Our conversation with Civilization VI's senior gameplay designer - Part 2

Anton Strenger on military gameplay, diplomacy, and more.

Part two of our interview with Anton Strenger, Senior Gameplay Designer at Firaxis. Check out part one here. You can also find our hands-on preview of Civilization VI here.

ROWAN KAISER: I didn't get to go into military stuff much at all. I fought some barbarians and that's about it. Was there anything you were hoping that we might see here today?

ANTON STRENGER: A couple things. One, it's not as much of a factor until the later game, but there are ways to combine units together in interesting ways. One of them is just a convenience thing, but it's a really great addition compared to Civilization V, so you have the military unit and a civilian unit, like a settler, you can link them in a formation together and they will move together. So you don't have to coordinate, like, "oh you need to move, and you need to be moving on the same tiles" so that kind of like a nice quality-of-life thing.

Another thing which you maybe did see in the early game is there are support units, and there are more and more support units the later in the game you get. The support units can stack along with military units, and they have special functions. So you have like the battering ram, the siege tower. Later on you'll have like a medic unit, and some other interesting support units, which will allow you to have a lot of different functions for your army as you move on the battlefield.

So the siege tower and the battering ram, for example, they both make city sieges easier in different ways. So the battering ram, you can attack walls very effectively with all your units that are near the battering ram. Or with the siege tower, you basically bypass the walls entirely. So you skip past that first health bar and damage the city directly.

The other thing is, later in the game, you can actually combine units of the same type together. So if you have two infantry units, you can combine them into an infantry corps. And it's gonna be stronger than a regular infantry unit. It's gonna be much more expensive but if you only have one spot on a battlefield that needs to be strong, it's a really great way to power that up. Later on still, you can combine three together to form an army, so you can have an infantry army that's even stronger.

Another really interesting part of the military game, which is true throughout the game, is that because of the unstacking of the cities it makes offense and defense of cities interesting. So if I'm attacking one of your cities, and your city has a campus, and a holy site, I get to decide, "well, I could go for your city center, and just capture it outright." If I only have a small force, though, or if I really want to make you take the maximum damage, I can actually go to the campus and pillage the campus. I can go to the holy site and pillage the holy site. And I get rewards for doing that. Even if I can't take the city center, and I don't get to get ownership of that, I still get to have this raiding party, get some advantages out of it, and leave. And you have to spend time repairing those in your production queue before you get those back online.

RK: The splitting of of the civic tech and the research tech, that was the first I've heard of that, I didn't know if you'd announced that before?

AS: We've talked about it, I don't know how much in-depth we've gone into it. That's why we have [emphasized] it this time, yeah there's the active research and it's true for both the civic and the technology. Civilization is a game that caters to all sorts of different play-styles. There are people that play militarily, there are people that like going science, there are people that like playing peaceful culture games. We always strive to make each of those really viable and fun in their own way, and to support all permutations and combinations thereof.

So, giving the cultural game a little bit more importance than it had in Civilizations past, I think, was very important to us. And we had this new government system that was very interesting and fun, and we wanted a way to progress that throughout the ages to unlock new governments, to unlock more powerful policies. We had many iterations earlier on that worked differently, but we eventually decided "why not just give a whole tree that goes through the eras?" that has these nice historical flavor beats, has the classical, the renaissance, the industrial, and sort of goes side-by-side the technology tree, but is also independent of it.

So one of the interesting things in VI is you can have a player that's really advanced technologically but backwards culturally, and that has certain implications. Like the combining of units that I was talking about just a few minutes ago, that's something that unlocks from the cultural tree. A lot of the unique units also unlock on the cultural tree.

So if you're pushing technology, yeah, you'll have your musketmen before everybody else, but you'll be disadvantaged pretty significantly in other ways. You'll be behind in your governments, you won't be earning as many envoys for city-states, you won't be able to combine your units as early as you would otherwise, and your policies aren't gonna be as powerful. So, yes, a pretty big departure from Civilization in the past.

RK: Between that and the boost system it complicates the sort of "Whig History" that Civilization's engaged in, the idea of consistent progress along the same lines happening. The variables changed, maybe you researched one thing before the other thing, but it kinda makes the story of history that it's trying to tell seem a little more complicated.

AS: Yeah, I think it ends up being a little bit looser, which we think is really interesting.

RK: I think that's something the game has always struggled, I don't know if struggled is the right word, but it's always emphasized in a way that didn't necessarily have to be emphasized.

AS: Certainly. There's always a really interesting straddling of the line, I think with the whole franchise, between historically accurate and true to history but also allowing for wacky alternate history. And, you know, we're not all one or the other. We kinda take elements of both. Like we have these historical leaders that are alive for thousands of years, and they have these baked-in qualities that were true for them historically. But they're also placed in situations and progressing in ways that are totally ahistorical. It's this sort of interesting mash-up of true-to-history, hitting the beats in a certain order, and these kind of crazy permutations and wild things that are ahistorical.

