Review: Civilization 6

By the time this review goes live, Civilization VI will already have been available for nearly a full month. I’ve been playing the game regularly since it launched on October 21st, and I had been intent on giving it a proper review since well before I actually got my hands on it. It was important to me that I invest an appropriate amount of time in the game before adding my reactions to it to the larger discussion surrounding its release, and as a result, I intentionally held off on releasing a premature review. The good news is that Civilization VI is a great if imperfect game, one that re-defines the series in some important ways, and I’ve had a very enjoyable time getting to know it better.

“Civilization VI is a special game worth remembering even among the surfeit of terrific releases this season”

At times I’ve wondered if I were already too late. During the holiday season, when major and long-anticipated titles release literally on a weekly basis, even great games get forgotten about, and it feels like there’s a very limited window of opportunity to discuss even those titles that would demand a lengthier conversation had they been released at any other time of the year.

But Civilization VI is a special game worth remembering even among the surfeit of terrific releases this season. It’s been the better part of a decade since Civilization V, and the disappointing (although not necessarily bad) spinoff title Civilization: Beyond Earth failed to sate the series fans hungry for a true sequel. It’s been a long time coming, and as with the titles that came before it, Civ VI represents the very beginning of a new era for the series, one that we’re sure to see continue on for the coming years with both official expansions and community-created mods.

The challenge to reviewing a Civilization game is that each new entry in the series is built upon the same stable and consistent foundation as its predecessors. The general concept, rules of play, and formula of the series remain largely the same such that each new release feels more iterative than revolutionary. It’s a bit like a sports franchise in that way, although lacking the mandate of an annual release cycle that might burden, say, the Madden franchise, Civilization’s mechanics have yet to ever feel stale or uninspired to me. The roster gets changed up, the game modes might see some tweaking, the visuals get an overhaul, but just as Madden is required to adhere to the (typically) unchanging rules of its sport, Civilization VI plays out largely in the same way that each of its predecessors has. There are still multiple paths to win the game, for example, ranging from military to scientific or even religious victories, and the turn-to-turn progression of the game is relatively unchanged.

 The leaders in Civ VI have more personality than ever thanks to wonderful animations and delightful art design
The leaders in Civ VI have more personality than ever thanks to wonderful animations and delightful art design

It’s a formula that doesn’t really need to be changed and one that defines the series and helps to define the entire 4X sub-genre of strategy games. But Civ VI is more than a mere facelift for the series; Firaxis have implemented a number of new ideas this time around, most of which are great and well-implemented while others are not so much.

The biggest and most publicized one is, of course, the new approach Civ VI takes to how cities are developed. Settlements in previous Civ games were self-contained objects that evolved over time as upgrades were researched and developed. As you progressed through the ages, your humble villages would grow into skyscraper-filled metropolises, but they’d never expand beyond the borders of a single tile or hex. Any structures you implemented over the course of their growth would simply enhance the city’s production, research, or military strengths, and players would interact with these structures via a self-contained city UI.

In Civilization VI, city upgrades take the form of “districts,” each of which occupies its own hex. Not all hexes are created equal for district building, however, and different districts benefit from different types of terrain and surroundings. For example, universities, which enhance your scientific research rates, benefit from proximity to rainforests and mountains. Other districts benefit from being adjacent to the city center (itself treated as a district). Likewise, wonders occupy their own hexes, but in order to construct a desired wonder, you need not only to have unlocked the relevant research criteria but also the appropriate terrain and proximity to certain natural features in order to build them. The Great Pyramids, for example, can only be built on the desert plains, and the Colossus requires a nearby harbor with a lighthouse.

“I managed to eek out at least one scientific victory even stumbling through the game with next to no forethought as to how I’d develop my city”

It’s a cool expansion to how cities are developed and managed, and it requires deliberate city planning in a way that Civ players have never really had to worry about. My first few times through the game, I’ll admit the entire concept was overwhelming, and I don’t yet believe I’ve mastered the mechanics. At the same time, I managed to eek out at least one scientific victory even stumbling through the game with next to no forethought as to how I’d develop my city. As a result, I’m inclined to believe that the system rewards careful, strategic players far more than it punishes newcomers.

Civ VI has also split the research tree of the past games in half. Scientific research still produces new technology that allows you to develop new buildings or units or harvest new resource while Civic research unlocks new forms of government and policy cards that provide bonuses to various play styles. Early examples of these cards include one that provides a bonus +5 attack to combat encounters with barbarians while another improves the rate at which worker units are developed. It’s an interesting system that higher-tier players will likely be able to exploit to their great success, although I found that I often neglected or forgot to update my government policies regularly enough or that I simply wasn’t dynamic enough in my own use of them.

