Civilization VI Released

I got Sid Meier’s Civilization VI a few days ago, shortly after its release. So far I’ve played the tutorial as well as two games on Prince, one with six civs where I won a science victory and another with four civs that I aborted halfway through. First a technical note on the one serious bug I encountered: should Civ6 fail to start a game on your Windows system, try disabling Windows Defender for its installation folder. After that the game ran smoothly.

However, while the announced design changes sounded promising I’m quite disappointed with the final result. The rest of this post details my reasons but in short, while Civ6 did improve in some respects it mostly just doubled down on what I considered the biggest failings of the final Civ5 expansion, Brave New World (by the same designer, Ed Beach). Bear in mind that most people liked Civ5: BNW, so if you did you’ll probably enjoy Civ6 as well. For my part I don’t intend to keep playing which means I also won’t write up any tips or supplementary documentation for this version.

Tonnage Ideology

Civ6 embodies the tonnage ideology of strategy game design: more is better, always. Despite its 192 pages, the PDF manual available on Steam only gives an overview of game mechanics and does not document any specific units, technologies etc. as in previous iterations. You’ll see why when you head over to Well of Souls and look at the massive technology tree and civics tree stitched together from promo videos. There are no fewer than 68 technologies and 50 civics, 40 more total than in Civ5 according to WoS. On top of that, there are well over 100 policies from which you can select 2–8 to enact in your current government, over 40 religious beliefs, and over 80 unit types including civilization-specific units.

Just looking at these absurd numbers it’s obvious that there cannot be “interesting decisions” (as per the old Sid Meier doctrine) attached to every one of these hundreds of items. For example, fully twelve policies are devoted only to giving either a +2 or +4 boost to each variant of Great People! Civ6 exacerbates the old Civilization problem that the early game is much more engaging than the late game, as there are fewer, clearer, and more important choices to make. In Civ6 the dreaded “late game” with its interminable busywork starts as early as the Middle Ages. New techs or civics are dropping every few turns, giving yet another minor improvement that may be needed somewhere, or in the case of civics often nothing of importance at all.

Not only are technologies cheap to research on standard speed, they are also pretty much all needed as prerequisites for something else. The “strategy” that won me a science victory at first attempt on medium difficulty was to simply research everything, always picking the cheapest tech on offer. The new research bonuses based on related mini-achievements (e.g. planting a farm to discover irrigation) sound great in theory, but in practice they would require more difficult quests and fewer, more expensive, less interdependent technologies. Currently these rewards for mundane activities just make research even cheaper and duller, regardless of your play style or goal.

Hopeless AI

The computer players are exactly as passive and incapable of winning a peaceful victory as they were in Civ5: BNW, despite promises of a new and stronger strategic AI. By just being reasonably neutral and doing trade deals with all the computer players I encountered they all kept peace with me, sending at worst an endless train of spies to damage some production improvements so I’d have to periodically repair them – one fine example of annoying late-game busywork.

The AI is likewise fascinated with the religion subsystem, flooding the map with its missionaries and apostles. Theoretically this should produce religious wars and possibly a religious victory, but in practice the competing faiths canceled each other out. I just ignored religion entirely to go on winning a science victory. (Nevertheless I somehow accumulated tens of thousands of faith points that I literally found nothing to do with…)

I can’t say whether the tactical military AI has been improved, as neither I nor the computer players ever bothered to go to war with each other. I did observe the AI leaving large wasteful blank spaces between its cities which, sure enough, periodically spawned barbarians that often destroyed our trade routes and attacked AI cities. Evidently the computer players could never figure out how to stop them. In and around my own lands, I quite easily eradicated the barbarian menace as early as the ancient era.

Overeager Changes

Civ6 has a number of good ideas that would have been great if implemented more judiciously. Consider the new mechanism of placing buildings on tiles surrounding a city, rather than within the city itself. For wonders this works splendidly: specific wonders have specific terrain requirements, and the (unchanged) maximum city radius of three tiles means that you have to decide which production tile to give up for a wonder.

Unfortunately the designers didn’t stop there. Virtually any ordinary building now also requires its own dedicated external “district” placed on a surrounding tile. You cannot even build a simple barracks, library, or marketplace without allocating the corresponding district first! Since most cities need at least some basic economic and scientific improvements to cover empire-wide requirements, the original intention to force cities into specialization was subverted into merely forcing the player to build districts as well as city improvements.

The new worker mechanics are likewise a mixed bag. Workers no longer build roads; instead, these are traced automatically by trade caravans. Wonderful! Moreover, workers now construct terrain improvements in a single turn so they’re easier to keep track of. Good! But this was offset by giving workers a limited number of “charges” (by default three) after which they simply disappear. Now instead of periodically checking on your workers’ progress, you have to periodically rebuild them. Not really a better experience overall.

Furthermore, since most city improvements are now constructed on external tiles they are often damaged by roving barbarians (which the AI failed to kill) or enemy spies. You cannot use workers to repair those improvements. Rather, the city itself must switch to special repair projects – one damaged improvement at a time. So in the late game when you likely have extra workers hanging around they cannot do what you’d expect them to. Instead there’s more busywork for the construction menu.

Missed Changes

Some issues with Civ5 and BNW that I would have liked to see fixed remain unchanged. As mentioned above, the computer players once again endlessly spam religious and espionage units as soon as they can, and should you wish to engage in these subsystems (happily not required) you’ll have to do the same. Trade caravans got the very useful road building enhancement but still need to be reassigned periodically, further clogging up the late game where you can have as many as ten of them.

The excellent culture system of Civ4 where competing culture production directly defined map borders has not returned. Culture is once again an opaque number whose sole purpose is to unlock civics and increase late-game tourism, itself another opaque number that leads to a cultural victory. Cities expand their territory very slowly by themselves, instead forcing you to purchase tiles with gold – a highly artificial and unsatisfying system that I always disliked about Civ5.

Speaking of victory conditions, the “fix” to the somewhat wobbly United Nations voting system in Civ5 was to simply abolish it completely. That is unfortunate as it further diminishes the importance of diplomacy with passive computer players. City states are likewise less important as they can no longer vote for you, but at least here the primitive method of buying their allegiance with gold was replaced by a more elegant system of re-assignable envoys.

Some Good Things

Not all is bad about Civ6, of course. Happiness is once again tracked per city, as it should be, and multiple copies of luxury goods are now valuable outside of trade agreements as each copy affects only the four unhappiest cities in your empire. Multiple units of different categories (e.g. combat and support) can be stacked together, and late-game technologies allow forming two or three units of the same type into permanent armies. These are changes for the better, and of course the splendid graphics have been even further improved over Civ5 as you’ve no doubt already seen from screenshots and videos. Unfortunately this fails to outweigh the massive drudgery of a bloated and often thoughtless game design.

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