Take-Two Interactive‘s 2K label and Firaxis Games are publishing Sid Meier’s Civilization VI on the PC on October 21. And while the turn-based strategy series is now 25 years old, Firaxis thinks it has figured out a way to keep players coming back for one more Civ.

Innovating on an existing franchise has been critical for this game. The Civilization franchise has sold more than 33 million copies, including 8 million for Civilization V, which debuted on the PC in 2010. Lead designer Ed Beach and the Civ team recently showed GamesBeat the first 60 turns of gameplay for Civilization VI.

Afterward, I caught up with him to talk about one of the big changes this time. In the new title, cities will now spread out over the map, with different districts taking up a full hexagon on the map. They will now be spread out just like the military units were in Civilization V. Beach explained why Firaxis did this, and also talked about how the artificial intelligence will be better in this game as well.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Civilization VI allows you to spread your cities out across the map.

Above: Civilization VI allows you to spread your cities out across the map.

Image Credit: 2K/Firaxis Games

GamesBeat: You had a game that wasn’t really broken, and then you changed it in a big way. How were you inspired to make so many changes?

Eed Beach: I feel like a new version of Civilization is not just an expansion pack. It deserves some bold moves. I’ve personally been involved making expansion packs for Civilization V. There’s a lot of change between vanilla Civilization V and Brave New World, but it all fits in the framework of Civilization V. It also gave me three or four years of working on Civilization V to, in the back of my mind, think of interesting things to try that we didn’t get a chance to try in Civilization V because we wanted to stay consistent with the vision of that game.

We had a backlog of things. One of them was unstacking the cities. I felt very clearly that I wanted to make the map much more important in Civilization VI. If you look at a Civilization V map, there’s so much of the map allocated to farms and trading posts and mines and improvements outside the city. It felt like a simple enough decision as to how you’re going to use all those tiles that automating the workers did still make sense. There weren’t hard decisions to make about it.

I felt like that was a case of a lost opportunity, because there’s all that space on the map outside the city. I love placement and positional puzzles in games like that. I worked on the ancient-city-building series that was around eight or 10 years ago – Pharoah, Caesar, Zeus, all those games. Those were very detailed in terms of how you lay out your cities and what needs to be next to each other. I thought there’s no reason we can’t take advantage of all the map in Civilization and make your choice about almost every tile something significant.

I also knew it was going to help the art. If you thought about the cities in the previous Civilization game, you might have five or 10 wonders all in the same city and you can’t see them. Here are these iconic pieces of what we’re doing in a Civilization. You built them and you got a pop-up and then where do they go? Our art team would work on wonders or buildings and have nowhere to show off what they were doing. If we could spread the cities out over the map, it’s a bold change, but it’s good for the artists and good for the gameplay. It strikes a new direction for the series.

Teddy Roosevelt is one of the leaders in Civilization VI.

Above: Teddy Roosevelt is one of the leaders in Civilization VI.

Image Credit: Firaxis Games

GamesBeat: I have a bit of trouble with sense of scale. Now it seems like it’s thrown off a little. All of a sudden everything is spreading out across a continent. If my army’s on this side, and the barbarians are over here, it’s gonna take two centuries to walk over here and fight them.

Beach: That’s true. It’s something I’ve had to come to terms with as well. I live in the mid-Atlantic area. If you think of Washington DC as the city for that area, there are lots of regional pieces nearby. Norfolk might be the harbor. That’s where the Navy is based. There are great universities like Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. That might be the campus district. West Virginia is where all the mining goes, a couple of tiles away. That might be the industrial zone. If you think about it in those terms, it’s okay. I’m not saying it’s perfect. It’s still an abstraction, for sure.

You could do the same thing with the UK, the Benelux, things like that. Antwerp is the huge port for Belgium, but Brussels or Bruges is more the cultural capital. You can take any place in the world and divide it up like that.

The other thing I love about it is the way cities get specialized. If you build a Pittsburgh in western Pennsylvania, it has all these mineral resources around it, so it’s the right place to put an industrial zone. You can get huge adjacentcy bonuses. If you have four, five, six cities in the empire, this one will be the science city, that one is the industry city, here’s where the military goes—you just make those decisions and see what feels good in terms of city specialization. We’ve tried to get this into the Civilization series before, but this is the most clear-cut way of doing it that really seems to be working.

Civilization VI

Above: Civilization VI

Image Credit: Firaxis Games

GamesBeat: How do you start thinking about defending a city, if it’s under attack?

Beach: That’s one of the important reasons we wanted to be really clear about what’s on the map, so you can quickly identify what’s going on. If you’re attacking a city and you’re trying to figure out who to attack – “Three enemy cities on the border, which one do I go against?” – or if you have an enemy army approaching your city and you have to decide what to defend first. We wanted to be very clear, so you could look at your research campus and say, “This is a campus I just started. It has no special buildings in it. That’s my main campus here that I’ve had since the beginning of the game. It has a library, university, and a research lab. If I lose that, I’m going to lose a ton of science.”

