It’s that time again. Sid Meier’s Civilization VI is endlessly addictive and fun, and it pains me to play it only for a relatively short time before moving on to other games.
It launches on October 21 on the PC, and like my colleague Jason Wilson, I’ve been playing it for a press preview. But I must move on to other games before I sleep. I’ve played approximately 30 hours across a couple of campaigns so far. And it’s given me a taste of how this Civilization is different from the others. I found that the building and exploration is fun, but the combat is still frustrating. Veteran Civ players will appreciate just how fast the game runs.
It’s an important release for developer Firaxis Games and publisher 2K Games, a label of Take-Two Interactive. Over the past 25 years, Sid Meier’s empire-building franchise has sold more than 35 million units, including 8 million for the previous Civilization V. It’s a turn-based strategy game where you build an empire to stand the test of time. If you become ruler of the world, you win. But you can also win peacefully through cultural, religious, and other non-violent triumphs. You can wage war, conduct diplomacy with leaders who have their own hidden agendas, and change the way that history unfolds.
Civilization VI is full of historical characters, inventions, and wonderful creations. But nothing about it is historically accurate, as you may find Hannibal born as a military leader in the United States. You have to learn to take advantage of the historical artifacts in your own alternate history to build the greatest civilization ever known.
The biggest change from Civilization V is the way that cities have been “unstacked.” Rather than taking up a single hexagon, the cities and their various districts can now spill across the map. You can add districts for commercial, religious, scientific, and wonder sites that are considered within the city borders, even though they take up surrounding hexagons. It’s almost as if suburbs surround each city.
“I felt very clearly that I wanted to make the map much more important in Civilization VI,” said Ed Beach, lead designer of Civilization VI at Firaxis Games, in an interview with GamesBeat. “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.”
With this change, you can take advantage of the local terrain. You can build a harbor on a seaside tile. If you build a university next to a mountain, you can get bonuses for researching astronomy. You eventually run out of space due to urban sprawl. All of the cities on my continent merged into one huge metropolis. I also didn’t have enough space to add multiple districts to a lot of my cities. That was a little annoying.
War with the Scythians
In my first campaign, I played Norway’s Harald Hardrada, the Viking king. I built a strong empire with a lot of cities. I had the highest score based on the strength of my armies, cities, and progress. Then I suffered an invasion by my neighbor to the east, Queen Tomyris’ Scythian Empire. It was a surprise attack, since I had not provoked her that much, except by building cities on her border. That, it turns out, was one of her pet peeves. She was quite bellicose.
I, on the other hand, never really intended to win through war. I’ve learned in Civilization games that war is an economic disaster. While you’re fighting, the other civilizations are advancing. I’m not completely against combat, as I enjoy squashing a barbarian camp like anyone else. I was in a race to grow, and I even created a few Wonders in my biggest city. But Tomyris clearly wanted to fight. I didn’t really want to provoke her, but with my back to the oceans, I only had one direction to expand.
I was caught off guard with a lighter military. But I did have the entire border guarded, including cavalry, field cannon, archers, and a couple of musketeers and infantry. I started shifting my new construction to the military. The Scythians pulled the dirty but smart trick of convincing the nearby city-states to invade me as well. This wasn’t good, since I was surrounded by three different enemy city-states. I held them at bay.
But the Scythians clearly weren’t as weak as I thought, even though I had the larger empire. They started churning out anti-tank gunners, or modern combat units who clearly outgunned my industrial age cannon and cavalry. Somehow, they kept producing new units quickly, and I couldn’t kill them. Perhaps she was spending her treasury buying units. I had to spend a lot of my dollars upgrading units to the modern age.
Nor could I break into the cities that were virtually surrounded by my ranged units. That was frustrating, as I couldn’t take over a city defended by a single unit, because the walls were too thick. With every turn, the Scythians would simply cycle out another unit, or heal the embattled unit. And my siege would continue endlessly. I destroyed some of her improvements to the cities, sacking farms and mines and universities. But it did no good. I was eventually outnumbered by the Scythian anti-tank gunners. She also had a lot of horse units, as her empire can build two for the price of one.
So I cheated. I wound the clock back to before the war started and started preparing early for the inevitable conflict. I built forts on the frontier and turned the three city-states into my friends by sending them envoys. I then took control of those city-states when the war broke out. And I made sure I had more modern artillery and infantry to confront the modern troops of the Scythians.
