Sid Meier’s Civilization VI Review
In the past few days, I have lost dozens of hours of my life. No, I wasn’t in a coma, but I was playing Civilization VI. Civ as we know it is back and it truly is the return of the prodigal son as Civilization VI shakes up old conventions, providing opportunities for more complex strategy with its new features. In Civilization, you are the leader of a historic nation. You start out as a simple settler in an untamed land, and you found your first city. You don’t follow the path that history has laid out for you; instead, you carve out a place in your own world. Through discovering technologies, developing cultural milestones, building an army, and constructing historic wonders, you work your way up to the future. Throughout the game, you expand your empire and compete against other nations who all have the same goal as you — world domination.
Civilization has always been about managing a mass of intertwined systems and Civilization VI adds further layers to that with its new mechanics, but it never feels overcomplicated while you play. A major difference from Civ V is the addition of the Civics tree alongside the Technology tree. Culture has a more important role than ever as you now unlock Humanism and Globalization alongside Astronomy and Nuclear Fission. Eureka or Inspiration moments are also a new feature, and respectively give bonuses towards your Tech and Civics trees. They are activated through actions in game — for example, using a Slinger unit will give you a bonus towards discovering Archery. The requirements for these bonuses are given to you, so feel free to do whatever you must to race ahead of the pack. A tiered set of governments are available to be chosen and can be customized through Policy Cards you earn when you progress through the Civics tree. You can change policies and governments when you need to — perhaps a monarchy during times of war, where you get three military card slots, or a merchant republic during times of peace, where you get more economic and diplomatic slots. While it is significant for strategy, the Civics tree also adds nuance to the game’s experience. For example, with the Nationalism Civic, you gain a Policy Card that allows you to declare a Colonial War on civilizations that are two technology eras behind you and warmonger penalties are halved — far different than the standard Surprise War.
“Civilization has always been about managing a mass of intertwined systems and Civilization VI adds further layers to that with its new mechanics, but it never feels overcomplicated while you play.”
Cities have also faced a major overhaul in Civilization VI. Instead of stacking in a single hex, cities now sprawl out across multiple tiles like more realistic urban centers. Wonders and specialized districts also take up a tile, and city planning is key for your success. No longer can you build everything without penalty, as doing so will fill up the farmland and lumber mills around your city with concrete districts or pretty Wonders (which may or may not provide much-needed food or production). Specializing a city to be your science hub, cultural capital, or economic powerhouse will make it more effective, and the geography of the city influences the output of each, so plan carefully. You need these different districts to use Great People as well. Every Great Person also has a unique ability, so you have to pay attention to who they are rather than immediately using your Great General to lay down a fortress and scoop up that resource just out of your reach.
My biggest wish coming out of Civ V was improvement on interactions with AI leaders. While visually distinctive, interacting with them had always felt the same because of their randomness. The Brazil you knew last game might be completely different from the one you meet the next, and so on with other leaders until you treat them all with the same apprehension. However, Civilization VI improves on this with its shiny new leader screens, which includes trade, gossip, your relationship status and what you can do to improve it, and agendas. Clues are given regarding other leaders’ motivations, likes, and dislikes, so you won’t be completely in the dark to their behavior. Their first agenda is permanent to each leader and is based on history. Victoria likes colonialism, Gandhi likes peace, etc. To keep games fresh, however, leaders also have randomly assigned hidden agendas that can be revealed through espionage. I got the punchline in my first playthrough — I was allied with a Nuke Happy Gandhi. A new layer of strategy is laid here as you have to weigh your decisions against how much you value your relationships with the other leaders. For example, the leader of China dislikes when others build Wonders, so you’d have to decide whether to build them and put your relations with him at risk. In my game, when I had more Wonders than China, he ended up denouncing me. I found this to be my favorite improvement as it dips into history and adds distinctive personalities to the leaders. With these agendas revealed, diplomacy actually gets more complex, and the mix of leaders you get will ensure that each playthrough will be unique.
