I just spent thousands of years of accumulated faith to claim Edgar Allen Poe, one of the earliest great writers in Civilization VI. He’ll write The Raven and The Tell-Tale Heart, which are considered great works. They add tourism and culture to a civilization. But great works need to be housed in a “slot”. Basically, a civilization has an inventory for these things. Thousands of years ago, I found The Grass Cutting Sword in a remote village. It’s been sitting in my palace ever since, generating tourism and faith. Because of my close relationship with the city-state of Kandy, I was supposed to get free relics for discovering natural wonders. But, alas, without a place to slot them, they were wasted. Yosemite, Mount Kilimanjaro, and the Great Barrier Reef flashed before my scouts’ eyes and no relics were forthcoming.
To increase great works inventory space, a civilization needs museums, temples, and certain Wonders of the World. Lucky for me, I’ve got the Great Library of Rome, which has room for two writings. It’s been empty for thousands of years. It’s been waiting for Edgar Allen Poe. Now he’s here. At last, it gets two books!
After the jump, or does it?
This great works system is an example of everything right and everything wrong in Civilization VI. What a nifty concept, kind of like rock n’ roll as a Wonder of the World, but more specific. Great works tap into the trope of doo-dads of unimaginable power, a favorite fantasy for boys of all ages and sexes. One True Rings, Elfstones of Shannara, Stormbringers, Grass Cutting Swords now on as epic a scale as possible, short of going full blown sci-fi.
And what wonderful flavor. When I found it, I got a fancy picture of of my Grass Cutting Sword. When Poe wrote The Raven, narrator Sean “Ned Stark” Bean reads a bit in his grave Yorkshire drawl. “While I nodded, nearly napping” I love this. I love that these cultural details have found their way into my epic strategy game, with the gameplay heft they deserve. Come to the merchant republic of Rome to see the Grass Cutting Sword in our palace, and to read The Tell-Tale Heart and The Raven in our Great Library! Or, put another way, +6 faith, +8 culture, and +24 tourism!
But a funny thing happened on the way to the Great Library. In Civilization VI, missionaries and apostles run around and spread religion. If you played Civilization V, you know what a mess it is. They’re like lawyers in Call to Power. Remember Call to Power? Of course you don’t. No one does. For good reason. It was an uninspired Civilization clone without much insight into designing a game about thousands of years of human history. Hey, someone said at some point in its development, wouldn’t it be cool if we had lawyers who could walk up to a city and suck out money? For some reason, no one said no. So it got lawyer units who could walk up to a city and suck up money. You moved them around on the map just as you’d move tanks, archers, and knights. That’s how missionaries and apostles work in Civilization VI, where only one can stand on a tile at a time, and they’re mutually exclusive with any of my units.
My army can’t move because they’re besieged by a shambling horde of Buddhist missionaries from Japan. They run around clogging up tiles and whacking religion into cities according to some inscrutable under-the-hood theological algebra in which +200 points of Buddhism fly up out of some city whose name I forget because I didn’t get to name it. Civilization VI doesn’t trust me with one of the little touches that has made Civilizations great since 1991. What kind of Civilization forces me to begin with a city not called Chickville?
So here’s my Edgar Allen Poe unit trying to get out of Rome, where he was born, to reach the Great Library, where he can put The Raven and The Tell-Tale Heart on the shelves. Except there’s a Buddhist missionary from Japan parked on the Great Library. Poe can’t get in. He can’t share The Raven and The Tell-Tale Heart with the rest of the world. He has to wait until the AI for Japan shuffles that Buddhist missionary to another tile without shuffling another Buddhist missionary back onto the tile. Is this working as intended? Is Firaxis making a statement about how religion, formerly the wellspring of the arts, often suppresses the arts in the modern world? In which case, they’re also making the same statement about builders, settlers, and generals, all of whom would similarly stop Poe from publishing his stories.
