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Civilization VI review

Tuned to perfection over 25 years, 'Civilization VI' may be the game of 2016

Civilization VI review
Civilization VI
MSRP $59.99
“Civilization VI is a masterpiece. It’s the best entry yet in the esteemed 25-year-old PC strategy series.”
  • Keeps the best parts of Civ V
  • New systems integrate beautifully
  • The layout of the map matters more than ever
  • Exciting modding and expansion prospects
  • AI intentions much clearer
  • AI still needs to cheat at higher levels

By all rights, Civilization shouldn’t work after 25 years and six main editions. Fitting all human history into a single, epic game, while also satisfying the needs of longtime fans without becoming too complex for newcomers … is a tall order. Former lead designers Soren Johnson (IV) and Jon Shafer (V) went so far as to suggest that no strategy game designer in their right mind should attempt anything nearing its scope (just look at what happened to Spore when it tried to be everything to everyone).

Yet here we are, decades after the launch of the original Civilization, and Civ VI is arguably the best entry in the esteemed franchise yet. That’s a testament to developer Firaxis and the steady-handed stewardship of series creator Sid Meier, who has lent his name and counsel to every subsequent entry as other lead designers added their stamp. One clue to the special sauce that has kept Civ thriving while countless other franchises have risen and fallen within its lifespan is the “rule of 33 percent” to which Meier and other Firaxis designers have alluded over the years.

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Civ’s rule of 33 percent: The basic principle, which emerged organically after the first few games and has been more deliberately applied since, is that in any new entry roughly 33 percent of the previous game will carry over unscathed, 33 percent will be adapted, and 33 percent will be brand new. This rubric elegantly describes Civ VI, which directly lifts a lot of what worked best in V, makes a bevy of clever tweaks and introduces a few exceptional ideas of its own. This is evolution, not revolution, but that’s where the series thrives.

If it ain’t broke…

At first blush, Civilization VI will look familiar to anyone that has played V. It is still an epic, turn-based strategy game that remixes the world’s great nations, leaders and wonders into a fresh, alternative history. It’s an impossibly elaborate digital board game mixing exploration, culture, economics and warfare into the ultimate historical 4X experience (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate).

Players found cities that sprawl across a hexagonal map, enhancing them with buildings and exploiting the terrain to generate food, science, production, gold, faith, and culture. These disparate resources all feed into the interlocking systems, allowing civilizations to compete over the sweep of history in military conquest, religion, trade, diplomacy, espionage, and great works of culture. The game’s overall contours and many of its core systems carry over from V intact. Even the general positioning of the UI is largely unchanged.

Civ VI actually launches with nearly all of the core features that V did after five years of expansion. While V was enjoyable at launch in 2010, it only really came into its own after its two major expansions, Gods and Kings and Brave New World, which added systems like trade routes, religion, espionage, and archaeology, in addition to revamping culture. Ed Beach, who directed those two expansions, is now lead of VI. After honing V for years, this second pass at it shaves off the fat and integrates everything he learned into a more robust core. Civ V is one of the best strategy games of all time, so VI wisely keeps and scrubs baby while refreshing the bathwater.

Brave new world

Perhaps the most obvious and far-reaching new addition in Civ VI is the unstacking of cities to spread their buildings and wonders out across the hexes of the world, instead of being crammed into a single tile. Apart from a few city center essentials like the monument or sewers, most buildings require that you first build specialized districts that take up a hex, such as a Theater District for cultural buildings and an Encampment for training troops. Most of these receive thematically-appropriate adjacency bonuses for being next to features such as mountains, rivers, wonders, or other districts.

Wonders also now need a place on the map, with particular requirements for each. This keeps the puzzle of laying out your cities far more engaging over the whole game. Population limits how many districts a given city can have, so they must necessarily specialize, and getting the most out of them requires much more planning and responding to the particulars of the map.

This is evolution, not revolution, but that’s where the series thrives.

The second most apparent change is that cultural progression has been expanded into a whole research tree, mirroring the series-standard tech tree. In addition to unlocking units, buildings, wonders, and abilities like the science tree, this largely provides access to new policy cards, which let you continually tweak your civilization’s priorities over the course of the whole game. After the initial shared Chiefdom, there are three tiers of three government types that are unlocked on the culture tree, each providing successively more slots for some combination of military, economic, diplomatic, and wildcard policies.

In addition to just generally making the humanistic elements of civilization feel more robust and providing an alternative mode of progression to science, this offers more interesting decisions throughout the whole game, particularly in later stretches that grew stagnant in previous versions. For instance, during a war you can choose policies that increase production of units and enhance pillaging, but once peace is made you can change course to instead focus on restoring happiness to your war-weary populace and improving trade routes. As a dynamic replacement for the static culture unlocks of V, this creates more opportunities to actively steer your civ for the entire game, and a greater ability to pivot as history goes on.

Both the culture and science trees are also enhanced with a new system of boosts that completes a whopping 50 percent of a given research for doing something related to it in the game, such as founding a coastal city boosting your understanding of sailing. Like the addition of districts, this serves to make the specific layout of the map and what you do on it much more important. It’s not the flashiest change, but this added feedback between how you play and what your civilization is good at is really quite elegant, providing opportunities for both more responsive/adaptive play, and the new efficiencies to be exploited by more hardcore min-maxers.

The devil is in the details

The middle 33 percent are elements that are carried over to the new game, but with some degree of rejiggering. These encompass a range of subtler changes that cleverly punch up areas of the previous game that functioned, but felt a little flat.

City-states, which used to only have mechanical identities as part of a general class (such as cultural or militant), now also have an additional, unique effect that is granted to the suzerain (the player who holds the most influence over them). These can be powerful under the right circumstances — like Jerusalem exerting spiritual pressure as a second holy city for their suzerain’s religion — so competition for their affections can be much more important than simply buying them off for World Congress votes.

