Within the strategy gaming community, Sid Meier’s Civilization needs no introduction. The decades-old franchise absolutely dwarfs the competition in sales and recognition. It’s the Saint Bernard in a field of pugs and dachshunds. It’s the Matterhorn in a field of kiddie slopes. In a genre where reaching 100,000 owners is reason to break out the champagne, Civilization V has an estimated ten million. It’s that big.
25 years since the dawn of Civilization, Firaxis has bestowed upon us the sixth installment in the series. Lead designer Ed Beach, fresh off the enormously successful Gods & Kings and Brave New World expansions for Civilization V, has emphasized again and again that the team wanted to load Civ VI with meaningful decisions. In other words, regularly engaging the player on a strategic level – beyond just clicking the next thing in the same build order, the next tech in the same tech path, etc. That’s all well and good – but it’s much easier said than done, and many studios to make that claim have fallen well short of their lofty aspirations.
So did Beach and co. stick the landing and live up to the expectations? Or is this another textbook case of a game with too much unmet potential, requiring a slew of fixes and additional content before it’s serviceable? Grab a sturdy walking stick and follow my lead as we set out to discover if Firaxis has built a game to stand the test of time.
It’s always nice to start in familiar territory, and exploration is certainly that. Like its predecessor, Civ VI encourages early and heavy investment in scouts through mechanics like City-State bonuses and goody huts. One new feature is that the geography of your empire has a significant effect on how your cities can be developed, and having access to water is more important to keeping your city growing.
Another new feature is that certain exploration milestones, like meeting another civilization or discovering a new continent, can boost a particular research project and move to quicky towards completion. These boosts, called Eurekas and Inspirations, succeed in both increasing variance between playthroughs and making research a more active experience (i.e. instead of just picking the next tech in the tree, your actions in-game are shaping your progress). However, the boosts seem too powerful, which causes some problems. By shaving half the time off of a research project, they rocket players through the eras at an all-too-frantic pace. I also suspect that the AI lags far behind humans in its ability to chase these boosts making out-teching the AI even easier.
Alongside the “tech tree”, Civ VI adds a new “civics tree. While they function identically, players use science points to discover technologies and culture points to develop new civics. Whereas the tech tree represents understanding and harnessing the workings of the the physical world, the civics tree represents advancements in the arts, political thought, philosophy, trade, diplomacy, etc. In game terms, most of the buildings, units, and tile improvements come from the tech tree, while the civics tree focuses more on powering up your government, expanding diplomatic options, developing religion, and generating more culture.
One drawback is that with advancements split between the two disciplines, the tech tree feels a bit sparse. A lot of times, I’m left wondering where to go next, because all the techs I can research only unlock military units I don’t care about, or wonders I’ll never care to build. I imagine future content will fill in some of the lackluster parts of the tech tree, but for now, it feels underdeveloped.
As with exploration, expansion in Civ VI bears a deep resemblance to its predecessor. We’re all familiar with the drill by now: you train Settlers, the Settlers found cities, the cities generate new citizens by working the land and expand their borders through producing culture. That process is mostly unchanged, although a city does lose a point of population upon building a settler.
That said, we see some major divergences under closer inspection. Geography plays a much more important role in shaping the development of your empire than in previous Civ titles thanks to a feature called “unstacking the city.” Buildings called Districts are placed outside the city on their own hex, rather than inside the core city hex as in prior Civ games.
Some Districts receive bonuses from adjacency to other Districts or to terrain features like jungle or mountains. Some improvements can only be placed on or adjacent to specific tiles. An aqueduct stuck out in the middle of the desert would make for some unpleasant surprises in the antechamber, after all. Even more critically, most wonders now have strict placement requirements. Those who played Endless Legend may recognize this mechanic. I actually enjoy Civ VI’s version more since it feels like a more strategic decision and less cut-and-dry.
Another major change from Civ V – and likely a major point of contention – is that building “tall” empires of a few very large cities is not supported in any real way. The civ who grabs the most land the fastest will be at an advantage. This is especially true now that local Amenities and Housing are now the main limiters of growth rather than global Happiness, which stiffly penalized settling too many cities. However, since the cost of some important items like Settlers scales up with each one built so, settling too many cities can still drag your economy.
