I have a lot of thoughts about Civilization 6. The nature of the game means it makes a lot of definite statements about human history, society and politics, statements that are necessarily dramatic oversimplifications. This is done in order to get some usable and interesting game mechanics out of these incredibly nuanced and complicated concepts. There’s a lot of food for thought there, and a lot of stuff to unpack and talk about, and I think that could be potentially interesting. I could write about the portrayal of “barbarians” and “city-states” and get into the historical origins of the terms and the groups they depict and how the game is pretty insulting to them, or I could talk at length about how human history isn’t a competitive race to a finish line, while doing a deep dive into agriculture and the rise of interpersonal violence it engendered, which laid the groundwork for modern imperialism. Stuff like that.
On the other hand, despite the extremely weird and often very colonialist picture of human history which Civ6 paints, it is also without question or hesitation one of the best 4X games I’ve ever played. It would be disingenuous of me to pretend that I’m not having a complete blast with the game, or that it hasn’t devoured most of my free time since buying it, so that I can focus in on my political hot takes for the sake of some #content.
So! Instead of trying to combine all of this into one incredibly long post, I’m going to divide up my efforts instead. This first post will be my review of the game itself, in a mechanical and presentational sense. Then later, we’ll get heavier into the political stuff in a separate series of articles, to give everything room to breathe and really get into this stuff in detail.
Alright, let’s get into it.
Civilization 6 is really fun. It’s a turn-based 4X (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate) game with a historical setting, in which you play the part of a real leader from human history in charge of their nation, like Cleopatra, Jadwiga, or Teddy Roosevelt. You compete with other nations on a hex-grid map for finite caches of resources, do research, build settlements, engage in wars, and try to aim for one of four victory conditions (religion, domination, culture, or science) before anyone else can. Failing that, you want to have the highest score at the end of the game, which in a Standard game is 500 turns.
For a while now, each new Civilization game has had a different director (despite them all saying “Sid Meier’s” on them). For Civilization 6, the director was Ed Beach, a veteran of board game design. I wasn’t super familiar with Beach’s work prior to this, to be honest, but playing Civ6 makes me want to check out his other games, Here I Stand and maybe Virgin Queen (though, um, that name. Ed can we talk about this). The board game influence shows here and really helps the game’s whole design really pop.
For instance, the map is much more important in Civ6 than in any previous game in the series, with the possible exception of Civ1. Instead of your city upgrades mostly being hidden behind menus, now there’s a heavy reliance on a “districts” mechanic where you choose a hex within a city’s territory to build on, and placing the district removes any food or production value that hex once held, making new expansion a trade-off. Strategic, luxury, and bonus resources are all tied to hexes as well, and city territory gets expensive and slow to expand quickly, which means good city placement is extremely important to properly capitalize on those resources. There are also adjacency bonuses to consider; for instance, Campus districts (which do your science research) get more science for being next to mountains. But mountains are also impassable tiles for approaching enemy armies. Do you focus on getting the most adjacency bonus for your campuses, or put Encampments and fort improvements there instead? There are dozens of trade-offs like this to consider with every new placement.
That placement also depends on the presence of water, to give that city more housing and consequently room to grow its population and get more production. In addition, you can send out builder units to build improvements on the map, such as farms and fortresses. By the end of the game, you have a truly sprawling empire, with all those districts and wonders you’ve been working so hard on clearly visible at a glance as you scroll around the map. You get a snapshot sense of the history of the game you’ve been playing as you admire your work, and it’s really very satisfying.
You may already be getting a sense of this, but Civ6 has a lot of mechanics and information to absorb and learn. It’s a bit of an information overload at first, and you’ll probably need 2 or 3 game attempts under your belt before you can actually feel comfortable trying to finish one. However, it bears mentioning that this is on the low side of the learning curve average for games of this type. I’m finding Civ6 on the whole much easier to learn than Endless Legend (sorry EL, you know I love you but you’re complicated), or Aurora 4X, for instance. In the grand scheme, it’s quite accessible.
