Across its 25 years of existence, Sid Meier’s Civilization franchise has served as a neat microcosm of mankind’s history – right from the dark depths of the Stone Age to the hyperconnected Information Age. Civilization VI, the sixth main entry in the series, which comes six years after the release of Civilisation V, brings some big changes to how cities expand, adds another layer to diplomacy tactics, and tweaks technology and cultural advances.
At the same time, in a major departure from previous Civilization titles, the latest iteration provides you with only a lone adviser. Until Civilization V, multiple advisers specialising in different domains – for military, economics, culture, science, and religion – lobbied for their separate interests, so you could follow any one's advice depending on how you wanted to proceed.
In Civilization VI, the single advisor attempts to balance the needs of your cities – offering a variety of advice between buildings, wonders, and units – while never explaining how the choices she proposes are going to help. This puts more of an emphasis on your own decisions and thinking, though it doesn’t help that the advisor regularly ignores military expansion in favour of economic growth. Blindly following the adviser – as we did to see what would happen in one game – can invite other computer-controlled civilisations to seize the chance, and go to war against you.
Sadly, the AI is still dumb when it comes to battles, more so on the middle difficulty options. Instead of moving with a defined strategy in mind, it sends out a variety of units that occupy the tiles around your city. And once it realises that it doesn’t seem to be making much headway, it offers a peace deal and promptly runs off. For example, Spain’s Philip II declared war on our civilisation for having a different religion, and showed up with multiple cavalry and infantry units at the city closest to its home base. Even though we didn’t have a single land unit to protect it, we managed to fend off this attack by using just one ship that constantly bombarded the enemy units on each turn. The fact that the ship was conveniently blocking water access by occupying the only possible route obviously helped matters for us, but it spoke volumes about the AI’s lack of adaptability when reacting to war troubles.
The AI also tends to forget events that had taken place just moments ago. A turn after agreeing on a peace deal, the AI showed up wondering why we had military units near its borders. Um, because we were at war one turn ago? Developer Firaxis has worked to make the intentions of AI leaders clear on the diplomacy screen, but there’s still work to be done overall.
Another niggle, particularly in times of war, has to do with the limitations posed by Civilization’s tile-based movement. It’s the bedrock on which the franchise was built, but it’s still frustrating when two or more units of the same type can’t move together until the latter half of mid-game, when you get to research the right technologies. Humans have known to move together as companies and armadas since centuries, and not having that option though much of Civilization VI comes across as a cheap restriction. For what it’s worth, you can now link together some units – such as a General with Infantry, or Warrior with a Battering Ram – but it’s still a far cry from how other turn-based strategy games such as Total War view troop movement, where you can pin up to a dozen units with a commander. We aren't arguing for a complete rewrite of the system, since allowing stacking on Total War levels would necessitate a seismic shift in troop production and strength.
Module unstacking, choice of leader, and how these affect the winning strategy
One of the biggest changes to Civilization VI affects how you view your cities. It’s called Districts, and it brings module unstacking to the franchise for the first time. Instead of city improvements being built on top of your city’s hexagon itself, the 12 available districts now occupy their own tile on the map. In Civilization VI, you now have to factor that in while balancing the optimum level of food growth while also keeping an eye out for natural features that are likely to benefit your District, or are necessary for constructing a particular District. For example, an Encampment – used for military advances – gets a boost if built next to a mountain tile, while a Harbor can only be put up on a city with an adjacent water tile.
There are many different ways to win a game of Civilization, but with the kind of victory you wish to push for isn’t always in your hands. Rather, it's the result of terrain, resources, starting position, and the leader you get at the start of the game. For example, starting on a small island can restrict the number of cities you can have – as Settlers can’t traverse into water until later in the game – which prevents you from taking on an expansionist strategy.
Moreover, if your city is unable to rapidly expand owing to shortage of land, some of the 12 districts will not be available to you – which in turn will affect the kind of victory you can push for. And while you can pick from two dozen options for your leader, some, like King Mvemba a Nzinga of Kongo cannot build Holy Sites, so a religious victory will not be possible. With most other leaders, should you choose to put your faith in God – and we mean it literally, since Faith is a resource in itself – you will need to divert the production of your cities towards building up as many Holy Site districts as you can. That’s because unlike other units that use up Production or Gold, religious units such as the Missionary and Apostle can only be made if you have enough Faith to spend.
Fervour for religion starts with creating a pantheon, for which you’ll need to recruit a Great Prophet. For some inexplicable reason, Civilization VI limits the number of Great Prophets to just five, and so if you’re too late in researching the right technology, you won’t be able to found a religion at all. Prophets are just one of many such persons in the game called Great People. These individuals can help your cause in achieving a victory path – be it Great Scientists (technology), Great Writers or Artists (culture), or Great Generals and Admirals (military).