How Civ VI handles workers is also completely new to the series. Each worker (actually, they’re called Builders now) has a limited number of charges, three by default. That’s right: no more of that 5,000-year-old-worker nonsense! They build their three improvements, and then it’s days in the shade on a sweet government pension. On the other hand, the improvements are completed instantly now rather than over several turns, so you have to give them credit for the quick turn-around.
If it feels like I’m giving the first two Xs short shrift, that’s actually to the game’s credit in a sense. Exploration and expansion are so heavily tied into the new exploitation features that it’s hard to go into greater detail without repeating myself. Let’s not belabor the point, and move onto the real gem of Civ VI.
This is it folks. Civ VI’s bottom line, its alpha and omega, its final say. The exploitation gameplay element has seen more changes – more good changes – than any other element. It’s not all good news, but a lot of time, work, and love has gone into these mechanics.
The city is the epicenter of Civ, so let’s talk about that first. Unstacking the city doesn’t just mean finding the perfect city site. Placing districts for optimal output, while keeping in mind other districts, improvements, and wonders is a minigame unto itself. And as minigames go, it’s pretty good. While sometimes there’s a clear-cut optimal solution, more often, placement is a question of “What sacrifices do I make, and what do I gain by them?”
But it’s not all upside. If the spatial game doesn’t appeal to you, you may find yourself frustrated with the number of competing factors. While it’s surprisingly easy to learn the most important parts of the system after a few games, those who lack the patience to consider every last variable, but feel the min-maxer’s urge toward optimization, may find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Civ V’s Social Policy system has been uprooted and replaced with Governments and Policies. Each government has a certain number of “slots” for policy “cards” which come in four varieties: Military, Economic, Diplomatic, and Wild Card. Along with enabling different numbers and configurations of cards, each government has a unique bonus and a legacy bonus which grows over time and sticks with your civilization even after switching out of that government.
The policies themselves are a mixed bag. Some are near-useless; some are unreasonably powerful. Many will be stronger or weaker depending on your playstyle, but for much of the game, the decisions about what policies to use are not terribly engaging. The cards also feel very one-dimensional, and with one exception, they’re all upside. There’s almost never a question of “Can I afford this great benefit with the drawback it will bring along with it?” which is a shame.
As for governments, they’re certainly varied, but their effects are generally too small to convey the gravity of an entire way of governance. When I adopt Monarchy, for example, I get 20% more influence towards City-States and an extra +2 housing in cities with Medieval Walls. The small, bonuses-only attributes feel conservative and lifeless. Neither the policies nor governments feel like they open up different avenues of gameplay like Civ IV’s civics or convey a strong sense of identity like Alpha Centauri’s social engineering programs. This, combined with how easy it is to swap governments and civics, makes the whole government system feel flat and devoid of a real compelling drive.
OK, enough about the bureaucrats and pencil-pushers. What about the Great People who propel your civilization to new heights? Honestly, they’re shining brighter than ever. First, Great Engineers, Scientists, and Merchants now have unique bonuses. For example, Isaac Newton increases the output of Universities across your civilization, while Galileo Galilei gives a lump sum of science for each mountain he’s adjacent to when used. As for Great Generals and Admirals, they only give their bonus to units from two specific eras, and each has a unique effect when you retire them. You can finish off recruitment ahead of schedule by spending gold or faith, and you can also pass on recruiting them if their abilities don’t appeal to you. This system puts civilizations into direct competition over their Great Persons of choice and encourages exactly the kind of decision-making I want to see in my strategy games.
Religion is mostly unchanged from Civ V, which is fair because it’s still a pretty good system. We see a few minor changes here and there. Apostles, purchased with faith, can be used to add beliefs to religions or launch Inquisitions, which unlocks the Inquisitor unit. The biggest change is Theological Combat, in which Missionaries, Inquisitors, and Apostles duke it out in an attempt to prove their god, gods, or lack thereof are supreme. Killing a unit in Theological Combat causes the winner’s religion to gain a big boost in nearby cities, while the loser’s religion takes a hit of equal magnitude.