Speaking of Endless Legend, I found Civ6 has something very like EL’s asymmetrical faction balance going on, which I find very appealing. A big problem that plagues this genre is samey-feeling factions, but Civ6’s factions and leaders have abilities that are diverse and game-changing enough to lend them a distinct flavor of play. It’s a far sight better than previous Civs, but not quite as interesting as Endless Legend’s factions. I don’t know if anyone will be able to top EL’s asymmetrical balance, though, so maybe it’s not a fair comparison. There’s only one or two factions that can fundamentally ignore part of the game, such as Mvemba a Nzinga, who can’t found his own religion (but still gets big bonuses from relics, and is still a factor in other players’ religious victories). Mostly, leader abilities are just bonuses to various activities within the game’s core ruleset. The bonuses are significant enough, however, to lend each faction a sense of personality and a diverse set of playstyles. For example, France and Egypt both benefit from building lots of wonders, but their approach to doing so is quite different, as is their timing in doing so. There’s also John Curtin of Australia, who gets double production when someone declares war on him, leading to a kind of backwards style where you want to make people angry with you, but not be the aggressor. But you won’t find a faction like the Broken Lords or the Kapaku here, where you can fundamentally ignore food or reshape the land itself, respectively.
Time is the key thing that differentiates a lot of the factions, since they get unique units that thrive during a particular era. Samurai, for instance, dominate for Japan in the Medieval era. But America doesn’t get their Rough Riders until the Modern era. Meanwhile, Sumeria has War Carts right away in the Ancient Era. Understanding the rhythm of play of a particular faction, and how your goals shift as the game progresses, is a big part of getting good at Civ6. But apart from those unique units, everyone shares the same plethora of common military units, and you have a huge list of potential things to build by the end of a game. Progressing through the eras is done by doing research, either in science or in culture. There are now two different full tech trees that still complement each other, and two different research resources that require different styles of play and lead to different victory conditions.
Religion is pretty cool, mostly because of the custom aspect of it. You can choose a historical religion from a short list, or make up your own. You can choose an icon, a name, and a set of beliefs that give you bonuses or allow special units and buildings to be built. It’s not terribly complicated, but it’s fun to see cities converting to Syphilis or whatever. Another civ spamming missionaries to convert you can be really annoying and presents a real problem since there’s no diplomatic way to force someone to stop, or deliberately close your borders to religious units. The best way out of this, I’ve found, is to declare a holy war (provided you have the tech researched) and just go stomp their capital into oblivion. You can ask them to stop converting you but even if they agree, all that happens is you get a notice saying they broke their promise when they inevitably do it again.
The culture victory has also been made much more interesting, as it relies on attracting more tourists than anyone else, instead of just filling out the culture tree. This means you have to also work on your science to get to the big tourism-boosting techs, and your production to build lots of wonders, but also your Great People points, so you can get lots of Great Works in your museums and palaces for the biggest boosts. Great People are competed over by all the players, and once someone gets a particular one, they’re gone. Great Prophets are used to found religions at Holy Site districts (or the Stonehenge wonder). Writers, Artists, and Musicians create Great Works to fill up your tourism sites. Scientists give boosts to your research, Architects build stuff. Generals and Admirals give boosts to your armies and navies, and can be “retired” to grant special bonuses or promotions or spawn new units, or sometimes give relics (like with Jeanne D’Arc). Like Builders, Great People generally come with a limited number of charges with which to do their thing, then they’re gone.
Even the science victory is more interesting, since it not only involves lots of research, but lots of production as well, so that you can complete the necessary projects to establish a colony on Mars through several steps. Something I really like about research (both science and culture) in this game is Eurekas and Inspirations. Basically, you can cut your research time in half by performing certain actions within the game that aren’t research. Early on, for instance, if you kill a barbarian unit, you get a boost to Bronze Working tech. There’s a particular boost for every tech in both trees, and you start to feel as though you’re RPing the kind of civilization that would research the things you want to do. This does fall apart a bit in later eras, since beyond a certain point you’ll have to go back and mop up all those little techs you skipped while beelining. This is in stark contrast (again) to Endless Legend, where techs increase linearly in science cost no matter their era and there’s a ton of them, so you almost always have a unique tech build. In general, any victory condition now requires you to go for a relatively-balanced style with a particular emphasis, and that can push you out of your comfort zone a bit. Nobody can get away with not having a military, for instance, and everyone has at least one wonder they’ll want to build. You always have to research nationalism, and later capitalism, to get beyond a certain point in the culture tree. I do find it commendable, however, that the game manages to be this way without feeling samey from game to game, and the aforementioned map emphasis is probably the biggest reason that 6 escapes the fate of so many previous Civ entries.
