI. It is a classic Firaxis game, packed full of great design and mechanical ideas that are genuinely daring and will impact the entire genre for the next decade, if not more, but which technically-speaking is a bit of a car crash — I’m not talking about basic code quality here as it ran perfectly acceptably on my system, but rather the eternal Firaxis bugbears of AI, general game balance and user interface. It would be unfair to say that Civ VI has been executed badly since it gets so much right, but I definitely think that (for example) Firaxis considers any flaws in the UI as a secondary priority, a cosmetic feature that they can polish up later, and then it goes on to have a disproportionately bad impact on the game because the player is having to use that busted UI literally 100% of the time that they are playing it.

As usual I’m getting ahead of myself, though. There’s a hell of a lot to like about Civilization VI and it’s also a little unfair to set the tone of the review by opening with a diatribe about what it does badly even if that also happens to be a pretty fucking long list of stuff that really got up my nose. For what it’s worth I feel like the issues are less acute than they were in Civ V or Beyond Earth — I certainly don’t think Civ VI is going to require a full expansion in order to fix the worst of what’s wrong with it — and so I’ll leave the badness for the end where it can be examined in the full context of Civilization VI’s considerable accomplishments.

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The Civilization series is the PC’s flagship turn-based strategy game franchise that covers the progress of human history from the invention of irrigation and the wheel all the way up to nuclear weapons and the space race. Probably you’ve at least heard of it, but I apologise in advance if you’ve never played it since I’m going to be referring to certain core game mechanics that have persisted throughout the series’ 25-year history — and the state they were in as of Civilization V in particular — as if you know what I’m talking about. The interesting thing about Civilization VI (and about all iterations of the series, really) is what it changes from the installment that preceded it, and it’s impossible to have detailed discussion about these changes and why they are good (or not) without assuming some pre-existing knowledge – that or making this review the length of a small book, and if you scroll down some way you’ll see that it’s already pretty damn long. So let’s get cracking, shall we?

Civilization V, then. It launched in a pretty abject state, but after two expansions and four years of patches it ended up being the best of the series by quite some considerable way. It wasn’t without certain systemic flaws, however, the most acute of which was that it was absolutely pointless to go wide (4X-speak for building a lot of cities to monopolise as many resources and produce as much stuff as possible) thanks to the global happiness mechanic. Going tall and pouring all your investment into just 4-6 incredibly built-up super-cities was by far the best way to play until you were ready to unleash the blitzkrieg and make a bunch of puppet cities via war. That drastically restricted the range of viable strategies on offer, and the various attempted solutions that the expansion packs added all suffered from the same issue: since they hadn’t been in the design from the very start they always functioned as more of a band-aid to a problem that was never truly solved.

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Now, the nice thing about Firaxis — and why they’re one of my favourite developers despite their repeated UI catastrophes — is that they take mechanical criticism of their games very seriously. Civ V’s Going Tall problem was itself caused by an overzealous attempt to fix the previous problem with the series: ICS, or Infinite City Sprawl, where it was never not a good idea to build another city even if it was on a one-tile island in the middle of an ocean, and so the player ended up in micromanagement hell dealing with dozens and dozens of cities. Civ VI similarly tries to fix Going Tall, but its solution is far more subtle than the sledgehammer of Global Happiness. Instead it opts to overhaul something that’s remained fundamentally unchanged since the very first Civilization: the way cities build their improvements. In Civ VI, cities are now semi-unpacked, with almost no buildings existing in the central city tile and most being built in themed District tiles that exist externally to the city on the world map. Some of these districts have strict requirements on where they can go (like military Encampments not being allowed to be placed adjacent to the central city tile), but most of them instead have passive adjacency bonuses that let them derive a benefit from clever placement, and it’s this that now prevents you from just spamming out cities willy-nilly since you really have to think about tile placement and how to make the most of the surrounding terrain in order to get the best out of them.

An example. The science district is the Campus, which can initially build a Library that gives two science per turn. Later it can build a University that gives 4 science per turn, and then a Research Lab that gives 6 science per turn, but you won’t be building either of those until 100-200 turns into the game. Initially the Library and its relatively piddly 2 science are all that are available to you — that, plus any adjacency bonuses you manage to get from putting the Campus down somewhere good. It gets +1 science for being next to rainforest or mountain tiles, so if you find a particularly good spot to plonk one down next to one chunk of rainforest and two mountain tiles that’ll be +3 science. That’s huge in the early game. It’s more than doubled the initial yield of the Campus without doing anything more than settling your city in a place where you could actually make use of that bonus. Commerce Districts get similar bonuses for being next to rivers; Industrial Districts for being next to mines (which must now be built on hills or resources, so you can’t just spam six mines on grassland around an Industrial District); Theatre Districts for being next to Wonders. The adjacency bonuses become less important as you move into the mid-game and the rest of the game systems start coming online, but in the early game they’re absolutely critical for getting a good start, especially since building a district is quite expensive and the cost goes up with the total number of districts of a certain type existing within your empire (so building a Commerce District will increase the cost of the next Commerce District you build in a different city).