Speaking of workers, Civ VI takes a slightly different approach to how resource hexes are developed and roads are constructed. Laborers are now designated as Workers, and each one has only a limited number of actions they can perform (three for most civs, although China gets a unique buff that allows all workers to complete one additional project). Because these units must be developed or purchased from your city like any other, deciding when to spawn them and how to utilize them is a more deliberate and tactical process than before. Workers can develop land and resource tiles first while roads are paved automatically as traders begin to work their routes between cities and later more deliberately as military engineers become available.

There is a multitude of other changes that Civ VI brings to the table for the series, many of which are far more subtle than these. One other worth mentioning is that the conditions for winning the game now include a religious victory, although that victory path seems to have come at the expense of a diplomatic victory condition, as the player can no longer win the game through traditional diplomacy. While religion as a game mechanic has seen some cool expansion and integration into the game, I found it’s a less than satisfying path to victory that could be largely boiled down to rushing to found a religion as quickly as possible, and then “bombing” neighboring civs with as many missionaries as possible. It would have been nice to see some additional diversity in the types of units and strategies available to a religion-focused player, so maybe that’s something we can look forward to in future expansions.

 The map-like appearance of the game board, particularly the way the fog of war peels away, is very charming
The map-like appearance of the game board, particularly the way the fog of war peels away, is very charming

At the end of the day, the changes Firaxis have made to the Civilization formula seem to fit in just right. As has often been the case for me, at least, the way Civilization VI works seems so natural, that the mechanical distinctions between it and its predecessors start to blur, and I mean that as a credit to the game. There’s enough going here to make Civ VI feel like a new experience without demolishing the familiarity of the game or diminishing that drive to see what’s going to happen in your next turn that the series is famous for.

Civilization VI may not be exclusively a visual update of the series, but that’s not to say that it doesn’t feature a major graphical overhaul. Its general aesthetics seem to have been polarizing within the series’ fan base, but I think it’s the best-looking game in the series. The game board is colorful and diverse. Forests and rain forests run into one another, oases dot the deserts, and mountain ranges stretch out majestically across multiple hexes, which while technically uniform in size and shape, appear to shift and conform to accommodate whatever unique detail they feature.

Unit and building animations are surprisingly detailed and delightful, too, with easily overlooked flourishes that reward careful examination. A hex developed with a plantation structure will, for example, feature an animated fountain and a lit window when occupied by one of your cities citizens. Combat units like Japan’s samurai carry out attacks with unique animations: dashing forward lightning-fast like a character in an anime before cleaning and sheathing his katana. So much love and attention has been paid to these unit animations, that it’s truly disappointing that you’re all but compelled to disable them. In singleplayer, keeping movement and attack animations enabled draws out the length of each turn as you have to wait for the game to render any and all enemy animations within your line of sight. In multiplayer, this problem is particularly egregious, and the friends I played with and I agreed unanimously to turn them off.

“At the end of the day, the changes Firaxis have made to the Civilization formula seem to fit in just right”

Civ leaders, too, have been given a dramatic animation overhaul, and they all seem to have stronger identities and personalities as actual characters in the game. Queen Victoria of England comes across as prim and proper, friendly yet condescending. Cleopatra’s haughty yet flirtatious. Teddy Roosevelt’s real chummy, quick to give you a pat on the back or a punch in the arm. And Ghandi always seems like he’s got a knife behind his back, which feels appropriate given his history in the series. They’re all wonderfully voiced and animated, and just plain charming.

And—as strange a thing as this is to say—the game’s fog of war system is utterly gorgeous. The game board appears as a blank map, the corners of which peel away as you explore it to reveal the terrain below. As you lose line of site, however, it’s replaced again with a map-like, hand-drawn representation of the hex in its last known state. While I’ve read some complaints that the fog of war system is confusing, in part because of its tan color, I’ve always been too enchanted by it to mind terribly. That said, one of Civ VI’s imperfections is its challenge to intuitively and quickly convey information to the player, and this is only one example of the problem.

Finally, players once again have the option to switch back and forth between the game’s default view and a less hardware-intensive “strategic view,” the latter of which has received a similarly, perhaps even more significant overhaul from its appearance in Civilization V. Strategic view does away with combat and environmental animations and replaces the game board with a vibrant cartoon-like visualization. Civ games have always played like highly complex board games, but they’ve never looked quite so delightfully like one as Civ VI does in strategic view. It’s tempting to say that it’s my preferred way to play the game, but the fact of the matter is that I found myself switching freely between the two on my desktop PC while I’ve played in strategic view exclusively on my laptop out of sheer necessity. My one complaint about it is that unit icons, while consistent with the default game view, seem almost out of place in the strategic view’s aesthetic, and I initially had trouble discerning which units were located where.