There’s also espionage in the form of Spy units that can be placed in either other civ’s cities offensively, or in your own cities to counter-spy. They’re a bit limited in functionality, but what they can do is very powerful. You can use them to get diplomatic visibility, letting you see what another civ is up to without needing to be their friend. You can use them to steal money as well, or sabotage a player on their way to the science victory. You can also use them to steal other people’s Eurekas and Inspirations without having to do them yourself, though, which is by far their most powerful ability in my opinion. Other special units include religious units, which spread your religion or add new beliefs to it and which can only fight with other religious units in “theological combat”, and stuff like Naturalists, which can designate natural parks in your empire under certain very strict conditions but which give big bonuses to tourism and tile appeal (especially if you’re America).
Combat is very straightforward and pretty simple to wrap your head around. Only one military unit is allowed per tile. Tiles have inherent bonuses or penalties to defense. Melee units beat ranged units, cavalry beats melee, anti-cavalry beats cavalry, ranged units have high offense but fold in melee. It’s not so much “rock-paper-scissors” as “rock-paper-scissors-glue-superman”, but it’s not incomprehensible. As you progress, you research tech that gives your units adjacency and support bonuses, or let them combine into larger forces, or upgrade into later era units, or what have you. There’s no equipment system as there is in EL or Galciv, rather, units go “obsolete” when newer varieties are researched. The unit production list can get pretty bloated in later eras, particularly on the Switch, but at least they let you close it. Cities can also defend themselves like in Civ5, and building various wall types helps increase their defenses, as does advancing through eras. One thing I found hard to deal with at first was that unit movement is very strictly limited. Most early units can only move one tile at a time through most terrain, which further pushes your focus toward good city placement and use of the natural terrain of the map for defense, especially early on.
This is further emphasized by barbarians, which have been buffed all to hell and form the major challenge and focus of your early military. Barbarians are neutral units that exist only to make your life harder. They first show up as scouts. Once they’ve found you, they’ll run away into the fog of war and find (or maybe spawn, I’m not sure) a stronghold. That stronghold will then spawn units designed to take out the defenses the scout found, and they’ll then come after you in waves until you find and destroy the stronghold. These guys are no joke, either; In one of my early games as Japan, I never got the chance to explore later eras because I had the bad fortune to be near two strongholds at the start. They sent so many units, and my production was so tied up in trying to just stay alive, that I fell way behind and realized I’d have to retire when the first civ I met was 2 eras ahead of me.
Combined with the high number of leaders with a domination victory focus, that value civs that have a military and will just invade you if you don’t no matter what, you’re going to have to do some fighting in Civ6. You can declare a “surprise war” immediately, but only if you’re not a “declared friend” or an ally with that civ, which is pretty limiting. However, surprise wars carry a hefty warmonger penalty, which only increases as everyone’s eras advance. To get around this, you first have to “denounce” a civ, which tanks their attitude towards you. Then, 5 turns later, you’re allowed to declare a “formal war”, which still has a warmonger penalty but it’s not as stiff. However, there’s an interesting mechanic called Cassus Belli, which are basically like good reasons or pretenses under which you can declare war with a reduced warmongering penalty. If a civ converts a city of yours, you can declare a holy war. If they conquer a city of yours, you can declare a war of liberation for basically no penalty. If they go after one of your city-states, you can declare a protectorate war, and oh man do you look like a good person doing that (you imperialist swine)! You get more cassus belli as you do more science and culture research, and your diplomatic options similarly expand to things like declaring joint surprise wars, or making alliances.
Diplomacy is functional and minimal in Civ6. It’s not even remotely fair to compare it to Endless Legend here, as it really doesn’t feel as though peace and diplomacy were a development priority at all. There’s cassus belli and alliances, and you can “send delegations” and “build embassies” (though they’re invisible in all but a level of diplomatic visibility and are laughably cheap one-time purchases), but Civ6’s emphasis is really heavily on war. Alliances and friendships aren’t even permanent (you have to renew them every 25 turns), but wars can go on until you decide you’ve accrued enough war weariness or warmonger penalty or done what you wanted to do. There’s trading, but mostly you’re not going to want to do it since resources are so scarce, so it seems to exist as a way for the computer to ask you repeatedly for your unique Great Works of art and literature and offer you like, a dolphin and 5 gold for 30 turns, so you can tell them no and piss them off to start wars. Again, this is something I want to talk about in much more detail in a later and more politically-focused article, but for now I’ll just say that it does serve to keep you on your toes, keeping even later eras (when things are normally more peaceful in most 4Xes) hopping with activity. In gameplay and player-engagement terms, this is a good thing.