Similarly, Great People also offer unique bonuses that remain consistent to that person between games. All players can now go to a screen that shows one Great Person of each type available, along with every player’s progress toward recruiting them with accumulated points. The race for points can be short-circuited if you really want a particular person with a hefty expenditure of gold or faith, depending on how close you are.

Religion and espionage were two post-launch additions to Civ V that start in VI with roughly the same complexity. Religion operates basically the same as before, but now the means by which it spreads is more dynamic, with religious units engaging directly in theological combat. There is also now a religious victory. Espionage adopts the solid system from the sci-fi spin-off Civilization: Beyond Earth’s expansion. Districts mesh particularly well with espionage, providing opportunities for targeted sabotage and counterintelligence.

Combat also largely carries over from the last game. The map’s newfound importance and the addition of districts make the more tactical direction of V’s switch to one unit per tile more relevant than ever. Later tech allows like units to be combined into larger corps, splitting the difference with IV’s “stacks of doom,” along with new support units. In general the progressions for individual unit veterancy and as upgrade classes (such as melee or light cavalry) have also been made clearer and more interesting. The addition of Cassus Belli also means that wars cannot be declared as arbitrarily without incurring heavy diplomatic penalties.

Necessary compromises

Creating a new core Civ game does mean that some features from expansions in the last game do get lost. For example, Civ VI has fewer available leaders (20 at launch for VI — a little less than half of V’s final count) and maps.

The tech boosts are great in principle, but many of them make less sense in practice. Building six farms to boost Feudalism is perfectly flavorful, but owning three Privateers to help master Electricity feels arbitrary.

One bugbear of the player community for V that unfortunately has not seen any major improvement is the AI of computer-controlled opponents. In order to ratchet up the challenge beyond the middle difficulty level, AI civs basically cheat, with numerical bonuses over the player, instead of acting any smarter. Programming AI for a game this complicated is obviously daunting, and this was the case in Civ V as well, so it isn’t a step backwards, but it’s certainly an area that many players were hoping to see addressed.

Still, even if the computer players are not any smarter, Civ VI provides much more information about why they are behaving the ways they do. Every civ has a fixed, historical agenda that dictates how they play, such as Trajan wanting an expansive empire and not respecting players without much land. They also have a second, randomized agenda, which you can learn over time with greater diplomatic access. Our favorite that we’ve seen was Victoria as a “Darwinist,” which meant she believed in global progress through constant struggle. Talking to leaders, you are provided with an itemized breakdown of what is currently influencing their opinion of you, shaped by these agendas.

While the AI players may not be noticeably smarter, their behavior and intentions are easier to understand.

Bells and whistles

Although the game lacks any pre-made, single-player scenarios at launch, it makes up for this with the addition of new multiplayer scenarios, designed to be playable in a single sitting. In addition to the standard suite of internet, local network, and hotseat games of any configuration, there are three special scenarios limited to 50 turns: an Ancient Era race for culture, exploration, wonders, and pillaging (with points awarded to having the most of each category), a Medieval/Renaissance religion competition, and an Atomic Era game of Cold War nuclear chicken (if nukes are launched, you want to have fired the most; if none are launched you want to have the most tanks; anyone who controls three city-states immediately wins).

Sean Bean’s warm, Yorkshire brogue reading all of the tech quotes is a welcome companion throughout your journey.

Similarly with XCOM 2 earlier this year, Firaxis wants to make sure that Civ VI is the most modder-friendly entry in the franchise. If this bears out once the developer SDK and map editor have been released, all of the additions to this version (such as districts, policies, and the swappable leaders with unique abilities separate from those of their civilization) will serve as excellent hooks for the community to add new content. Mods will also finally be available in multiplayer as well, so look forward to conquering Westeros in the inevitable Game of Thrones scenario with your friends.

It also bears mentioning that the presentation is fantastic. The visuals are bright and appealing, the character models are all charmingly stylized and full of personality, and Sean Bean’s warm, Yorkshire brogue reading all of the tech quotes is a welcome companion throughout your journey. Subtle touches like the music reflecting both your culture and those that you have encountered, with arrangements that become more modern as the game goes on, take an excellent core game and give it that additional polish to really make it special.

Our Take

Civilization VI is a triumph of design and gameplay. It takes the best of what worked in its predecessors and making smart additions that seamlessly interlock with and enhance all areas of the game. Civilization V is still one of the best strategy games of all time, but we have trouble imagining going back at this point. At launch, VI is already an addicting delight to play, but it is most exciting as a platform. The team condensed everything from V down into an excellent refresh of the core game, leaving exciting possibilities for wholly new and exciting ways to play through mods and official expansions to tempt us from the horizon. It’s a journey we’re eager to take.

Is there a better alternative?

The complete Civilization V can be purchased for a fraction of the cost of VI, and comes with relative mountains of content. Many fans still hold IV as the series’ peak. We think VI is qualitatively better, but those are great alternatives.

How long will it last?

The previous few series entries were actively developed for about five years following their initial releases. Given that post-launch content ecosystems are more important than ever for gaming, we expect this to continue evolving for years. It stands to be seen how generously the new content will be priced.

Should I buy it?

Yes. If you’re a series newcomer mostly concerned with value, Civilization V is an amazing and generous game that will entertain you for thousands of hours. If you’re a veteran looking to fall in love again, or a newcomer interested in being involved with the new game’s evolution, then we absolutely recommend you get in on the ground floor with Civilization VI. We love this game.

Editors' Recommendations

Will Fulton
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Will Fulton is a New York-based writer and theater-maker. In 2011 he co-founded mythic theater company AntiMatter Collective…
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