Espionage has some interesting twists as well. The missions available to a spy depend on what Districts have been built in the city they’re operating in, with a few evergreen missions like increasing your level of diplomatic access. If your spy is caught, you may be prompted to choose an avenue of escape. Counterespionage is a huge pain, however, with spies needing to be reassigned every few turns, and only covering the district they’re assigned to and those directly adjacent.
City-States have also seen some iteration since the series’ previous installment. The “throw money at them” system is no more! Now, civilizations accumulate a number of influence points every turn towards Delegates, which in turn can be assigned to City-States. You get a bonus (like money or faith) at one, three, and six Delegates, and whoever sends the most to a given City-State becomes their Suzerain. This means open borders, a military alliance, resources access, and a unique bonus. This makes each City-State unique, and therefore more contentious.
The only real criticisms I have of the system are that you can’t pledge to protect City-States, the bonuses from being the first to meet City-States can throw early-game balance out the window, and there aren’t many ways of investing in generating more Delegates. I’d love to see, say, a district that would generate Delegates, or a greater range of Delegate generation between governments.
But of course, the main focus of diplomacy isn’t the small fry – it’s your fellow civilizations. Diplomacy was a perennial weakness of Civ V. Unfortunately, Civ VI doesn’t adequately shore up the flaws of its predecessor.
Let’s start with the Leader Agendas, which I actually like. Each leader has one set Historic Agenda based on their personality, plus one Hidden Agenda randomized each game. If you play in accordance with their Agendas, they’ll like you more. If you go against them, they’ll like you less. Some Agendas are easy to satisfy – don’t try to convert or kill people of Saladin’s faith, and he’ll respect you. Some… Are not so easy – don’t conquer or even court City-States if you don’t want trouble from Frederick Barbarossa.
Some players really dislike this system, because it makes it hard to stay on everyone’s good side. Me? I think it’s great to have some level of tension outside the player’s control, and the agendas can also drive tension between AI players in ways that are neither deterministic nor arbitrary. Despite this, I do agree that many are poorly implemented or balanced and could use some tweaking, especially on higher difficulties.
Unfortunately, things only get worse from here. Civ VI adheres to an ancient tradition among 4X games: releasing diplomatic AI that is inconsistent and irrational to the point that it should probably be institutionalized for its own safety. While the dealmaking algorithms are a welcome departure from strict deterministic model of V, VI features AI whose lack of bargaining skills would stagger a four-year-old. I’ve seen them offer me a peace deal, then refuse to agree to it when I said “But please, hold the horses.” I’ve seen them release my spy whom they’d captured for literally one gold. It’s well documented that by adding and removing things from the trade window, players can get the AI to happily give away entire cities for almost nothing.
It’s even worse when it comes to declarations of war. The AI seems to be happy to declare wars, especially Joint Wars, against their good friends for no particular reason. On the other end, I’ve had the pleasure of agreeing to an ally’s request for a Joint War, only to have that same ally come to me the next turn and denounce me for being a warmonger. This arbitrary, senseless kind of conflict sinks the strategic experience rather than buoying it up.
But perhaps the worst element of Civ VI diplomacy is the warmonger penalty. After being one of the most despised elements of Civ V and especially Beyond Earth, it has made its inglorious return. By imposing stiff, universal diplomatic penalties which scale up by era, this system severely punishes anyone for declaring war or taking cities. This often makes it effectively impossible to engage in meaningful diplomacy for the rest of the game. Further, it frustrates the player and breaks immersion. Notorious warmongers like Frederick Barbarossa and Harald Hardrada – a literal Viking – can spend the rest of the game hating your guts because of that one city you captured a thousand years ago, or because your friend was in trouble and you declared war on their aggressor to help them out. In the latter case, even your friend whose hide you saved will likely hate you forever.
What’s possibly even worse is that the AI can’t navigate the warmonger penalties, torpedoing their relations for frivolous wars and further cheapening the game’s diplomacy. In each game I played, most leaders had universally bad relations by around the Industrial era, and I imagine warmonger penalties for boneheaded wars was a primary reason for this. While cynics may point out that this is a perfect reflection of actual geopolitics, it doesn’t make for good gameplay.
