Civilization VI has been out for about eight months now and, while everyone has their own opinions of what works and what doesn’t, the one thing that has been almost universally decried is the AI.
The list of complaints is almost as epic as the game itself:
- The other leaders are unreliable, flitting from friend to enemy like high school girls hopped up on pixie stix
- The AI doesn’t upgrade its units, sending out catapults to fling rocks at bombers
- The Civs don’t take advantage of obvious paths to win the game, instead sitting idly by while you go for the easy victory
- Advancing armies do a poor job of working around the one unit per tile (1upt) rules, leaving scattered, easily disposed-of troops
- The AI doesn’t seem to have a plan for victory – or that plan seems to be a religious victory for everyone all the time
- And it goes on like this
So, is the AI in Civ VI the Worst. Thing. Evar? Or is it merely misunderstood? I’d say a little of both. There are aspects of the AI in Civ VI that are deserving of our scorn. But I also think there are things that aren’t really issues, but rather confusion around the role the AI is intended to play.
I’ve got over 150 hours in Civ VI so far (and spent nearly a lifetime on the entire series), and I’d like to take a closer look at these issues – not to bash one of the best editions of what is one of my all time favorite series – but rather to use Civ VI as a platform to investigate game AI, in general.
The three responsibilities of AI in 4X
I’d say that the job of any AI in a 4X game can be split into 3 categories:
- How does it manage its units?
- How does it manage relationships with the human player (aka, diplomacy)?
- How does it go about winning the game, itself?
For a good AI, we ought to be able to answer each of those questions with a positive response. If the AI does a poor job in any of those categories, we need to understand why that the case. And if that is the case, if the AI is, in fact deficient in some ways, does that cripple the game, or just make it a little less than perfect?
In a game like, say, Stellaris – where win conditions are extant but mostly ancillary – I can forgive the AI if it doesn’t always make the optimal decision to move toward the win condition. On the other hand, I consider it paramount that the AI is clear and consistent in diplomacy – its relationships with me and the other AIs. That’s because I see Stellaris as being more about the situations it creates than the challenge to defeat the game itself.
If a Militarist empire doesn’t upgrade its ships perfectly, that’s annoying. If those same Militarists start a pacifist Federation, that’s unacceptable. Stellaris is trying to tell a story and so the characters need to be consistent, even if they don’t always make the best decisions to reach their goals.
For Civ, this is a larger problem because I’m not certain we can all agree on what the goal of the game is in the first place. There are win conditions, many of them, and while Civilization wasn’t exactly based on the board game, it certainly has a board game-style mentality about why you’re playing.
At the same time, however, with all the different leaders and their personalities (along with their “secret” agendas), the game’s focus on eras and (somewhat) historical accuracy, there are times when Civ feels more like it wants to be a simulation game rather than a competitive strategy game. This dichotomy makes it hard to really judge Civ’s AI or even to set our expectations of what it should be.
But I’m going to try anyway. So let’s look at each aspect of an AI’s responsibilities and try to suss out whether the Civ VI AI is up to snuff.
Does the Civ VI AI manage its units well?
Simply put – no. No, it does not. Of all the issues around Civ VI, to me this is the most egregious. The 1UPT rules have remained (mostly) unchanged since Civ V. The interconnected uses for each unit type (simplified to melee, ranged, and siege) have arguably been in place since the original Civ. Yet somehow the stupid AI still doesn’t know what to do with its stupid units.
What is the AI good at? When it has overwhelming numbers in the field (aka, not sieging/defending a city) the game will grind your people to paste. It seems to have a fairly good idea of what to do with cavalry, using speed to pull vulnerable horse units back before you can crush them. This is why the barbarians in Civ VI, especially the horse-y ones, have become so feared. They allow the AI to work to its strengths.
What is the AI not good at? That would be everything else. When defending a city, the AI rarely put its units to good use, instead it just sits there and takes a pounding. When assaulting a city – oy! The game does not take advantage of mixed forces, instead sending out unprotected siege units in single file like it’s asking you to slaughter them. Ranged units such as archers are also sent out without melee support, taking the most OP units in the game and rendering them useless. Admittedly, the army units do help with this, somewhat, but it only blunts the issue rather than resolve it. These are just the basic complaints. We could spend hours on this (and clearly, I have).
