In 1989 Sid Meier famously said “A game is a series of interesting decisions.” and then by his own admission at GDC 2012, never thought about it again. But if he wasn’t consciously thinking about it, the release of the original Civilization in 1991 shows that this philosophy was at least on the back of his mind. A game of impressive scope and ambition, Civilization had the player steer a civilization from 4000 B.C. to 2100 A.D. and beyond in a randomized simulation of Earth. It was something of a revolutionary game when it came out, and each new release in the series added new features, updated the graphics, and updated the rules to eliminate some of the crazier aspects of the simulation. During this evolution, Civilization games have built a bit of a reputation for being incredible packages once all the expansions are released, while having somewhat weak release day entries. Civilization VI is probably one of the most robust vanilla entries to date, and probably the entry to the series that makes the most drastic changes to the formula set by its predecessors. Unfortunately, this release is somewhat held back by various issues both small and large.
First impressions of Civilization VI are not very good. Upon booting the game up the first thing you will notice is the cartoonish art style. Compared to the realistic art direction that its predecessor features Civilization VI actually looks like a visual downgrade. Sure there are way more animations, and it does do some great tricks, like building the wonders real time, but the silly (and time consuming) combat animations, paired with the fact that the leaders look… awful really take away from the overall presentation. There is no kind way to say this so I’ll just do it: It looks like a mobile game. This is clearly an intentional design choice, but I have a feeling this decision may have affected the UI which feels like the result of a decision to try to streamline a game that has actually gotten more complex. The result is a cluttered interface with a lot of information that you can’t really toggle out.
Despite these complaints, I generally like the rule changes Civilization VI brings to the table. Workers have a limited number of uses in this iteration, and they are expensive to build in all but the highest production cities. This means that in order to improve the area around your cities, you will need to consistently produce these units. They can no longer build roads either. Rather, roads are produced by traders as they visit new cities, at least until the mid game. Then, you can start creating military engineers, another expensive unit that has only a limited number of uses, but can make roads to facilitate your troop movement. Now moving units around takes long, even late in the game, which makes wars long, protracted affairs, specially if you are fighting a player you have not traded with. You can go to war against players you do trade with, of course, but this means taking the economic hit.
This complements the major new change in Civilization VI: Districts. Since its inception, all of the improvements of the cities were in the tile where that city is located, and all cities could build most improvements. But now when you found a new city, you are building the city center, which can only house a very limited number of improvements. Specialized buildings must be built into districts, which are specialized one tile areas that have specific uses. Campuses generate science and allow for the building of science generating buildings (labs, universities); Industrial districts are for cities focused production, etc… The efficiency of these districts is affected by the surrounding terrain, or the tile they are built on, or even what is built on the next tile. This means that planning how your civilization is going to evolve will be in great part affected by where your cities are. Are you in a mountainous continent? Then you will want to focus on science as campuses earn bonuses from proximity to mountains. Are you in a forest area? then its best to focus that city on religion. Districts also erase any improvements that are on that tile, and they are gone forever. If you somehow cancel the district, then the farm that was there before is not coming back.
Wonders also occupy a tile now, and like districts, they will also destroy whatever was there when you start building them, making the wonder race more meaningful. However now the requirements for wonders are also more stringent. Some must be built on specific terrain tiles, so you will no longer have the Pyramids in the tundra, or the Hanging Gardens in the middle of desert. Others, require specific events or techs. You can no longer just build all your wonders in one city. All this means that you have to plan your cities ahead, taking into account where they are, and also plan your expansion carefully. Cities now take a lot more room. Paradoxically, I found that the better strategy is to expand much faster than in older games. Because cities will be specialized depending on their locations, to have a well rounded civilization you will want to have as many cities in as many diverse terrains as possible, and have robust economy so traders build roads. There is also little incentive to make a city on a good tile surrounded by bad ones, save territory control.
Building different cities and different types of buildings and units also speeds up your science and civics progress. The way it works is that completing certain actives, for example bundling a certain number of a specific building or unit, or discovering something, or even making other advancements. This is meant to make the player look at the tech tree an specialize, though it sometimes feels like you are choosing random techs on the way that don’t really help with how you want to develop they just are in the way. Strangely, civics are now a separate tree from the science tree and to be fair it feels kind of unnecessary. Most of these upgrades won’t really be used, and a large portion of them are passive. So the end result is that in a game that has you juggling several mechanics, the civics tree will be even less than an afterthought, and you will most likely end up choosing something just because the UI won’t let you go to the next turn unless you do.
