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The road to world domination isn’t so simple in Civilization VI

Screenshot: Civilization VI/2K Games
Screenshot: Civilization VI/2K Games

Since the release of its 1991 original, the appeal of Sid Meier’s Civilization series has rested on the gratifying repetition of a single narrative. After their first forays into the game’s simplistic version of world history conclude in crushing defeat, players become familiar enough with the intricacies to consistently pull off a mostly immutable story of total domination. Their achievements in every field of human endeavor unparalleled, these leaders would, time and again, emerge as world conquerors, outperforming opponents in every quantifiable way—technological advancement, military might, diplomatic coercion. To an experienced player, it becomes a power fantasy peppered with historical fact, but Civilization VI is not quite as obliging. The newest edition blocks off the series’ well-worn roads to success and demands a more focused overall strategy.

World wonders have always been one of the most fascinating aspects of Civilization, and you can sense a wider shift in the series’ mentality by looking at the way this sixth installment alters them. Gone are the days when you could snugly fit Stonehenge next to the Pyramids, then start working on the Hanging Gardens with hardly a worry you’ll be left behind while your opponents focus on churning out granaries and libraries—humbler projects, to be sure, but often more effective in the long run. Wonders are now more difficult to produce and have weaker immediate effects. More importantly, each of these little emblems of megalomania now occupies a single map tile and deprives it of all resources, a bummer in the early game before cities have expanded enough that sacrificing the occasional desert stretch or patch of rainforest won’t be a problem. Wonders can still be game-changers, but you’d better have a plan in mind before committing to one.

Screenshot: Civilization VI/2K Games

Most of the tweaks in Civilization VI reflect the same subtle move away from historical power fantasies and toward deeper strategic play. Nowhere is this more evident than in the new district system. In previous games, constructing any regular building was just a matter of putting in the work, but in what is probably this installment’s single most significant innovation, that is no longer the case. A couple of early-game exceptions aside, buildings can only be produced by cities that include the district they belong to: The commercial hub houses markets and banks, an industrial zone accommodates workshops and factories, and so on. However, since the number of districts available to each city is restricted by its population, producing one isn’t as simple as sacrificing another tile on the map and letting your workforce handle business. It’s a decision that demands long-term planning. Even a sprawling metropolis will rarely be populous enough to support every type of district.

That newfound fixation on extended strategy and specialization manifests in various other changes. There’s an ingenious new government system that allows short-term policy switches for immediate gain but rewards stability with permanent bonuses. The tech tree has been broken into two separate areas of research, scientific and cultural, and builders are now consumable units able to perform a limited number of tasks before perishing. It’s a lengthier endeavor too. Previously, you could hope to start a Civilization campaign on Sunday morning and still make it to work the next day. Now, you should probably take Monday off and hope for a slow Tuesday.

Screenshot: Civilization VI/2K Games

These changes, while undoubtedly elevating the strategy of Civilization VI, come at the cost of the type of power-play that let series veterans steamroll their way to victory at even the highest difficulty settings. Disrupting the familiar—and supremely enjoyable— fantasy of total domination does not necessarily mean the game loses its capacity as a storytelling machine. If half of the new systems on display are meant to charge each decision with the specter of future consequences, foreshadowing the various losses in each incremental gain, the other half is brilliantly engineered to compensate for aborting that master narrative by generating many minor ones, linking together every choice you make into a richer saga.

Civilization VI borrows the best idea from its unjustly snubbed console cousin, Civilization Revolution, and runs wild with it. Revolution rewarded the first nation to discover each technology with a special bonus. As basic as the concept sounds, it transformed the significance of research. Each technological advancement became its own story rather than a tired step in a predictable trajectory. Civilization VI imbues this vital sense of distinctiveness into everything that can accommodate a pinch of individuality. Great people are now differentiated by their unique abilities, not just their occupation: Gustave Eiffel and James Watt may both be Great Engineers, but whereas the former assists you with Wonder production, the latter provides you with an enhanced workshop and factory. World leaders have agendas that are partly laid out for players to peruse and build their diplomacy around, rather than having to make a vaguely informed guess along a simplistic aggressive/pacifist axis.

Screenshot: Civilization VI/2K Games

Firaxis has devised an even more fruitful approach to research with Civilization VI’s Civics and Technology trees. Instead of rewarding rapid advancement, certain in-game actions are now tied to spurts in research. For example, establishing a trade route advances the research of Currency, while meeting three city-states boosts your knowledge of Political Philosophy. These changes introduce enormous new complexity; but not only is it intuitive enough that the basics can be learned in a few of hours, it also makes for a more absorbing minute-to-minute experience by creating ripple effects for actions that would’ve been trivial in older games. You could play the first 200 turns of Civilization V on autopilot. That is no longer the case.

A more leisurely armchair strategist may bemoan the loss of straightforward total domination, and there are definitely areas where the game could use some improvement, especially in terms of its visual presentation. (The parchment-like fog of war is confusing, and the map refuses to zoom out to a comfortable distance). Yet, there is little doubt that Civilization VI comes closer than any of its predecessors to that famous Sid Meier quote, one intended as a definition of games in general but is arguably better understood as a rumination on their ideal form: It is a series of truly interesting decisions.

Sid Meier’s Civilization VI
Developer: Firaxis
Publisher: 2K Games
Platforms: Mac, PC
Reviewed on: PC
Price: $60
Rating: E