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Just considered on its own, without bringing any other game mechanics into the equation, the District system achieves two things. First, while we’ve gone back to expanding relatively early almost always being a good idea there’s absolutely no point in doing so unless you’ve got a really good spot lined up for your next city; somewhere with lots of space to expand into the right type of terrain. If you found your city in a bad place your districts will get poor yields and you’ll have made it harder for yourself further down the line. Finding a good spot for the second city is easy. Finding a good spot for the third city is slightly less easy. Finding good spots for cities four, five and six becomes increasingly difficult as you and the AI eat up all of the available room. Space is now the major limiting factor on expansion; space and terrain and the availability of fresh water, which feels far more natural than the Global Happiness system and the inflating tech/social policy costs in Civ V. And the second major impact of Districts is that unless you have found an absolutely amazing location it’s no longer possible – or efficient – for one city to do everything. With the spiralling District costs you need to specialise to at least some degree, and I’m happy to report that aside from Commerce there’s no district type that you absolutely have to have in every single one of your cities; in all previous Civs the Library has been the second or third thing I’ve built in all of my cities, but in Civ VI I never even built a Campus in about half of them. It just wasn’t worthwhile – or necessary — and so I instead focused on what those cities were going to be best at, whether that be production, money or just being in a good spot for building Wonders.

Ah yes, the Wonders. Certain Wonders have always had terrain-based requirements in order for them to be built, like the city having to be next to a mountain to build Neuschwanstein or next to the coast to build the Great Lighthouse or The Colossus. This was always a little too restrictive, however, as finding a good city location that combined these Wonder requirements with the production required to actually build the thing ended up being a bit of a pain. Civilization VI’s Wonders are at the same time both more flexible and more restrictive thanks to the city management system; Wonders take up their own tile and so can in theory be built anywhere within a three-hex radius of the building city, but the tile they’re built on has to fulfil some very specific requirements such as being a river tile next to an Industrial District, or a tile that’s adjacent to both a Commerce District and a Cattle resource. With foreknowledge the majority of these requirements can be planned for, but if you’re targeting a specific Wonder it’s a very good idea to check in advance what you’ll need and to make sure you have an appropriate tile ready and waiting for it when it becomes available.

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I like this system a lot. Wonders and Districts spill out onto the world map to share space with the usual city improvements, in effect bringing back the City Screen I so missed from Civilization 1 and integrating it into the game seamlessly. Once you have a good understanding of the system you start to plan your expansion the moment you plop a city down — building mines on that cluster of three hills will ensure a hefty bonus for an adjacent Industrial District, but you need to remember to leave some space free next to the Entertainment Complex so that you can take a stab at building the Colosseum wonder. You also need to keep in mind the fact that you still do need the basic improvements such as farms, mines and lumber mills in order for your cities to grow in the first place – a city can only support one or two districts when it is first built, with further districts being unlocked once the city hits certain population milestones.  Building a district or Wonder initially blocks off a tile from being worked by a citizen and you’ll lose any basic yields that tile might have had, meaning it’s sometimes an agonising choice over whether or not to sacrifice a tile that could otherwise be useful later on in the game. The new city management adds a lot of interesting decision-making space to the game, and what I particularly like about it is that at the moment it appears to be quite flexible; there is no one true way to build a city, and how you expand is going to change based on where the city is and your strategy at the time.

It’s an avowed goal of the Civilization designers that when they add complexity in one place they take it away in another to avoid overwhelming the player. Or rather I should say they streamline, since what Civ VI does as a tradeoff for city management in no way diminishes the game: they’ve taken a fair chunk of faff out of how you build tile improvements. The improvements themselves still have the yield-boosting effects you’d expect, and they’re still (mostly) constructed by Builder units who roam around the map setting up farms and seaside resorts; the difference is that where in previous Civs you’d have a lengthy wait before your improvement was finished (sometimes 15-20 turns depending on what you were building), Civ VI’s improvements are built instantly. This is a huge quality-of-life feature that cannot be understated, and it feels fantastic to just immediately get a set of farms up and running the moment your first Builder spawns. The instant builds are balanced by Builders having a limited set of build charges — a base of three, with more being added by Wonders, social policies and unique civilization bonuses — and once those charges are gone the Builder is expended and disappears from the map. Basically they’re converting city production into tile improvements more or less efficiently depending on how you’ve got your empire set up, which strikes me as a more elegant, less spammy version of the Public Works system from Call To Power. The only thing that Builders cannot build are roads; these are now spawned automatically as your trade caravans travel between cities, which both removes a sizeable pain point from the game (was there anything more tedious in Civ than building a million roads?) and makes getting your trade engine online early even more important.

