Sequels are hard. The Sophomore Curse is one thing, but what about when you’ve been kicking around for 25 years with a half-dozen titles under your belt, like Firaxis’ illustrious Civilization series? Especially for a game like Civilization, that hangs its hat on the strength and efficiency of its systems, you run the risk of either iterating too much and alienating a sizable existing player base, or playing it safe and boring everyone. Threading that needle can be a tricky proposition, but thread it Civilization VI does.
Civilization VI is a game of tiny enormous changes. It’s a study in how to update existing systems without completely overhauling them, and it works as well as could ever be expected. Long-time fans will find plenty to recognize and appreciate, despite some of the surface-level changes. It’s only once you dig into the game’s guts that you see just how different, at its core, Civilization VI is from its predecessors.
Everything about this game is pushing players to be deliberate, to plan ahead, and to strategize. But short of that making the game less accessible to those who have never tried to lead their own digital civilization to cyber glory, it actually creates a beautiful transparency. When Civilization VI is at its finest, it’s like a grandfather clock clicking and whirring rhythmically as all its gears and dials click into place.
The basic premise is the same: Choose a nation and a ruler, then build cities and tiny little pixelated farms and mines, cultivate a military, and basically turn as much of the map to your color as you can. But the changes, while subtle, are also incredibly influential in how that familiar loop plays out. There’s the obvious stuff, of course — workers are now “builders,” units that have a set number of “charges” they can use to build improvements before they must be retrained. Cities can now build “districts,” which are special areas that confer bonuses and can be improved in their own right (for example, the Encampment district can be bolstered with a Barracks or a Stable, making infantry and cavalry, respectively, more powerful). Wonders now require their own tile, discouraging indiscriminate building (sorry, Egypt players).
The sum of all of these small but major changes is that Civilization VI is a very different familiar game. In a community that has had 25 years to dissect, experiment, theory craft, and cultivate “optimum build orders,” doing the game design equivalent of moving everything just 2 inches to the left can have profound implications on what used to be held as dogma. Even veteran players have to rethink tried and true strategies.
The biggest impact I noticed was that I felt like I was playing a strategy game instead of a Civilization game. Changes to units and tech trees were just disruptive enough to force me to relearn the “language of Civilization.” It was a bold move on Firaxis’ part, and a brilliant one.
It’s also interesting to see what changes didn’t make the cut. Last year’s Civilization: Beyond Earth was a departure in more than just theme and setting: some of the mechanical changes the game and its expansion introduced were positively un-Civlike. Whether Firaxis viewed the game’s forays into new mechanics as a failed experiment, or simply wanted to keep the “core Civilization experience” as pure and true to form as possible is unclear, but what is clear is that Civilization VI definitely hearkens back to its closer relative from 2010, Civilization V.
Perhaps the greatest triumph of this new game is that it encourages players to have a goal in mind as early as possible, and to stick to it. Rome, the civilization I took the helm of, is built entirely around fast expansion through military and trade: its unique civ bonus grants cities a free trading post and a road to the capital for any new cities that are in range of the capital. This is a perfect example of a small change in the grand scheme of the game that can have a huge impact on how you approach it.
For a game as dense as Civilization – a game so complex it has its own in-game encyclopedia – these minor tweaks to balance and civ focuses accomplish something remarkable. They effectively stand in as a tutorial, teaching players both new to the game and new to the series what they should be focusing on and how to think about playing. The game won’t outright tell you to build a road or to continue to build up your infantry, but if you’re playing a civilization that receives passive bonuses to all of these things, it will certainly steer you down certain ways of thinking. In this way, Civilization VI is paradoxical: it manages somehow to be both very user-friendly while also offering the meticulous degree of hair-pulling depth only Civilization fans can really appreciate.
Also impressive is how these changes, tiny-huge as they may be, manage to be influential and impactful on how one plays without feeling unfair. None of the bonuses or unique units of the 18 factions currently available feel like a nuclear bomb stashed away waiting to be released on unsuspecting opponents. Rather, the balance and mechanical design focus more on encouraging wildly different but equally viable strategies. As Rome, I was prepared to steamroll the entire continent with my Legions, but stalled early on because I had been diplomatically outmaneuvered by my closest neighbors. These subtle systems of checks and balances are the mark of a studio that has been refining its craft for a quarter of a century.
Of course, systems-heavy games are often prone to tweaking, rebalancing, adjusting, and other changes later on in their life. With Civilization VI just a week old, it’s impossible to see how long-lasting these changes are going to be, and where the game will end up one, two, or even five years and a handful of expansions and patches down the road. But for now, it’s safe to say that Civilization VI represents a golden age for the series.