After 35 hours of play, I'm finally getting a handle on Civilization 6

In-depth analysis and one-hour gameplay video

Over the last couple of weeks, I've played around 35 hours of a preview build of Civilization 6, that offers up all of the game's systems, most of which have been radically updated since 2010's Civilization 5. This article and the embedded hour-long video below represent my analysis of the game, as it approaches launch on Oct. 21.

Twenty years ago, I downloaded a short PC demo for Civilization 2. At the time, I was more interested in action than strategy games. But I was curious to try something new. The notion of a turn-based game in which hardly anything happens from one virtual decade to another, took a while to embed.

Once I figured out what was going on, I understood the appeal of controlling a nation and its destiny. I went out and bought Sid Meier's Civilization 2. I played maybe a thousand hours. I've given extensive playtime to every Civ game since. I believe 2010's Civ 5 to be, thus far, the high point of the series.

So I was intrigued to play an almost complete build of Civilization 6. I plan to review the full game at the appropriate time.

Last week, I spent many hours playing Civ 6. It's given me an opportunity to test some of the game's new systems and to get a handle on how far this new game is an improvement on its predecessor. I wanted to focus on those system changes that developer Firaxis and publisher 2K Games have been touting during a carefully orchestrated publicity campaign. You can also hear me talk through some of these points in the video embedded below.

This article is not a review. The build I played offered up full campaigns on continental maps, islands and Pangea, but it had significant restrictions. First, only 10 of the 20 final civilizations were available. This was not a huge deal since individual campaigns generally make a selection of enemies available, either randomly or by player choice. Second, there were a few bugs hanging around, which we can gloss over here. Such things are common in pre-release builds. I'll look out for them in the final review.

Does this game justify leaving behind Civilization 5?

Most significantly, I could only play at the Prince level of difficulty, which is to say, on "normal" challenge. I usually play at a higher level. At Prince, I was able to win every campaign and never felt terribly challenged. But it did give me a chance to mess around with all of the game's complex and interlocking systems and to make some risky moves that I might otherwise have avoided.

I want to add a TL:DR note here. My biggest question when playing Civ 6 is as follows: "Does this game justify leaving behind Civilization 5, or not?" My answer, based on my playtime so far, is "yes." But I want to qualify that affirmation by saying that, despite the many welcome system rejigs outlined in this article, the experience of playing Civilization 6 is not markedly different from playing Civilization 5.

This game offers up a lot of improvements that eliminate annoyances of the previous game, or that add layers of strategic complexity. But it's still, ultimately, the same experience. Anyone hoping for a great leap forward is going to be disappointed.

City Districts and Buildings

One of Civ 6's biggest innovations is the ability to unstack cities. In previous games, buildings and wonders were all built and automatically housed within the city hex itself, with surrounding hexes all set aside for resource gathering or for the odd defensive structures.

Many buildings are still housed inside the city. I don't have to decide where I want to put a water mill or a granary. These live inside the City Center. But a large number of buildings can now only be built inside an appropriate district, which itself must be built and placed on a surrounding hex.

These districts include a military encampment (for barracks, armory etc.), holy site (shrine, temple), commercial district (market, bank), industrial area (workshop, factory), entertainment complex (arena, zoo) theater square for cultural buildings and campus for educational establishments.

Many of Civ 6's systems seem to be deconstructed and spliced versions of what's come before.

Wonders, aqueducts, harbors, aerodromes and neighborhoods also take up their own hexes. Each city becomes a unique proposition, specializing in certain tasks for the benefit of the civilization as a whole, but individually absent those districts that the player eschews.

The first effect of this change is to complicate hex management. Each type of district gains bonuses if built in a certain place (universities are more powerful if build near a rainforest). As a frugal player, I don't want to waste time building a mine on a hex that looks prime for imminent development as an aqueduct. But if the mine is going to be good for a couple of centuries before I decide to trash it in favor of an entertainment complex, then it's worth the expense.

More significantly, cities are restricted in how many districts they can grow at certain stages of development. If I build a military encampment in my capital of Washington and then a campus, I may find myself falling behind on religion. But my city won't let me build another district until I grow my population by, say, two.

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This means I need to build a holy site in another city, perhaps New York, restricting that city's ability to generate military or educational bonuses. It also forces caution upon my plans to churn out settlers from Washington, which is best placed to build units quickly. Building a settler costs one population point, slowing my progress towards attaining the next district.

All this deepens city building strategy and overall map management. As the designers at Firaxis told me at a press event earlier this year, it also nudges players away from templated building plans. If you are the sort of person who goes "monument, granary, library, market, barracks (or whatever)" for every new city, this new system is going to force you to change.

Liberated from my own person groove of building formulae, I have to think harder about which districts to focus on and where to place them. I'm still a long way from perfecting this — I miss a lot of placement bonuses because I hate building on top of established improvements — but there's no doubt in my mind that the addition of districts adds strategic complexity and variety to the business of building.

If you are the sort of player who pursues a singular victory plan and always goes for a certain class of building, you can still do this. But, at least for a large chunk of the game, you can't build a barracks in every city as well as a shrine, a market, a happy building and a cultural building. You have to choose, sprinkling your nation with buildings where they are most appropriate and when they are most needed.