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The other big change Civ VI makes is to the technology tree, which up until this point has been possibly the single most important part of Civilization and which has received only comparatively minor tweaks in the twenty-five years that the series has been going. Civ V introduced a second tree of Social Policies that could be bought with your Culture income and which basically functioned as your government type, but ultimately they were far too static and limited for any really interesting decisions to be made. Usually you’d decide at the start of the game if you wanted to go Tradition or Liberalism, and then a little further you’d pick another tree based on which victory type you were after; all your choices were basically predetermined. As this bolt-on solution didn’t really work, Civ VI opts for something rather more drastic: it chops the technology tree in half, and takes the 50% of it that consisted of social technologies and puts it in a new Civics Tree. Now you’ve got two tech trees running in parallel, each focusing on a different side of the game: in general Science buys Technologies which introduce new resources, tile improvements, production boosts and military units, while Culture buys Civics that unlock both faith- and culture- based buildings and Wonders as well as new policy cards that can be used to customise your form of government – more on this in a paragraph or two.

The effect this has is to lessen the emphasis on a strong science base while boosting the importance of culture even if you’re not actively pursuing a Culture Victory. As I said earlier, while science remains important throughout the game it is no longer necessary to construct a Library in every single damn city you build; you can get by with just a few cities specialising in it. Meanwhile if you take the anaemic approach to culture that I usually do you’ll find yourself falling behind in both trees thanks to the technology/civic boosts built into this new system. The way these work is that every single technology and civic in each tree has 50% of the progress bar part-shaded in, along with a short condition listed at the bottom of the tech card like “Meet another civilization” or “Kill 3 Barbarians”. Once you fulfil that condition you’ll activate the boost for that tech and the part-shaded 50% of the progress bar is immediately filled in for free. All of the boost conditions are themed to the technology in question (so the “Kill 3 Barbarians” one boosts Bronze Working as your civilization suddenly comprehends the importance of finding new and better ways to stab people) and so you’re probably not going to get all of them if you’re specialising in the way I just described, but you can target the majority of these boosts with just minor modifications to your playstyle and so progress along both the Civic and Technology trees much faster than you would do otherwise. The boosts are also used to make both trees somewhat interdependent, in that some Tech boosts require you to have researched certain Civics and vice versa.

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The real impact of the Civic tree is to be found in the Government screen, however. You start the game auto-researching Code Of Laws; once that’s done you get access to your first form of government, Chiefdom, and four potential policies – two Economic, two Military. Each policy card has an effect which is relatively powerful but extremely specific, such as +2 build charges for Builders or +5 Combat Strength when fighting Barbarians. Each government type has a certain number of policy slots in one of four categories — Military, Economic, Diplomatic and Wildcard, which can take any policy type — along with a passive bonus such as cheaper gold purchases. This being the start of the game, Chiefdom is fairly crap with just one Military and one Economic slot for your four policy cards, so you have to pick one of each of the two types that best fits your opening strategy. It quickly gets better, though; every single Civic that you research unlocks new policy cards, and as your options expand you find yourself chopping and changing policies according to short term goals – for example, those Builder bonus cards are less useful towards the mid- and end-game when most tiles have already been developed, so you’ll find yourself tossing those in favour of a gold, culture or science policy of some sort. After a couple of dozen turns your Civic progress unlocks the first real tier of Government types There’s three governments on each tier, and each set of three can be broadly summed up as “Military-focused”, “Economy-focused”, and “Middle of the road”.  A military-focused government will have more slots for military policies and fewer for economic policies while the reverse is true for the economy-focused government, and moving up a government tier adds two more policy slots to each government type. In short, the faster you go up the Civic tree the more choice you will have between policies and the more policy bonuses you will be able to enact.

