Sid Meier's Civilization 6 review

Game Info
Platform Win, Mac, Linux
Publisher 2K Games
Developer Firaxis Games
Release Date Oct 21, 2016

Few of the friendships in my life have been as enduring as the one I maintain with Civilization games. It began 20 years ago, with the release of Sid Meier's Civilization 2 and has continued though each and every game since, right up to Civilization 6.

Like all good friends, Civilization is nice to me, it's good fun, and it never really changes.

Each game offers the tantalizing prospect of deciding the fate of nations, cities, armies and individuals. It remakes us into kings.

I sit in my underpants eating Kit-Kats while presiding magisterially over my rolling domains and martial hordes. I may be 20 pounds overweight. I may not be able to pay my bills. But at least I can grind France into oblivion.

Power is comforting, especially when it comes with zero consequences. This is why Civ and I have been inseparable for so long.

Civilization 6 maintains and enhances the series' traditions of making me feel like the boss of everything. I indulge the fantasy that I'm setting long-term ambitions and attaining those ambitions through a thousand decisions. I expand, accrue, dominate. When all's said and done, veni, vidi, vici.

This new game takes the interlocking systems of previous games — most of which have been evolved over many years  — and rejigs them sufficiently to make a decent claim that this is a more advanced proposition than the one that came before, 2010's Civilization 5.

But while Civ 6's engines sing at a slightly different pitch than its predecessor, it's still steaming on an identical course to previous games, untroubled by any apparent desire for deep innovation. At its core, Civ 6 offers much the same experience Civilization games have for a quarter of a century.

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In 1991's original Civilization, Meier's aim was nothing less than to simulate human history through the prism of great civilizations. Many of the depicted civilizations' achievements were rooted in the acquisition of land, usually taken from someone else. Meier focused on colonization and conquest as the game's central activities.

In all Civ games — including Civilization 6 — I am the leader of a weak village, isolated in a bubble of wild nature. I strike out into wildernesses populated only by pesky natives. I prosper through military might, scientific progress and a belief in my own manifest destiny.

I rake over the land, plundering riches through farms, mines and plantations. Ruthlessly, I press on, desperate to grab the best resources and keep them out of the hands of my rivals. I advance until I can advance no farther, until all the land is taken. My rivals are crushed, accommodated or pushed back. Hunter-gatherer barbarians are expunged from their good lands, left to rot on the margins.

civ 6 review screen 3

My nation is gradually transformed into a hyper-modern lattice of cities that generate unspeakable wealth, beautiful buildings, scientific wonders, works of culture and arms. My country is safe from the malice of my enemies and from their alien ideas. I reach for the moon.

This tale of a virgin world conquered for the greater good of me and my kind is a particular view of what makes a civilization. Arguably, it's a uniquely New World view. Few of history's Old World empires grew in this way. The empires of Britain, Arabia, the Vikings, Japan et al. are incomprehensible in these terms.

You could make the case that only the American empire was begat in quite the manner envisioned by Civ. This is a game that celebrates American Western expansion, projecting Plymouth Rock back through time, from 1620 AD to 4000 BC.

A post-Columbian view permeates Meier's Civ games, which are always about the exploitation and conquest of lush meadows, deflowered by my unique imprint, my cultural preferences, my religious beliefs, my swords and cannons.

In Civ, culture and ideas are bolted on as accessories and diversions from aggression. Without arms, there is no Michelangelo, Monet or Munch. It is not possible to win in Civilization 6 without killing people, usually in large numbers.

Right from the start of any game above the easiest levels, Civilization 6's primary concern is military. Playing at the reasonably advanced Emperor level almost always means intense early-game barbarian wars with a likely attack from a powerful neighboring civilization within the first 100 turns. It is very difficult to play this game against AIs as the peace-loving, minding-my-own-business-here type. This speaks not only to Meier's design preferences but also to the lessons of history that he has imbued.

All the civilizations depicted in Civilization 6 expanded through intense military activity at some point in their history, usually accelerated by scientific, tactical and ideological advances. A by-product of military success was cultural expansion, which created legacy artifacts ranging from the Pyramids to Elvis Presley LPs. This is Meier's core takeaway from aligning history with video games. Video games rely on peril in order to capture our attention. The threat of extinction prompts attention and action. The promise of victory encourages aggression, which is measured by a matrix of stats, conspiring to convince me of my worth as a leader.

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Meier's team understands all this, and so demand that I pay attention to exploration, expansion, exploitation and extermination, with experimentation as a bonus that encourages diversity of play through non-military means. But despite Civilization 6's best efforts, there are limits to this diversity.

I'm the sort of player who likes to build small, efficient civilizations that create lots of everything, but not too much of anything. I avoid constantly dealing with the chores of military engagement and mundane small city management. Once I've constructed enough cities to sustain self defense and I've achieved a certain level of military comfort over my neighbors — usually by the mid-game Renaissance period — I like to turn my attention more fully to alternative activities. Civilization 6 works hard to accommodate this focus on non-military activities which, judging from Civ chat rooms and forums, are just as popular as all-out conquest. But all these peaceable victory conditions are underpinned by martial success.

