Civilization VI: More Complex Yet Not Better

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Wait, Montezuma, you Aztec son of a bitch. You just attacked me 10 turns ago, I ended up kicking your ass and capturing one of your cities, and now after making peace you get mad at me and call me a warmonger? Civilization has improved in many, many ways, but when I see stuff like that I can’t help but think it is still nothing but a glorified board game.

Who by now is not a veteran Civilization player? Civilization has been around for so long, almost 2 generations now, that it’s unusual to find someone who has never played any installment of it, let alone never heard of it. The series has remained very popular because each new iteration has been following the 33/33/33 axiom of Sid Meier. Civilization VI is no exception, with many new takes on the game to spice things up a little, and surprise the regulars of Civilization V. Cities are not limited anymore to a single hexagon space, but can expand progressively as they grow, in surface, and develop some specialized districts, where special facilities are located. An encampment, for example, is a military district that lives outside of your main city center. This is a cool addition, as it makes sense overall – highly specialized quarters naturally tend to exist in their own microcosm. However, what is kind of strange is that they can be pretty far away from the city itself. It would have made more sense to have the city directly attached to its districts, rather than in any territory around it.

Paris and its districts

Civilization VI brings policies and philosophical advances as a separate Civics tree. Once again, it’s a positive change overall (compared to earlier Civilization titles that mixed the tech tree with the civics tree). The disconnect between political advancements from technological ones is justified: after all, why should they be linked together? (Oh wait, why is there a “Nuclear Program” item in the civics tree… nevermind I guess?) The civics tree’s main purpose as a gameplay element is to provide you with a set of policies that act as bonus cards on different attributes. Based on your type of regime (Meritocracy, Democracy, Fascism, etc…), you can use a certain number of diplomatic cards, military cards, economic cards and so on – changing regimes is not really as much for ideology purposes anymore, it helps you balance your civilization towards a set of policies. And each civic advancement unlocks new building types, as well. Once you unlock a combination of civics milestones, you are able to switch from one regime type to another.

This is Democracy

That part is not very logical though. For example, Democracy is very much an end-game regime that requires huge chunks of the civics tree to be completed, while Ancient Athens was in many ways more of a pure democracy than current democracies pretend to be, yet it’s impossible to make it occur at the timescale proposed by Civilization VI. And let’s not pretend Ancient Greece was just the only one with democratic trends, actually a number of ancient societies also worked like proto-democracies, and the Roman Republic (before the Roman Empire) shared a lot of democratic traits that we have today. So, there’s a lot of uber-simplification going on, as if Democracy was the most advanced system ever that could only exist in the modern era, while it does not match History at all. It kind of defeats the purpose of having a civics tree in the first place.

There’s also a careful omission in civics about all things related to slavery. Apparently, wars, nukes, religious conflicts, fascism and communism is all OK to include, but not slavery. Like, it never happened, right? The very same thing occurred in the game Colonization back in the early 90s (which I am nevertheless a big fan of) as if the colonization of the New World had been possible without such practices. This is unfortunate, because Slavery was pretty much the standard mode of operation for many civilizations up until very, very recent History, and is in no way limited to America. Ancient Greeks had slavery. Egyptians had slavery. Chinese had slavery. It was pretty much universal, and such societies had about no moral issues to justify its existence. Omitting it is not that serious, even if it may have been done out of concern for political correctness.

But I digress. Let’s return to the civics tree. It’s not just about missing policies. Poor choices were also made, such as Capitalism being unlocked by Mass Media, while in practice Capitalism has nothing to do with Mass Media at all – The first stock exchanges started about 3 hundred years ago, and without TV or Radio, or even widespread literacy, such periods could hardly fit with the definition of Mass Media. Another example of curious choices is that Reformed Church enables the Theocracy form of government. Oh OK, so I guess the Holy Roman Empire, Divine Right principles in France and many other parts of the world like Thailand and Japan, do not really matter, since they took place before any Reformed church movement even appeared. Sometimes I wonder what drives such logic in the first place. What were they thinking? There is also a lot of mixed up descriptions in the Civics Tree: Mass Media is pretty clear, but then you get stuff like Ideology which is totally abstract and vague. There’s a very poor level of consistency behind the choice of words and expressions, and while the overarching concept is kind of sound, the execution remains very poor, and repeats, in a way, the errors of the tech tree system.

