At first glance, Humankind seems familiar, perhaps a little too much so. Start a game, and there’s your initial tribe on a beautiful hex-based map, looking almost exactly like Civilization has since 2009. That’s not inherently misleading: This is a game that’s supposed to look like Civilization, because it has the same motivation.

But it’s also not quite Civilization … and that has the potential to be a really good thing.

The end of Civilization

To get at why that is, it’s worth discussing what Civilization has become. When initially developed in the early 1990s, Sid Meier’s Civilization became the poster child for what all strategy games could be. It was wildly ambitious — attempting to model the entirety of human history, as well as the near future. It was also a damn good strategy game, with a simulation of great powers taking over the world and engaging with one another in alliances and wars.

But over time, especially starting with Civ 5, instead of playing in a living world — a simulation — Civ has become about making a long-term plan and sticking to it, with external pressure coming from enemies who might want to disrupt that plan. You’d pick a Civ and try to push toward a one of half-a-dozen victory conditions, instead of adapting

This isn’t inherently a bad concept, but it is a relatively niche one, and now Civ is no longer the dominant force in strategy games. Paradox Interactive games like Europa Universalis 4 have moved in, with a focused simulation of a specific historical era and no rigid endgame. Total War, Civ’s only real long-term competitor for the greatest strategy series, has had an uneven but largely fruitful decade. And in the specific niche of the “4X” strategy game, Amplitude Studios, with its excellent Endless Legend and largely successful Endless Space 2, are starting to compete with Firaxis and Civilization on their home turf.

‘The journey matters more than the destination’

Thus, in a sense, Humankind can only be understood in relation to Civilization. This might sound limited, but there’s actually a lot of room in the anti-Civ genre — despite Civilization’s monumental place in the strategy game universe, it’s only inspired a handful of direct competitors of turn-based games covering the entirety of history. Humankind is that, and as it’s Amplitude that’s developing Humankind, this makes it worthy of interest.

As such, the core of the pitch of Humankind is this: If Civilization has become to enamored with long-term planning, with an endgame focus, with dividing into good plans versus bad plans; then Humankind is an attempt to muddy those waters. It is an attempt to make a game about all of human history that’s about making the most about the position players are in at any given time — about reacting and adapting instead of merely executing.

Above: A developed city in Humankind

At the macro level, Humankind dives into the gray areas with its victory conditions. Or rather, that it doesn’t have express “conditions” for a variety of victories. Instead, it keeps score via “fame” — a marker that’s hidden throughout the game, and one that the developers said “might surprise you” when you win. Fame comes from being the biggest or best or smartest at key points. A conceptual example Amplitude gave me was how the Mongols had the largest contiguous land empire in human history, conquering most of settled Eurasia except for the peninsulas of Indochina, India, Arabia, and Western Europe. That sort of “fame” could get the Mongols closer to victory, even if their empire didn’t last for long beyond that era.

So Humankind is meant to encourage taking advantage of what you can when you can. Building out the greatest empire you can in the moment, even if it might overextend you long-term becomes potentially worthwhile. And this philosophy of working with what you have, and making short-term choices alongside long-term ones is supported by the entire framework of the game.

Stacking the deck

Perhaps the key mechanic of Humankind that sets it apart from almost every other grand strategy game is that, instead of choosing which faction you want at the start, you pick a different culture across six different eras. So you might pick the Babylonians early on, and head down a path that leads you the Germans.

Each culture has its own aesthetic elements, like architecture and city names. But they also have practical effects, like units and general bonuses. If you pick the Phoenicians early on, you’ll get buffs that help you develop a seafaring nation, which you could stack by taking later seafaring cultures — perhaps the English. Or you could adjust if you needed more industrial or military or food-producing power.

A hoplite in Amplitude's upcoming Humankind

Above: Hoplite art for Amplitude’s upcoming Humankind

I find a lot to like about the culture draft idea, both conceptually and pragmatically. “Most civilizations are a succession of cultures,” Amplitude said, which seemed both historically accurate and interesting from a gameplay perspective. I loved seeing the variety of different options, and Humankind seemed to do a good job of offering options outside the Eurocentric model of civilization as a concept that starts in the Middle East and shifts into Europe. Each era seemed to have cultures from the Americas (like the Olmecs), Africa (Nubians), and East Asia.

