Hands-on: Civilization VI adds Teddy Roosevelt, ditches workers, and feels great

The announcement of Civilization VI may not have been a huge surprise, but some of the initial details certainly were. Multi-tile cities? The end of one-unit per-tile combat? And how about those graphics, anyway? 

Nearly two years to the day after going hands-on with Beyond Earth I returned to the same room of the same hotel in Santa Monica for a recent press event and went hands-on with Civilization VI. I spent an hour (60 turns) with its new features, and spoke to Firaxis team members including Senior Producer Dennis Shirk about the development of the latest installment in one of PC gaming's greatest franchises. 

Unstacking the cities

The biggest change in Civilization VI is the way cities have been restructured, and its that change that leads naturally into dozens of others. Shirk described unstacking the cities as "the cog on which everything else turns" in Civ VI. While the city center tile remains the most important one, and it's this one you'll need to capture if you're looking to actually destroy or control a city, now a city's "districts" can be constructed in all directions, up to three hexes away. Districts are improvements dedicated to specific types of production, and come in varieties focused on science, culture, faith, and more. These districts in turn get bonuses to production when they are placed in suitable locations (like putting science districts near mountains), and these bonuses can multiply later in the game. 

Wonders also appear on distinct map tiles, so building one of those means you'll have one fewer tile to devote to districts. And of course tile improvements like mines or farms can't double-up with districts, so you'll need to choose your improvements carefully as you go, balancing the needs of your city and civilization. As Shirk described it, "City specialization really comes into play, because you can’t have it all. You have to specialize based on what’s around you. We want people to play the terrain." 

I asked Shirk specifically whether building cities in locations near mountains or oceans might hinder their development in the late-game, as you would have hexes that could never be devoted to districts or wonders.. He said he thought it would be "almost impossible to do that, because your people are going to need the farms." Food is still an important consideration when building a big city, and though you can optimize food improvements (building three farms in a triangle, for example, boosts the food production of all of them) they'll still need to be built; a city surrounded by nothing but districts is not likely to be viable.

Shirk described the new way cities function as "the city layout puzzle," and after playing the game myself I think that's an excellent way to understand it. Firaxis has been clear that they are drawing inspiration from board games for Civ VI (lead designer Ed Beach has previously designed several board games himself), and the way you have to make decisions when planning out a city feels a lot like something from a tile-based city building game.

In my playthrough I was all set to construct a religious district next to the Great Barrier Reef, to reap the generous faith boost that would come from being adjacent to it, but the discovery of iron on that tile threw me for a loop. You can't have a mine in the middle of your temple (it would make church services awkward at the very least) so I needed to decide which resource I valued more: faith or iron? These are the kinds of interesting decisions that would occasionally crop up in past Civilization games, but Civ VI looks designed specifically to generate them.

Cities under attack

Shirk's description of how city invasions work is enough to make any tactician drool:

"The city center is still the whole enchilada. If it falls, everything’s gone (they go to the captor). If the invader is just doing it to achieve something very specific, he might just be coming in to burn down your entire science district. Every building in it, pillage pillage pillage. You have to be able to repair that eventually, otherwise it’s just sitting there. He’s completely sniped all your science. You have to decide as a player if you’re going to be bringing guys out to try and defend these districts or if you’re going to sacrifice them.

"We have an encampment district as well, and the cool thing about that is that when you put it down, it has to be at least one tile away from the city center. So you put it out in a rural location, maybe in a bottleneck, somewhere close by. Because once you build city walls, the encampment also gets walls. You both get city strikes, so you can have overlapping fire. Any unit you build actually appears in the encampment now, so people can’t just come in and siege your city. In Civ V, if your city was being sieged, you couldn’t have guys stack in there, so you were stuck with production sometimes because they couldn’t get out. And now they’re actually at the rear of the enemy, so the enemy might have to decide to take that district first. So there are a lot more decisions to be made."

A farewell to workers

Workers are gone in Civilization VI, which is sort of shocking considering what a central part of the franchise they've been up to now. The unit that replaces them though, the builder, is an admirable successor that fits much better with the new city layout system. As Shirk described, having a worker unit that takes five or ten turns to construct an improvement no longer made sense in a world where wonders and districts spread across those same tiles. 

Builders are a consumable resource, with three "charges" you can use to construct improvements. Long gone are the days of automating workers and forgetting about them until they do something stupid a thousand years later (not a viable strategy on higher difficulty settings, but a useful tool when learning the game). Now you'll construct builders as you go, making or buying new ones as your needs dictate. You'll use them up to improve specific things, or keep them around in case a new resource pops up. Their improvements are completed in a turn, which should cut down on the map clutter we've seen in previous Civ games with workers swarming across the land. 

For my hands-on opportunity I played as China, and found that Chinese workers have one extra charge (four uses rather than three) and can also be used to partially rush the construction of a wonder. 