This is essentially going back all the way to Civilization 1 and dragging the government system there kicking and screaming into the 21st century, and I have to say it works really well. The policies are a bit of a mixed bag and there are some pretty duff ones in there, but also some very powerful ones, and once you start opening up policy slots and stacking bonuses in a certain area you can really start to get an engine going, whether that engine is generating gold, culture, faith or is just really well optimised for kicking the shit out of other civilizations. The Government screen where you make these policy changes is locked most of the time and requires a gold fee to unlock — however, any time you complete a Civic it unlocks for free, and once it’s unlocked you can make any changes to your policies and your form of government that you want with no penalties such as unrest gumming up the works. Since you’re getting through the Civic tree at a rate of one Civic per 10-12 turns this means you have almost complete freedom to completely change your government and policies at will with very little bullshit involved.

This is why culture is now at least as important as science in Civ VI: it lets you do far, far more than it ever did before, and if you’re not interested in the military it’s probably even the superior of the two to invest in. It lends a new sense of purpose to the Great Works/Archaeologist shenanigans, which return from Civ V in a more-or-less unchanged format. Previously you only really cared about this stuff if you were going for a Culture Victory and wanted the Tourism bonuses, but now you want as many Great Works and Artifacts as you can stuff into your museums since doing so will boost your culture output to the max.

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We have now reached the point where I stop saying complimentary things about Civ VI and start hitting it with my hating stick. Before I commence the beating, however, I should mention a few other bits and pieces: Great People have been overhauled so that they now provide unique bonuses when expended, and City States provide similar bonuses once you’re friends with them. Both types of bonus take a leaf out of the Explorer bonuses from Beyond Earth: Rising Tide, in that they’re split about 50-50 between “somewhat underwhelming” and “extremely goddamn powerful”; the latter group makes it well worth investing in both of these systems. Religion is back and basically unchanged save for Faith being slightly better-integrated into the game economy; ditto for the combat system, which lets you combine two units to create a single super-unit with a slightly higher attack value so that you can somewhat leverage a superior industrial base in the world of one-unit-per-tile, but which is otherwise the same apart from apparently removing ICBMs from the game, which made me sad (you have to drop your nukes from Bomber units now). This stuff is all perfectly functional and not really worth inflating the word count on this review any further for.

So! Time to start complaining. The first and most obvious complaint: you know all of that shit I just spent the last 3,500 words describing in detail? The game explains almost none of it to you. I wouldn’t have had a clue that Districts, Settlers and Builders all increased in cost each time you built one if I hadn’t read it on a forum. It genuinely took me some time to figure out that “Amenities” were simply a pointlessly-renamed Happiness system, which is now sort-of-kind-of-local again – each copy of a luxury resource provides enough for four cities, so once you make your fifth city you’d better make sure you haven’t traded away your second copy. Again, wouldn’t have known about that if I hadn’t read it on a forum. Yes, it is true that I haven’t played the tutorial, but I have literally thousands of hours invested in Civilization at this point and I really shouldn’t have to; the game should be perfectly capable of explaining itself through its tooltips and UI. I’ve been a huge fan of putting as many tooltips into the game as possible ever since Master of Orion 2, which is why I was utterly dismayed to find that Civ VI barely has any – and the ones it does have are so low-information that they might as well not exist at all.

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Take city happiness – sorry, I mean Amenities. Click on a city and you’ll see its net Amenities value in the bottom right, which is basic functionality I don’t feel like giving any credit for. Try to mouseover it to find out what’s contributing to that net Amenity value and how it breaks down into positive and negative values, though, and you’ll be disappointed since nothing happens. If you go into the city report – which just summons a very small sidebar from the left of the screen — it’ll provide a partial breakdown, but the categories are very vague; it says I have one Amenity from my Civics, for example, but not which Civic. It says I have 3 from Luxury Resources, but not which Luxuries, or where they are. Viewing tile resource yields is a particularly important activity in Civ VI given the new city management, but the hotkey to summon them is inexplicably missing and you have to go in and check a box over the minimap. Once they’re turned on you’ll notice a strange omission: it won’t show you how many resources your districts are producing. Mousing over will show you the yield of any citizens currently working in a district, but there’s no way of seeing the contribution your buildings and adjacency bonuses are making to the yield short of going into the city report (again) and looking at the building tab. Yes, I know that technically these are buildings, but they exist on the map as tiles now and the UI should have been adjusted to take this into account.   Mousing over the various resource yields at the top of the city pane is a little more forthcoming, but even here there’s weirdly baffling stuff like +8 production from “outgoing districts”. I have 24 hours in Civ VI and four games completed, and I have absolutely no idea what this means.

