Review: Civilization VI: Gathering Storm succeeds by making climate and diplomacy more relevant
The newest expansion for Civilization VI, Gathering Storm, is a big one. It's an expansion that isn't afraid to try seriously new things, and even when those things don't all work perfectly, veteran Civ players will likely appreciate the novelty.
Gathering Storm adds nine new leaders and eight new civilizations, and the new civs are some of the most rule-bending and innovative the franchise has ever seen. A more active world map and late-game climate change add interesting new wrinkles to city management. And the new World Congress and Diplomatic Victory enrich elements of the game that have been exposed as a bit shallow in the years since the original game's release.
All that, plus the expansion adds Giant Death Robots and rock bands. So it might be worth the price of admission just for those things alone.
For the purposes of this review, I played a preview version of Gathering Storm provided by 2K.
Volcanoes and storms
New terrain effects are the Gathering Storm change you'll notice most immediately when starting a new game. Settling near rivers has long been a common Civ strategy, and it's still just as viable as ever, but now flooding is a concern you have to manage. Floods can damage tile improvements, but they'll also fertilize tiles and lead to improved food production. Later technologies allow for dams to mitigate the damage of floods (and even use the rivers to generate power), but earlier on you'll need to keep builders ready to quickly repair flood damage in order to keep your cities humming along.
Volcanoes are another risk/reward terrain effect, providing bonuses for settling near them with the constant small risk of deadly consequences. Volcanoes liven up mountain ranges, along with the new mountain tunnel and ski resort improvements, making them more dynamic and interactive in the later stages of the game. It's definitely worth tweaking the world age settings when you are playing your first games of Gathering Storm, to see how different maps with extended mountain ranges feel with these new features.
Weather effects, like storms and droughts, are irregular and unpredictable occurances that will leave your improvements damaged and in need of repair, and can even lower a city's population in extreme circumstances. While hurricanes appearing on the map is eye-catching and dramatic, in practice all of these various effects feel a bit underwhelming. In most cases it'll just be a turn or two of lowered production, and then you'll just need to build or buy a builder to get things back to normal.
Since storms increase the amount of damaged tiles you have to deal with in a typical game, it would have been nice if pillaged tiles had a visual overhaul to make them easier to notice. Again and again I discovered tiles in my empires that needed to be repaired after damage stemming from disasters that had occurred many turns earlier. The game is in need of a regular alert that pops up when you have damaged improvements, in the same way you're constantly notified about housing or happiness shortfalls.
The most relevant and dramatic element of the new weather system is climate change. This manifests through a variety of late-game effects that result from consuming things like coal and oil via the tweaked strategic resources system. Advanced units and buildings like power plants often require these resources to fully effective, so it's hard to keep ahead of your opponents without consuming them at least at a modest rate.
And for a while, everything seems just fine. Because in Gathering Storm, in-game climate change does an elegant, brutal job of mirroring how it works in real life. Once the ice caps start melting and low-lying coastal areas start flooding, decades of damage have already been done. It's probably already too late to stop disaster.
Advanced civilizations (usually those who have contributed the most to warming the globe along the way) will have the easiest time mitigating the damage, through the use of Flood Walls. Civs that lag behind in the late game will have little recourse when valuable tiles start flooding, and will have a harder time repairing tiles damaged by intensifying storms.
Climate change in Gathering Storm quickly tips from "Oh, this doesn't seem like a big deal at all" to a frantic race to build Flood Walls and sources of renewable power. Melting ice caps allow for new naval paths at the top and bottom of maps, and it's possible that very intricate tactical minds might even use the flooding of the coastal tiles of their rivals to their advantage. But in most games it will be a battle that plagues the late game for all players, and you'll have to do what you can to mitigate its effects, since it's unlikely to be stopped or even slowed once it has started.
It's all pretty bleak, honestly. But it's a good addition to the game.