But it wasn’t enough. I let the clock move forward and played out the alternate history again. This time, I was able to get three city-states to attack the Scythians after they launched their surprise attack. America and the Kongo joined in on the Scythian side, so it was effectively a world war. But those two were on a remote continent. The Scythians lost a lot of troops at the outset.
But the city-states had ancient troops, and they weren’t that effective against modern soldiers. They also didn’t stick around for the duration. After 10 or so turns, they gave up and stopped fighting. All of a sudden, I found that I had weak flanks, and the Scythians pushed back. They took out my artillery and infantry with an army of anti-tank infantry, and pushed me back into my own territory. I should have created some powerful units by combining multiple units into “corps” units. But that was hindsight.
Things were looking grim, but then the Asus laptop I was using permanently crashed … and that was the end of that campaign.
A second campaign with the Greeks
I started another campaign as Pericles, the leader of the Greeks. In this campaign, I had the good fortune of having a ring of mountains surrounding my territory. I built cities at the mountain passes, and made my republic into a natural fortress. I had oceans on two sides and built some port cities. And I pushed out aggressively, sending settlers out with warriors or archers to constantly push the borders of my country outward.
I eventually ran into the Kongo leader, Mvemba a Nzinga, who didn’t appreciate my constant northern expansion into territory that he wanted as his own. So he declared war on me. The Germans, led by Frederick Barbarossa, and America, led by Teddy Roosevelt, joined in the war against me. America and Germany were too far to do any harm, but I was able to hijack some of their units.
This time, I simply defended. The Kongo troops were no match for my ranged units. Soon enough, Mvemba gave up and asked for peace. Everyone else settled as well, and I emerged with the largest of empires.
My take on the new gameplay
As always, the user interface is great, as it never really gets in your way. Perhaps the best thing about the game is that it runs fast. You can play in standard mode or fast mode (33 percent faster). I found that it was stable and didn’t crash on my Windows 10 laptop. I used to go take a break in past games when I hit the “next turn” button. But with this one, you can still do things the A.I. takes its turns. I could inspect cities, look at units, and move around the map, all while the calculations were happening. That was wonderful.
I loved the growth and exploration. It was fun watching my cities transition from the ancient world to medieval and the industrial world. It was fun to make progress on the map, doing things such as building two farms next to each other in order to gain an advantage in the development of feudalism. That’s where Firaxis clearly put a lot of thought into the relationship between territory and technology. I also enjoyed the details of the trading in the game. It made sense that the trade routes are the way that you eventually get roads in your empire.
I barely got into the modern age before I had to capitulate. But the art is truly incredible. You see animations of birds roaming the world. There’s a fog of war, and it rolls back as a unit moves. It’s cool to see the colors appear while the old cartography map style retreats.
The music and sound are also superb. John Murphy’s score is truly majestic, and it makes for wonderful listening. It’s really pleasant to play the game with the ambient music and sounds. It never gets really tiring, and that’s important in a game as long as Civilization VI.
I liked the leaders and got to know their personalities. I learned the hard way who not to push toward war. I got access to spies at one point, and that helped me start figuring out the hidden agendas of the different leaders. Sadly, it came very late in the game.
I learned some strategies to speed growth early, like choosing a site near resources, purchasing tiles, and building granaries.
Some flaws in combat and sprawl
But there’s things I didn’t like about the game. As I mentioned, combat is very frustrating, as it’s really hard to do something like take over an enemy city.
And the unstacking of the cities, along with unstacking of the combat units (which happened in Civilization V), you wind up with a huge urban sprawl, where the cities simply merge into each other and combat units are littered throughout the map. The city-states wound up having more units than their actual territory, and so they had to send a bunch of units out to sea. When I was at war with them, I used my navy to sink their transports. I think they really ought to go back to a reasonable amount of unit stacking, such as maybe three combat units and three city features per hexagon.
At the same time, I loved seeing features such as my Wonders, like the Forbidden City, clearly visible on the map. So I’m not entirely against the unstacked cities idea. But because of this sprawl, I recommend you play every game on a huge map size.
Overall, Civilization VI is a great game that is worthy of the Sid Meier name. If I had more time, I’d play it endlessly for a few years. I am glad that Firaxis is still trying to innovate with the series, but I would prefer a map that wasn’t so crowded with too many units and too many city tiles. I guess that means we’ll have something to look forward to in Civilization VII.
Here’s my gameplay videos that show an early part of a campaign when I played as Pericles.