This litany of woe is seemingly without end. There’s no way of seeing how close your cities are to claiming new tiles via culture, or which tiles they’re going to claim. The city production queue is completely absent. I had to figure out district adjacency bonuses through trial and error since the placement screen is so awful at telling you what’s going on. Some of the Policies you can enact double these bonuses, but they won’t tell you upfront what the net change in your culture/science output is going to be as a result; the only way to find out is to actually enact and confirm the policy (which locks the Government screen) and see how much your culture output goes up by. It might even go down if you’ve switched out another culture-boosting policy for that one, but there’s simply no way of knowing without actually doing it, and this cripples the interesting decision space created by the policy system since it’s impossible to judge the actual value of a lot of the policies you’re presented with. Still, even finding the policies you might want to enact in the first place is a bit of a challenge; even when you’ve got the selection filtered down to just Economic policies you still find yourself looking at a huge clump of twenty identical policy cards and reading through the very small text on each one to try and identify the one you want. I suppose Civ VI does try and help you out when you discover a new Civic by marking any new policies — but it does this with the tiniest, most adorable exclamation mark symbol in the world, and even when you’re actively looking for it it’s quite easy to miss.

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Because the UI is so bad I found myself resorting to the Civilopedia far more often than I should have to see what was going on, but even this is fraught with risk. At the end of my Kongo game when I was making a final push for Tourism I decided to build some Seaside Resorts. Inexplicably, though, I couldn’t seem to build them on any of the coastal tiles I moved my Builders onto. Mousing over the improvement icon in the Builder menu was no help, so I opened up the Civilopedia and typed in “Seaside” and then clicked on the first item in the list, which was “Seaside Resorts”. This took me to a one-line description: “Seaside Resorts are a special improvement that can be built after researching the Radio technology. These generate Tourism based on the tile’s Appeal”. Thanks, Civ, but I already fucking knew that; what I want to know is where can I build the sodding things? I eventually found the answer in another Civilopedia entry for “Seaside Resort” which provided the detailed description that I wanted, but it failed me completely when I was looking up what to do with my Thermonuclear Devices. It was only because I’d built a couple of bombers in a previous game and had noticed the “Drop Nuclear Device” option in the Aerodrome menu that I eventually managed to nuke Sparta.

Final UI gripe (well, not final, but I don’t want to spend much more than a thousand words talking about this) are the unit controls. Civ VI repeats the Civ V mistake of auto-cycling through your units and having snap-to enabled – but on a short time delay. What that means is that the game will present you with a unit to move. You, perhaps, will move the unit, and then start moving another nearby unit – only for Civ VI to suddenly wrest control away from you; that’s not the unit it wanted you to move next; it wants you to move this unit over here instead. This would be annoying enough on its own, but the timing between selecting a new unit to move and the game interrupting you is just long enough so that you’ll be clicking the mouse button to commit the move order at the moment your unit control changes. This leads to a lot of occurrences of e.g. sending hapless Builders straight into the path of a marauding Barbarian unit. When you repeatedly do this over the course of a six hour game it becomes absolutely infuriating. It’s not okay to take control away from the player like that. It’s probably the number one UI sin you can commit, so of course Civilization VI throws itself wholeheartedly down this pathway to hell because this is Firaxis and, just like Blizzard will never hire a competent story writer, so Firaxis will never hire a competent UI designer. Or at least never let them do their jobs.

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And as I said in the opening to this review, these issues with the UI are not a little deal. You are interfacing with it 100% of the time you are playing the game, which means you are constantly dealing with its shit. Nowhere is this more apparent than the trade system, which is pretty much just the trade system from the launch version of Beyond Earth. You know, the horribly broken one where the number of trade routes scaled exponentially with the number of cities that you had, but where they also expired after a certain period of time and the game gave no indication of what the previous route had been when it was time to manually reset it. That system rightly caught an awful lot of flak when Beyond Earth came out and Firaxis eventually did mark the previous route, but the fact that it’s been in three games now (Beyond Earth, Brave New World and now Civilization VI) must mean they think they’ve got this whole trade thing nailed when nothing could be further from the truth; I’m sick and tired of constantly batting away trade popups at the start of every single turn, and to add insult to injury they’ve used the same interface for counterspying. (In fact counterspying is worse, since you first have to confirm the city you want to “send” the spy to when in fact you want them to stay right where they are, and then you have to select which of the ten city districts you want them to protect. With three spies and an eight-turn timer on spy missions this gets old really fucking quickly.)  If you’re not going for a cultural victory — and so don’t need the Tourism bonuses from having active trade routes with other civilizations — I suppose it’s not too bad, just a matter of mindlessly clicking on the trade routes with the highest numbers, but if you need to maintain specific trade routes for whatever reason it’s an absolute nightmare to deal with.

