How Government works in Civilization VI
One of the other big changes in Civilization VI is effectively splitting the tech tree in two. The new civics tree works exactly like the tech tree, but advancing through it requires culture instead of science. Along with the new civics tree, the new policy card system replaces the policy trees that Civilization V had. And it’s probably one of the most subtly far-reaching changes in VI, which adds an entire new layer to the game’s strategy.
Governments are now flexible
In Civilization V, you would pick social policies based on long-term advantage; once you chose one, you were stuck with it, and you were always giving up some of the finite culture you had access to throughout the game to pick it. Even the policies that were seemingly short-term (such as the Liberty tree) were only worthwhile because their early-game effect would snowball throughout the game.
Civilization VI upends that dynamic. Your government now gives you a certain number of policy slots that you can fill with policy cards, which are unlocked by researching civics. And the key thing is: You can swap out policy cards for new ones every time you research a new civic. You can even spend gold to do it on any turn you like.
I think a lot of players haven’t realized yet what this means: You’re supposed to be changing those out all the time. The horizon of when your policy slot choices have to matter is very short; basically until you finish researching your next civic, so about five to fifteen turns on standard speed. There’s a subtler flipside to this: If you’re not timing what you’re doing in other aspects of the game with your policy slots, you’re wasting resources.
This is mostly visible with the various policies that enhance production. Consider the line of policies that speeds up land unit production (Agoge, Feudal Contract, Grande Armèe, and MIlitary First). Those are not minor bonuses! They increase production by a whopping 50%. The game is effectively balanced around those abilities, which means that if you’re producing units when you don’t have them slotted, you’re throwing away production. And worse, you’re falling behind on army size.
It’s clear to me that properly timing policy cards is a core component of strategy in VI. Every time you research a new civic, you should be looking at your policies and asking yourself: What am I going to need for the next few turns? Do you need to be building units? Are you building settlers or workers? Are you working towards a wonder? The production policies are by far the most fluid ones; they’re essential when you’re using them, but they do nothing at all otherwise.
This also goes for policies that give you combat bonuses, like Wars of Religion and Sack. If you’re not fighting, you’re wasting the slot. Note that there are no policies to help with building districts (other than encampments) and buildings (other than walls and wonders). This looks to me like a very deliberate piece of design; it means that there’s always something you can be building efficiently in most cities, regardless of what you have slotted. The implication is that you should default to building and expanding districts, and holding off on units and wonders until you have the appropriate policy slotted.
When choosing what to slot, production policies should take priority; they just have such a huge impact, provided you’re actually using them. After that come the various policies that improve district yields and trade route yields, either based on adjacency bonuses or buildings; which ones you use will depend on what you’re focusing on and the shape of your empire. Housing and amenity related policies are fairly weak unless you have the economic slots to spare and you’re planning on keeping them on for a long time; extra housing does nothing for you if your city doesn’t have time to grow an extra citizen. Great Person policies are last - they’re great to have, but because of their slow cumulative effect, they’re easy to temporarily drop in favor of something more urgently needed.
A quick note about the wonders that add policy slots (Alhambra, Potala Palace, Big Ben, and Forbidden City): Those are possibly the strongest wonders in the game. A policy slot is already comparable in effect to a Wonder, so in effect those are Wonders with variable effects you can change out throughout the game, so if you’re going for a wonder-based strategy or just have room to build a wonder, those are definitely worth going after.
Balancing the Tech Tree
A key thing about the unit production civics is that they are bound to their era. Agoge only helps with ancient and classical units, so the instant you research musketmen, it stops working for the warrior line. This means that the traditional way of playing for conquest, neglecting culture and focusing on science and production to have the biggest and most advanced army (a huge army, just tremendous, the best army) doesn’t actually work any more. If your science gets too far ahead of your civics, you will suffer from not being able to make units efficiently. Because civics become unavailable when they are obsoleted by later-game versions of the same civic, the converse is also true: if you have Feudal Contract but no Medieval units to go with it, you also can’t make units efficiently. When choosing what to research next in either tree, be careful of what you’re obsoleting!