Civ VI does implicitly acknowledge the weaknesses of the warmonger system by introducing casus belli (reason for war). Players can declare war for specific purposes for a lower warmonger penalty. However, the options are too limited, come too late, and don’t reduce the penalty by enough to remedy the underlying problems. With some heavy tuning, I imagine the system could work. But as it stands, casus belli and the warmonger mechanic itself are frustrating, anachronistic, immersion-breaking barriers to enjoyment.
Where the third X underwent a lot of changes from Civ V to Civ VI, the fourth saw more conservative iterations. The crib notes version is this: if you didn’t like combat then, you won’t like it now. The formula is nearly identical, with 1 Unit Per Tile (1UPT) back in full force, with all the baggage that entails. That being said, Firaxis did bring a few new tricks to the table, many of which attempt to fix specific shortcomings of combat in Civ V.
One of the first things new players will notice upon firing the game up is the new rules for Barbarians. Like in Civ V, Barbarians spawn from camps, which themselves spawn under the Fog of War. But in Civ VI, they actually send out scouts. If a scout finds a city and makes it back to its camp, that camp will spawn a number of units to raid the city. And boy, do these raiding parties mean business! They radically change the way the early game plays out, requiring players to be more proactive in seeking out and eradicating Barbarians.
While 1UPT is still around, it’s been relaxed a little bit. Now, specialized support units (different from civilian units like Settlers) can be stacked on top of military units and give a variety of perks. For example, Medics heal friendly units, and Battering Rams make their paired unit much stronger vs. city walls.
Players can combine units of the same type into Corps (two units) or Armies (three units). These Formations cannot be split back apart, and give a +10 and +7 boost to combat strength, respectively. I wasn’t sure this was worth it at first, being hesitant to sacrifice one unit to strengthen another. But because bringing many units to bear at once can be so difficult, the system won me over quickly.
Otherwise, combat itself will feel familiar to anyone who’s played Civ V. Ranged units shoot over two tiles, horsemen move fast, siege weapons are for sieging. Also like Civ V, ranged units are supremely overpowered, cavalry are very useful for their speed, and other melee units are near-worthless. It’s unfortunate that the exact same problems that plagued combat in Civ V are still present, and in fact have hardly been changed at all. One nice change, however, is that smaller numerical bonuses to unit strength remain relevant later in the game because of how the game computes combat damage.
Unfortunately, despite its alterations, combat in Civ VI falls to pieces as soon as you make contact with the enemy. Waging war against the AI is about as challenging and fun as playing Halo, except instead of the Covenant, you’re fighting Goombas.
The AI’s combat problems are twofold. (Well, threefold if you also count them usually being technologically backwards on all but the highest settings.) First, AI players often fail to upgrade their units. I can understand being an era or two behind here and there, but we’re talking guys with clubs waging war in the Industrial Era and beyond. There are a number of theories floating around as to exactly why this happens, and sometimes the AI gets it together and keeps its army modernized. But in my experience, it’s pretty much up to a coin flip.
Second, the tactical AI itself is monumentally bad. I’ve seen enemy units ignore Builders and Settlers that I deliberately parked next to them. I’ve seen enemy artillery and ranged units just sit in place and twiddle their thumbs turn after turn as my army slaughtered their brethren and bashed down their cities’ walls. I’ve seen it split its four attacks between four different units, leaving them all alive when it could have easily killed two of them by focusing fire. I’ve seen it lay siege to my cities, only to spend turn after turn shuffling units back and forth, letting me pick them off with impunity.
In all fairness, the AI has improved in some ways from Civ V. I haven’t seen the infamous “move catapults next to enemy and hold position” behavior, for example. And it can occasionally pull off some decent maneuvers. In one war against Harald of Norway, the Viking king did a good job of hitting me with his fast Horsemen, then pulling them back to heal once they were injured. And early rushes by the AI can end your game if you don’t defend well, especially on higher difficulties. However, the numerous flaws in the game’s combat AI have ensured the computer players were technologically backwards, tactically incompetent, and utterly, mind-bogglingly unfun to fight. Once I’d weathered the initial rush (if it came), every engagement with the AI has made me want to put the game down.