Even a moderately competent commander (and being honest, I’m barely competent) can easily take advantage of the AI, even at the higher difficulty levels, and win wars that should have put them on their backs. I’m not asking for the system to play high level chess here, just to understand the basic underpinnings of the game and use that to its advantage. And that’s just to beat a lowly peon like me. Imagine the challenge required for a hardcore strategy gamer.
This is further exacerbated by the fact that the game continues to spam older units rather than upgrade to newer ones. This has been improved by patches since launch – the AI now upgrades occasionally instead of never – but it is still far too common to march your riflemen into enemy territory and find them sharpening their spears.
How does the Civ VI AI manage diplomacy?
I’ve seen a lot of complaints about the behavior of the AI opponents, yet I actually think diplomacy works fairly well. The greatest grievances actually seem to be counter to each other. Either the opposing Civs are far too friendly – not going for the win when it’s presented to them – or not nearly nice enough, constantly finding nitpicky reasons to declare war.
Some of this is more of an issue with how the AI goes about trying to win the game. But in terms of diplomacy – of communicating wants and desires to the human player – I actually think the game does a very good job. What it does poorly, however, is teaching the player to understand those communications. Like the classic Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, “Darmok,” both sides are saying things very clearly and concisely, but since no one understands the context of the language, the meaning is lost.
This lack of clarity is, unfortunately, a hallmark of Civ VI. The game has a ton of interesting underlying mechanics – some of which it is even kind enough to show you if you click the right menu button – but never explains any of them. So it’s easy to miss that the game is telling you pretty much everything you need to know about your enemies/allies. Some Steam workshop mods address this issue, but why do we need to rely on the Mod community instead of the developers?
In earlier versions of Civ, understanding why another nation hated you was a combination of intuition and flat out guesswork. Civ VI fixes this by telling you, at all times, what the AI leaders think of you and why. Even if you aren’t constantly checking the relationship button on the diplomacy screen (and, full disclosure, I am), the AI will connect with you, regularly, to let you know what it thinks about what you’re doing. Does this happen a little too often? Yeah, probably, but I’ll take too much information over too little.
I also like the fact that I can’t please every opponent because that’s life. I shouldn’t be able to make nice with everyone, and so being forced to please some but not others gives the diplomacy a nice feel of negotiation. Even if the actual negotiations with each leader is dry as dust.
Once you know what each leader is looking for, the AI acts reliably most of the time, though not always. The “hidden agendas” add a little bit of mystery to understanding your enemies, but in truth, you can suss out what the big secret is well before it’s revealed in the mid-game. Sophocles keeps praising the size of your army? There’s a good chance that his hidden agenda is that he likes large armies this time around. In this way, I actually really like the way the game communicates this information – everything is on the table, once you learn where to look.
It’s not perfect though. The warmonger penalty is definitely an unresolved issue for me, but that is a far larger problem that’s outside the scope of this article. The alliance/loyalty civs like Scythia and Sumeria can be hard to pin down. And even ol’ reliable Gandhi declared a surprise war on me once. But overall, if Jadwiga is calling me godless, she’s not just saying it – she really believes that and will deal with me accordingly. Overall, I’ve found you can please or upset the leaders as you choose and get pretty predictable results.
As I said above, it’s really how the game chooses to try to win (or not) that makes the leader behavior seem counter to their stated goals.
How does the Civ VI AI go about winning the game itself?
Before we go into this, I want to quickly note that nothing I’m saying below is an incontrovertible fact. Firaxis isn’t in the practice of giving me exclusive access to their design documents (yet). However, I feel strongly that this information is correct based on my experience with the game as well as conversations I’ve had with high-level players, modders, other developers, past Civ developers and anecdotes I’ve read and/or heard from people far smarter than me.
Now then, there is a running complaint in the Civ VI reviews on Steam that runs something like this: “The AI is stupid, it doesn’t play to win!”
To which I say, yup. That’s about right. Only, the AI isn’t stupid, it’s doing exactly what it’s programmed to do.
But first, let’s talk about an important thing I’m fairly sure the Civ VI AI is not doing: it’s not playing Civ VI. Let me explain. What are you doing when you play a Civ game? Collecting resources, expanding cities (both within and without), building wonders and using those resources to build your military, do research, collect culture, etc.
I believe that the Civ VI AI is doing none of those things. Rather, it is acting in ways that allow it to simulate the appearance of those actions. The AI doesn’t do research. It’s not collecting science points to work towards techs on the tree. Instead, the AI is gifted those techs at regular intervals in order to make it seem like it is moving along the track the same way you are.
