Opening Civilization VI for the first time is like opening Photoshop for the first time; it’s slightly overwhelming, with buttons, drop downs, tools and information everywhere, and you generally have little to no idea where to start. Unlike Photoshop however, Civilization VI offers a robust tutorial section to help ease those new to the Civilization series, and those simply new to Civilization VI, into how to best make use of all those tools.
Civilization VI puts you in the shoes of a historical leader at the dawn of your budding empire. You begin the game choosing which empire you will lead, a map size and difficulty setting, then strike out to found your capital city. From that point on, you will be the guiding force behind everything for your people, including religion, government, science, culture and technology. You will have to befriend, defeat and outwit your rivals in order to guide your populace through the ages and, if you prove yourself a successful leader, beyond the confines of earth, all the way to the foundation of a colony on Mars.
There are a lot of things that Civilization VI does well. It’s added some robust new content, it’s addictive and beautiful, plus it can be rewarding. Time seems to simply evaporate while playing this game, and it’s easy to get lost within the countless small goals it presents. One more turn and I’ll unlock that new government. One more turn and I’ll have that new battleship. Just one more turn. Thankfully, there is a clock is built into the game’s interface, so you can at least be aware of the fact that you said you’d quit half an hour ago. An hour ago. Two hours ago…
Civilization is beautiful. Advancements are celebrated with the kind of historical quotes you would expect from such a series, as well as a few witty quips from the likes of George Carlin and Monty Python, all read by Sean Bean. The musical score is lovely and changes with you as you advance through the ages. The map, when zoomed out, is pretty enough, with occupied sections in rich greens and blues, while areas where you do not have a presence are depicted in muted parchment browns. Upon zooming in, however, the game shines. Units each have unique movements, and the care that went into each animation, archers loosing their arrows, chariots charging into battle, and machine guns blasting high powered rounds, is apparent. Watching technology, cities and units evolve is a great deal of fun, and I literally laughed around when, after a long while building up tech without creating the unit, my new Settler units were no longer men on foot, but tiny, horn-beeping RVs.
Civilization VI brings one of the most significant changes to the franchise: the addition of motivations to your rival AI leaders. Each leader has been given an agenda, and by being aware of and either cooperating with or actively working against that agenda, you can easily predict their reactions, and plan accordingly. This helps to give each leader a personality, and the ability to reasonably speculate on motivations and future plans makes the game far more strategic. The AI is surprisingly cunning at times, and I had a good bit of fun experimenting with the personalities and reactions of different leaders.
For example, Victoria’s troops seemed seemed to occasionally get lost. On more than one occasion, she marked a large portion of her army down a narrow, dead-end valley between two mountain ranges, where my second city was located. Just as I was bracing for a declaration of war, she seemed to realize this wasn’t the way to her second city, so she turned around and marched right back out, no shots fired. Tarajan constantly requested I join in a joint warfare pact with Rome. After numerous requests, morbid curiosity finally compelled me to agree. No sooner was the pact made than Rome declared war on another country, leaving my capital conveniently sandwiched between our newly declared enemy and Rome itself. Cleopatra and Egypt were eternally denouncing me as militarily weak, declaring war, then quickly throwing gold at me to request peace after only a few skirmishes.
Catherine de Medici was obsessed with my finances, and commented on them frequently. At one point, she decided that France and I should be war, surrendered after I conquered the nearest French city, then started denouncing me for occupying said city. Annoyed, I decided to make an ally happy by gifting the conquered city to England. Catherine immediately turned her denouncements against England, and that was all it took for Victoria to declare war against France, while I got to sit back and watch the two countries go at it like angry cats. Mvemba a Nzinga of the Kongo was upset that I didn’t send enough missionaries to his cities, while Hojo Tokimune of Japan just seemed to be constantly annoyed by one aspect of my civilization or another. I was surprisingly entertained by the antics of my fellow leaders, and found myself taking certain actions just to see how they would react with surprising frequency.
Of course, the personalities and logic within Civilization VI aren’t perfect. Somehow I don’t think that Cleopatra would say “Oh happy day” after successfully completing a negotiation for marble, but I’m no historian, so what do I really know? The various bonuses of different leaders had a large enough impact on gameplay, and it honestly made me to want to try my hand at all of them. While Teddy Roosevelt has a rough early game, I really benefited from the government and military bonuses when mid game rolled around. Meanwhile, Qin Shi Huang’s early game boosts makes starting out a breeze, allowing for quick advancement in technology. Montezuma’s amenity boosts made it much easier for me to keep my people happy and my military strong, making him the ideal leader for a map with limited luxury resources. This results in a system which both creates and demands flexible play, and is quite effective in making each playthrough different.