The really annoying thing about this trade system, as ever, is that you’re forced to interact with it. Trade is an absolutely huge part of Civ VI, to the point where I suspect they’ve crippled other systems in order to “encourage” you to use it. It represents the vast majority of your gold income, and Firaxis have really taken a sledgehammer to production in this game; unless you have three cities with overlapping Industrial District bonuses and a shitload of hills the only way to get a decent rate of production going in the endgame is to bolster your cities with domestic trade routes. Even then it takes something like 60 turns to build all the spaceship projects for the Science Victory because you have to do a lot of them in series rather than in parallel; this constant mashing of the End Turn button triggered horrible flashbacks to Beyond Earth’s awful endgame. Whether you’re using caravans for gold or production you have to prioritise trade above all else, which means building Commerce Districts and Harbours ASAP (each of which lets you create an additional trade route). I thought this was a crying shame in a game that had otherwise managed to avoid having a One True Path to victory. Also, because you’re running so many trade routes it has the side-effect of massively boosting the value of the Policies that enhance them, to the point where you’re crippling yourself if you don’t have one or two active, It’s a system so bad it brings down other areas of Civilization VI where genuinely good work has been done. There’s basically nothing about trade that I like (save the fact that your caravans now create roads automatically) and it’s one of the areas that I really wish they’d streamlined a la the city improvements rather than cutting and pasting in a terrible system from one of their worst games.

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Let’s wrap up by talking about Civ VI’s AI. It’s terrible. I suppose that doesn’t come as a huge shock; I’m a little more forgiving of weaknesses in AI than I am other areas as I’m very, very aware of how difficult it must be to make an AI that can play a game as complicated as Civilization VI in anything approaching a competent manner, and it’s one of the areas that tends to show the most genuine improvement once exposed to a wider playerbase who are very good at picking holes in it. Unfortunately Civ VI’s AI is nothing but holes, to the point where I’m struggling to see where the actual substance is. Strategically it’s not particularly coherent; the diplomatic AI is supposed to have set agendas that make it a bit more predictable, but I just got out of a very strange game as Qin Shi Huang versus Victoria and Teddy Roosevelt. Victoria has an agenda where she approves of anyone on the same continent as her, which I was. Roosevelt on the other hand is a big softy who wants to keep the peace and dislikes anyone who starts a fight. I hadn’t started any fights. I had a positive relationship score with them both. I also had a fairly decent standing army regardless of this as I’ve been conditioned by the psychotic Civ V AI to never display any weakness that might tip whatever algorithm governs war declarations over the edge, and this turned out to be a very good thing because they both wardecced me on the same turn despite our “good” relationship.

Of course because the AI still can’t handle one unit per tile and relies on what is informally referred to as the “unit carpet” to overwhelm the player it was a relatively trivial matter for me to take out twice my number of English Warriors without losing a single unit of my own, and once I’d done this both Teddy and Victoria seemed to lose heart and sued for peace – again, on the same turn. Not three turns later I received a Declaration of Friendship from Victoria; apparently my wholesale slaughter of her army hadn’t soured her on me any and it was all just a big misunderstanding. Teddy was also remarkably chummy after this as well, but I took it to heart as the same lesson I learned from Civ V: the agendas are just a flimsy camouflage and you cannot trust any of the indicators the diplomatic AI gives you as to its attitude because it still could go rabid and attack you at any moment. Relative military strength doesn’t seem to discourage them either; in other games I’ve had civs attack me with Warriors and Horsemen when I was fielding at least as many Musketmen, only to be eradicated from the map for their trouble. Even helping them out in a war doesn’t score you any points; I declared on a Qin Shi Huang that was midway through the the process of eating Victoria alive, only for Victoria to call me up and denounce me as a warmonger for having the temerity of joining the fight against a common foe.

civ6_horses

The tactical AI is just as broken. Actually, back up a little bit: the way the AI deals with its armies in general is just plain weird. I don’t think it understands the Districts system all that well and so tends to undercook its science, but even when playing on Emperor where the inherent bonuses it got from the difficulty were enough to ensure it had rough technological parity with me I still never saw it upgrade a unit. It absolutely craps out Warriors and Spearmen and Horsemen (especially Horsemen) in the Ancient Age, but then once it has a standing army it refuses to keep them updated. If it suffers losses it’ll replace them with the latest and greatest version of whatever the latest horse unit is, but more often than not it’ll be 1600 AD (which in Civ VI’s timeline means you just hit the Atomic Age) and you’ll be gunning down hordes of Knights with Infantry despite the AI having had the capability to build Musketmen for quite some time.