Similarly with units, the AI isn’t picking a unit to build, collecting production, and then putting it into the field. Rather, a unit will just appear at regular time points that should appear to a human player as if the game is actually doing those actions. Ever go to war and see a unit “magically” appear in your enemy’s territory? Yeah, that’s not the AI getting lucky with a build queue, that’s the AI making a unit for itself in order to make the game seem “real.”
Teaching an AI to actually play Civ is hard. Heck, teaching a human is a rough go. Setting the AI up this way acts as a shortcut for the developers, a way to create the appearance of playing a game against someone rather than actually having to play the game. Higher difficulties don’t allow the AI to play better, they just let it cheat harder – accelerating its ability to grab at things it hasn’t earned (because it doesn’t know how).
And this brings us back to the original dichotomy I brought up in the beginning: Is Civ a game or is it a simulation? And the answer (and thus the frustration for many players) is that it’s both.
For the human player, Civ is presented as a game to be won. There are optimal builds and strategies and win conditions and the human player is set up to strive to defeat his/her opponents. But for the AI, I’d argue that the game is a simulation and the developers specifically designed it to work that way. The AI isn’t trying to win (religion and Wonder obsessions, aside) because it wasn’t designed to try to win, but rather to provide what developers see as a “Civ experience.”
Put another way, the Civ AI isn’t made to be your opponent, it’s your Dungeon Master (known by all the hip hobbits as a DM). For those of you who’ve never played pen-and-paper role playing games… Stop pretending, we all know you’ve played them before. But for those of you who still want to act like you’re not nerdy, the DM’s job is to be the storyteller in a role playing game.
You create a character and the DM provides the adventure for that character (or group of characters) to experience. As part of that role, the DM also fills in as all the villains you encounter. That doesn’t mean the DM is trying to beat you, in fact it’s the opposite. The ideal DM creates and plays the villains as hard as he/she can, but still lets the heroes win. It’s a tough balance, one that most DMs (including myself) struggle with: make things too easy and the encounter is boring, but make it too hard and you’re cruel. In both cases, creating a credible villain who could kill the characters but in the end is somehow defeated by their superior… Well, whatever. That’s tough.
This is in direct contrast to a competitively played game like, say, poker. I’ve played a ton of that game in person and online and never once have I thought “well, I’ve got an unbeatable hand, but I’m gonna lay it down to help complete this dude’s narrative.” But as a DM it happens all the time. In fact, it’s the defining characteristic of a great DM.
Civ VI isn’t playing poker and it’s not fair to criticize it for not doing so. The Civ VI AI is a DM. It’s trying to provide a somewhat Civ-like experience. Your opponents are there to challenge you, yes – to be greedy and cunning, wild and crazed, memorable – but they’re not there to win. Not really. Just to give you the feeling of going up against the historical greats and handing them their heads.
So, how does the AI do at trying to win the game? Not all that well. But then, if it’s working the way the developers intended, that’s exactly the point.
What does this say about Civ VI AI going forward?
Again, I don’t work for Firaxis, Ed Beach and I are not BFFs, and I have no idea what their intentions are. But I can make an educated guess.
I don’t think it’s too much to expect the AI’s unit management to improve. To go back to the DM analogy, the game’s inability to do even the most basic strategies makes the enemy far too defeatable to be fun. And I do think that the diplomacy aspect could be better explained, or at least somewhat more consistent.
But to expect the AI to suddenly switch to being a win-driven, cutthroat opponent (like, say, Pandora’s does), I think, goes beyond what the developers are trying to accomplish. I don’t expect to see a game-changing, AI plays-to-win now patch, nor do I think it’s fair to denigrate the game because it’s unlikely to get one.
Whether or not this is a dealbreaker for you as a player is going to depend on what you’re trying to get out of the game. As a Civ fan who loves the experience of marching through history, I understand what the AI is intended to do and it doesn’t bother me that it isn’t so much playing to win as it is playing just to play. But for those who are looking for the true, strategic experience of playing against another, experienced, human being, I think it’s unfair to expect Civ VI to provide that.
What do you think? Is the Civ VI AI playing to win, poorly, or is it creating a simulation experience? Should the devs make a more competitive AI, or should people looking for a tough opponent look for a multiplayer game? What could the developers do to make the AI better, overall? Let us know in the comments below.