The king of turn-based strategy games returns with Sid Meier's Civilization VI, an installment which takes the refined end-product that Civilization V now is, many years and expansions into its life cycle, and uses that as the starting point. Long-time fans of the series will be happy that gameplay additions that usually don't show up until the inevitable DLC packs are now part of the game right from the beginning, and Civ VI includes espionage, religion, and some of the weirdest and wildlest civilizations that the franchise has ever seen.
Civ VI is a game in which you guide your chosen civilization from the Stone Age to the Space Race, making decisions every turn about what to build, what to research, and where to settle. Diplomacy, combat, science, culture, and resource management all come into play in the game, and it delivers a mix of strategy and flavor appropriate both for those interested in What If? scenarios (What if the Scythians conquered the entire world? What if Spain spread Catholicism from pole to pole?) and those looking for a demanding tactical challenge.
Bigger, better cities
The biggest gameplay change for Civ VI is what the developers have called "unstacking the cities," moving Wonders onto map tiles and the implementation of specialized "Districts," areas which can be built by cities and take up tiles in the city radius, and which focus on particular elements of your civilization from military might to culture to science.
Wonders appearing on the map is more than just a cosmetic change: now, a city must have space within its radius as well as a suitable location to build a given Wonder. The Pyramids need to be built on flat ground, for instance, while other Wonders may need to be built on a hill or on a coast tile. These new requirements makes Wonders more flavorful, ensure they only show up in places that make some logical sense, and prevent too much Wonder stacking in individual cities (in my play so far it's been very rare to have a city with more than three wonders total).
Districts also work very well for the most part, making city specialization more interesting. The number of Districts a city can support is directly tied into its population, so you'll have the option of adding them gradually as your city grows. That also means you'll need to make careful choices about which you build and when, as building an Entertainment District now to appease unhappy citizens in a city means you won't be able to build a Holy Site to produce Missionaries for quite a while, for example.
Districts and Wonders turn the tiles around a city into a limited resource that needs to be carefully managed in a way that just wasn't present in previous Civ games. Optimizing a production-focused city is now a careful balancing act that involves finding a location with good production resources but also enough food to grow the city so it can support an Industrial Zone. As the game goes on forests and jungles around your cities are likely to disappear as you clear land for more districts, in a way that nicely mirrors the way real world cities expand.
Builders, Roads, and Diplomacy
Along with the expanded cities comes the addition of Builders, a replacement for the Workers of previous games that have limited uses but which complete their tasks in a single turn. Builders work well with the new elements in Civ VI, as it would be a hassle to have several tiles around a city out of commission at the same time as a Wonder AND a mine were both under construction for multiple turns. Now building (or removing) improvements around your cities happens immediately, and the possibility of replacing or changing improvements over the course of a game is a little less painful than it used to be.
Builders have three uses by default, with various bonuses capable of adding extra charges. They remain inexpensive to build (or purchase with gold) throughout the game, so it's usually simple to craft one when you need it. They need more active management than Workers used to, however, and there's no possibility of automating them at all (not a good strategy on higher difficulty levels of Civ, but a useful helping hand for players learning the game in previous versions).
Builders aren't responsible for roads in Civ VI, with that job now taken over by Trader units. Traders build roads from their origin cities to the destination you choose for them, which means you'll likely end up with roads connecting your main cities on a given continent (as well as those of your neighbors) once you have a couple of traders operating. This is another change that makes things feel more organic, natural, and historically accurate, and ensures you don't get any ugly "road spaghetti" which could crop up in older Civ games.
Trader units feel like they could do a bit more to interact with different game systems, but as it is they generate gold as their primary use and can also earn you small amounts of other resources, depending on their destination. They are also useful for exerting religious pressure on cities you want to convert.
Diplomacy is a strong element of Civ VI right out of the gate, though it takes a while to get used to how late certain diplomatic options show up, depending on the Civics you have been researching on the new, separate-from-technology-but-just-as-important Civics tree. War is more diplomatically costly with neutral civilizations than it has been in some previous titles in the series, unless you manage to walk a careful tightrope and declare war for a good, justifiable reason.
The leaders in Civ VI are colorful and dynamic, and the Agenda system, in which leader personalities are determined by a mixture of established and randomly-determined priorities, is a slam dunk. A leader's common agendas mean you can determine some of what they will care about it a given game, but it isn't until much later on that you can uncover their hidden agendas, and understand exactly why Japan has been hating you this whole time (maybe it turns out their leader is an Environmentalist, and hasn't appreciated the way you've been bulldozing all those forests).
There are some small complaints when it comes to interacting with other leaders, and especially city-states (the fact that I can't get on the phone with Lisbon and tell them to move their gosh darn units out of my territory was a source of frustration, for example), mostly centered around how difficult it can be to get them to respect your wishes. I lost track of the number of times I asked Japan to promise to stop converting my cities to Buddhism, they agreed, and then they instantly broke their promise. At which point there wasn't much I could do, other than Denounce them.
More than a new coat of paint
Civ VI features an "Age of Exploration" theme on its menus and interface, the best part of which comes in the hand-sketched terrain features that show up in areas that would previously have been covered with dark grey fog of war. It's a great change for the game, and one which manages to make the whole visual experience more stylish than it has been in previous installments of the franchise.