Part of this I’m fairly sure is down to the AI’s weird obsession with horses. It fucking loves building horse units, and this is kind of a problem because while it knows not to attack a city directly with horses, it doesn’t know not to build armies composed 100% of horses. I’ve watched it roll up to a city-state with a dozen Knights, dispose of the defenders after a brief tussle and then sit impotently outside of the city walls because it didn’t bring any infantry or siege equipment. Anyway, I’m sure that even though it could build Musketmen there’s a significant chunk of the AI code that just reads “HORSES” and so it could do nothing but build the most advanced horse unit available to it, the considerably less-powerful Knight.  What this means in game terms is that all you have to do to beat the AI is survive until about turn 150, at which point its army of horses will be thoroughly obsolete and you can just roll over it with whatever passes for technologically modern units at that time.

civ6_nuke

I’ve intentionally omitted talking about quite a lot of stuff in Civ VI — both good stuff like the excellent visuals, and bad stuff like Sean Bean’s narration being fine but the content of the tech quotes he’s reading out being some of the most shallow and insipid horseshit I’ve ever seen in a 4X1. This is already the longest review I’ve ever written by quite some way2. The previous record holder is either Rome 2 or Stellaris, and you might notice something of a common theme here: both of those were pretty damn broken/incomplete on launch too. Despite my copious word-vomit I actually think Civ VI is the least broken of the three, though. AI aside all the working parts are there — sure, some of them are poorly-balanced and most of them are obfuscated behind an atrocious UI, but these will hopefully improve quickly. After all, the reason the constant UI fuckups enrage me so much is because they’re so easy to avoid, and the corollary to that is that they’re also quite easy to fix, or at least patch. That’s in no way an excuse and Civ VI deserves every word of the thrashing I’ve just given it, but the real reason this review turned out so long is because there are elements of Civ VI’s design that are just downright inspired; on paper, just speaking in terms of pure design, it is possibly the best game Firaxis have ever made. It’s so exciting to see the potential in how all the systems — science, culture, great people, city states, districts, faith, even the hated trade system — supplement and flow into one another, and even more frustrating to have all of these pointless fucking issues that simply didn’t need to be here constantly dragging the experience down. Both of these are emotions that induce me to write a lot of words. Right now I can’t help but be disappointed despite having had fair amount of fun with it, but there’s certainly a hell of a lot of potential here. Give Civilization VI three months and it’ll be a far more solid experience; give it a year and I strongly suspect it’ll be the best Civilization game ever. It’s just not there yet.

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P.S. if you need a quick injection of joy into your life try listening to the Civilization VI theme. Christopher Tin is really good at this stuff.

  1. And remember, I’ve played both Pandora: First Contact and Elemental.
  2. In fact it’s the longest piece of writing I’ve done since my Ph.D thesis.
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10 thoughts on “Thoughts: Civilization VI

  1. ilitarist says:

    What a monster of review. Nice to see the game is so inspirational.

    I’ve played Russian version for a while and I haven’t heard Sean Bean at all. But one of the most aggravating things was to hear all those quotes. It’s like I’m browsing a cheap page a la “I fucking love science”. And the AI is insane. And all the rules are mysterious.

    Still it looks like a strategy game again. Not as passive as Civ5. Actually encouraging expansion and thus interacting with other factions, not just playing a city-builder. It’s OK. I’ve played on Prince with my friend who was mad expansionist and didn’t want to spend too much on military. We’ve destroyed 2 civilizations who attacked us. Monty had just one city VS ours 3 when he attacked – though he was opportunistic as Gilgamesh attacked us the same turn; Barbarossa attacked us having 2 cities when we forward settled our 7th city near him. The game was basically finished and we didn’t do a single district apart from military camp.

    But I’m mostly playing Stellaris 1.3 and it feels more fulfilling.

    • Hentzau says:

      You’ve nailed it on the quotes, and I believe some of them literally are taken from blogs and websites. I noticed the sarky and/or quirky tone has made it into the Civilopedia entries too. Like, I would love to know what made Firaxis think having most of the quotes in the game be about how shit the thing you just researched/built is was a good idea.

      How is Stellaris now? I’ve not been back since launch; it seems like they’re adding new content at what for Paradox is a fairly slow rate so I’ve not felt compelled to give it a second try.