This is also true of the wonder race; the wonder production civics, while not as absurdly impactful as the unit ones, will still shave several turns off the production time for wonders and thus greatly improve your chances of actually finishing the wonder. You definitely want them, even if you’re going for the wonders that are unlocked by science.
As a rule, balancing culture and science is the default strategy, rather than going really lopsided one way or another. But if you’re not perfectly balancing them, culture is more generally important, especially in the midgame when most techs are only unlocking more advanced units. This is true if you’re not focusing on the military, but also even if you are. It’s better to have Caravels with Press Gangs than Ironclads without; nine caravels built with Press Gangs (450 combat power for 1080 production) will beat or at least trade favorably against three Ironclads built for full cost (180 combat power for 1140 production). This rule generally holds throughout the game. Even if you’re going for a science victory, you will need a lot of key civics and can’t afford to totally neglect culture.
The worst form of government, except the one we had last era
Finally, let me close on a rundown of government types and what they’re good for. A note about legacy bonuses: On a typical game, even if you never switch governments until you research a better one, you will usually only get about a third of the legacy bonus for each government. So when evaluating governments, don’t count the legacy bonus in full. But do consider it when thinking of switching governments; they’re there to disincentivize willy-nilly government switching, without a punitive mechanic (in Civilization II, changing governments would cause your empire to grind to a halt for several turns of “anarchy”).
Chiefdom (1 military, 1 economic slots): The starter government, available as soon as the first civic (Code of Laws) is researched. It’s strictly worse than every other government, and the only reason to stick with it for any length of time is that Political Philosophy takes a long time to research.
Classical Republic (2 military, 1 economic, 1 wildcard slots): The early game “pacifist” civ government. In the early game you often really only need one military slot, though, and you can fill that in with your wildcard slot. Getting a second economic slot is also very powerful at this point, but only if you have something good to slot into it; often the upshot is you can keep Caravansaries slotted for extra gold while still having efficient production of builders, settlers, or wonders. If you’re going for a defensive, Great Person-driven strategy (With Kongo or Brazil, maybe), Classical Republic is a great choice, especially if you are teching early into walls to compensate for an underpowered army. If you’re in a tight race towards getting a Great Prophet before the door shuts on that, it can also provide a small boost there.
Oligarchy (1 military, 1 economic, 1 diplomatic, 1 wildcard slots): Nominally the balanced government in the Classical era, with one of each kind of slot, but it’s secretly a great choice for early game warfare. Getting a flat +4 on all your units is a huge power spike when you’re still running around with warriors and archers. In general, I would default to Oligarchy in most games where I’m not going for Great People or wonders.
Autocracy (2 military, 1 economic, 1 wildcard slots): Theoretically the one for warmongers, given its two military policy slots, but it’s really an odd duck. The inherent bonus is better capital yields and faster wonder production, which makes me think this is really at its best in a wonder-rushing, “tall” strategy for the early game or in a city-state bullying, large-army strategy. I generally think Autocracy’s mix of slots is secretly very strong, particularly if you’re conquering city-states instead of sending envoys early on. Conscription is very comparable to a gold-boosting economic policy like Caravansaries, provided you have a big army, so having more room to keep it on most of the time is good. The big issue for warmongers is that those advantages tend to get swamped by Oligarchy’s inherent combat bonuses, but sometimes you don’t care about stacking that combat bonus on top of your civilization’s inherent bonuses or unique units - getting +4 on top of the Eagle Warrior’s already excellent combat stats doesn’t matter overly much, in which case getting them out faster and cheaper with Agoge and Conscription is great. If I’m planning on fighting another major civ, I would default to Oligarchy most of the time. If I’m taking city-states, especially if I’m playing the Aztecs, Germans, or Scythians who can really use the second slot and have inherent combat bonuses anyway, I’m more interested in Autocracy.