There is another effect to all this, which is to increase the amount of money spent on buying hexes. I was relieved to find that money is not as tight in early and mid-game as in Civ 5, and there are usually funds (at least on Prince level) to buy land in a pinch.

Just from an aesthetic point of view, I enjoyed seeing my districts and my wonders on the outskirts of cities, rather than crammed into a single hex. I think the use of districts is going to be a success.


Improvements, Trade and Spies

As in previous games, basic units (previously known as Workers) are needed to raise farms, dig mines and make other terrain improvements. In this game, they are called Builders.

Now, I have a humiliating Civ 5 confession to make here. In my old age, I've gotten into the habit of placing Workers in auto mode, certainly later in games when there's a lot going on and individual hex management is not so important as in the early stages. I know it's not optimal, but I am a lazy man.

In Civ 6, this option isn't even available. Builders are able to make three hex improvements and then they drop down dead (there are a few ways to boost their charges). The good news is that each improvement takes place immediately, with no turn-number cost.

It's imperative to create an intimate relationship between the player, the terrain and the Builder. When I play, I'm always thinking hard about each Builder's task, right through the to the late stages of the game. Now that they are a relatively expensive, individually finite resource, they matter more.

Trade convoys connect cities, bringing useful gold, industry and food boosts. I always build these to the maximum level. They also build roads as they go, so can be used to connect distant cities to the capital or to create efficient transport routes to likely military fronts. Builders no longer build roads. The roads improve over time. This feels organic and pleasing.

Trade routes are best used on short, lucrative runs. My main annoyance is that the route needs to be reset every 20 turns or so. I'd prefer just to leave them be until I feel a need to change things up.

Same things goes for spies which need to be constantly managed, even when you are perfectly happy leaving them doing a certain job for centuries on end.

Unlike in Civ 5, these units aren't just gifted to the player. They need to be built, just like any other unit. They are useful for defending cities and districts. They can also elevate diplomatic relations with other civs. And they can sabotage production as well as steal technologies.

I get the sense that their ability to steal technology isn't as powerful as in Civ 5. They seem to be able to steal research points rather than entire techs, but so far, I've mainly used spies for defensive purposes. Spies might not have quite the same punch as in previous games, but they have a more varied utility.

Technology, Research and Government

Many of Civ 6's systems seem to be deconstructed and spliced versions of what's come before, and this is certainly the case with the tech tree.

Most significantly, the tech tree is now divided in two. You simultaneously research hard technologies (mining, engineering, printing) as well as Civics, which are more like organizational ideas. These include theology, humanism and suffrage.

Technologies tend to lead directly to the definitive benefit of a new kind of building or unit. I research Pottery so I can build a Granary. I research Replaceable Parts so I can build Infantry. It follows that I yield the boosts and benefits of these buildings and units. This is all well understood.

More esoteric notions like "Drama and Poetry" were once just a part of the tech tree, but are now set in Civics. Once researched, these ideas confer multiple benefits including certain buildings and units. But they also unlock invisible benefits like strategic military and resource gathering boosts.

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They also confer Policy Cards which build up a deck of boosts which can then be placed into various configurations of slots, depending on the government you choose. If you decide you want to be a fascist state, you can make use of a lot more military boost cards than society or diplomatic benefits.

This replaces the slog-like cultural tree of Civ 5, which I tended to follow in a standard order. With these cards, I'm constantly making adjustments based on whatever challenge I'm faced with. There are some cards I'm certain I'll never use, while I select others every time I play. In a sense, this is an embedded mini-game, in which canny players will derive much advantage.

As far as governments go, I can't see myself deviating from a path of Chiefdom, Classical Republic, Merchant Republic and finally Democracy. Other players may have different priorities, certainly for military or religious victories.

The tech trees are further complicated by little boosts given to research, even when you are not actually researching a tech. So, when I build a city by the ocean, I immediately gain a boost to my Sailing research. This sort of thing makes me go in new research directions, just to tick off a tech that I might not really need, but which is so close to being done that I might as well finish it off.

I don't play the game with these shortcuts in mind, but I'm looking forward to doing so. This seems to me to be a smart way for advanced players to skip through the research parts of the game, making smart decisions where they can, once again creating intimacy between terrain and strategy. At the very least, they are useful little gifts that pull me away from my Civ 5 rut of play style.

Religion and Belief

This part of the game has been much improved and tightened, although I find there's an element of stalemate about it when up against a powerful religious adversity.

As always, religious buildings create religious currency which can then be converted into religious units, assuming you manage to form a religion in the first place. The units still include missionaries which spread the word to new cities as well as inquisitors which, once researched, will expunge heresy from home cities.

Apostles are new. These are extremely powerful and quite expensive. They can spread the word but, more importantly, they can evangelize new beliefs, allowing me to choose from a variety of civ-wide spiritual boosts. They can also combat other religious units, something that was not available to Prophets in Civ 5.

In one of my games, the Greeks sent a ton of Apostles into my lands to convert my people. I'm the sort of player who likes to have religious conformity, but doesn't bother too much with sending the word into other nations.