The other big visual change for Civ VI is the day/night cycle, an optional setting which slowly changes the lighting conditions as you play. It doesn't have any affect on gameplay at all (it would be hard to make that work, given that turns typically span many in-game years), but it adds a dynamic quality to the graphics that helps break up the visual monotony that can come from looking at the same map over many, many turns. It's always a treat when night comes, as you get a chance to see your cities lit up from various windows and fires burning in Stonehenge or one of your other Wonders. The game also includes a nice sun glare effect on the oceans as well, which is a fun bit of flair for a series which has never been known for its remarkable graphics.
On the whole Civ VI looks good, with a surprising amount of visual detail packed into its cities and natural formations. It's a bit more colorful and cartoony than Civ V, and a bit less realistic in some ways as well, but cities look way better than they ever have before, with full-size wonders taking up whole tiles around the city center and the new district system capable of extending a city's functions outward beyond its traditional one-tile borders.
Music is always good in Civilization games, and it's no different this time around. Culturally appropriate music cues and era-specific tunes create a nice sense of time and place. The sound effects are a little basic at times (though as good as they need to be) and some of the technology quote choices are a little odd and underwhelming, even delivered by Sean Bean, but these are minor quibbles with a package that's great overall.
Performance on our test rig was almost universally solid, with the occasional bug and technical hiccup we can expect to be polished out post-launch. The game ran well above 60 FPS on our GTX 1080 with all the options cranked to the max, and playing on an SSD kept load times to a minimum, though you can still expect the game to take some time to process A.I. turns (between 5 and 20 seconds between my turns was about average).
Losing By Religion
Civ VI features six victory conditions, including Science, Culture, Domination, Religion, and Score. There is no Diplomatic victory in the game, as there has been in previous installments, which does feel a bit disappointing. Given the more robust and interesting City-State functionality and the improved A.I. attitude system in Civ VI it seems like some interesting things could have been done with a Diplomatic victory condition, and I imagine this will be one of the most-requested features for expansions or DLC.
Of the different victory conditions, Domination and Score are the most straightforward, with the former involving taking all the other capital cities in the game and the latter serving as the default victory when time runs out. Score is made up of a rating of the different elements of your empire, including Civics, Wonders, and Religion, and feels like a fairly balanced metric.
Domination works about the same as it always has it Civ games, and none of the new units or tweaked mechanics change the experience up very much. I usually find military victories to be a bit of a slog in Civ games, with some rare, wonderfully satisfying examples that inspire me to try the path from time to time regardless. The game does some interesting things with Great Generals and support units (like Medics or Observation Balloons), and city combat is significantly improved by the addition of Districts, which can be pillaged to great effect during an assault on an enemy city.
There are also some interesting tactical considerations adapted from franchise spin-off Beyond Earth, such as the Greek Hoplite unit which gains significant bonuses when it is adjacent to another of its kind, but I would have liked to see a lot more of these kinds of bonuses, since they go a long way towards making the game's combat feel more intricate and strategic. Overall, if you're going to be shooting for a Domination victory, the game can get a little messy and bogged down at times, especially with big armies on both sides.
Cultural and Scientific victories have almost always worked well in Civ games, and the tweaks made in Civ VI all feel like improvements. The Culture victory in particular gets an interesting overhaul, with a Tourism rating that takes into account things like terrain appeal (influenced by factors including Natural Wonders), Museums and Great Works, and the expected cultural draws like Wonders. The victory condition feels much more involved than in previous games, when often the path to victory was just a matter of grabbing all the wonders and culture buildings you could manage and ignoring everything else. Now you need to pay attention to the terrain where you settle your cities and the way you use Great People, and going to war to claim a city next to a Natural Wonder could be an important step on the path to a Cultural victory.
While it's nice to have Religion included in the core Civ game this time around, the Religious victory condition often felt like the least satisfying for me, and Religious gameplay doesn't feel quite right. The bonuses are flavorful and spreading your faith to your neighbors is fun, but I quickly grew tired of swarms of enemy Missionaries and Apostles in my territory. It's especially an issue if you aren't particularly interested in pursuing a Religious victory yourself, as I experienced in the game's preview build and didn't find entirely remedied in the launch code.
If you don't found a religion of your own you'll need to carefully monitor the spread of other religions across the globe, and you'll likely need to work to bolster minor religions to keep one from achieving victory. Put simply, if you don't build Holy Sites and Religious units you're very likely to lose the game to an A.I. player on Prince difficulty and higher, with nothing much you can do to stop it. Unfortunately, in many games this leads to a sort of never-ending Apostle arms race that can clog up the map with Religious units (which frustratingly take up the same map layer as things like Builders and Great People, impeding their movement).
Of course, like the other victory conditions in Civ VI, the Religious victory can be disabled in a given game if you like. That's not a real solution to the issue though, and for the most part the Religion aspect of Civ VI feels a bit shallow and in need of some tweaking.
There's a lot more to say about Civ VI, even though I've already written so many articles about it. There are guides that need to be written for every civilization, proper examinations of the pros and cons of different wonders, discussions of how to best use the game's Great People (more difficult than ever, since now different Great People of the same type can have very different effects), encyclopedias of District strategy, and on and on and on. I salute you in advance, you legions of brilliant nerds over at CivFanatics who will write all these pieces and more. You're the best of us all, and this is a game that will reward your passion and expertise.
This is a deep, massive, complicated game in the best traditions of the franchise, and though it doesn't do everything right, it's likely that strategy fans are going to be very pleased with what they get with Civilization VI.