However, some AI decisions do seem questionable or erratic. As a peaceful Tomyris of Scythia, I was on a great start with Teddy Roosevelt, and we were declared friends within a matter of a dozen turns. Despite this, a couple turns later I was suddenly facing my first war ever, declared on me by Teddy himself. I thought we were friends, Teddy! To be fair, he declared war on me alongside Saladin, who had been sour about me settling too close to him for a couple hundred years. Teddy could have been better friends with Saladin than me, but it still seemed to come out of nowhere. When I negotiated peace with Teddy, he refused my original deal of just peace and insisted on giving me money and luxuries. Odd, I didn’t know AI had honor. This relates to something similar I found after a little more digging.
There also seems to be an exploit when negotiating trade with another AI leader, which I found appeared most often when discussing open borders. You set up a deal of open borders for open borders, and the AI says it isn’t equitable and asks for gold on top of the original trade. You reduce the gold amount by any number, and they still don’t find it to their liking. You then hit “make this deal more equitable” and they ask for the original trade of open borders for open borders, no gold needed. I did this with all the other leaders, some of which were unfriendly with me, and it worked every time. Fellow COG writer Louis Stowe confirmed this for me as well. You can do this with other trades too (though I found this less reliable), they go high, you renegotiate, they go lower and actually equitable. Maybe this isn’t an exploit, but a programmed-in negotiation tactic. Either way, it still isn’t good — those were quite simplistic negotiations and I felt like I was scamming them.
“Civilization VI brings the franchise to an unbelievable level of polish and streamlined complexity.”
With these big changes, there have also been several small ones in Civilization VI which further improve the game for me. For one, Happiness is gone and I couldn’t be more pleased. It’s been replaced by your people wanting “Amenities”, which are more easily manageable. It’s far easier to focus on the more fun parts of the game now that you no longer have to collect every luxury in the world to keep your people from revolting. Limited-use builders are an excellent change from the immortal workers of Civ V as you must be more strategic in their use and you won’t have a dozen of them hanging around doing nothing late-game. The new espionage system has its fun moments — it’s fun when you capture an enemy spy and get to use them as a bargaining chip in trade deals — but it also has its issues. Civilization VI amps up management overall and generally does this well, but when setting up a counterspy in your city, you have to assign them to the city and further assign them to a specific district to guard every turn because of how short their mission duration is.
As for how the game looks, I’ll admit that I had an initial kneejerk reaction of dislike when the painterly style of Civ V was swapped for the more cartoonish graphics of Civilization VI, but it grew on me. When I began playing, I saw how it made the map so much more dynamic and visually interesting as it breathes a new life into the game. I especially love the parchment look to the map, and how previously explored areas are drawn in, requiring you to visit again if you want an update. While I like the new look, it could be a tossup for others. Regardless, this doesn’t take away from how absolutely engrossing the gameplay is.
Civilization VI’s controls are user-friendly and very familiar for players of previous Civ games. However, while the tutorial and advisor hold your hand through the basics, they do not explain the finer points of the game nor all the changes made in Civilization VI. You will have to learn the majority of the game on the go, click around and explore menus yourself to find all the details. The UI, while more streamlined and less cluttered, hides a lot of the information that would strategically help you. Civilization VI runs far smoother than Civ V ever did, and I got into the online multiplayer without a hitch. As for the new Online Speed, multiplayer is sped up, but don’t think you’re not in it for the long haul. I played at a breakneck speed with Louis and three hours later, we were still nowhere near beating the game.
Overall, Civilization VI brings the franchise to an unbelievable level of polish and streamlined complexity. With a few minor errors, Civilization VI’s fresh mechanics force you to adapt and change your strategy as you play. There is more playing and less waiting, as there are important decisions to make at every stage of the game and the loading time between turns is shorter. Civilization is more engrossing than ever with this higher level of management and decisions that have new consequences. With its complex, overlapping systems that still seem so intuitive, you can guarantee that I’ll be back at it again soon — I have several worlds to win.
*** PC code provided by the publisher ***
- Absolutely engrossing
- Significant new mechanics
- Improved leader screens
- More decisions and strategy
- Finer points are not explained
- Minor annoyances