Except for the Civics tree, which I feel is a good idea that was executed badly and most likely will be reworked in expansions, I really like a lot of the changes for this iteration of the series. They make you more concerned with long term strategy and planning as you move from era to era. They make early game advantages and mistakes seem bigger, but at the same time, the loss of a city that may be generating something your other cities simply do not have (culutre, religion, gold, science, etc…) can be devastating even during the late game, and the loss and destruction of improvements hits harder too. War in general is a much more serious affair. Because roads are more of a rarity now, and workers are a consumable resource, going to war means handicapping your own growth to produce units. If you have roads to the civilization that you are warring with, this means you will also lose that income while you are at war. Trade routes don’t only bring you gold (which is very useful to buy units when you are producing something else), but also religion, culture, food, production, and even resources you may not otherwise have access to. Wars against those civilizations means that trade is suspended and hurts your economy. Going to war with a rival with which you do not trade means that your units will take a long time time to mobilize, unless you build military engineers, who, once again are consumable and prevent you from building something else. This takes the emphasis our of war to a large degree and makes the decision to go to war far more strategic, as it is more painful and usually brings far fewer results.
While all these changes make for a series of interesting, impactful decisions at every stage of the game, it seems that the AI was never properly designed to accommodate them. To be succinct, the AI seems to be freaking out for most of the game. Each leader will have agendas that govern how they want to play, and also hidden triggers that determine how they feel about you. These agendas and triggers can be easy to deal with in some civilizations. For example some might be as simple as not invading them, or trading with them. But to satisfy a lot of them, you would need to actively hold your own civilization back. Peter the Great does not like it when you get more Great Persons than he does. China does not want you to build more wonders than them. And there is no way you can satisfy this if you are playing seriously. Still others are even weirder, and even go against the civilizations own interests. Cleopatra wants you to have a more powerful army than she does (though I’m not sure how she calculates this), while the Vikings will admire you if you have a more powerful navy. This seems like strange behavior, specially form the Vikings whose source strength is the sea. This would be easy to ignore, except that every few turns these leaders will pop in to yell at you and tell you how disappointed they are (you can skip these with Esc. You’re welcome) which makes the AI breaking down all the more evident.
Civilization VI also does not seem to grasp the rules of its own game. I’ve played several games in several difficulties and the truth is the AI just does things that make little sense. War is costly and expensive, but AI leaders will crank out units just to have them move aimlessly around the map. It will randomly declare useless wars for not agreeing with its hidden triggers or agendas, only to take them back a few turns later, and usually pay you for the trouble during the peace negotiations. Even if the war does extend longer than a few turns, the AI just does not seem to grasp one unit per tile tactics. It will waste moves swapping front lines with back lines. It will attack random improvements, sometimes tens of hexes away from any city, instead of attacking cities. And this happens in all of the levels of difficulty.
This might be why the diplomatic victory is conspicuously missing from this iteration of the franchise. It would be impossible to keep everyone happy with their interlocking agendas, while simultaneously having your civilization make any meaningful advances. Instead it has been replaced with the religious victory, which involves sending missionaries to other lands to try to convert cities. Interestingly, missionaries fight each when they meet, though this seems to be independent of diplomacy, so achieving a religious victory is in some ways achieving a less destructive version of a domination victory, rather than being similar to a diplomatic one.
The Civilization series has a reputation for having weak vanilla entries, but Civilization VI is probably the most complete entry since Civilization II. This makes it a great entry point into the series, and also gives me hope that these problems that I have mentioned will be addressed during the expansions. Some, like the new civics tree should be fairly easy to repair, while the AI might need more serious work. It is a pity that the AI is so incapable of playing its own game, because Civilization VI is filled with the series of interesting decisions Sid Meier likes to champion in his game design. As of the date of this writing, it also has a weird bug where occasionally the game will fail to close when you give it the command, forcing you to log out of your Windows session to finish the game, which I hope will be patched soon. If you already have Civilization V with the expansions, I would probably wait until the expansions for 6 are out, unless you’re super eager to try the new rules out. Still, if you are just looking for a point to jump into the series, Civilization VI seem like the new place to start.