Hands-on: Winning Religious and Cultural victories in Civilization VI

The release of Civilization VI is about a month away, and while the developers over at Firaxis are putting the finishing touches on the final build they released a preview version into the wild for journalists, YouTubers, and fans to try out for a week in the comfort of their own homes. While our previous previews have been much more limited in scope, this time around we've been hands-on with practically a full game, with ten civilizations, all victory conditions enabled, and no restrictions on the details we can share. 

This preview was also my first close look at the graphical "day/night" cycle in the game, which causes the light to shift naturally as you play. Though this doesn't have any gameplay effect and doesn't have any real connection to the "time" in the game (years pass with each turn, so day and night don't really mean anything), this visual touch is just one more way Civilization VI takes things to the next level visually. 

The preview build was locked on the Prince difficulty and had somewhat limited game customization options, but I was able to play several complete, distinct, satisfying games of Civilization during my time with the preview build. Read on for all the details of my experience, or skip to the end for specific answers to some of the burning questions fans have been sharing on reddit and Civ Fanatics

Scythia: Religious Conquest

The inclusion of Scythia as a main-game civilization in Civ VI is one of the many choices that could make this title the weirdest, most unexpected game in the history of the franchise, so it was my first choice for a full play-through after previously having a chance to try out portions of the game as Brazil and China. Since Scythia's bonuses and unique units drive them to excel at early-game conquest, my initial plan was to do exactly that: conquer my neighbors and control my continent on the way to a domination victory. 

But no plan survives contact with the enemy, or in this case the lack of contact with the enemy. The developers of Civ VI have stressed that they are making a game in which you need to "play the map" rather than blindly pursuing a preferred strategy, and the Gods of Procedrual Generation gave me a starting location and continent that threw me for a major loop. I was all alone on a continent with nothing but city-states. Not only that, but my capital was surrounded by deposits of stone and marble. This was a map that was begging a different strategy than the one I had intended, and though it certainly would have been possible to stick to my domination plans, perhaps even capturing all the city-states on the continent, I kept my options open.

With stone resources nearby, I was able to build the Stonehenge early game wonder, which provided me with a Great Prophet and the ability to found a religion. Soon I was spreading the faith of Scythian Idol to my neighboring city-states, bolstered by my chosen Pantheon belief of Idol Worship, which gave me extra Faith points for each Stone or Marble resource I had improved. 

Without any full Civs as neighbors and no contact with them for many turns, my main concerns were destroying barbarians and becoming best buddies with every city-state on the continent, which I quickly accomplished. It helped that my closest neighbor was Jerusalem, a faith-focused city-state which acts as a second Holy City for its primary religion. Soon I had the entire continent worshipping my Idols, and at long last I met the other Civs across the sea.

Once I had the ability to cross the ocean with my units, I began dumping massive amounts of Faith points into producing missionaries and apostles and sending them abroad. To convert cities in Civilization VI you need to have a religious unit next to a city center, but since religious units are free to cross any national borders they want this isn't much of a problem. With the gigantic amount of Faith points I was producing every turn thanks to my collection of religious wonders, I was able to send armies of preachers to convert the other continent, one Civ at a time. Germany, led by the Holy Roman Emperor, was the last hold-out, but eventually even they fell to my faith when facing the combined pressure of literally every other Civ and city-state in the entire game. You earn a religious victory when you've converted a majority of the cities of all the civilizations in the game to the religion you founded, and I was able to accomplish it without ever fighting an actual war (my impressive horse archers were limited to barbarian clean-up duty).

All-in-all, this was a very strange game of Civilization for me, with little diplomatic or military interaction at all. I haven't spent a lot of time with the religious-focused expansions of previous titles in the series, and I wasn't expecting that aspect of the game to play such a major role in this particular play-through when I first started. But by playing to the map and taking advantage of my surroundings, I succeeded. That's what we should want out of a good strategy game, right? 

Greece: Cultural Supremacy

After Scythia I spent an hour playing as Japan, with plans of aiming for a Science victory, but things just didn't come together and I was forced to abandon the playthrough (this is an experience that should sound familiar Civ veterans). I decided to give Greece a try next, since I also wanted to pursue a cultural victory and their unique bonuses are well-suited to that path. 

