Minuscule incremental changes are the atoms and cells of Civilization games, which are made up of tiny elements, each made one after another.
At each game's dawn, I gaze upon my solitary village, adrift in an ocean of wild tundra and untamed wilderness. By sundown, that same village is a metropolis at the center of a hyper-connected world, the hub from which lesser empires are bullied, coerced and crushed.
This absolute transformation from beginning to end is glacial, impossible to comprehend at any particular moment. It is an evolution. During the game, I've completed thousands of infinitesimally trivial tasks: upgrading, improving, building, allocating, choosing, resting, moving, beginning and completing.
I have taken into my hands an item that is almost nothing and somehow turned it into another item that is just about everything.
All this holds true for each of the Civilization games, from the first back in 1991, to the newest, Sid Meier's Civilization 6, due to be released on Oct. 21. They each follow the same pattern. They tap into my desire to reorder chaos, to render it tamed, as if it were a disastrously unalphabetized record collection.
This point about tiny changes holds true, mostly, for the history of the series, over the past quarter century.
In essence, Civilization 6 is the same game as Civilization. You build cities and from those cities spring units and buildings that coalesce and augment the aggregate into an empire. Core systems at your disposal include military conquest, scientific research and construction. Lesser systems like trade, spycraft and religion bolster your goals, adding layers of improvability, information and convenience.
But there have been times when the game's developers — originally MicroProse and now Firaxis — have taken eye-catching and controversially bold steps to change the way the games are played.
This happened with Civilization 5, which introduced an entirely new way of fighting wars in 2010. For the first time, you were required to use only one military unit on any individual hex of land, rather than "stacking" multiple units together. Battles became more tactical and measured. You could not merely turn up at the enemy's gates with a stack of warriors and expect to win. You had to process.
In many ways, Civilization 6 takes its predecessors and iterates on the systems that have come before. There are changes being made to trade, research, religion and more. Based on the limited amount of information so far released, these changes seem to be incremental.
In Civ 6, it's the city itself that is being altered.
But there is also a big change coming. In previous Civ games, city improvements were mere statistical boosts or manufacturing gateways, rendered prettily with a slightly different artistic representation. You built a wall and your defenses improved and your city, quite clearly, became encircled by a wall. They lived within the city, outside your control.
Civilization 6 is not the same. It demands that you place your city improvements in geographic locations in hexes around the city, which best take advantage of that building's boosts and functions.
This means that your city upgrade path is no longer a rote event. It is a matter of geographic practicality.
In Civ 5, combat changed significantly. But combat is merely a system, albeit an important one. In Civ 6, it's the city itself — the throbbing organ of all Civ games — that is being altered.
Why has Firaxis decided to make this change to how cities are structured, to merge the building elements of the city with its surrounding geography?
"We want players to adapt to the map every time they play the game," says lead designer Ed Beach. "We want people to think on their feet, to respond to being put in different types of terrain, to being put in situations while playing different leaders."
Buildings require some sort of geographic condition in order to exist.
He says that the "number one" problem the team has identified about Civ 5 is that players often settle on certain strategic paths, and they play the same way every time. For example, when I build cities, I'm almost always looking at Monument, Shrine, Granary, Library, Walls, Coliseum. I rarely change this formula, nor others theirs.
This is why Civ 6's cities are different. "It’s as big a change for the economic side of the game as unstacking the armies was with Civ 5," says Beach. "We want to throw different things at the player at different times and make them have to adapt."
A city's surrounding countryside will still be a maximum of 36 hexes, but they will now host buildings and improvements, beyond farms, mines, camps, etc. Beach calls these "districts."
"One district is a military encampment, where your barracks and stables and military academy and those types of buildings go," he says. "You can have a doubly defended city with two ranged strikes if you put up walls around your city and build an encampment. But the rule is, that encampment always has to be on the outskirts of your city. It cannot be next to the city center."
"A lot of other districts get bonuses for being near your city center," he adds. "We have 12 different districts and each of them has rules about how you place buildings, which our user interface helps you through. You’ll learn pretty quickly how all these layout decisions work and what’s going to be an optimal layout for your city."
This brings an element of SimCity planning to Civilization. Now that buildings require some sort of geographic condition in order to exist, each city becomes unique and an individual challenge. This also adds more complexity to combat.
"When you’re approaching an enemy city in a time of war, you can see how the city is specialized," says Beach. "You can decide that maybe you’re not strong enough to take the whole city, but you can go in and pillage a research campus or an industrial zone and knock out science and industry. That might be enough damage to make it worth going in and making that attack."
Although this is a significant change, it has its roots in previous Civ games. In Civ 5, certain structures can only be built in cities near specific geographic phenomena. For example, an observatory can only be built in a city bordering a mountain. Now though, you need to place the observatory on the mountain. Likewise, educational establishments like universities got a boost in Civ 5 for being near jungles and rainforests (lots of specimens to study). Now, those boosts require that the university is build in the jungle hex.
Instead of the boilerplate artistic rendering of previous games, cities will be presented in unique ways, according to the player's positional choices. This is especially true of Wonders, which are also built outside the city. There was always an element of aesthetic joy in building these things, which is now being intensified. But there is also a catch. The Pyramids must be built in the desert. Stonehenge can only be built near stone.
Players will be aided with a color code system, so they can drop pins on certain tiles in order to remind themselves that this might be a great place for a factory, some time in the future.
Although city-planning is probably the single biggest change in Civilization 6, there are others that will likely raise eyebrows among the faithful. One such is a new way to boost and speed-up scientific research which, by the way, also slows down certain research paths in specific situations.
Once again, this is being introduced to discourage players from going into autopilot mode when they make their way through the tech tree.