Victory conditions include the religious kind, which means building quasi-military missionary units who go out into the world and spread the word, conquering the hearts and minds of foreign cities, if not their actual territory. This is not unlike a military campaign, with Apostle units throwing bolts of lightning at one another in order to win theological arguments.

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Another victory condition is scientific, in which I plough all my spare resources into research in order to build a technological lead over my rivals, so that I can eventually launch an advanced space program. Strategically, this always requires military survival, secure borders and a good number of advanced cities. None of these things are achieved without significant attention to military matters. The same can be said for cultural victory. Civilization 6 layers in complex, non-military routes to victory by expanding entertaining systems like Great People, Wonders, Religion and culture. But it is still a game that's all about building military units and deploying them correctly.

Even so, great efforts have been made to elevate the individual elements of this complicated simulation. Everything works better and is more transparent, from city state management to diplomacy, from the tech tree to workers.

The biggest change from previous games is the transformation of city hexes into potential zones for city buildings, which provide huge boosts to fiscal income, research, military efficiency and more. Where barracks, markets, universities and temples were once all plopped into the city itself, now I must place them in specially constructed zones, on geographical hexes outside the city. This demands a more thoughtful approach to city development. Districts offer bonuses based on geography. A university next to a rain forest will generate more science, for example.

The number of districts a city can host is limited by its size. This mitigates a significant problem in previous games, in which players tended to always build their cities up according to the same pattern. With some cities unable to host, say, a military district and a commercial district, I have to make a choice. That choice will depend on my long-term strategic goals which are dictated by wider geo-political realities, like the kind of landscape where I've settled.

It's a clever solution to a problem that Firaxis encountered when analyzing the data of Civilization 5 players, who rarely strayed from their preferred path. I found Civ 6 to be a refreshing update, one that rivals the last game's seismic shift to one-unit-per-hex military update. This too has been tweaked, with some military units able to unite with others on a single hex. Powerful multi-unit armies have a big effect on late-game strategies, when giant civilizations use muscle to grind down rivals.

civ 6 review screen 1

My favorite change is the elimination of the happy meter. This previous mechanism suppressed rapid population growth, forcing the player to build entertainment-based buildings or to secure luxury goods in order to maintain a happy populace, willing to produce goods. The desire to avoid production-limiting unhappy citizens often forced me into a zero sum game of luxury acquisition, generating needless and annoying conflict situations.

Happiness is now measured on an individual city level. If I fail to build the right buildings or secure the right goods, my city loses its power. But my entire civilization is no longer distracted by the need to secure wine, to build theaters or to make unequal trade deals with AI leaders.

This brings us to the matter of enemy AIs, the bugbear of all Civ players. The good news is that they have been improved over the previous game.

The bad news is that they are still barking mad.

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Firaxis has opened up the enemy information screens, so I can see precisely what they want and what they don't want. My Chinese neighbor likes it when I allow him to build all the nice wonders. My Viking friend is all chummy as long as I maintain a strong navy, which he admires. Unfortunately, I may not wish to build a strong navy, for the very good reason that I live on a large continent. Likewise, it is smart for me to build the odd wonder, when I have the opportunity. And so, I fall out of favor with these somewhat stringent adversaries, for no good reason other than that I exist.

This has always been the case with Civ's AI's. Now I am more aware of why they are declaring war on me, or generally behaving like spoiled children.

In Firaxis' defense, the real great leaders of civilizations past were not exactly known for faultless reasoning or a liberal toleration of foreigners. The game's frustrating inability to nail what we expect to see in human behavior kinda nails what we abhor in history's conquerors. Still, these simulated humans have a tendency to contradict themselves — build ships but don't use them too much, says the Viking - and to repeat themselves.

Those leaders have been rendered in a new art style along with Civilization 6’s landscape. It has a cartoonish aura that recalls Civilization Revolutions, the series' console and mobile version. It works well with the wittily drawn individuals. Catherine de Medici of France may be my favorite. She scorns beautifully. But I think the lack of reality in the maps and units is a step backward. This game is supposed to simulate the world of real things. I don't often say this about video games, but it ought to take itself more seriously.

Wrap Up:

Civ 6 is smarter and more varied, but doesn't show much progress

Civilization 6 is an advance on the previous game, offering more variety, smarter use of assets and a wider palette of potential activities. It remains the best of its kind, always demanding my attention, forever creating new narratives out of stats and maps. But it fails to move the concept of a history simulation beyond the ambitions set 25 years ago. We've reached the point where Civ games are as much a simulation of themselves, as they are of the march of human progress.

Sid Meier's Civilization 6 was reviewed using a steam key provided by 2K. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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