I played this game on a pangaea map, meaning all the Civs in the game share one enormous land-mass. This time, I was in contact with my neighbors early and often. After clearing out some barbarians with a pair of Hoplites (the Greek unique unit which gets a combat bonus from being adjacent to another Hoplite, a touch that seems clearly inspired by elements of Beyond Earth) and settling a few cities, I quickly found myself pressed in by the Spanish to the east, the Americans to the north, and the Kongo to the west. Aside from an early surprise attack by the Kongo that didn't last long, though, I managed to avoid military conflict for most of this game as well. I expected the A.I. to be more aggressive on the Prince difficulty setting, and it remains to be seen if things were toned down a bit for this preview build. 

There was a frustrating moment early for me when I saw a Spanish settler begin to move into my territory, and I knew exactly what juicy city location they were planning to grab. I contacted Spain and had them promise not to settle near me, which they did, but then they immediately went ahead and did it anyway. Those jerks! At that point, all I could really do was publicly denounce them, a diplomatic action which would have allowed me to declare war after five turns without incurring as much of a "Warmonger" penalty in the eyes of civilizations. Since the Spanish outclassed me militarily for most of the game, though, I didn't end up doing anything about the city but glaring at it. 

This game gave me an opportunity to explore some really interesting new features in Civ 6, especially surrounding the use of Great People. Different Great People, even of the same type, can now have slightly different methods of activation. When I recruited Galileo to my cause for example, I had to send him to a patch of mountains in order to activate him, gaining a one-time science boost in the process. Other scientists, however, I used by sending them to Science-focused districts and having them boost a few technologies. 

I attracted so many Great People, in fact, that I was unable to use several of them to their fullest potential. To take advantage of Great Artists, Writers, and Musicians, for example, you need to have the right locations to display their works. You need to build the right Culture-focused buildings and Wonders (such as Art Museums or Broadway), each of which can hold a certain number and type of Great Works (items which give you Culture and Tourism bonuses, important for a cultural victory). If you have a Great Writer and no place to put his or her Work, though, there isn't much they can really do but...sit around.

This was frustrating for me, as I didn't always want to have to build specific buildings and Wonders to benefit from a Great Person I had already earned. Of course me earning a Great Person was better than letting an opponent have that person (since there are finite numbers of each type of Person in the game), but I still found myself wishing all of the different types shared something like the Great General's "Retire" ability, which allows you to disband the unit when it is no longer needed in order to claim a Relic (another Great Work, and one for which I always had open slots).

Also important to note on the subject of Great Works: they can be stolen by enemy spies. This happened to me, when The Iliad was stolen from Athens by the Germans. Boy was I steamed when that happened. 

Surprisingly, the late-game of my Greek cultural victory also ended up turning into a pretty intense religious war. I had ignored the religious aspect of the game for most of this play-through, having gotten my fill of it with Scythia, and it was almost too late that I realized that my Spanish neighbors were well on their way to converting the entire world to Catholicism and claiming a religious victory of their own. Since I hadn't founded a religion myself and hadn't even built any Holy Sites by the time I figured out what was going on, I suddenly had to scramble. If I hadn't gotten very lucky and had the English spread their competing Protestant faith to one of my cities just in the nick of time, I would have been forced to watch helplessly as the Spanish got the win, without any real way to fight back. 

As it played out, I had to divert my attention from my goals somewhat to keep enough Protestant Missionaries and Apostles active to battle back against the best efforts of the Spanish. It was really close at times, and only my strategy of keeping an Apostle safely hidden in a city and then popping out and re-converting once the Catholics had moved on allowed me to keep the Spanish from victory. In the end even the English themselves had abandoned Protestantism in favor of the Spanish faith, but I was able to keep enough of my cities on the right side of the religious ledger to score a cultural victory (while keeping a nervous eye on the ever-advancing American space program, which was close to giving the U.S. a science victory). 

I was of two minds about the religious aspect of the game in this second play-through. While it's important to keep the different victory conditions balanced and it would be too powerful to allow for a Wonder or other improvement that could simply banish Missionaries and Apostles from your shores, it was extremely frustrating at times to be unable to stop the dozens of Spanish religious units running through my territory. Sure I could have tried to attack them via religious combat (which sees units trading lightning bolts from overhead clouds), but since my faith-focused units were always outnumbered this wasn't really viable. The religious struggle with the Spanish made the late-game more interesting than it otherwise would have been, which is a plus, but I would have preferred the strategic choice and variety of options of an actual military conflict, rather than a religious one. 

