The fan-favorite turn-based strategy series returns! Sid Meier's Civilization VI invites players to create an empire that stands to test of time once again. Developer Firaxis Games hopes to continue the franchise legacy of late nights spent mumbling "one more turn" to yourself, as you fend off the predatory action of world leaders like George Washington, Ghandi, and Napoleon.
Every Civilization game redefines the franchise in some way. Civilization IV brought the series into full 3D with the addition of religion. Civilization V upended the game's combat system by preventing units from stacking on the same tile, while also moving to a hex-based grid.
Sitting down with a pre-alpha build of Civilization VI, I had 60 turns to put the new title through its paces. So what's new about this entry in the franchise?
Cities have expanded outward
The opening of my demo was familiar, with my Settler and an escort alone on the map, looking for the best place to found my first city. I place my city near the coast and already Civilization VI is switching things up on me. Instead of locking a city to a single tile, Civ VI is spreading things out a bit.
"The same way that John Schafer in Civilization V decided to get rid of the Stacks of Doom and make one unit per tile, [Ed Beach] wanted to unstack the cities," explained Civilization VI lead producer Dennis Shirk in an interview following my demo. "He wanted to pull everything out into the landscape and make you think more about where you were going, what you were putting down, and the decisions that come along with that."
The city center remains, but any other additions to a city have to be built in tiles adjacent to that center. Adding a new building to a city takes some thought because each building gets bonuses from any nearby tiles. There's also city districts, areas of a city that have a different role or produce a certain resource. Unlike previous Civilizations, you can't have every building in every city.
"There's around 12 districts now," said Shirk. "Each city will have to specialize. You cannot build all of the districts; there's not enough room. You're going to run out of space for farming. You'll run out of space for mining. You have to decide, based on where you put your city, what kind of districts are going to be best for that city."
This means you need to pay attention to the terrain near your city center. This determines the direction your city evolves in. Flat land is good for farming, you need to be near water for a harbor. But there are new concepts as well: if a tile is adjacent to mountains, that tile is great for building a holy site or research campus. Why? Because priests and researchers like going into the high mountains to pray or stargaze. If you're building a lot of Great Wonders, then you probably want your city to focus on culture, which means you want to build a theatre district. In Civilization VI, Firaxis wants players to have specialized cities taking care of different facets of their empire.
"Opening up the map, [lead designer Ed Beach] really wanted that to mean something this time," added Shirk when asked about the new city mechanics. "Before you had some basic requirements when you put a city down, but generally you were just looking at the resources. Now the districts, improvements, and Wonders all have requirements and bonuses, depending on the type of terrain they have around them. If you're a novice player, you can still get by, but then you start to realize what kind of power there is for adjacency. When you multiply that adjacency later in the game depending on what type of policies you apply to your government, that's when the real power comes out."
Bigger cities mean new ways to attack and defend
The more expansive model of city building means players also have to rethink attacking and defending cities. In previous Civilizations, everything was inside your city. Now, enemy players can pillage specific districts to cripple your capabilities. You have to make the decision whether to focus on defending your city center, or your more valuable improvements.
"As the owner of that territory, you have to decide, 'Do I only want to defend my city center? Or do I want to go out and fight to keep them from destroying everything that I've built outside?'" asked Shirk. "That's the key piece. It's a bigger decision. Before, all generation was in the city. The city was the only thing that mattered. Now there's more to it."
City improvements like Walls and buildings like Encampments help with city defense. That means you have to engage in more tactical thinking on offense or defense.
"The encampment can be pretty powerful," said Shirk. "Your city center doesn't get a ranged strike by default like it used to. You have to build walls first. If you build walls, your encampment gets those walls too. Your encampment gets the city strike unlocked when you have walls. Any invading enemy, by nature of the placement, is going to need to kill that encampment first. If you don't, you've got two city strikes that are going to be devastating to units. Additionally, your units are built in the encampment. If you're sieging a city, units are still appearing at your back."
It's not just the cities that have undergone a change in Civilization VI. The basic Worker unit from previous Civilization games has given way for the new Builder unit. This unit still builds improvements, but it has a limited number of "building charges" before it disappears. Each Builder can build 4 improvements before it disappears.