Since we are talking about trees… the tech tree is… still a mess. Well, you can argue it has never made much sense even in prior iterations, and that the tech tree structure needs to be transparent to the player, to avoid surprises… However, intuitively, it does not make much sense at all. Let me give you an example: I was able to discover around the end-game, Satellite technology, thinking I could then go on to the spaceport construction (a necessary step towards a science victory), until I noticed I forgot to unlock Steel on my way there. Are you kidding me? How stupid is that? Are my satellites supposed to be made of wood pulp, like IKEA furniture, you bunch of idiots?

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Even if you were to ignore the massive, gaping holes in logic, as a whole, the tech tree is way too board-game like. It’s just too deterministic: you already know what to research and how many turns it takes in order to get what you need. It’s not a matter of probabilities (which is what actual research is all about), it’s a matter of turns: as long as you invest x turns into something, and in the proper order defined by the game, you always get it. I think they should ditch this whole concept of tree and instead have things work in a more logical manner:

  • Research is probabilistic. Spending x amounts of resources on y amount of time should not give you certain results, but give you more chance to unlock things.
  • Research/Innovation should heavily depend on one’s environment. Frustration with one’s existence should be a key factor for innovation. Population density is another one, the more people live in the same place, the more specialized people you tend to have. Innovation does not happen in an agrarian society or on islands where people can live fine in shacks eating fruits and fishing.
  • Research is not something you command or order, at least not until you have a very big state with lots of resources. Most of the time, innovation will happen by itself, from private individuals with private funding. Public funding of research is only happening in VERY recent history, it has almost never been a pattern of the modern world.
  • Research occurs in parallel. Even if you were to implement a tech tree, you should be able to research several fields at the same time instead of just one. That kind of model is utterly stupid for modern eras like the 20th century, where inventions have occurred at an exponential rate.

So, civics are a bittersweet addition, the tech tree was revamped but is still far from free of nonsense. What else does the game bring on the table ?

Trade. Trade now plays a much more important role than in previous civilization games, or at least it does feel this way. Traders, first, create their own roads as they start exchanging between cities on a national or international level, removing the need for you to micromanage builders. Finally! They also bring a substantial amount of Gold, that can seriously be used to increase your wealth rapidly. If you play your cards right, you can increase the productivity of your traders with certain policies, too. You can use money to buy units, tiles, or buildings. During my game I mostly ended up using gold to buy tiles and units, as buildings are usually prohibitive in terms of costs. You cannot just expect to use trading to make up for everything else, it’s a good revenue source, but it’s not going to make you win anything.

Winning is, as usual in Civilization games, defined by very specific victory conditions. Civilization VI proposes the following:

  • Cultural victory: when you can attract more international tourists than domestic tourists.
  • Domination victory: when you can capture capitals of all other civilizations.
  • Religious victory: when a player’s religion becomes the predominant religion of all other civilizations (more than 50% of each civilization’s cities converted).
  • Science victory: to be the first to establish a base on Mars.
  • Score victory: if none of the conditions are met, the civilization with the highest score wins on the 500th turn.