One-unit-per-tile rule was considered a selling point in Civilization V. Hey, someone said at some point in its development, wouldn’t it be cool if we had fewer units that can’t be stacked and that therefore drape a fussy tactical layer over our grand strategy game? For some reason, no one said no. No one pointed out how much additional work it would take to develop an AI that could actually play that design. No one considered the ridiculous traffic jams and chokepoints and tactical puzzles involving the simple act of getting a swordsman next to the thing it wants to attack. No one realized how baldly it would highlight wretched AI. No one anticipated all the cheese tactics based on clogging up the map and exploiting transparently bad AI. No one appreciated how much it would undermine the design.
One unit per tile continues to be an unmitigated disaster in Civilization VI. Which is particularly galling, since Civilization VI makes significant strides in other parts of the design. You can see here some of the same insight that went into making XCOM and XCOM 2. This doesn’t feel like a game design turned over to an intern at Firaxis. It feels like a game design where sometimes someone said “hey, wouldn’t it be cool if…?” and sometimes someone else said “no”.
For instance, if you liked playing Civilization V as a forgiving city builder (cities builder?) in which you also pointlessly shuffle dudes around a map — which is to say, if you liked playing Civilization V — then you’ll probably be delighted at how much energy Firaxis has put into the cities building. You no longer grow cities by pouring buildings into a bucket and managing a gaggle of workers to terraform hexes. An intricate system brings the map alive in new ways. Never before has a river mattered so much in a Civilization game. Never before has it been such a big deal that these hills are next to this resource, that those grasslands are all adjacent, that this mountain range cradles a hex on three sides. Because all this is new, playing Civilization VI for the first time can be bewildering. What’s the deal with districts? Wait, what happened to my library? I just researched workshops, so why can’t I build one yet? Why can’t I build the Pyramids?
But playing Civilization VI for the second time is a gratifying exercise in reading the language of its maps. It’s the strategy game equivalent of poetry. Geography matters because it is literally the foundation for your civilization. This concept informs nearly every resource, and nearly every resource has been smartly reorganized to adapt to it. Whereas Civilization V imagined a bunch of tech trees with their mouths open like a cacophony of baby birds waiting to be fed, Civilization VI imagines an elegant but complex clockwork economy. Resources like science, culture, great people points, housing, influence, tourism, amenities, and faith drive the economy, and each is distinct for how you earn it, how you spend it, and what you can buy with it. It reworks familiar concepts like happiness, roads, wonders of the world, builders, the tech tree, and growth. It introduces new concepts like districts, fresh water, inspiration, great works, and government as a deck-building card game. The AI, of course, is as helpless with these systems as it is with combat. It’s awfully dismaying to advance to the later ages and see how poorly the other civilizations have handled what Firaxis has created. But if you ignore the inability of the AI to play the game, Civilization VI shines as a cities builder.
Then it whiffs on fundamental systems like espionage, religion, diplomacy, and war. Religion in particular is an obtuse, undocumented, under-the-hood mess. Oh, it’s also one of the main gameplay pillars. Oops. Diplomacy is still a casualty of the bad AI. To Firaxis’ credit, they’ve made diplomacy more transparent. They’ve also borrowed some concepts from Paradox’s games, which are at the leading edge of modeling diplomacy as a gameplay system. This would have been a great idea if Civilization VI’s diplomacy AI wasn’t so sputteringly incoherent. It will declare war on you from across the world, do nothing about it, and then ten turns later sue for peace, complete with monetary reparations. Uh, okay, Spain. Thanks? It will refuse absurdly advantageous deals. It will promise not to do something and then do it. You will promise not to do something and then it will decide you did it. These issues aren’t new. They’re just newly transparent.
And of course warfare, arguably the single most significant pillar of gameplay for how it’s constantly waiting in the wings and the single weakest gameplay mechanic for how the AI is incapable of playing it, can be summed up in four words: one, unit, per, and tile. Can you hear that splorching sound? It’s the suck of the tarry legacy of Civilization V.