      • ilitarist says:

        They’ve concentrated on patching the base game instead of adding new stuff. Even the DLC you get are cosmetic one and “story pack”, basically adding new events and things you can find in space as well as cosmetic ones, so it’s in no way necessary.

        They’ve rebalanced practically everything, forced ships to have specific role instead of just size progression, added new tech, changed resource system (now it’s a passive bonus if you have at least 1), changed planet system (now it’s 9 types of planets and planets are rare), changed diplomacy (embasies are gone, relations are very much dependent on ethos and rivals), added new casus belli (sometimes you want to purge planet or liberate or make a tributary or forbid slavery etc)… They worked on redesigning basic systems and I struggle to name one they didn’t change.

        It feels better to me, not as generic and bland as it was before. My neighbours have a sense of character, empires in general are less dense (smaller number of habitable planets). There are still undeveloped systems – factions are just rebels; sectors develop slowly; there’s nothing like a trade system apart from strategic resources; winning conditions are still a joke even though they’ve added a new one (victory with federation). It’s fun to play right now and I feel this is the best of all worlds in space 4X genre. It’s not a perfect the way Civ4 was some time ago but as space 4X genre doesn’t have perfect game (and don’t tell me it’s MoO2) I honestly thing it’s the best one out there. Though I’m very sceptical if I’ll ever get too >400 hours in Stellaris as I did in EU4.

  2. Darren says:

    Fairly spot-on review. I’m trying to think of the last Firaxis game that didn’t have an inexplicably bad UI, and I *think* it was somewhere in their Civ IV period (Civ IV, Pirates! remake, Colonization remake).

    One thing you didn’t mention is that it seems like a really slow game. Civ has always been slow, but I seem to remember getting into the series with IV and being able to complete a game in a day if I had nothing else going on. V was slower, but I’m on hour 8 of my first Civ VI game at Standard speed with no end in sight (admittedly I’m angling towards a cultural victory, which isn’t helping). I think next time I’m going to increase the speed a notch and see if that helps; I like how the various units all have time to shine, but geez, I’ve got other things to do, Firaxis.

    • Hentzau says:

      I want to say it was Civ IV (Colonization doesn’t count because it’s basically the same game) but I can’t remember what it was like on launch – for all I know it was really bad and I just didn’t notice. Therefore it was probably Pirates!, a game which is celebrating its 12th birthday this year.

      Civ VI didn’t strike me as particularly slow? I’ve averaged six hours per game, and that time went down dramatically after turning on fast combat/movement. What I will say is that there are parts of the game where it drags; thanks to the boosts it’s very easy for your science/civic progress to outstrip the rate at which you improve your cities, meaning that sooner or later you hit a bottleneck where everything is taking 15-20 turns to complete. This made parts of it a bit more of a slog than Civ V circa Gods and Kings – but then I remember Brave New World reintroduced the same problem there too.

  3. Wonderful review! Have your thoughts on Endless Legend changed in the intervening years?

  4. Darren says:

    One interesting thing: there seems to be some disagreement from players about what, exactly, determines how long it takes to build a district. It might not be based on number of districts (or not solely on that) but may also be affected by how far into the game you are, perhaps as an attempt to coax players into early specialization. Either way, that people are arguing about this speaks poorly for the game’s design; this isn’t the kind of detail that should be left ambiguous for flavor, it’s a critical element of play.

  5. jiiiiim says:

    There is a lot of work to do, but there is an interesting, reasonably novel, interdependent ecosystem of mechanics in there. Really looking forward to an enhanced UI mod though.

  6. Zenicetus says:

    Good review, thanks for pointing out some things I’ve missed reading other reviews (still haven’t bought it yet, too busy with Stellaris).

    One thing that worries me is that if the UI is a mess, does Faraxis have a good history of acknowledging and fixing UI problems? I don’t remember much if anything that needed changing in Civ 5, and it sounds like some major overhauls are in order here.

    WRT diplomacy, I’m getting the impression that puzzling war declarations are a result of a typical 4X trigger kicking in, when the AI decides the player is getting too big or successful. Especially when two factions do it at the same time, and you’ve had good relations until then. It’s a stupid way to block steamrolling, if that’s what’s happening.

  7. I feel vindicated in my decision to wait for a decent discount on Steam before buying :)
    Current price of £50 is just too much for an unrefined Firaxis game…

    I’ll definitely end up getting it eventually, I’m hardly going to stop buying entries in the Civilisation series at this point :P I can tide myself over till then with the excellent Endless Legend and its expansions (maybe even revisit some old Civ games, Civ3 perhaps?)

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