Civilization returns after a long absence – did the formula change and is it still fresh after all these years?
My personal journey with Civilization actually started on the Atari ST, back in 1991 – on a computer without a hard drive, using floppy disks that held just a little over 720kb in data. Yet there it was – a grand strategy game that allowed me to form a civilization and take it through the ages. Researching new technology and unlocking new units, buildings and weapons, I would slowly but surely make my civilization the dominant one on the planet.
Civilization is a true classic, and the series is still going strong. The last proper entry (Civilization V) came out in 2010, and despite the (nowadays obligatory) expansions and the Beyond Earth spin-off, it’s been a long wait. Luckily, Firaxis doesn’t disappoint. We got a presentation and a bit of hands-on time during Gamescom already, and our positive impressions then have only been confirmed now that we’ve played the final game. Civilization VI is a must-have, especially for fans of the series.
This conclusion isn’t one that’s as obvious as it seems. Civilization’s core gameplay is so rock solid that improving it – not just changing it – is a tall order. Yet the features implemented in Civilization VI seem to do just that – even though that applies mostly to experienced Civ players. In this review, we’ll focus mostly on what we call city building and deck building – two aspects that change the way the game is played.
In Civilization VI, the way you found and expand your cities is more expansive than ever before. Location, spatial insight and even foresight have become crucial, as expanding your city now means you’ll have to inhabit other tiles as well. Expanding with a military purpose or economic purpose means you’ll get different bonuses from the tile you build on, so you have to select carefully – even decades before you expand. It doesn’t turn Civilization into SimCity or Cities:Skylines, but it does add to the complexity of the game.
During our playthroughs, we usually ended up with a capital city that was a mix of different districts/purposes, with other cities designed to support our empire through trade. A capital city’s growth might soon make its natural resources unavailable, as you need the space for other goals – which is where trade comes in as a solution. The choices you make don’t just affect your cities, they also affect how your civilization acts and develops – so you need to account for your preferred playing style when you build your settlements and cities.
This might seem like you get locked into a direction early on account of the city building choices you make, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Civilization VI’s biggest innovation is probably in the way it deals with the tech tree and how it’s been partly replaced with a (card) deck building system. You can still research units and buildings, but a large part of the game is now labeled under ‘civics’, which loosely translate into perks you can enable – faster building, more gold per turn, etc.
The perk/card system closely relates to your form of government as well – some will allow you to use more economic perks at once, while others favor military perks. The amount of cards you can use is always limited, and the distribution is partly determined by your form of government. Luckily, you can easily switch your form of government to allow for other perks – depending on the strategy you’re currently following. If your long term goal is war, then it’s good to know that you can focus on economics in the short run to amass the funds you’ll be needing later. And of course this system ties into your city building and trading strategies as well, making Civilization VI a deeply complex game – even to the point of it being daunting for newcomers.
One last change we’ll discuss is how units can be tied together as they traverse the map. This allows you to give some much-needed protection to weaker units like settlers, who might otherwise be captured by barbarians – who will use their skills against you. These combinations of characters form a middle ground between the old system (grow an insanely big army, place them all together on a tile, and win every battle) and the new system (one unit per tile) – and it allows for greater strategic flexibility.
Civilization VI isn’t for everyone – in fact, I’d advise newcomers to start off with Civilization IV or V first. Yet, for veterans of the series, this is a truly wonderful new edition that many of you will be playing for months to come. And when you finally grow tired of it, I’m quite sure a new expansion will appear on the horizon soon enough.