Diplomatic victory and the late game
Gathering Storm's other big gameplay change is the introduction of the World Congress. The World Congress meets at regular intervals, allowing players to vote for or against different agreements that will provide medium-term bonuses, penalties, and rule changes. Unlike the United Nations and similar improvements in previous Civ games, the World Congress starts playing a role fairly early in the game.
Earning a diplomatic victory involves earning and spending the new Diplomatic Favor resource. You can earn these points through more advanced forms of government, through alliances with other players (which awards points to both players just for maintaining strong relationships), and by being the suzerain of city states.
These points can also be traded in deals, and in early meetings of the Congress you can spend them to buy more votes for or against particularly important proposed agreements. If you want the diplomatic victory, though, you'll probably spend the first two-thirds of the game largely banking those points, so you can ensure you have more than enough to win each available point when victory votes come up.
You can earn at most two points towards the ten you need for victory each vote, and you can't do anything to speed up how often the World Congress meets, so at times pursuing this victory condition can feel a bit passive. You'll maintain your alliances and keep researching civics to earn as much Favor as possible for most of the game. Towards the end you might get a culture victory along the way by accident, just because the diplomatic option takes so much time, or you'll decide to switch to a science victory once your rivals get wise and start pooling their votes against you.
New leaders, civilizations, and units
Gathering Storm adds eight new civilizations, including some of the weirdest and wildest the franchise has ever seen. My best experience during my games for this review came as the Maori, who break all the rules of the game right out of the gate by starting with their settler unit in the ocean, rather than on land. Their bonuses reward coastal settlements and environmental consciousness, and if you preserve your forests and rainforests you'll eventually be earning food, production, culture, and faith from each of those tiles.
Canada and Sweden both play well in the game's new World Congress, and because games with Sweden in them add additional Nobel Prize competitions to world diplomacy, games without the new civilization can feel a little lacking by comparison. The Malian civilization focuses on wealth, to the extent that it's often better to buy units than to produce them through normal means, while the Hungarians gain bonuses when levying units from city-states (a relatively tiny gameplay niche for many players). In general the new civilizations are flavorful and interesting to play as, though some of them (like the Inca) are among the most situational and map-dependent in the game.
There are also a scattering of new units, improvements, and wonders to experience with Gathering Storm. The Giant Death Robot is the most entertaining of these new additions, and will be poised to totally dominate any conflicts in the game's final era. The giant units require uranium to build and maintain, and translate your scientific progress directly into battlefield power with additional, instant updates for your robots as you research late-game techs. Deploying these robots against my enemies felt great, and left me wanting to go back to spend some time with Beyond Earth, for more sci-fi Civilization goodness.
The Rock Band is another significant new unit, though this one won't be winning you any armed conflicts. Bands are created via faith, rather than normal production, which doesn't make a great deal of logical sense but is a good use for the huge amounts of extra faith you often end up with if you aren't bogged down with winning or defending against a religious victory. Bands are culture warriors, and boost your tourism by heading ino foreign territory and performing concerts. These units help make culture victories feel a little more hands-on in the final stages, which is an improvement over just sitting back and letting your great works snowball and carry you to victory.
Plenty of new content, without too much complexity
The most impressive thing about Gathering Storm as an expansion is how much it adds without making the game feel any more complicated than it was before. You'll quickly grow used to weather and climate change as a fact of life, to be managed in the same was as barbarians and city loyalty. Diplomatic favor as a resource makes diplomacy more transparent and easy to understand, and the World Congress works as a rare feature with powerful, but limited, effects.
If you're a Civilization VI fan, adding Gathering Storm to your game isn't a hard choice. It adds depth where the game needs it and brings some fascinating new civilizations into the fold. Civ VI has charted a polarizing new course for the franchise since its original release, and there's nothing in Gathering Storm that will make you like the core game if you don't already enjoy it. But if nothing else, the new expansion adds the darkness of climate change and the pure joy of Giant Death Robot, making the game simultaneously more grimly realistic and a wish-fulfillment fantasy.