The new Civics Tree gives Culture players new options
Heading over to choose my first Technology to research, I'm greeted by another change: the all-new Civics Tree. Now Technology and Civics are separate trees that players can pursue in tandem. Science fuels the Technology Tree, while Culture goes to the Civics Tree. Veteran Civilization players know the Technology Tree well, with techs like Horseback Riding, Iron Working, and Masonry available during my demo, but on the Civics side, there's options like Political Philosophy and Drama & Poetry.
"This is one of the decisions that I think is going to be cool for builders," explains Shirk when I asked about the new tree. "Before, if you played a builder - low science, high culture - you'd end up being ages behind everybody else in the game. You'd be at a tremendous disadvantage."
"By having a culture-driven path, the Civics tree, you can advance straight down that from age to age, not necessarily by having high science, but high culture," he added. "As a builder, you can still go for sprawl if you want, as long as you keep your cities happy, because we have local happiness now. It's a choice you make. You can have a really elaborate government, with lots of effects via policies. You can also go the military path or the science victory and have a completely different outcome."
Every time you unlock something in the Civics Tree, you gain more policies for your government. Different government types have different numbers of slots in four categories: Military, Economic, Diplomatic, and Wildcard. I chose Chiefdom for my early government, which had a slot each for Military and Economic policies. Policies are like cards with different empire-wide bonuses: increasing your units' attack power against barbarians or decreasing the production cost of a building. You have a number of cards in your policy 'deck' that you can equip in the available government slots. These policies help culture-focused players adapt to situations that would normally have them at a disadvantage.
"We allow you to reslot policies for free every time you complete a Civic," said Shirk. "You can do it anytime you want, it just costs some gold if you're doing it between turns. For a culture player, there's a large amount of Military-specific policies that you can get. If you're a Military-focused player, you might not have as deep a lineup of policies, because you're mainly playing science. As a culture player, you'll have those abilities. You'll be able to produce units 25 percent faster as an example. You can react to stuff pretty quickly. If you're really far behind there may be no hope, but there's a lot of knobs a player can turn to get a lot more defensive ability."
Eureka Moments mean there's bonuses everywhere
One mechanic that kept popping up during my demo was the idea of additive effects. There's Eureka Moments, giving players boosts in learning certain technologies after completing certain achievements. I met American leader Franklin Roosevelt briefly, which gave me a boost to learning Writing. I uncovered a Natural Wonder while wandering around the world with my scout, which gave me a bonus to learning Astrology. Killing 3 Barbarians gave me a boost to learning Bronze Working. Most of these Eureka Moments make sense, but it felt like they were always popping up, at least in this build.
I asked Shirk if Firaxis was worried about the game being too easy with all the additive effects and bonuses players had access to.
"We have a lot of external testers that are already playing the game, especially hardcore fans" he told me. "That's not to say we don't want it to be just as welcoming for someone who wants to come in and try the game for the first time, but we also want it to be extremely challenging. We don't want people to come in on day zero, play Emperor or Deity level, and find they can roll the game. We've been spending a tremendous amount of time on the AI, making sure everything is going to be top notch. There's a lot of knob-turning to do."
Religion is also full of additive bonuses, as Firaxis has largely carried the system forward from Civilization V. In fact, many of the same Pantheon choices in Civilization VI were directly mirrored from their Civilization V counterparts. For Firaxis, part of the reason behind that idea is making sure the team doesn't leave any systems behind.
"For religion - that's from Civilization V - our main goal is we wanted systems like that to come forward because we want fans to have everything they had before," said Shirk. "We didn't want to strip everything down. The way that all these things mesh and play together is what's been the strength of Civilization. The choices the player has in terms of how it all fits together in one big puzzle."
I came away from my time with Civilization VI still craving one more turn. I'll never relent on being unable to stack units, but unstacked cities feels like a solid shift to me. It's a change I'm used to due to my time with Amplitude Studios' Endless Legend, so seeing that come to Civilization is a plus in my book. For a game that's so early, Civilization VI was damn good. Unfortunately, it's going to be a long wait until the game's October 21 release date.