The last X, eXperience, is an elusive thing. For our purposes, let’s think of it as a synthesis of everything that came before it – what happens when you assemble all these moving parts into a single machine? Does she float, stutter, or flounder? Or all three at different turns?
Well, it’s a brand-new 4X game, so I’ll give you three guesses…
Victory Conditions and AI
I won’t surprise anyone when I say that Civ is a game. Generally, one plays a game to win, to encounter some challenges along the way. So let’s look at victory conditions and the AI’s handling of the game in tandem.
As per the usual, Civ VI sports a number of victory conditions. Hold every capital for a conquest victory, colonize Mars for a science victory, rack up frequent flyer miles for a culture/tourism victory (honestly, no one really knows what to make of that one), or make your religion the majority faith of across the globe for a religious victory.
Unfortunately, Firaxis hasn’t addressed the major flaw with their victory conditions: they’re boring. Tourism and science wins still boil down to pressing “end turn” over and over once you’ve set yourself up for the win. Religious victory requires a lot more activity, but feels monotonous as you spam out endless waves of missionaries. (Good luck even getting them near the other civs’ cities on higher difficulties, where every second civilization will flood the map with their own religious units.) Conquest requires taking every other civilization’s capital, and with how boring and grindy combat is, I found doing so extraordinarily tedious on every difficulty. The devs pulled the diplomatic victory option before release due to not being happy with it.
There are some decent elements to the more passive win conditions such as using Archaeologists to explore ruins, but it’s far too little fun spread over far too many hours. I know it’s important to give a window of opportunity for other civilizations to knock a player out before one can win a passive victory, but since the AI never seems to rise to the opportunity, those extra turns just become dull, tasteless padding. While victory conditions are a longstanding weakness of the 4X genre, plenty of games are coming up with exciting ways of spicing up the endgame. In this respect, Civ lingers far behind.
We’ve already discussed the diplomatic and combat AI in gruesome detail, but what about the domestic side of the AI – the part that’s responsible for building cities into empires and pushing its goals forward? Well, it’s more a mixed bag than an utter catastrophe, so that’s an improvement. We don’t know much about the inner workings of the Civ VI AI at this point, but it does seem capable of setting long-term goals and building towards them. I’ve seen some spaceports go up surprisingly early – just never early enough to snag a win, even on the highest difficulty level. Missionary spam by computer players going for a religious victory can be utterly terrifying to behold, although its target prioritization seems off by enough that I’ve never seen it leverage this into a win. Overall, while the strategic side of the AI is far from perfect, at least it seems to be putting up a good effort.
In terms of mid-level execution – city development – the AI leaves a lot to be desired. I don’t expect it to optimize the placement of every city district, but I’ve seen major cities in the 17th and 18th centuries that don’t even have most of their tiles improved. Come on, AI – Builders aren’t that expensive! It also has a bad habit of leaving pillaged tiles be, which is both an oversight and an eyesore.
Interface and User Experience
As you may have gathered by the length of this review, Civ VI is a very big game. Even those who have played other Civilization games may balk at the sheer tonnage of stuff this title throws at them. Fortunately, Firaxis has included a tutorial to help ease in players new and old. And as tutorials go, it’s pretty good. Players will get a good grasp of many of the core systems like unit movement, combat, cities, districts, and diplomacy. It even gets a nice intro video. Civ VI also features videos for each victory condition, which is a nice touch and goes a long ways towards adding a sense of catharsis to your wins.
The interface, much like Civ V’s, is clean and slick – when it works. As it stands, interface glitches are a constant barrier to enjoyment, even sometimes undermining the gameplay itself. (Also featured are a number of exploits that can really break the balance of the game.) None of them are severe, but when they pile up turn after turn, they really start to grate. On top of that, the game seems to go to every length to hide even basic, important information from players, while the Civilopedia is poorly written and functionally weak.
Map customization is similarly lacking. The standbys are still there; you have your basic map types like Pangaea and Continents, game speeds, and all that. But some advanced options like setting the number of continents or of City-States are absent. There’s no custom map-maker included with the game at launch, so you’re stuck with what the game hands you. I hope we’ll see some of these functions added in early content pushes. They’re not critical, but the extra customization is great to have and adds a lot of replayability.
