Civilization VI: O Brave New World!

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I’ll admit, I was worried Civilization VI might not turn out well. In a previous article, I wrote about my love affair with Civilization V (and my sincere disappointment with Beyond Earth). One of the reasons I was wary of Civ VI is because Civ V already does so many things perfectly: The cleverly-balanced combat, the struggle to outpace your opponent through a myriad of overlapping game systems, and an addicting sense of progress that’s interwoven perfectly with the actual historical advancement of the human race. Not to mention the charming faction leaders that were so noticeably absent from Beyond Earth.

It truly seemed to me like the series had nowhere to go but down. Sure, they could tweak a few mechanics, but would that feel enough like a new game? And if they abandoned the old mechanics entirely, would it no longer feel like a Civilization game? It turns out I was wrong on both parts, and Civilization VI is unfolding to be one hell of a game.

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Civilization VI is in many ways similar to its predecessor: You choose a civilization, each with its own unique bonuses and units, and start out with a single city placed on a hex-grid board. Surrounding your city are terrain tiles with certain production yields and specific resources, such as gems or iron, which confer a variety bonuses when you start harvesting them. All of this should be familiar to long-time Civilization players.

The subtle differences between V and VI, however, become quickly apparent, and this is where a lot of the game’s improvements can be seen. Workers (now called “builders”) have been heavily revamped so that they are an expendable unit. Each builder comes with a set amount of uses which can be increased through buildings and policies (more on these in a bit).

This means that you can no longer merely automate a worker to improve tiles – each improvement needs to be a deliberate choice, lest you waste your worker on a needless project. All of this is balanced out by having tile improvements finish immediately, meaning you don’t have wait four or five turns to reap their benefits.

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Deciding on what to do with spare tiles now also needs to be weighed against using them for civic buildings. No longer do buildings infinitely stack inside of your cities: With the exception of a few starter improvements (monument, granary, water mill), all buildings must be built on tiles surrounding your city.

These get constructed in various “districts” with their own specialized purposes. For example, culture buildings must be build in a theatre district, while economic buildings get built in a business hub. The districts you can build are frequently limited by both land and population limits, so specializing your civilization early becomes a must.

Some of these districts and buildings can also only be built on specific tiles (e.g. next to your city, on a desert tile, next to a mountain, etc.). This goes for wonders too, which effectively puts a cap on the “wonder rush” strategy of Civilization V. Therefore, city plans must be well thought out before you rush in to lay down structures.

Workers can also no longer build roads. This is handled by traders, which lay down trade paths as they venture between cities. Not only does this add a nifty touch of historical realism (ancient roads were effectively carved from the land as travelers ventured between towns), but it prevents the horrific road spamming seen in earlier Civilizations and negates the painful monetary upkeep they required in Civ V.

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And I’ve only just finished describing the changes to the workers and infrastructure. I haven’t even touched the rest of the game yet, which has, beyond all belief, left much of Civilization V‘s old systems intact while improving their internal mechanics. The devil is in the details: A lot of the changes are small, but their impact feels far-reaching for any veteran player.

The technology tree functions almost entirely the same as it did in V, although social policies have now been given their own separate “Civics” tree as well. This means that while you are developing new technologies using accumulated Science, you are also advancing socially through the use of accumulated Culture.

Advancements in Civics unlock new social policies and forms of government that work hand in hand to give your faction unique bonuses. Social policies fall within the categories of military, diplomatic, economic, and “great people” points, and each form of government comes with a limited number of each. Therefore, aggressive players would be interested in following an Autocratic government and the extra military policy slots it provides, while greedier players might choose the Classical Republic and it’s extra economic slots.

Besides the awesome strategic changes this will ultimately bring to the game, it also allows Civilization to stick to its tradition of modelling human history. While you’re busy uncovering scientific milestones, you’ll also be developing important social concepts such as “Recorded History” and “Colonialism”. These advancements frequently went hand in hand with technological progress and defined human history as much our inventions did.

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City-states have also been vastly improved (to put it lightly). Rather than maintaining your relationship with them via an ever-decaying friendship meter, you gradually earn envoys which can be assigned to them. Bonuses are earned at one, three, and six envoys, and can be enjoyed by every civilization simultaneously, no matter who has the most. These benefits will also vary depending on the city-state type, whether they be militaristic, economic, cultured, religious, industrial, or scientific.

The player who does have the most envoys at a city-state, however, becomes their “Suzerain”, Civilization VI‘s version of being their “ally”. This comes with the predictable bonus of having them ally against your enemies in times of war, in addition to getting their strategic resources, etc. You can also pay them to take control of their military directly, which is an amazing new way to actually wage war using city-state allies.

Interactions with other factions has likewise been enriched. In addition to the staples of trading and declaring war on your neighbors, your relationships with them will change depending upon whether you appease or violate their specific agendas.

For example, China hates civilizations that build more wonders they than do, while Russia respects a well-cutured and scientifically advanced civilization. Building your trust with each faction eventually reveals these hidden agendas, and playing these demands of each other becomes important in choosing which civlization to eventually ally with.

It’s also worth mentioning that with the series’ return to Earth comes the return of the familiar faction leaders. I honestly wish I could say I’m a fan of the new animation, but the googly-eyed, bulbous heads of the new leaders dips a little too far into the Uncanny Valley for me to stomach. Thankfully, this is only a minor complaint from me.

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Global happiness has also disappeared, probably to the relief of many players. Global happiness was implemented to prevent infinite city spawn, but now it’s been replaced with a form of city-level happiness called “Amenities”. Too little amenities, and the people will riot. This metric can be maintained by building entertainment districts and filling them with arenas and other distractions for the common rabble.

My only remaining question, then, is how the game aims to prevent city spammming strategies. It could be that I haven’t recognized the mechanic yet, or it could be that they don’t intend to limit city building at all. I guess only more playtime will tell.

Lastly, religion has also been given a major overhaul, though I can’t tell you how because I haven’t even touched it yet. I’m currently at the end of a 330 turn game, and I’m still exploring all of the new mechanics at this point. The same goes with espionage, as a matter of fact.

Perhaps that’s for the best, however, because describing every change to Civilization VI down to the last subtle detail would require a novel. I could also probably tell you about the revised victory conditions, but maybe that’s best left for you to uncover. After all, one of the greatest joys of gaming is discovering new things for yourself.

I will impart one last piece of wisdom, however: Civilization VI is still on point with its soundtrack. God bless Christopher Tin, he deserves another Emmy for this one.

Overall, I am pleased that Civilization VI‘s form remains unchanged, while the various sub-systems of the game have been greatly overhauled. I may eventually eat my words: The novelty may wear off, and I’ll be back to Civilization V soon enough. But hopes are high, and it will inevitably take more than 300 turns before we finally know what Civilization VI has to offer.

The Bottom Line: Civilization VI feels warmly familiar but still tweaks enough to make it worth exploring for veteran players. I remain optimistic about the possibilities in store for us.

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