I am not a big fan of most of these victories. How having a civilization with a lot of tourists can be considered winning? If that were the case in the current world, then France would be the winning country with the sheer number of tourists it gets (while the accuracy is debatable, the way official numbers are counted is rigged as anyone passing by for more than a few nights is considered a tourist by default, while they could just be there for commerce or business meetings), and that would not make much sense. Religious victory seems a little nonsensical as well, since religions are usually not tied to a particular civilization as they grow to become universal (Christianism is not tied to Italy or even the Western world. Buddhism is not tied to India. Islam is not just the religion of the Arabs, and so on…). Science and Domination victory make sense, but they should not be separate and are very much the sides of the same coin – all modern wars are fought with surveillance systems, machines and bombs more than raw manpower, and that is undoubtedly linked to technical progress and research.

On top of these pitfalls, the victory conditions have various degrees of difficulty. They are certainly not equivalent. The Cultural victory seems to be the hardest to achieve. In my game, there was another civilization that was way beyond me in cultural production (I was in second position for that metric) and even at turn 500 they were still very far from achieving that goal. Instead of making it as a victory goal (which is a poor incentive in itself), they should modify how tourism and culture works in the game model. Tourism and culture should bring two major benefits: trade, and immigration. I am not sure how much trade is influenced by tourism in Civilization VI, but I am pretty sure there is no model for immigration at all, despite it being a major source of growth for several empires throughout History.

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A Domination victory seems relatively feasible, provided you invest heavily in military units, and you grow quickly early enough in the game. I’m not a big fan of combat in Civilization games, but it has improved somewhat, with the ability of combining several units together in corps, making them stronger in attack and defense. Just like in previous games you can still have a strong tech advantage versus other adversaries, and destroy them easily thanks to your overwhelming firepower.

The religious victory seems to be pretty difficult to achieve as well, as you can easily counter another civilization’s effort by sending missionaries of your own to prevent the 50% of conversion from being achieved. During my first game I saw one AI massively invest in religion, leading to a rise in Catholicism even in my cities (I was in a Buddhist realm). This forces you to react by building shrines and temples in order to get faith points, which in turn create apostles that you can send in cities to restore the balance of beliefs. However, this is not entirely realistic. There are no opportunities, for example, to forbid a religion, while this has been the default stance of major empires for millennia (Christianism used to forbid any other dogma by excommunicating and burning heretics for a long period of time, and same goes for Islam). Civilization VI takes the default principle that “Hey! Everyone is welcome“, but this was only the case only in VERY recent history (and certainly not everywhere yet) and shows once again the clear bias of developers. For example, a theocratic regime should constitute a clear obstacle to that kind of strategy (but then, it would not make the game fair…).

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The problem I have with all these goals is that they create a lot of bias to how you are supposed to progress in the actual game. Because goals are there as a constant threat, they force you to compete in each of them to ensure nobody else will emerge victor before you. They become a distraction, preventing you from developing your empire the way in a more organic fashion. In the end resources are limited, and having to force yourself to spend a lot on Science and Religion at the same time constitutes a compromise to other meaningful improvements.

In my case, I was aiming for a Science Victory, but I realized quickly (around the 400th turn) that it would be very hard to achieve by the 500th one. I managed to complete 2 of the 3 steps leading to the Mars colony (since we are at it, let me say that the “launch of a satellite” and “landing on the moon” events look exactly the same, showing a rocket on the launchpad – how inspirational for something that takes so many turns to complete!), but I needed another 50 turns or so to make it work before running out of time. I attribute this issue to a very, very silly concept that about every Civilization game uses. Production never gets included into a common pool, while you are supposed to be a nation/country. In the end of the day, for major projects like spaceports and space exploration, you need to rely on a single, powerful city to do the job. You cannot tell the game that you want 2 cities to support the same project at the same time, which makes no sense at all for larger structures available later in the game. I have no problems for a city to support their own theater or opera, but when it comes to national projects, there should be a way to concentrate the efforts of several cities to achieve it faster. It’s like, you are a leader overseeing a particular civilization, but you cannot use leader-like powers to merge production capabilities when you need to. A little ridiculous.