I had just enough currency to build my own Apostles and fight off the Greeks, with a bit left over for Inquisitors to clear up the mess.

It was, essentially, a war. I asked Pericles (the Greek leader) to stay away from my people. He lied to me and kept sending more Apostles, which I eventually defeated. I also denounced him. But I felt I could handle his aggression within the confines of religious activity without having to declare a real war on him, which I wanted to avoid.

This made me feel good about the religious aspects of Civ 6. They are still about power and about boosts. But they don't feel so much like a war trap and a chore. That said, the effort it would take to defeat a religiously motivated rival may be beyond all but the most dedicated players.

There's also a lot more variety on offer in terms of religious boosts and the religions themselves. I created my own religion which I called Polygonism. It's a pretty laid back creed. We delight in butterflies and avoid eating cats.

Diplomacy, City States and War

So, on the many occasions when I've written about Civilization games, I've never failed to return to one point. The AI civilization leaders are all crackpots.

They either behave like sugar-crazed children, bouncing around and causing unnecessary mayhem, or they sit in their own sludge, waiting to be defeated and humiliated. In Civ 6, they are still a long way from being perfect.

To be fair to Firaxis, making the leader of a nation behave rationally when faced with multiple possible scenarios is no easy matter. This is not the same as implementing some military tactics matrix.

Diplomacy makes more sense now.

Indeed, such is the convincing humanity of the leaders, as rendered by the game's artists, that it's all too easy to forget that you're dealing with a bunch of code, rather than a real human being. When I first saw this game, I worried that the leaders looked a bit cartoonish and trivial. Having now spent time with them, I appreciate their visual subtleties and humor.

Firaxis may not have succeeded in making the leaders rational in an entirely human sense, but they do follow their own rules which are laid out for anyone to see. The shifting opinions of enemies are all listed out, according to their own particular desires.

As a result, they are somewhat easier to deal with than in Civ 5. I occasionally find myself able to manipulate leaders without worrying that they might turn around and denounce me for no apparent reason. In short, diplomacy makes more sense now. This extends to international trade. While some leaders will occasionally make ludicrously one-sided trade offers, refusing a fair deal, there is usually an opportunity to find someone with whom I can do business.

This is a vast improvement on Civ 5 which often closed down any semblance of sensible foreign trade, preferring to restrict the player's ability to progress.

Happiness and Conclusions

For me, the biggest change in the way I play has come about by the elimination of "happiness" as a civilization-wide concern. Too often, in Civ 5, I found myself scrambling to secure luxury goods or prostrating myself before rivals in order to secure happiness-inducing, but unfair trade deals. Often, I went to war just to get hold of luxury items, which is nonsensical.

Civ 6 still wants you to look after citizens, but only punishes you on a local level if you neglect them. The benefits of luxury goods are felt throughout your land as are entertainment buildings, which can make people happy in cities other than those where they are built. This alleviation of a significantly warping gameplay factor is, in my view, a great positive.

However, I want to hold judgment on the decision to cancel massive happiness penalties in conquered cities. Previously, if you conquered too many cities too quickly, your unhappiness penalty became crippling to civ-wide production.

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Clearly, this was previously implemented as a brake on would-be Napoloeons, sweeping across the land with massive armies. I haven't played enough to judge if the new system pushes the balance too far toward conquest.

I'm the sort of player who likes to build a balanced civ with lots of wonders and hyper-secure borders, only venturing to conquer if absolutely provoked. The business of actual battles seems to have been tweaked only marginally, with extra tactical bonuses for flanking.

More significantly, players can tie certain units together to create powerful corps and armies that, while made up of multiple units, inhabit a single hex. Although I was glad to see the back of unlimited unit stacking from Civ 4 and prior games, I enjoyed this limited ability, as if offers more tactical options in combat.

City States can also be a big help in wartime. Previously, allied City States would declare war against an enemy, but if the city was remote to fighting, they were of little use. Now, you can pay a fee to the city and take control of all its military units for a limited time.

City State military units are often behind the times, but they can flood and confuse an enemy's defences, especially if you're willing to sacrifice them en masse. The City State system, like much else in this game, is more transparent and useful. Instead of having to throw gold at them to curry favour, there is a new currency in the form of envoys, which render benefits almost at an individual level.

So, here I am, more than 3,000 words into my impressions of playing the game. There's much, much more to talk about which I hope to get to in my review, including victory conditions, space race, culture, great people, archaeology, tourism … the list goes on.

I think of myself as a keen Civ 5 player who is ready for a bit of a change, without wanting to see the basic formula upended. So, I'm pleased with Civ 6's attempts to be more transparent and logical, while slightly disappointed that it hasn't gone farther.

This is still primarily a game about conquest — I'm looking forward to seeing how far I can get with just a handful of cities — but it has cleaned up some of the irritations of the previous game.

Once I play a few more campaigns, I expect I'll find a whole new rack of things to complain about. I also need to play the game at a more challenging level to see if it scales up balance-wise. In the meantime, there are many reasons to feel good about Civilization 6. Babykayak