There were a few oddities regarding my rival leaders which I constantly found myself coming up against, the biggest one being military units near borders. At one point, Victoria had a huge number of British troops just sitting in my capital city. Her capital of London sat just North of my capital, and she also had a colony city just to the South. Instead of traveling between her two cities, her troops simply set up camp in my capital city, to the point where I was unable to move my own troops around. Despite spending 20+ turns with her army sitting in the middle of my capital, and the game offering me no dialogue option to tell her to move her troops, Victoria came to me with the demand to move my troops off her borders and away from her cities — a demand I was physically unable to comply with because her units were literally clogging and preventing all movement within my city.
Again and again this seemed to happen, England or Kongo would have a line of troops right at my border, I would have no dialogue option to tell them to back off, yet one of my units sat a little too close, and I’d receive a demand to move or start a war. This was especially frustrating as I was given no indication as to which unit, or even which city, was causing the issue. On smaller maps, cities tend to pile one atop the other, which can make it nearly impossible to identify which city the conflict is originating in. I simply had to take a guess, then wonder: Did I move them far enough out of range? Was it the right city? I could not find a way to check this (there may well be a way, but I could not find it), and and this resulted in my breaking promises to move troops on more than one occasion.
The other oddity I found was the strange and inconsistent reaction leaders had to declaring friendships. Rome and I had a long and extensive history of friendship, so when our friendship expired, I thought nothing of asking Tarajan to renew it. Rome declined. Confused and ready to defend my city (I know better than to trust Rome), I fortified my troops and braced for what was to come in the next turn. Moments later, Tarajan appeared on my screen to ask ask if I would declare friendship. What? Egypt partook in this same behavior several times during my next game, as did England on occasion. If even a turn or two had passed, I could perhaps have understood, but this refusal immediately followed by a request still has me baffled.
Success in Civilization VI, more than any previous Civilization game, requires strategy and planning. The addition of city zones highlights the importance of city planning, and makes the understanding of what districts benefit from placement near other districts or natural features incredibly important. Markets, religious sites and campuses do not spawn at will, you must construct and place every element of each city. The ability to combine military troops into fleets and brigades means that you can have more powerful military units which take up less space, allowing for more tactical placements of troops. This, combined with the ability to unlock various reasons to declare war while reducing your warmonger penalty, makes gameplay much more interesting, and resulted in me, a Civ pacifist, declaring war on more than one occasion.
Careful planning is required in most every area of Civilization VI, and the technology tree is no exception. I rushed in blindly one game, just picking whatever seemed fun without checking where the options I chose to research were ultimately leading, and what branches I was missing. Before I knew it, I had the technology to build and fly airplanes, but had yet to harness the power of gunpowder, all because I had neglected to research the stirrup. Civilization VI demands that you pay attention to, plan, and adapt to your surroundings. Terrain helps determine what wonders you can build, how many citizens your neighborhoods can house, and even what technologies you can most effectively research. Landlocked cities, as an example, will not be able to research and build a naval fleet as quickly or effectively as a coastal city, while cities near mountains will produce better astronomers.
Civilization VI also brought the return of religion, which I sadly found to be the most frustrating, difficult, and least entertaining aspect of the game. Religious units receive huge combat boosts, and AI cities seems to create them at an astounding rate. Waves of missionaries can come pouring in with little warning, and convert a city in little to no time at all. Given the tiny number of different religious units (three total), the rate at which the AI creates them, the unclear and confusing messaging (What does +150 Islam mean, anyway?), and the lack of control that you, as a leader, have over religion, I found the system to be both overly complicated and under stimulating. I desperately wanted a way to tell other leaders “My government does not support X religion, sending those missionaries will be considered an act of war,” in the same way I could tell them to stop spying or to move troops off my boarders. Alternatively, I would have liked some kind of Social Policy, a card-based system new to the Civilization franchise, which would make my populace more resistant to conversion. One game, I somehow missed the window of opportunity and never even unlocked the ability to purchase religious units, a truly crippling handicap. I found myself in the Atomic Age, with my people still worshipping a river goddess, and more than 15,000 Faith points with absolutely nothing to spend them on.
Civilization VI is robust, challenging and brings a great deal of changes and improvements to the series. This installation brings a good deal more strategy, requires planning, adaptive play, and while there are a few elements which could be improved, there are multiple areas that truly shine. It’s one of the more strategically challenging, addicting and involved Civ games yet, and is sure to delight fans of the series.