Civilization VI hands-on preview

Play the map, not the math.

You can describe the focus of the great strategy games in a sentence. Crusader Kings 2 is “courtly politics in the rise of the nation-state.” XCOM is “tough tactics with a satisfactory strategic layer.” Earlier this year, I would have described Civilization as “uncovering and mastering a map through human history.” Then Civilization VI was announced, and I realized how much more Firaxis could commit to that idea.

I got to play a few hours of the newest Civilization at 2K’s offices, which was about 100 turns of a game and into the medieval era. What I found as I played was that the shifts in the series--some major, some minor--almost all tended to have roughly the same effect on me as a player: I was playing the map, not the math. And that’s what I want out of a Civilization.

The biggest change in focusing on the map is the district system, where you take a tile next to a city and commit it to a type of production, like an encampment for the military, an entertainment district for culture, or a harbor for a coastal city. I’d been under the impression that you could stack a bunch of these districts in one area, but that’s not the case. Instead, you get one per city, and each of them has bonuses, like a religious area producing more faith if it’s near mountains. New buildings of that type are then built in the district--you can’t build a theater without an entertainment district, for example, although you can build general buildings like granaries and water mills.

The net effect of this is that each city turns into a little puzzle, figuring out what type of production goes best where. I only barely figured out what was happening by the time my time was up, but it was scratching the strategy/puzzle game itch I get of being happy to put the right things in the right places. I didn’t have a major invasion, but adding on-map tactics to district and city defense certainly seems promising.

But that’s at the literal level--yes, I paid attention to the map because the map got slightly more important. It’s the conceptual changes to the core Civilization experience that ended up refocusing me. Chief among them: the division of the traditional tech tree into two different paths: research points generating technology, and culture points generating societal advances. So, for example, military units like archers and spearmen are in the traditional tech tree, but on the society tree, you’ll learn new government types.

The government types are, at a glance, significantly more dynamic and interesting than I’ve seen in, well, any Civilization. There are two layers to it: an overall government, like Oligarchy or Merchant Republic, and a few traits that that government has in that moment. The traits are organized into four categories, and the number of cards you can have in each category is determined by your government type. So, for example, Autocracy is the ancient government type that allows more military, with two slots for cards that, for example, make your units stronger against barbarians, or cost less upkeep. Every time you research a new societal tech, you can change all your cards. So, for example, knowing that you’re about to get Iron Working on the other tech tree, you can sort in a card that makes worker units cheaper to produce in order to get those mines up and running.

There are other gameplay advantages to the division. An empire can now be technologically superior and culturally inferior, or vice versa. I didn’t see this have major effects in my game, but in my interview with a designer, he described how a civ with gunpowder in previous games would have a huge advantage, but here, they might run into an enemy that can combine units into larger armies--so merged pikemen could beat individual musketman units.

Civilization has long had a problem with seeming like a straightforward race to the end--once you get behind on tech, it can seem impossible to come back. But this tech division makes it seem possible to play, have fun, and succeed without getting hung up on one measure of success.

The other major new part of the game adding to that feeling: the mini-quest system. For new advances, along either the social or technological path, you can cut research time in half if you accomplish a goal. For Sailing technology, having a city on the coast gets that bonus. These scale up in complexity as you get further into the game--killing multiple units with a spearman, for example, may take some doing, while building three different districts in the same city before hitting that tech is likely something you’ll have to plan for.

Working on these quests gave me consistent medium-term goals in Civilization VI. My biggest problem with its predecessor, Civ V, was that it pushed you too far down pre-determined victory plans--cultural-based civs would have to be small and pick Tradition, and so on. Having a plan and succeeding in it was cool, but that plan took way too long--in Civ VI, these quests are relevant for a dozen turns or so.

The net effect: I’m not focusing on min-maxing one particular city, or progressing down a build queue. I’m focused directly on the game, and on the map. How can I get this next quest knocked out? How can I make sure I can use this next Great Person? What most impressed me is that the core gameplay of Civilization VI was that all of these concepts looped back into one another, all focused on maintaining my attention.

As exciting as the strategic concepts of Civ VI are, though, one problem threatened to derail the whole game. As I mentioned, I was playing this at 2K’s office, on PCs they provided, which were presumably pretty high-end--and despite that, I was having annoyingly long waits between turns by the end of my session. Now, it’s entirely possible that this is the sort of code that could be optimized for release in a few months, but the series has always had a problem with frustrating waits between turns.

I’ve probably put more time into Civilization than any other game series, but the last installment was the only one I didn’t immediately and consistently love, thanks in large part to a rigid focus on long-term planning above all else. For this reason I didn’t necessarily expect Civilization VI to be impressive--but it consistently answered all of critiques before I even realized I was making them. I can’t wait to play it in-depth--just as long as I don’t have to wait too long between turns.