Like Civilization V, it’s shy about putting too much information on the screen, but not the least bit shy about excessive graphics clutter. Unlike Civilization V, there’s scads of information available, even if it requires a bit of digging. This game comes tantalizingly close to a very good interface. But then it whiffs when it comes to some of the basics. Why are there two sets of graphics, each with their own readability issues? Here is the screenshot from the top of this review, but in 2D:
Why does neither set of graphics make clear important bits of information? What if I want to find a specific resource? What if I’m looking for, say, iron or oil? Or hunting down those insufferably hard-to-find dig sites? Why can’t I turn off all the unit clutter? Is there no better way to organize the “gossip” (i.e. valuable intel) I’m getting from my diplomatic access? How long was I supposed to play before realizing that clicking on a unit’s name brings up a menu of all my units, an interface convention that exists nowhere else in the game? Why can’t I more easily toggle yield and resource icons? Can I get a district filter? Are these jiggly lines really a helpful way to display a grid?
Why are there so few hotkeys? Why is the city list actually two lists hidden behind a tiny button, both stridently inflexible? These are strange oversights for a game that gives me thorough tooltips, not to mention this lovely column of data:
I’m not convinced the new achievement-oriented gameplay works on any level other than psychological. Who doesn’t like a message popping up that says, “Gratz, you get half off your archery research for scoring a kill with your slinger”? But what does this do to the design? Random missions from city-states are one thing, and they encourage you to do things you might not otherwise do. Vilnius wants me to send them a trade route, which will get me in good enough to unlock their unique ability. I was going to send a more profitable trade route to France, but that Vilnius special ability is too good to pass up. City-states are many things. Random quest vendors is one of them.
But the fixed achievements for each technology carry too much weight. Accomplishing an achievement pays for half of a technology. That’s huge. It forces a weirdly rigid framework into what should be a sandbox. Playing well means using these boosts as a checklist. Anyone who doesn’t navigate the achievements pays double to advance. For instance, if you build three archers, you get machinery tech at half price. Don’t ask why. You just do. Many achievements make sense. An observatory built next to a mountain gives you half off astronomy. Some don’t. Privateers teach you electricity, shooting someone with a musket leads to frigates, and sewers let women vote. Those are all things in Civilization VI. So before you research machinery, you should really build a third archer even if you’re never going to use it. Spending 50 production to get 150 tech is a no-brainer hard-coded into Civilization VI.
There’s a better way to do this sort of thing. Consider one of the additions to diplomacy. Each civilization’s leader has a specific predilection laid bare and consistent from game to game. The Vikings like large navies, the Russians respect science and culture, and the Romans are friendlier to civilizations that sprawl across lots of territory. But they’ve also got a randomly rolled hidden agenda. Gandhi might be devout, cultured, or nuke-happy. It’s up to you to discover this.
So why aren’t the tech boosts similarly randomized and hidden until you accomplish them? The history of science isn’t waiting to discover gunpowder because you haven’t built an armory yet. Yet that discount drives the gameplay. The script tells too much of the story. If Firaxis wants this idea of a eureka moment, as they call it, shouldn’t it be a surprise? You build an armory and — surprise! — gunpowder is half price. In another game, you build an armory and gunpowder is still the same price because the hidden requirement is killing an enemy civilization’s unit, building two universities, researching siege tactics, or being a monarchy. I’m no longer playing a game about timing when I build my armory, plus a hundred other things for the other techs. I’m playing a game with genuinely surprising eurekas.
Okay, it’s not my place to second guess game design. As you know, you go to Civilization with the game you have, not the game you might want or wish to have at a later time. But it is my place to note that when I go to Civilization, I’m looking for more than just a laid back single-player cities builder with the AI frittering idly in the margins. I cut my teeth on Sid Meier’s grand strategy without a brain-dead tactical layer drizzled over the top. I admire a lot of what Firaxis is doing to move on from the mess of Civilization V. They’re headed in the right direction, even if they are dragging a lot of baggage.