The announcement that Civilization VI’s Rise and Fall expansion would include the leader Poundmaker of the Cree should have been cause for celebration. The Cree are worthy candidates: They’re the first geographically Canadian civ to be included, and Poundmaker himself is both a fascinating figure historically and a gorgeous, subtle in-game model. There was just one slight problem: The Cree, or at least, one of their spokespeople, found the idea offensive.

Such criticism from outside sources doesn’t always take into account the nature of the games being discussed, but that’s not the case here. Said Poundmaker Cree Nation Headman Milton Tootoosis: “It perpetuates this myth that First Nations had similar values that the colonial culture has, and that is one of conquering other peoples and accessing their land.” Tootoosis is incisively cutting to one of the core tensions of modern Civilization: It is a series about aggressive expansion that is attempting to be more inclusive of peoples and civilizations who were not aggressively expansionist, and that’s causing some issues.

Indeed, Rise and Fall arrives at a strange point for the Civilization series. For over two decades, the latest Civ has been the strategy game by which all others have been judged. But this hasn’t been the case with Civilization VI. It’s not because it’s a bad game — it was certainly better at launch than Civ V was — but the competition is fiercer. Grand strategy games from studios such as like Amplitude (the Endless series) and Paradox Development Studio (Europa Universalis, Crusader Kings) among others are stealing some of Civ’s thunder. Civ VI has even struggled to win Civ fans over, with many still locked into Civ V, which has had more concurrent players than Civ VI even after the sequel’s release (it’s still roughly tied, per SteamSpy).

As I mentioned, this is not totally abnormal. Civilization V took years and two expansions to get to the point where it was treated as a classic. But to get to that point, it needs to be able the answer the question: what does this incarnation of Civilization stand for? There are three big answers: first, as the Cree situation attests, is that Civ6 stands for diversity and inclusion. Second, the race from the same starting point to an endgame victory. And third, the focus is on the map and its aesthetics. Rise and Fall is diving straight into all of these potential answers to that question, and changing them fairly dramatically.

In the process, this expansion is being forced to answer the question: Nearly 30 years since the first Civilization, what does this series still stand for?

The new civs

To understand the story that Civilization is trying to tell, it makes sense to look at the civilizations you’re supposed to play. In the early Civs, these were all expansionist superpowers: Rome, Greece, and Persia from the ancient world, or England, Russia, and the United States in more modern times. And by and large, the goal in the early Civilizations was unambiguously to expand aggressively and become a superpower by building or conquering the best cities that covered the best land on the map. The goal of Civilization, and by inference, civilization, was manifest destiny.

The series has complicated itself since then, of course. New victory conditions have provided new focuses on economics, diplomacy, and culture. And in recent years, Firaxis has attempted to provide playable civilizations that weren’t dominant imperial superpowers. Rise and Fall leans into this, with several new civs who, like the Cree, are famous more for surviving than for conquering. Georgia, Korea, and Scotland, all a part of this expansion, were certainly strong in their own right, but the leaders chosen (Tamar, Seondeok, and Robert the Bruce) made their names keeping their kingdoms going in the face of threats from traditional Civilization empires: the Turks, Chinese, and English, respectively. Of the announced new civs, only the Mongols and, to a far lesser extent, the Dutch, fit the traditional imperial civ model.

(Normally in a preview I’d take the time to examine the new mechanics of each civilization, but with a 150-turn limit attached to this build, it was almost impossible to see the long-term effects of the new buildings and traits. They generally look fascinating, but I have no strong judgments until the Mongols actually steal all my cavalry in a full game.)

Above: More natural wonders in Civ VI Rise and Fall

The addition of non-expansionist powers into a game built on a model of fast, efficient expansion creates a notable tension in Civilization. Certainly you can try to build a cultural behemoth and not get in wars as much as possible — but this is a game style where military tactics are, and always have been, significantly more interesting to play with than the mess of culture. That’s why recent games have done their best to put alternate win conditions on the map, like Civ VI’s theological combat or the last Civ V expansion adding archeology as a key component of culture victories.

Indeed, that last expansion for Civ V, Brave New World, suggests that this move away from aggressive expansion as the only way to play can work. That was the expansion that added civs like Morocco, Venice, and Shoshone, with Venice especially, as a one-city challenge, forcing players to think about expansion differently. That was also the expansion that turned Civ V from an interesting collection of ideas into the great game it had been trying to be since release, so there’s no reason to believe the shift in philosophy from expansion to internal development can’t work.