My game was at the normal/standard difficulty setting, and I decided right from the start not to spend too much on military units, and focus rather on expansion, commerce and science. Apart from the occasional incursions of barbarians, my nation was not attacked by any other civilization until very late in the game. It was somewhat surprising, since my empire was relatively weak, militarily speaking. Nevertheless, every conflict I participated in ended up in victories (science works), and me actually gaining cities from opponents, resulting in them calling me a warmonger. Whatever.

So, I ended up reaching the fateful 500th turn. No other civilization could meet any victory objective either, so the score decided on the winner (and I was in second position). And what do you get? An apocalyptic view of your civilization buried in the sand, as if only one civilization could remain and survive through ages and eons and the rest is supposed to die and wither (despite my civilization clearly being on the rise and certainly not dominated by any other). The present world does not seem to agree very much with that view (The Western Civilization, China and India are all very much alive). Would it hurt to prepare for a few different endings, instead of a binary outcome ?

Since I knew I was not going to win the game around the end, I decided to research nukes as my top priority, and drop one on one of my neighbors as a parting gift. It was delivered with a bomber, and it did not do as much damage as I would have expected (despite the nice visual effect). It did destroy that city’s defenses and the military units stationed there, but the city was still standing and its population remained at 16 as well, as if nothing happened. The funny thing is that I would have had to relaunch a nuke dev program for another 19 turns in order to launch a second strike – like what?? I need to wait 20 years to send a second bomb? Why would it take so long to develop the second bomb once you have already mastered its design? I get it, the creators of the game did not want the bomb to become the ultimate game finisher, but making it very long to stockpile them makes it really useless and completely artificial. Again, developer bias. It. Just. Does. Not. Make. Sense.

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Thinking about everything that’s just wrong makes me really tired. But indulge me a little more.

This is not a new problem in Civilization, but new cities seem to always start from the Stone Age even in the modern Era. That’s the equivalent to having modern America remain in Antiquity just because there were settlers only 500 years ago there. If I decide to build a new city in 1950, it will still take me 300 years before I can have any modern installations in it. It’s fairly obvious that it should not work this way. This makes absolutely no sense at all, production should be faster and faster as you go in modern eras, and a number of facilities should be readily available when you create a new city at a late-game stage. The consequence of such a bad design choice is to encourage land grab as early as possible in the game so that you will have many large cities growing at the same level at about the same time. Again, this fails to mimic any real model at all, and would fail to account with the massive demographic explosion we have seen in the 20th century.

In the very same line of thought, the way the game deals with time scales feel very, very wrong. In the modern era, each turn becomes a year, but there is no significant improvement of builders’ or traders’ speed despite the technological advances. Like, making a road still takes one turn, while it should be completed in no time at all in modern era. Some thing for trade, that could take months 500 years ago from one continent to another, and now can be achieved in hours or days with modern cargoes. The timescale change is not sufficient to reflect the change in magnitude, and developers should have multiplied the number of actions available to builders by several folds at the same time as the player moves in the new era. Traders should also be able to go anywhere and return in one turn as well in the modern era (i.e. trade should become more or less instantaneous). The same changes should occur for armies: they should be able to fight a lot more often (i.e. more movement points and more actions) for each turn in the modern era. In a year you should be able to invade a country if you have a sufficient attacking army, but in Civ VI it takes at least 20 years to do so. Really??! Because such changes never occur in the gameplay, things still feel sluggish EVEN in the modern era, and this is one of the major flaws of the game.