4X games can get a lot of longevity from mods and multiplayer. Civ VI looks to have been built with a heavy focus on modability, a long-time staple of the series. We’re not yet sure if it will be as moddable as previous iterations, as the mod tools have yet to be released. Multiplayer has some stability issues at present, but hopefully we’ll see improvements down the line.
One word of warning to those with lower-end computers: Civ VI has some surprisingly stringent system requirements. Make sure you check the system requirements if you’re planning on buying this game. My setup (see end of review) can run many current games at max settings without dropping frames. By the mid game, even on small maps, my system often struggled to maintain 30FPS on high graphics settings, and turn times started to drag surprisingly early into the game. As for stability, I experienced a few system freezes on exiting the game, but since an early patch, this has only happened once.
Civ VI is a very difficult game for me to score. On one hand, its mechanics are fresh, clean, and a lot of fun. It heaps on the meaningful decisions and keeps the player an active participant through a lot of the game. At the same time, many of the chronic weaknesses of 4X games are here in full force, and the diplomatic and tactical AI are such farces that they trample the strategic elements that its core features so expertly cultivate. Of the 60 hours I spent with Civ VI for this review, I enjoyed maybe the first 20. But after that, I just wanted to hurry through as fast as possible so I could be done with it. This is not a good sign.
After the early-game rush window closes, the lack of meaningful challenge turns what could be an engaging strategic experience into alternately a snooze and a chore. Lacking meaningful diplomacy, peaceful play feel like a stripped-down city-builder, and conquest is a tedious grind on any difficulty. Diplomacy is foundationally strong, but the arbitrary, petty, immersion-breaking behaviors of the AI players sours the experience. These flaws are compounded by a number of exploits, UI glitches, and other frustrations. Those looking for a deep strategic experience will, unfortunately, want to look elsewhere, at least for now.
Tragically, Civ VI feels like it was launched too early – likely to coincide closely with the franchise’s 25th anniversary. I believe that with some more time to mature and have its kinks worked out, it will really come into its own. It’s already a much stronger game than Civ V was at this point in its lifecycle, and honestly, most of what it’s lacking is in the fine-tuning, balancing, and polishing departments. We’ve seen that Firaxis listens to its players and generally does a good job of addressing their concerns, and I expect this will be no exception. Perhaps, one day, there will be an extraordinary game that bears the name Sid Meier’s Civilization VI. But – and I hate having to say this – as of today, we have yet to see such a game.
TL;DR: Civilization VI comes close to being a great game, combining a several strong mechanics into a package that fails to deliver the strategic experience it aims for. The individual features are superb and engaging in concept, but the inept AI robs the game of tension and your choices of consequence. Those who can look past these flaws can get loads of enjoyment out of exploring what the game has to offer, but those hoping for a deep, challenging strategic experience will need to look elsewhere or check back later.
You Might Like This Game If:
- You’re a fan of Civilization V and want to experience the next installment in the franchise
- You’re new to 4X games, and you want an entry point into the genre
- You’re happy to never increase the difficulty setting of strategy games, playing on your own terms rather than seeking the highest levels of challenge
- You’re content focusing on internal mechanics in the absence of strong interactions with other civilizations
- Glitches, imbalances, exploits, and other early-release woes don’t bother you
- High production values can carry a game for you
You Might NOT Like This Game If:
- You’re not a fan of the Civilization formula, or if Alpha Centauri and Civ IV are more you cup of tea than Civ V
- 4X games need meaningful, well-implemented interaction with other civilizations in order to pull you in
- You like drilling down into games, spending hundreds of hours mastering the details so you can beat challenging AI
- You’re hoping for a Grand Strategy experience in a Civilization shell
- You hate 1 Unit Per Tile in 4X games, or want a tactically-rich combat system
- Cartoony graphics turn you off
Ben played 60 hours of Civilization VI on a custom-built gaming PC with Windows 10, an Intel i5-6600k processor @ 3.5GHz, 16GB DDR4-2400MHz RAM, and a Sapphire Nitro R9 Fury graphics card.