Teddy Roosevelt and Hidden Agendas

Hey, how about this: Teddy Roosevelt is running the United States civ this time around! I know I was surprised to find this out, and I asked Shirk for more insight into this choice:

"Probably our favorite part of kicking off a project is deciding what leaders will be in the game. For Teddy Roosevelt, he’s just someone we haven’t seen in a very long time, and he’s someone we thought would be really interesting to play, because he’s a big personality, he’s a lot of fun.

"There’s more ‘safe’ choices, whether it’s Abraham Lincoln or George Washington, etc., and we’ve had Franklin Roosevelt before. But Teddy Roosevelt sounded like a fun civ to play against. Especially because of his 'Big Stick' policy. We usually pick civs, not just for who they are, but for the possible gameplay things you can do with them."

Roosevelt's "Big Stick" view of diplomacy is relevant because Civ VI has changed things up when it comes to leader personalities and behavior. Borrowing some of the diplomatic overhaul seen in Beyond Earth: Rising TideCiv VI gives each leader "agendas" based on their historical behavior. Roosevelt, for example, wants to control his continent. He'll be inclined to be friendly with other civs on the same continent, but if you come from beyond the sea and try to mess with his backyard, he's likely to respond with violence. 

Beyond the historic agendas, leaders will have randomly determined "hidden agendas" in each game, which will give them likes, dislikes, and goals that you'll have to uncover via diplomacy and espionage. In my playthrough I was attacked by Roosevelt seemingly out of nowhere, and Shirk explained why it happened: 

“That’s most likely a random agenda. If you click on Teddy and go into the relationship there’s most likely a negative modifier that has an ‘Unknown’ reason beside it. That’s one of the things, when you start up each game there’s a random agenda. In which case he sees you do something that he doesn’t like.

"You can start a trade route with him, that will give you some visibility, and bring back knowledge. A delegation will bring back more, a spy obviously will tell you exactly why he doesn’t like you. But half the fun of the random agendas is just finding out exactly what it is that ticked him off.

"A hidden agenda may be just 'fan of industry' or 'fan of culture,' some of those basic things. If you’re generating a lot of science they might admire you for it. It could be stuff as simple as you have more wonders than them, and they want the wonders. Stuff like that.”

Another possible hidden agenda mentioned during my playthrough was a civ wanting to have the largest navy in the world. During my 60 turns with the game I was never able to figure out exactly what I had done to make Roosevelt so mad, but thanks to some timely tech boosts (more on those in a moment) I was able to fight him off. 

Civics tree and tech boosts

There are two big changes to science in Civ VI. The first, the civics tree, essentially creates a separate, parallel tech tree devoted specifically to government and cultural developments, rather than scientific discoveries. We've seen some steps in this direction in the more recent Civ games and expansions, but in Civ VI it all takes a big leap forward. The civics tree contains advancements such as government types, military traditions, and cultural systems like drama and poetry, and appropriately enough you make progress on this tree by generating culture, rather than science. The standard tech tree is still in the game, of course, but if you want to gain access to more complicated, versatile, and powerful government types or the ability to construct certain buildings or improvements you'll need to balance your scientific and cultural development separately. 

The Civcs tree feels a little odd at first, and having another tree to manage does provide for some additional work, but it's an effective change that gives culture a lot more to do, and allows for the development of culturally rich, scientifically stagnant civs (or vice-versa). A civ that prioritizes science while neglecting culture may have more advanced units, but without the powerful bonuses granted by the right civic policies they'll be held back. Civic policies themselves play out through a sort of card/slot interface, with specific bonuses like +5% wonder production or +10% damage against barbarians as cards, and government types (ranging from chiefdom at the start to republic, communism, and fascism late-game) providing varying numbers of slots across military, economic, and other areas of development. 

Tech boosts were inspired by the quest system from Beyond Earth, and are designed to provide for a satisfying flow from decisions you make while playing into immediate effects. Basically, every tech in the tree has a specific "boost" you can earn which will speed your research towards that tech, provided you satisfy the right conditions. If you establish a city on the coast, for example, you'll be able to research Navigation more quickly. And if you are attacked by an enemy (as happened to me with Roosevelt), being on the defensive will grant you a boost towards early military tech. 

The tech boosts feel like a great way to reward you for the way you naturally play Civ VI, and play into the "terrain- and situation-based" decision making that's a focus of the game's development. It's likely that learning to efficiently activate these boosts will become critical to higher-level Civ strategies, but it's also nice on a more abstract, roleplaying-level (an aspect of the Civilization franchise that is often left out of discussions) to earn natural bonuses based on your choices. An early choice between a coastal and landlocked city leads to a small but important boost in one tech or another, which in turn could lead civilizations in very different directions in the long term. 