Governance, city-states, and non-domination victory
Defining your path to victory also comes by way of understanding governance and policies, which forms a crucial part of the game’s Civics tree. You start with the most basic form of government – chiefdom – but as you progress through the ages, you will be able to unlock more types – be it monarchy, oligarchy, merchant republic, fascism, or democracy. Each government offers one or more policy slots across four types: military, economic, diplomatic and wildcard, the last of which accepts any policy. You can switch policies and governance style without any penalties every time you research a new Civic, and doing so is crucial to reflect your city’s production tendencies and your military outlook.
Early policies will grant you an attack bonus against barbarians and a production boost for cities, though as you go on, the number of options at your disposal can seem overwhelming – particularly with the limited number that you can use at any given time. Knowing when to change governments can be important as well, more so when changing focus from infrastructure scale-up to military build-up. Different government styles carry different bonuses along as well, and these linger even when you move on to the next one.
Part of the diplomatic policies are cards that add to your relationship with city-states. First introduced in Civilization V, city-states are one-off entities that act independently of any player. You can curry favour with them by completing tasks they assign you, or by dispatching Envoys. In Civilization VI, you will get different benefits for one, three, or six envoys you send to each city-state – and an added benefit if you have more envoys than anyone else, which makes you a Suzerain and grants you access to their troops, luxury resources, and lets you improve their tiles if you feel like.
Civilization was conceived as a game that’s more than just destruction, and the other ways to victory have received important upgrades too. You can science your path to victory by focusing on technological advances, you can earn your way to become the most cultured of societies, or you can spread the word of God across the land. While the last of these relies largely on units, the other two methods have seen the introduction of two new systems – Eureka for technology, and Inspiration for culture. Both relate to certain tasks – such as killing a unit with a Knight, or building an Art Museum – and upon completion, boost your knowledge of a certain technology or Civic even before you choose to research it. Achieving the Eureka/ Inspiration aim cuts the required number of turns by half, allowing you to progress faster through both Technology and Civics trees.
The new systems can also act as a guide for new players, who might otherwise be clueless about what to focus their resources on at any given time, now that Firaxis has made the old multi-advisor system a thing of the past.
City development, art style, and music
As with previous Civilization titles, a lot of your progress and success is dependent on how you run the bulk of your civilisation, i.e. the cities. There are three key variables when it comes to growth – food, amenities, and housing – and their effects are unique to each city. Food is affected by the tiles your citizens on working on, the types of buildings you choose to construct, and trade routes. Food also comes by way of constructing farms, pastures and the like; while amenities can be increased by using luxury resources or building anything associated with the Entertainment Complex district – museums, amphitheatre and arena – and even a couple of Wonders.
Any kind of construction is still done with the help of Builders, which behave and operate very differently in Civilization VI. For one, they are no longer automated – and that’s down to their expiration label: Builders disappear after a total of just three actions. This not only prevents clutter on the map owing to Builders hanging around with no tile to improve, but it also makes you think twice about how to make the best use of them at any given time.
Adding to the host of changes is the game’s new art style and music. Areas visible to you are drawn in a cartoon-like fashion, those unexplored appear as old-time parchment and the rest that has been explored but remains outside your line of sight turns into highly-detailed sepia artwork. Music in Civilization VI can take on a character of its own, as what starts off as a simple one-instrument tune in the early village days builds through the ages to become an orchestra-led performance as your empire turns into a power to be reckoned with.
The first release of any Civilization game has always served as a broad template of sorts, with only the expansions later defining what kind of game it wants to be. For now, we don’t know what those will be – and considering they are usually always paid add-ons, it’s fair to judge Civilization VI on its own merits and demerits.
Firaxis has done a good job making its long-running franchise leaner than before, while introducing new things (such as Districts, Eureka and Inspiration) that make Civilization VI more straight-forward, in a bid to appeal to a broader audience. The length of a single game can still put off people – on default settings (Standard speed and Small map size), one game can take an entire week if you can only squeeze in a few hours each day. The only sensible way is to use what is called “Online” game speed – which is 200 per cent as fast as Standard – and turn on Quick Movement and Quick Combat in game options so you don’t have to see the same animations for the 10,000th time. That way, we could squeeze in a game over the weekend, albeit committing more than 7 hours to the process.
But once you’ve strapped yourself in for the long haul, Civilization VI will ensure you always have enough to do in terms of exploring, expanding, exploiting, and exterminating. In its current iteration, Sid Meier’s Civilization series continues to be one of the finest recreations of human history, but it’s a tad disappointing that it strays away from touching upon contemporary issues. Even as it features Mars colonisation and nano-robotics, the game never does tackle the world we know today – terrorism, climate change, refugee crisis, and cyber-warfare.
Rating (out of 10): 8