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I have kind of complained about it before briefly, but let me break it out for you: diplomacy is still shit. This is now my expectation for every single Civilization game, since day one. Diplomacy is a joke, because options and interactions with other leaders are way too limited. It’s either about bartering, or declaring war or negotiating peace (which is actually just bartering again). That’s about it. There are no layers of subtleties, no win-win actions possible, most of the time it looks like a zero sum game (which it is). To me, mixing an action such as “war on another country” with the exchange of resources is completely, utterly preposterous. It just does not belong in the same category of requests/demands. It is for example completely impossible to sign a war treaty saying that you will share the land with your ally once an adversary is beaten. Forget about conspiracies and stuff like that. Besides, Civilization V had, I believe, some kind of UN vote, but that feature is now gone from Civilization VI, at least in the present state. Add to that that foreign leaders are completely mad, and keep denouncing you for the most ridiculous things, switching sides in the space of 5 turns, and it all seems like a huge mess. This does not need just a UX redesign, the whole diplomacy system needs to be thrown away and should be revamped from scratch. Incidentally, this is also one of the game aspects that has the least changed since Civilization I. It’s long overdue.

On top of all the design decisions, the game has a tone problem. When you wait in front of the first, long loading screen, you are fed with a symphonic music along with a voice-over full of hope of challenges regarding the scope of the adventures to come. That has some kind of epic, serious tone to it. Fine. But then, when you unlock inventions, it seems that the developers took things the other way around, with attempts at humor. Unlocking banks as a tech advancement delivers a quote from Stephen Fry: “I saw a bank that said ’24 hours banking’ but I did not have that much time.” Har. Har. Har. Seriously ? When you unlock fusion power as new way to produce energy, the next stupid quote is “I am a big proponent of harnessing the power of fusion – from 93 million miles away. Fusion is done by our sun really, really well and for free. Here on Earth in reactors, not so much.” – man, you just unlocked actual fusion reactors on Earth, and the best quote you can find is some guy who makes fun of it? That kind of things just makes me really, really sad, especially when it’s juxtaposed against serious quotes (Education: “The purpose of education is to replace an empty mind with an open one” – guess some developers should have pondered on that one more).

Finally, the choice of leaders is… peculiar to say the least. I can’t comment about every single one of them, but I’m not sure why Catherine de Medicis was chosen for France, as she was directly involved in the hideous massacre of protestants in her time along with her son the King.

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There were plenty of better figureheads to choose from, and Firaxis picked a very controversial leader there, especially when they portray her smiling holding a glass of wine in her hand, while her actual appearance and behavior suggested none of that friendly and welcoming attitude. It’s just not very good taste. So, coming back to what I said earlier, there’s no inclusion of any concept of slavery, but on the other hand having leaders who are well known to have ordered the massacre of innocents of all ages and gender is fine. Consistency, where are thou?

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They should have added the special ability “religious massacre” to Catherine de Medecis’ feature list, for good measure.

Alright, we need to come to a closing word, since you have probably other things to do.

The biggest problem with Civilization VI is that’s a game that I want to love, because it’s really, really fun to play. There are very few other games that cover the same kind of scope, and who are just as ambitious. There are some parts which are really well designed: the overall UI is pretty good, making it easy to play even with a Steam Controller. The map remains readable even when there are tons of units everywhere. The music is very enjoyable and adapts to the era you are in. Most of the information you can access is well organized and the game does a good job to avoid overwhelming you. You can go deeper and deeper in features if you want to do micromanagement and ensure a city focuses more on faith or science, for example. You can peel the layers progressively or remain at a relatively higher level based on your inclination.

The port by Aspyr is pretty good as well. Of course, you still get a worse framerate vs Windows (apparently the game is pretty graphically intensive) and you almost never get to 60 fps on a GTX970+i5 config with high/max details, but that’s not too bad: the bottleneck is pretty much in the higher framerates, and does not seem to affect performance too much even in late-game stages (the framerate felt similar even when tons of units and cities were on the map). And I experienced no crash so far. The Linux version is still lacking online compatibility with the Windows version, so you will need to wait a little if that kind of feature is critical for you and your friends. Otherwise, even the single player campaign is enjoyable enough to entertain anyone in the meantime. It’s really easy to pick up and to play, and spend hours without noticing it.