We also wanted to make it so districts could help you on defense as well. We have the encampment district, which unlocks with bronze working. You start building your barracks and stable and military academy there, those kinds of buildings. It can have a ranged strike just like the city center in Civilization V. Rather than just one place with a ranged strike, you have two. That encampment also has hit points of its own. In order to get rid of that ranged strike, you have to attack it just like you’d attack a city.

Civilization VI

Above: Civilization VI

Image Credit: Firaxis Games

In that map you were playing a few minutes ago, you could see a nice range of mountains off to the west protecting your initial city. If you put an encampment along the coast to the north or south of there, all of a sudden the enemy will have a heck of a time getting at your city. The positional play involved in spreading out the city helps with the military side of things, making that even more interesting. Now not only is the army spread out, but the targets are spread out.

GamesBeat: I had a scout go out too far and find a barbarian camp. I left it alone, but then they started multiplying. They seem like they’re smarter than they used to be.

Beach: We haven’t talked about this yet, but this is something that I can clue you in on as far as how it’s working. Barbarians can generate scouts now. You may have seen some of those around. If you leave a camp around long enough, it generates a scout. The scout explores the map just like you do. But what it’s looking for is targets. If a scout comes up to the outskirts of your city, that means he knows you’re there, and he’s going back to his camp to tell his buddies that they have a target.

It’s important to watch that. You can know, “Okay, if the scout came from four turns away, it’ll take him four turns to go home and five or six more to build an army.” But eventually, 10 or 15 turns down the line, that scout reporting back is going to be bad news for you. You can prepare for that, though. You can see the scout and have some fast forces block him from getting home. He’s not that strong. It’s more strategic. They’re not just randomly wandering guys like the barbarians of the past. They’re a bit more intelligent. When they come back, they come back with a collection of both ranged and melee units. They can give you a hard time.

GamesBeat: It seemed like it didn’t take as long to build a scout. You could get a bunch of those going pretty quickly and explore.

Beach: We’re still working on balancing everything. The exact build times aren’t locked down. But right now that’s my first build almost all the time, a scout. Knowing the map is so important in Civilization VI that the faster I get that uncovered, the better off I am. We polled our QA group and the rest of the designers, though, and there was no consensus at all. Some guys said, “Scout? What are you thinking? I always go builder!” We were happy that there was so much divergence.

Civilization VI will force you to decide what a particular city will specialize in.

Above: Civilization VI will force you to decide what a particular city will specialize in.

Image Credit: 2K/Firaxis Games

GamesBeat: Is there any AI helping you choose where to put a city?

Beach: There is. The UI’s just not online for it yet. It will be there.

GamesBeat: It seems like that’s very important.

Beach: There’s a whole system you probably didn’t get a chance to play with. We have what we call a lens system. Those are UI filters that get draped over the map to help you analyze data. There’s a religion lens that will color-code the map based on what religion is dominant in all the tiles of the map. We have a settlement lens that tells you about which plots are valid for settlement and which ones are going to have the most housing and water to get your city up and growing. A lot of UI work is going into that kind of helping stuff. It’s just not online yet.

GamesBeat: Have you figured out ways to make it run fast when you have a big game going?

Beach: We have a whole new AI system. The AI is multithreaded this time. Exactly where we’ll land on performance—I don’t want to make any claims yet. It should be good. It should be an improvement. But until we actually have everything tuned the way we want, I don’t want to make any claims.

We’ve looked at some of the AI research going on lately, but the problem is, all of those developments assume that you have some time to spend on doing the deep thought. Our players expect to get control back. We are using some new technologies. We have a more goal-oriented AI than we did in the past. We’re using behavior trees. It can do things like look at a chain of boosts and tell how to achieve getting three levels deep in the tech tree by unlocking boosts to get there. Once it starts down that path, it will follow through with that line of reasoning.

GamesBeat: But they still have to be beatable, right?

Beach: They have to be beatable, and they have to be able to produce a result in an amount of time that players consider acceptable.

I find that when I’m playing the game, I run into fewer automatic decisions, where I know what my path is going to be and I just queue things up and get going. There’s a lot more thinking on your feet trying to figure out, on this map and in this particular situation with these other leaders and these agendas—let me think this through so I can figure out how to get where I need to go. I end up playing the game slower than I played Civilization V, because I have to be more deliberate about the path I’m taking.

That’s because of the changes we made, but I think it’s a good move for the series. It’s what the next evolution of Civilization needed.

Civilization VI

Above: Civilization VI

Image Credit: 2K/Firaxis Games