"The tech tree was a system that we felt was not integrated with what else you were doing in your game," says Beach. "It was off to the side. You’d figure out what you wanted to research, click on that technology, and then you wouldn’t go back there. We also had weird problems that arose. You were perfectly free to research sailing and navigation, even if you hadn’t found the ocean yet.
Your progression through the game is aligned with where you are in the world.
"We came up with a system where we looked at the tech tree, looked at every node there, and said, ‘What would be a great idea for some activity you could undertake with your cities and your units out in the world that would naturally make your people smarter about that area of science?'
"For instance, let’s take the early game technology of masonry, which you use to establish walls and build the pyramids. What would make your people good at building with stone? The first thing they need to do is they have to find stone and establish a quarry. So that’s the quest for masonry: Establish a quarry and get it up and running. Once you’ve done that, we reward with this boost, which is 50 percent of the research cost for masonry.
"This tends to make certain portions of the tech tree open up and become much easier and faster for you to move through. If you’re settling on the coast and building up a little naval fleet, then all the technologies on that side of the tree will get boosted. They’ll only cost half as much as usual. You’ll move through that part of the tree very quickly.
"If you’re in the middle of a continent, on the other hand, and you haven’t even found the sea, but maybe you’re in the hills with lots of mineral resources, that part of the tree might open up very nicely for you. Once again, this is a case of your progression through the game being very much aligned with where you are in the world, what your map is like, and how you play to that map."
Civilization 5's AI enemy leaders can sometimes feel a little arbitrary and confusing, declaring war at the least provocation, or generally being grumpy for no obvious reason. Given that most people, most of the time, are playing single-player campaigns, getting these rival empires to behave like real human players has been a long-standing challenge for Firaxis.
Beach says that the biggest lesson learned from Civ 5 was to make sure the player understands where AI rivals are coming from, at an emotional level, and what is likely to pull their strings. Civ 5's various updates over the years have improved diplomacy by making the AI's motivations less obscure.
"He’s going to be obsessed with building more wonders than anyone else."
"We found that there was a bit of a sameness to leaders as opponents," he says. "They didn’t really act as different personalities in terms of diplomacy. In Civ 6, every single leader in the game has a historical agenda. We look at something they did very well in history and we dial that up in the game world to make them a bit fanatical about it in Civilization 6.
"Take a leader in world history who was renowned for having an empire with famous world wonders. That leader feels like he’s the greatest wonder builder that history has ever seen. He’s going to play Civilization 6 that way.
"He’s going to be obsessed with building more wonders than anyone else in the world. If you back off and don’t try to compete with him that often, he'll be fine. He’ll be your friend and you can establish a peaceful diplomatic relationship with him. But if you decide to compete on the thing he cares deeply about, he’s going to fight you on it."
Random agendas will also be assigned to certain leaders too. "By sprinkling different agendas like this throughout all the leaders, we have a really interesting diplomatic landscape that you have to navigate with the other leaders."
As mentioned before, in Civ 5, military units can generally only inhabit one space. This is only not true when you have land, sea and air units in the same space, or when you have multiple air units.
Now, players can attach very specific land units to one another in order to create symbiotic boosts or to create limited "armies" made up of the same unit. We saw this used in Civilization Revolution — the console version of Civilization — in which it was barely worth fighting until you had created a multiple unit army.
"We had too much congestion on the map."
"When we unstacked the armies in Civ 5, all the tactical nuances of having cavalry and archers and melee units separated on separate tiles created little rock-paper-scissors combinations that were very clear for players to understand," says Beach. "That was a beautiful win.
"The problem was we had too much congestion on the map. All those spread-out units took up too much real estate. We wanted to think about clever ways to combine the units, which didn’t lose that tactical mini-game. We found that there were two or three areas we could combine units together and it didn’t hurt the tactical nature of the game.
"The first was that there were a lot of units that were just additional equipment for your units. It might be a battering ram or a siege tower or an anti-aircraft gun or an anti-tank gun. In Civ 5 those were all special units that took up a whole dedicated tile. In Civ 6, we call them support units. They can stack with other military units without you having to worry about managing them on a tile by themselves.
You can only combine units of the same type.
"The other part was, we found that once you got your production going in the middle to late part of the game, sometimes you could have lots of units of a certain type. We felt like it was a more realistic part of military history at that point in time if you could concentrate your forces better and achieve what we called corps or armies, where you take two or three units and stack them together.
"That unit is going to have a lot more punch, probably have the ability to drive a hole right through the enemy battle line. That’s how that system works. Now, once you link two units into a corps, they’re individual units, but at that point they’ve been upgraded. You want to keep them in that fashion if possible.
"But you always have to combine units of the same type. You have to take two riflemen and put them together into a riflemen corps. Or you have to take three tank units and create a tank army with them."
At this point, Firaxis isn't giving much else away, apart from a few details here and there. Religion, trade and tourism are going to be back in Civilization 6, for example. There are new multiplayer modes including easy ways to play specific competitive and cooperative matches, that last an hour or two.
There is a heavy emphasis on tutorial missions, which will introduce new players to Civilization's complexities, without simplifying a game that is well loved for its multiple systems.No doubt, Civ 6 will be playable at E3, and we'll learn a lot more about the details, as well as finding out just how well these big changes work.
It's worth noting that big changes do not come easily in Civ. Although Civ 5 came out in 2010, it didn't fully find its feet until the Brave New World expansion, which arrived three years later.
"We went into this very ambitiously," says Beach. "We had all the systems working well there in Brave New World, but we decided to take a new look at everything. Everything is tweaked one way or another. Nothing is identical."
Polygon will have more on Civilization 6 in the weeks ahead.