Merchant Republic (1 military, 2 economic, 1 diplomatic, 2 wildcard slots): Probably the best general-purpose government in the Medieval and Renaissance eras. Two extra trade routes is an incredibly versatile and strong bonus, even if those traders will be wasted later on when you switch governments. Contrary to what you might assume, this makes merchant republic one of the premiere governments if you’re looking to expand to settlers in the midgame, perhaps because an early conquest (yours or someone else’s) left the map with some extra unclaimed space. The extra economic slots let you keep Colonization and Serfdom up when you need it, while the extra trade units are very useful in getting cities up quickly and building roads.
Theocracy (2 military, 2 economic, 1 diplomatic, 1 wildcard slots): Extremely powerful for religion-based civs, provided you can generate a lot of faith. Suddenly, you can pump out an army extremely quickly and without really slowing down the growth of your economy. The +5 in theological combat might not seem like much, but remember that theological combat is totally flat, with no terrain or flanking bonuses applying and the same three units throughout the game. So that +5 actually translates into winning every even-footed theological battle unless you’re outnumbered, which you shouldn’t be because you’re going for a Theocracy strategy! When going for a religious victory, Theocracy is a must-have, especially for Spain which can compensate for spending faith on combat units by making conquistadors that somewhat fulfill the role of a missionary.
Monarchy (3 military, 1 economic, 1 diplomatic, 1 wildcard slots): Monarchy is available somewhat sooner than the other two, and the Divine Right civic that unlocks it is an important one, so you will find yourself using it even though it’s relatively underwhelming. The bonus housing from medieval walls is a fairly useless bonus; you’re unlikely to stick with monarchy long enough to build medieval walls while you’re still using it, and building up walls in your core cities, away from your borders, is ultimately pretty wasteful. And those are of course the cities that most need the housing! Keep an eye out for Valetta, though - their unique suzerain bonus is that they let you buy encampment and city center buildings with faith, including walls; so if you have them, you can actually make use of Monarchy’s inherent bonus.
Communism (3 military, 3 economic, 1 diplomatic, 1 wildcard slots): This is another odd one - with its hefty production bonuses and defensive combat advantages, it seems like it would be at its best if you’re going for a science victory while trying to fight a defensive war, which is pretty on-theme. Perhaps the best reason to take communism is really its good mix of slots and the fact that, of the three late game governments, it has the best associated civic. Class Struggle is both easy to boost (you’re likely to build three factories in a lot of games) and gives access to two great policy cards, Collectivization and Five-Year Plan.
Democracy (1 military, 3 economic, 2 diplomatic, 2 wildcard slots): Democracy is skewed heavily towards the Great Person game and generating gold. It’s thus is a great choice for Brazil and cultural victory in general. In the late game, though, you’re likely to have a lot of the types of districts that you care about, which blunts the effect of great person policies, even though you’re unlocking the double-strength ones like Nobel Prize and Symphonies. And buying out great people with gold is actually fairly rare. Democracy also suffers from being hard to research; the associated civic, Suffrage, has a hard-to-get inspiration, and while it unlocks good policies, those policies are generally more replaceable than the ones unlocked by either Class Struggle or Totalitarianism.
Fascism (4 military, 1 economic, 1 diplomatic, 2 wildcard slots): The ultimate warmonger government. In fact it’s perhaps too ultimate; four military policy slots seems like overkill. But like Communism, fascism is easy to tech boost if you’re going for that strategy, and the Totalitarianism civic provides some of the strongest policies in the game - particularly Lightning Warfare, which really enables late-game tank wars and lets Scythia make helicopters four times as fast as a generic civ without that policy slotted. But having only one economy slot that late into the game will grind most other aspects of your empire to a halt, especially if you can’t yet use that slot for one of very best policy cards, like Ecommerce.