Gamers always complain about the AI in 4X games, like to the point that I feel it’s a thing I have to touch on. I’m not one of those people. I’m totally fine with how it is here, and for the record I’m totally fine with the AI in most 4X games. I really don’t see the problem. The computer functions in its intended purpose of providing a challenge to be overcome. It doesn’t need to be SHODAN, and it never will be, either. There’s no point to these complaints. However, if you’re the type who thinks the AI in 4X games is the worst thing ever and needs serious overhauling nyerrrrrrrrrrrr, then you’ll probably dislike it here as well? Also ew, why are you even here, go back to asking the Long Dark mods when multiplayer is coming, on the subreddit they never look at
Let’s talk Switch-specific stuff. In handheld mode, the game has just a bit too much going on on screen at times (and that stuff is a bit too small for my grandma eyes) to make it a really great experience, but it’s fine for the most part. In this mode, you also have access to touchscreen controls. Drains the battery hella quick, though. You’re looking at 2-3 hours tops.
You also have the option of joycon controls, and these are actually really nicely done. When I first saw Civ6 announced in that Nintendo Direct, my first thought was “oh, neat” and my second was “but how will they do the controls though”. Well, here’s how they do them: Left stick moves your cursor. Right stick scrolls the map. Clicking in the right stick centers your cursor wherever you’re looking. ZL and ZR zoom out and in, respectively. D-pad works the menus. L brings up a sidebar with your science, culture, government, religion, great people, and great works. R brings up a sidebar with all the civs, city-states, victory conditions, reports, and the civilopedia (in-game reference for what everything is with quotes and stuff). X advances your turn. Y opens up announcements. Pressing A on a unit brings up a menu for what you can do with that unit and its basic stats. Pressing up or down on the d-pad when you’ve got something selected switches between things on that space. On city selection, you can select overlays for assigning your citizens to tiles to work them, see your territory and buy new tiles, change production, fire on targets and so on. The production menu is grouped into districts/buildings, wonders, units, and projects, in expandable sub-menus. The UI design is pretty good, everything is nice and chunky for touchscreen without being too obnoxious. It takes about 10-15 minutes to come to grips with the controls, and after that they’re really intuitive. The biggest issue (relatively speaking) is with the Switch’s analog sticks, which can be a bit finicky when it comes to clicking them in and making small precision movements. But that’s not Civ’s fault, and it’s basically fine anyway, just a minor nitpick. Use the pro controller if it bugs you.
It seems they cut out showing civilians actually physically on the tiles working them, instead relegating them to an overlay, probably to not set the Switch on fire. The game performs pretty well actually, better than I would’ve expected. Calculating turns can take a bit in later eras, and it’s definitely not a buttery-smooth 120 FPS or whatever, but for a game like this, it performs absolutely fine. I’m impressed they got it working at all, to be honest, and I’ve never caught myself getting frustrated by slowdown or anything, it stays pretty consistent.
As far as content goes, there’s rumours of us getting the Rise & Fall expansion at some point but nothing confirmed yet at the time of writing. There’s two leader/scenario DLC packs up on the shop, but the game already comes with quite a few of the ones that previously were DLC-only, like Poland and Australia and Macedon. The Switch version also comes with all the updates and tweaks that have been released so far already in it.
In terms of presentation, the game looks fantastic, with a cartoony chunky style that has a lot of personality. Grognards may be turned off but I like it. I would also be sorely remiss if I didn’t mention the completely awesome score by Geoff Knorr, Roland Rizzo, and Phil Boucher, who really outdid themselves here. The main theme (“Sogno di Volare” by Christopher Tin) alone is enough to give me goosebumps, and it’s been stuck in my head for weeks. But the game also has distinct tracks for each civ that evolve as you progress through the eras and are truly impressive. I can’t get enough of this soundtrack. The voiced lines for the leaders are a bit sparse, but pretty well done for the most part. Some are better acted than others. But it’s a nice touch to have them all speaking their own languages, even so.
All in all, you could do FAR worse for the money than Civilization 6. This is an excellent game if you’re a fan of 4X and you’re looking to be convinced to give Civ a try again after some time away. If you’re coming hot off the heels of Civ 5, this is a much more complete game than 5 was at launch by a long shot, but has some tweaks that not all of you are gonna be happy with. Personally, this is my favorite in the series so far, and I’m looking forward to putting 100+ hours into it easily.
Next time I write about this game, I’ll be getting more into that political stuff I mentioned before, because there’s a lot to talk about there. See you later!