But just like a summer blockbuster, you may have a good time when you see it, but looking back the lack of polish is hard to ignore. Civilization VI irritates me to no end by not get many details right. Pretty much nothing makes much intuitive sense. You just can’t guess what the best decision will be. You need to know exactly the implication of the next invention, what the next civic item unlocks, to make a decision as to what is worth it or not. You can’t trust your judgment based on your historical or scientific knowledge or even your common sense or whatever competence you think you have. You have to basically ignore all that, assume you know nothing and that the depicted Earth in the game has nothing to do with yours. It obeys different laws of physics for all you know. You need to do your homework to find out what actually works the best in the context of the game. Of course, one can say the same thing for all games, but Civilization adds layer upon layer in each iteration without ensuring stuff actually makes sense. And while the game is still being patched and patched more, it’s obvious that no patch will make up for the design decisions that led to the current game state.

Looking in detail at tech trees and civics trees to ensure you get the best outcomes (bonus cards, units, etc…) kind of defeats the purpose of exploration and experimentation, and goes against the whole idea of a global scale simulation. If anything, I want the game to be less predictable, and apply a kind of fog towards what’s too far from being possible with what you presently have. I want to be surprised, not told exactly what I will get with absolute certainty.

In other words, Civilization would be a game I’d enjoy a lot more if it dropped most of the rigid board game aspects and took advantage of computing power we have nowadays to produce a slightly more simulated world with proper model-based logic to mimic a little closer how things actually work in the real world.

This is probably a direction Civilization will never take, since a lot of gamers are used to the way it works and actually like it this way. One can only hope competition comes at some point.


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Ekianjo

7 Comments

  1. I never got too much into the board game style of Civ. I prefer the historical, real-time, and systems-based approach of Paradox ones. The only one I can get into is Victoria, and that’s the most complex and probably my favourite. Clever use of abstraction creates a bunch of systems that interact well and ultimately feel like you’re in charge of a country full of /people/, not tiles on a board.

      • Being honest here: use WIndows for gaming. (Hell, if the niche titles I liked were on console, I’d be buying that instead) Linux (or often these days, OpenBSD) is something I stick on things not intended for gaming. (And to also be honest… since Windows 8.0, I’ve basically switched back to Windows on that. At least I run Linux on the server, mostly.) I mostly just like to keep up with Linux gaming, particularly for the meta aspect.

        From what I hear, it does run pretty well on Wine though. A native port would be great though, particularly as it seems Victoria 3 isn’t coming out any time soon. There /was/a Mac port, but it was made by Virtual Programming, put on the MAS, and hasn’t been patched up to 3.04 IIRC. All the other modern PDX games are on Linux now though, so…

  2. That was an interesting read, but I feel it misses the mark a bit. Civ is not a simulation and never was. It would be better to compare it to its predecessors as what it is, which is a game that is heavily inspired by board games. Negatives like research being deterministic aren’t real negatives when not taking the “it should be realistic” perspective. It should be fun, and it should be fun both in single and multi player.

    And it’s not like Civ VI is perfect when looking at it from a gaming perspective. The mentioned diplomatic AI not working properly is a big drawback, and that was already bad in Civ V (though the addons helped). I also read about severe limitations in the battle AI that are a new problem. And I can accept things like the changed nuke mechanics as being a negative.

    I would also have expected some more focus on the quality of the port. But if it is good there maybe is not much to say.

    • Thanks for your comment. I want to point out that I am not blaming the game for not being “realistic” (I don’t expect a game of this scope to be realistic anyway) but I do blame it for not making sense at all in the choices they made in the research tree or civics tree. Even if you were to keep a board-game like tree, they could have still done better on how to implement the logic between the different inventions. There’s definitely a lack of consistency and logic. For example, instead of having an invention-based tree, a knowledge-based tree would make a lot more sense and would be easier to draft and design. Inventions are by-products of knowledge, and the current tree mixes both of them way too much.

      • That part of the critic I can understand 🙂 I’m not sure another kind of tree would work better for the game, but that’s at least possible.

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