In fact, if there’s one overt complaint that I have about Civilization VI, it’s that the game really seems to struggle to convey important information to the player, particularly to newcomers. Like previous Civs, the game tries to advise players on where to found their settlements, which units or districts to build, and how to extract the most benefit from your districts, but I’ve often felt—especially in my first few games—like the game just wasn’t communicating enough to me. The searchable help index returns, and there’s a wealth of knowledge about the game’s intricate systems, but all too often I found myself being pulled out of the game in search of what should have been a simple explanation. For instance, I didn’t learn until partway through my second full playthrough that I could literally buy great people with gold or faith. In another case, I had great artists ready to produce great works, but I discovered that I didn’t have anywhere to actually deploy them so they sat instead in Tokyo, twiddling their thumbs and just generally wasting their genius.

To be fair, I found in almost every case that the game did have a way to get me the information, but figuring out how to extract it was always more difficult than it should have been.

 Strategic mode is utterly gorgeous and lends the game even more of a board game feel than it already has inherently
Strategic mode is utterly gorgeous and lends the game even more of a board game feel than it already has inherently

There are other UI issues, too, that fall into this same category. Alerts might go off to signal a barbarian approach, but I wasn’t sure where they were coming from or why the alert was triggered. Recent alerts show up above the end turn button in the lower right-hand corner of the screen, but it’s sometimes difficult to tell when new notifications replace old ones, and I’ve found the game sometimes struggles to call up the notification’s explanation when I hover over them.

In fact, there seem to be some pervasive issues in the overall responsiveness of the UI. I’ve found that I sometimes have to issue commands multiple times. Directing a unit to move to a new hex may not register depending on where in the hex I click, and telling a unit to move beyond its limit for the turn doesn’t produce any immediate action at all but merely queues up the action to take place once you’ve ended your turn. At one point I declared war on another civilization, watched my opponent draw his sword in the diplomacy screen, but then found I still couldn’t cross his borders with my troops. I had to re-declare war, and it was as if the game had simply disregarded my previous attempt.

These kinds of issues creep up frequently, and at least a handful of them are the result of human error on my part, but they give off the sense that Civ VI didn’t get quite the level of polish I’ve expected from the series. Even still, they never really managed to hamper my enjoyment of the game, and the frustrations I felt from them were always minor at worst and humorous at best.

“Its general aesthetics seem to have been polarizing within the series’ fan base, but I think it’s the best-looking game in the series”

More deflating to the game are its AI quirks, which I hope we’ll see improved over the course of post-release patches and future expansions. For the majority of the time, the AI civs appear to act as expected, but I’ve not yet shaken the feeling that something just isn’t working quite right under the hood. Part of this is simply the nature of the game, however. Each civ leader is assigned two agendas. One is public and static to that particular leader (like a trait or characteristic). You can always count on Teddy to get testy if you start a war with a city-state or civ located on his content, for example. The other agenda is secret and picked at random. This is supposed to make for some cool diplomatic dynamics and reward players for collecting intel on their neighboring civs, but it can also result in some erratic behavior. A leader might, say, detest other civs with weak military strength while also being biased against civilizations prone to war. Other times it feels like neither agenda really matters, and getting the other civilizations to like me feels all too often like a roll of the dice.

The way Civilization VI handles variations in difficulty settings can also feel unfair at times. Playing on Emperor, I’ve found that scouting a civilization you plan to attack may reveal a relatively weak military, for example, but the moment you declare war, they’re able to mass produce military units in quantities simply unavailable to human players. I believe this is an intentional mechanic implemented in order to add challenge to the game superficially, but it undermines some of the tactical tools it makes available to the player.

Still for every one of the game’s quirks—and I call them quirks intentionally, because none of these issues ever really feel like game-breaking shortcomings—it gets so much right. Civilization VI is every bit as addictive and fun as its predecessors, and it’s already working its way to being my favorite entry in the series to date. The changes Firaxis have made to how cities are developed in particular have added a level of depth and interaction to the Civ formula that for me have really re-defined the series. I’m looking forward to what they have planned for its future, but in the meantime, Civ VI already feels like the new king of 4X.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I still have time to actually play the game some more before I call it a night. Even if it’s just for “just one more turn.”