In fact, as a bit of a Sinophile, I asked, noting the Zhou in the first era, if it was possible to pick Chinese cultures throughout — Zhou to Han to Song to Ming to Qing to PRC. Not quite, I was told, although there were three of those (Zhou, Ming, and PRC). But there was also the option to “transcend” an era by not picking a new culture — gaining points but missing out on the culture’s buffs.

The developers also mentioned an interesting quirk, where cultures would be drafted — you couldn’t have two players both playing the Romans in the same era. It wasn’t clear how exactly this would work, but I was amused by the idea that this would be like a history Auto Chess, with scarcity playing a role in building a full composition. And I do have concerns that some cultures may be, or seem to players, so powerful that they become default choices, though that’s something that testing and patches will have to determine.

Above: Drafting a culture in Humankind

The living world

My biggest concern right now, however, is the map. Much of this is likely due to the pre-alpha state of the build I saw, but it seemed lacking in personality in its natural state, and fairly dull when exploited. This is particularly worrisome because grand strategy games tend to be entirely map-focused — it represents what you’re playing with, where, and how. Civilization has increasingly become about playing the map, while Amplitude’s previous planet-based game, Endless Legend, had arguably the greatest map I’ve ever seen.

The two problems I saw were these: early in the game, when the map was unfilled, it was overly simple. Just some mountains and plains and forests — no resources or points of interest, nothing to add individual flair or personality. I asked and was told that resources, a key part of the Endless games, would be coming, and later in the demo, I did see some volcanoes. So these sorts of things can be expected to added.

Second, a grand strategy game tends to show when its geography is being inhabited and exploited by humans — buildings, mines, irrigation, and so on. The late-game part of the demo I was shown had multiple provinces fully developed, and they tended to look dull and similar throughout. Part of the joy of playing a grand strategy game is seeing your plans come to fruition on the map — recent Civilizations, for all their flaws, have been superb at that — so Humankind seemed a little disappointing on that front. But once again, this is the sort of pre-alpha status of game development I’d expect to be cleared up. It’s just that I want to make sure that it fully has the personality of the Endless games before I give it credit for that.

There are good or potentially interesting things about the map. It’s divided into provinces, like Endless Legend or Age of Wonders: Planetfall, which has shown itself to be an effective way of reducing micromanagement and creating some interesting strategic decisions. I’ll be interested to see what that looks like in a historical game aimed at simulating something like the real world.

Second, the demo showed some examples of single cities in provinces merging with other provinces to create super-cities. I didn’t see how this worked in practice, but the potential for reducing micromanagement is present.

Above: The start of a military conflict in Humankind

Finally, the province model seemed to have potential for interesting military situations. Amplitude showed me a late-game battle, where the player-controlled army was attacking a weaker AI force, but attacking a fort up a hill. Like Endless Legend, armies are single entities on the map, whose individual units spread out onto a province for tactical combat. Unlike Endless Legend, players have direct control over each unit — something I’m skeptical might slow the game down, but certainly offers tactical depth.

But what really caught my eye, or ear, was the idea that these battles often wouldn’t necessarily end the turn they were started, if there wasn’t a full victory. The assault on the fort that I was shown was clearly something that could take time — and, the developers mentioned, could have reinforcements coming, both from the sides engaged as well as from allies. Suddenly, the possibility of a grand strategy game simulating the Western Front in World War I — a rather memorable event in human history and not one I’ve ever seen a game like this come close to modeling — became quite real.

Conclusion

Humankind seems like a game aimed directly at me. Obviously I’m in favor of this as a method of game development. But is there a market beyond me for people who’ve spent decades with Civilization, know its strengths and weaknesses, and are looking for a game that might fix the latter without losing the former?

This is the next step I’d love to see from Humankind — can it build general appeal and have its own personality like Amplitude’s previous games?