RK: Another thing that I noticed, especially with the government stuff, is that it seemed to be something that was super potentially moddable or patchable or whatever. Something you could have really interesting tiny changes that might have huge effects later on, as opposed to Civilization V being fairly set in stone unless you wanted to really change something. But just adding another card to that deck when you get a tech, that could make the early game way different. [note: every new civics tech you get allows you change a set of policy cards attached to your government, for example, more money from trade routes, or cheaper costs for builders.]

AS: Something that we're not doing, but people have thought was really interesting, and so we've reacted like "oh, that kind of is a neat idea," people have thought well, what if different leaders or different civilizations had unique cards that were just for them. That's not something that we've done, but it's something that a lot of the fans and people we've talked to have come up with independently. And we would love to see a mod that does that, and I think our modding system is going to be flexible enough to allow that really easily.

I think the government system, stuff as simple-seeming as having one more slot of this type versus that type really goes a long way to differentiate your government choice.

RK: And it creates an interesting choice every few turns beyond simple "which civic am I going to next." Like okay, I gotta build some builders, let's throw that card in there.

AS: For me, when I'm playing, it's a nice way to sort of pause and re-evaluate my strategy. Think "okay, you know, this was what I was doing before, is this still my goal right now?" Am I getting ready to shift to a war footing to go to war with this person, if so, I should probably swap out these policies now so I can be ready to do that.

So it's kind of like a way to take a pause and zoom out and look at the longer arc of the game, and look what you're going for.

RK: It seems like there's a lot of refocusing ideas that make you mindful of what's happening instead of playing on autopilot.

AS: Yeah, that's kind of a continuing theme, I would say. Having you pause and question a lot of things that in previous Civilization games where sometimes figuratively or literally on autopilot.

RK: You mentioned modding. How deep are you planning on going with that?

AS: We're not talking about the full details of that yet. But in terms of the implementation and what we're supporting, we're going quite deep. We rewrote what we call the game core, which is the part of the code that is basically responsible for all the game logic. And as part of doing that we built in modding from the ground up in a way that we haven't done before.

We have this very flexible data-driven system that allows us to, like, almost everything in the game from the civilization unique bonuses to the policy cards to the government effects to the Great People to the city-state bonuses, they're all driven by this common system that will eventually be totally exposed to modders. And they can, if there's a city-state that raises this number by this amount for every city, a modder could very easily go in and take that same sort of nugget of an effect and put it on a Wonder that only applies to one city, and change the number and dial it up or down or whatever they want. So it's gonna be very flexible, and I'm excited to see what people come up with.

RK: All right, talk to me about cool diplomacy stuff, I didn't get to fiddle with it too much but it seemed like the interface was pretty well streamlined compared to what I've seen in the past.

AS: Well that's good to hear, we've worked a lot at that. Diplomacy, I'd say there's two really neat things that come to mind. There's the diplomatic visibility system, which is what I was talking about with Catherine de Medici of France [note: there is a gossip system that lets you see events from other capitals. The French start with a boost to this system]. So you get increasing levels of visibility on other players, which gives you a window into their plans. Not just for AI plans but for other human plans as well if you're playing the multiplayer game. So you get to see, like, "oh, so-and-so's building a Wonder, so-and-so's making a settler," kind of get a good grasp on that which is cool.

The other thing is the agendas. Each leader in the game has a historical agenda that's suited to their character from history. That's gonna be the same every time. So every time you run into Pedro the Second in the game, he's playing Brazil, and he's gonna be that Great Person-obsessed personality, where he's gonna dislike people that try to compete with him for what he sees as his own Great People.

That's something that a lot of Civ players like, is to be able to, when they see another leader--and this is another way we kind of straddle history, where it's like historically they were kinda like this; we want them to be different every time as well, and not be super predictable. The way we do that with the agenda system is that they have the historical agenda which is something from history which they will like your or dislike you around a certain axis of the gameplay systems.

But there's also a hidden agenda that they will have and those are randomly assigned for every game. And that's something too that will be pretty moddable, it'll be interesting to see what comes out of that. So as you get more diplomatic visibility, you might see that "oh, in addition to this Great People thing, Pedro also really likes city-states." Like that's what he cares about this game. So if you're competing with him for city-states, he's gonna react really negatively, if you leave his city-states alone he's gonna like you a lot and become friends with you.

So by increasing your visibility of those agendas is gives you an eye into what those AI players, their opinions are fluctuating about. Especially if you're playing as France, you get a lot of information, you can even play the leaders off of each other.