A new look

After Civilization VI was announced and the first three screenshots were released, a vocal contingent online expressed their dismay at the "graphical downgrade" that looked to be on display. Here are Shirk's thoughts: 

“It’s going to be hard to convince people based on three screenshots, until they see more of the game. Especially when they see the game in action, and actually play the game. Because the stylization choices we made were made for a very specific reason.

"In previous games, everything went in the city and went vertical. Wonders, buildings, etc. The only thing out in the terrain that you needed to read were going to be farms, mines, improvements, stuff like that. But when we have a game where we have twelve districts, each of those districts has three or four buildings in them, we want people to be able to read that and know what’s going on without having to sit and tooltip over all the time. So when you walk by another civilization, and you see the campus district, and all the campus district buildings have the blue roofs on them that match your blue science output, the magenta roofs on the theater square, the gold roofs on the commercial hub…you understand exactly what those things do. The language of the colors, the language of the shapes, all read.

"We wanted to take what we thought was best from a lot of versions of Civilization. We liked the iconic shapes and language that was in Civilization IV, the individual trees that allowed us to animate, the individual buildings that they modeled in the cities. We liked a lot of the palette, the living and bright world in Civilization Revolution. We loved the intricate details in Civilization V. We took what we thought were the best things, with the prime goal of making everything readable throughout the game.

"The stylization allows us to do a lot more with the readability of the units...we can get a lot more out of each individual unit. For example we have culture variants across every unit in the game, tied exactly to the civ that they’re playing. We have culture variants on a lot of the structures in the game, and the details really shine.

"If you’re a Civ V fan who has played a thousand hours of Civ V, anything we do is going to be startling. That we completely understand. But I’d say, just wait. Because the more you see of the game, the more you’re going to understand just why the decisions were made the way they were."

After going hands-on with Civ VI, I can confirm that calling it a "downgrade" isn't giving the game proper credit. Some elements of the game have been simplified, sure, for reasons Shirk explained. And I'm definitely going to miss the Art Deco style of Civ V's interface (Civ VI is based on a brass and gears, Age of Discovery theme). But if Civ VI manages to make for a more visually clear late-game, that's a huge plus. 

Some specific aspects of the game that were especially engaging graphically were the revamped fog of war and the game's animated leaders. Rather than a dull black or grey overlaying the land, fog of war now renders map features in rich shades of brown, with hand-drawn-style sketches of cities and resources. It's a fantastic visual upgrade that immediately improves the look of the game's early stages, before you have much visibility beyond your own borders. 

Leaders have a lot more character and charm in Civ VI than they did in Civ V, even though the previous game's leaders were more "realistic" visually. Civ VI's leaders feel larger than life, with exaggerated physical characteristics and body language that achieves the same kind of instant familiarity as a good caricature, without straying that far from realism. 

Unsorted other details for Civ Fanatics

This final section is mostly for the wonderfully obsessive folks over on Civ Fanatics, who will be collecting and documenting every bit of information that can be squeezed from all the hands-on previews and interviews that go live today. How's it going, friends? 

Here are all the other interesting details about Civ VI that I saw for myself or was told about that I couldn't fit into one of the sections above.

  • Here's Dennis Shirk on people who like to build in Civilization games (he's not talking about builder units): 

“One thing we are doing is we’re not gimping the builder anymore. Builders typically went tall in Civ V. We’re now, with local happiness, you can actually have a wide empire and be a builder at the same time. You may not be super technically proficient, but you’re going to super cultural and deep into that civics tree at the same time.”

  • Global happiness is a thing of the past, replaced by local, city-based happiness levels. As Shirk described, global happiness often got in the way of expansive empires and those going for conquest or culture victories in past games. With local happiness, the only thing stopping you is finding the right spot to put the next city. You can put a city in a desert to grab iron, and know it won't grow much. The people there won’t be very happy about it, but it’s not going to cause your whole civilization to go into disarray. If a city is unhappy it won't grow as fast, and drastically low levels can lead to rebels "burning everything in sight," but it won't be a nation-wide issue. 
  • Shirk on what you'll find in vanilla Civ VI: 

"The nice thing is we’ve taken almost everything where Brave New World left off. Almost everything, I think the World Congress is the only thing we left behind. We wanted to have a really solid foundation for a starting point this time. We didn’t want players to come in and say 'We were just playing with religion, and now we don’t get religion!' That’s not a good feeling."

  • When you construct a wonder, you get to see a high-speed animation of it being constructed on your actual world map, right on the hex you chose for it. It's pretty sweet. 
  • Barbarian scouts will roam around inside your territory and check stuff out. Then, if you let them, they'll head back to the nearest camp and raise an army of barbarian invaders to come pillage your business. In short: kill barbarian scouts before they can get home. 
  • American unique units include the Rough Rider (likely a variant of cavalry) and the P51 Mustang WWII-era fighter plane. A film studio (which exists on the map like a wonder or district) is the only American unique building confirmed so far.

Civilization VI will be released on October 21, 2016. Stay tuned to GameCrate for more details in the coming months.