I hope to see some final tweaks to the way religion works in Civ VI before the game is released, because at the moment I have concerns that it might be too dominant of a strategy in too many games. 

For more on this game as the Greeks, watch it in action

Questions answered

Here are answers to some of the questions Civ fans have been asking as we get closer to the release of the new game. For all of these answers, though, please keep in mind that things are subject to change in the final build of the game. Also, just for good measure, I could have been unable to find features that were actually in my build, because I had a limited time to spend with the game. 

Can you puppet a city? Is the AI still going to be gold-focused if left as a puppet?

In my experience this wasn't an option, as I was only able to Raze or Capture a city during my brief wars. 

Are districts and wonders counted as tiles that you work or do they just give a city bonus?

Wonder tiles aren't workable. District tiles have citizens assigned to them (often multiple citizens in a single tile), but these citizens work in District buildings and produce appropriate resources, not the normal yields of the tile. 

What are your impressions of the AI? 

The AI was more peaceful than I expected, and the Agenda system is really effective at creating distinct personalities. Some tweaking remains to be done, though, as I'm pretty sure the Spanish could have converted all my Greek cities in a single turn and won a religious victory if they had been playing correctly. 

Map trading? Tech trading?

I didn't see these as options at any point. There are "research agreements" you can enter into with friendly civilizations, but no direct tech-for-tech trades. 

Do the Civs feel as distinct as they appear?

Yes, they really really do. The unique bonuses are weirder and more ambitious than ever before, which I love in practice. Agendas also play a huge role in determining how Civs behave and whether they like you or not, and after playing just a few games I'm already coming to recognize personalities. The fact that Hidden Agendas can change things up makes me excited to see how things change in future games I play. 

Is the late game fun or simply a matter of going through the motions?

My Greek cultural victory did seem to take a long time, and aside from battling back the spread of Catholicism I didn't have much that was interesting to do in the modern era. The game was still fun and was always a treat to look at, but the late game remains less engaging than the earlier stages unless you're actively engaged in a war or space race (which can now be disrupted with spies, which adds some interactivity). 

Is a non-science-focused victory doable? In other words, can you focus on the Civics tree and "neglect" science, as you can neglect culture in Civ5, and still have one or more paths to victory?

Yes, to a surprising extent. I finished the Civics tree early in my Greek playthrough while lagging behind as the fifth or sixth most advanced Civ out of eight in the game. With the right selection of government and associated bonuses it's easy to see paths to be competitive and head for a cultural or domination victory without placing much emphasis on science. 

I was able to win two of my first three full games with Civilization VI (counting the abandoned Japanese attempt) on the Prince difficulty, which surprised me a bit. With previous Civ titles it usually took me quite a while before I was ready to compete on this difficulty setting, as I learned the ins and outs and best strategies for particular victory paths. It's hard to say how the Prince difficulty in this preview build compares to what we'll get in the full game on October 21, but for now anyway it seems like Prince may be a bit more forgiving. 

I was also surprised by how rarely I was attacked in my playthroughs, especially given how angry I made the Spanish in my game as the Greeks (at one point I converted one of their cities to my rebel religion just because I was mad at them, and they hated that, but still never attacked me despite their military superiority). It's unclear if the A.I. in Civ VI is just more wary of war across the board (there do seem to be significant diplomatic penalties for it this time around) or if things were toned down for this preview build, but with an army as weak as mine was in my Greek game I was shocked that I avoided an outright invasion in the late game. 

After a week with Civilization VI, I'm itching to play more. In fact I'll probably hop back on the game as soon as I'm done with this article. I have some concerns about the final product, specifically concerning how dominant a role religion may play in the experience, but what I've already seen from the new title is, for the most part, exactly what I've been hoping for. Districts and Builders change up city management for the better, making things more interesting, dynamic, and strategic than they have ever been before, and as a whole Civ VI just feels more complete than the first incarnation of Civ 5 did. This looks to be a game that will offer a number of distinct ways to play and which will only become richer with repeated playthroughs on higher difficulty settings. 

Keep an eye on our YouTube page for more Civilization VI videos coming this week.