But there’s a key difference here that may make things more difficult for Rise and Fall. Civilization V is a game that knew what it wanted to be: a Civ focused on building directly toward an endgame, and it just needed the mechanics to make that work, which robust culture victories, trade routes, and more, all helped bring together. Civilization VI is a collection of functional mechanics without a clear goal — and Rise and Fall may actually make that even more confusing.

Playing the map

If pushed to name the defining characteristic of Civilization VI on release, it would be this: a game where all the player’s focus is supposed to be on the map. It understood that Civ is a series about playing the map, and with things like districts or an interface that almost never wanted to take players away from seeing its (gorgeous, to be fair) playing surface, was the Civ that knew that focus best. This wasn’t necessarily a good thing — veteran players would often complain that it was far too difficult to get to critical information. But as an aesthetic experience, it was top-tier for a strategy game.

That’s changing with some of the new mechanics in Rise and Fall. The golden/dark ages, which are more robust than previous attempts at “Golden Ages,” are triggered by certain kinds of notable events which, when they occur, pull you away from the map screen to a timeline of those events. Likewise, one of the biggest new additions to Civ VI, the governor system, occurs primarily in an abstracted menu that shows each of the seven governors.

Above: Civilization VI Rise and Fall’s tutorial and governors.

The net result of this is that, in relatively small ways — albeit ways that add up — Civilization VI isn’t entirely about playing the map and only playing the map in the way that it was. The defining characteristic of the game at release is a little less defining. So what’s left? What is the point of Civilization VI?

Winning the race … by not starting

Before I answer that question, I want to talk a little bit about what I call “the race” in Civilization and the 4X games that it spawned. The idea is this: Every player civ, and equivalent-to-player civ, begins the game in roughly similar situations, and heads toward roughly the same endgame — using the same techs, with similar strategies, toward comparable endgames.

There’s a major pragmatic issue with this form: Any time a player gets too far ahead, the game seems pointlessly easy; anytime they get too far behind, the game seems pointlessly difficult. This has been an issue for the series for most of its run, but has only increased with later games becoming increasingly focused on the endgame. Civ V, for example, is an interesting development because it built a variety of different endgame scenarios.

But as the series has become increasingly focused on the process of winning or losing, and making that fair and mechanically transparent, that it sometimes feels like it’s put the cart before the horse. Civilization these days is so much about the end goals of Civilization that it doesn’t actually make the act of playing the game normally intriguing.

This, after all my time with Civ VI, seems to be core of the issue of why it hasn’t caught on, despite having all the game mechanics and all the beauty that I would hope a Civilization would. Where are the stories of playing Civilization these days? What are the moments where the game behaves in surprising ways, pushing players to play differently? These are normal in older Civilizations, and in Civ’s competitors, most notably the endgame-free, asymmetrical Europa Universalis IV (which in my mind has stolen the crown of top strategy game around.) What makes a game of Civilization about more than simply the player successfully manipulating its mechanics, and actually about interacting in a wider political world.

And so the “Rise and Fall” part of the new expansion’s title is also a flag planted to indicate how Civilization might resolve all these myriad tensions. By building mechanics that give certain civs advantages and disadvantages at certain times — and letting them rebuild stronger after a Dark Age — Civilization is turning itself into more of a political and geographic system, instead of merely a background of competition. This is reinforced by the loyalty system, which can make new, and especially distant, cities more likely to break away. There’s also an Emergency system, where too-strong expansionists can have everyone band against them for major rewards.

This potential ebb and flow may give Civilization VI the focus it needs beyond the (still-important) map. It this can be the Civ that focuses on creating a dynamic world that the player is part of, instead of centering their experience as the only thing that matters, it’ll change the recent trajectory of the series dramatically — and call back to two of its best incarnations, Civilization II, and the Rhye’s and Fall mod for Civilization IV (the name connection, I suspect, is not a coincidence.)

So the questions that face Rise and Fall are about the design of Civilization as a whole. Can Civ, with its current mechanics and constraints, be refocused into a fun systems-focused sandbox more than a race to the endgame? Or will it, like the Cree complaint of not wanting to be part of a game that rewards land-grabbing expansionism, be something that’s simply impossible to do?