Civilization is a game I’ve been playing for more or less 15 years, across multiple iterations of the series, and yet each new version always seems to feel fresh. After spending nearly 20 hours with a special preview version of Civilization VI, I can safely say that the same is true of this upcoming game, which manages to deliver all the familiarity you’d want as a Civ fan, with new twists and mechanics that make it feel like you need to master some new skills to become a truly great leader.
For those new to Civilization, a few basics: The game is a turn-based civilization building and management simulation, which puts you in the role of an era-spanning, unnaturally long-lived society leader. You direct the movement of units, set policies, set production queues within cities, found new cities, manage diplomatic relations and guide the trajectory of scientific research, all in an effort to become the best civilization in the world.
Being the best can mean different things: various victory options are available, including military, diplomatic, scientific and more. My personal play still, across 15 years of playing the series and with surprisingly little variation (not sure what that says about me) has been to pursue a warrior’s path, trying to crush my enemies with military might. Sure, I play diplomatic games, too, but these are largely in service of keeping my army working at maximum efficiency.
There are some big changes made by Firaxis in this instalment of Civilization VI that actually make my approach to the game less effective, or at least more challenging. One of these is that workers are no longer automated, meaning you have to direct them to improve the lands around your city manually, to gain access to key strategic resources like horses, niter (for gunpowder) and oil. This adds a considerable amount to the mental load involved in building a successful army, even if your research has given you access to strong unit types.
In the end I really enjoyed the new dimension added via manual worker management, since it required me to pay close attention to a part of the game I’d previously ignored almost entirely. Likewise, new diplomacy features make for some interesting twists in the game that made it more important for me to watch that part (another I normally only engage with lightly). You, and other civilizations, can declare surprise war, which happened to me twice during one of my two playthroughs. It had a devastating effect, too; I lost my capital to the Romans after they pulled this stunt, seemingly without provocation (that’s why It’s a surprise, I guess).
Other new features I loved included the new social policy system, where you can assign cards based on your civics research progress that provide bonuses across your society. This actually helped my warlike ambitions, since I could tune my government and policies together to supporting those efforts for maximum effect.
During my first playthrough, however, one of the new features (which actually comes from earlier iterations of Civilization) ended up completely hamstringing me, and right in the midst of a campaign to overtake a new continent that was going very well. Individual cities have to manage their own social happiness separately, and I’d been ignoring it for so long in favor of building army units and support buildings that all my cities ended up suffering rebellions basically at once, with strong barbarian units appearing in their vicinities across the map. There was no easy way to get rid of them all, and at the same time my treasury was empty, so units were being disbanded left and right, and amenities sold off, making the problem even worse.
All of which is to say, Civilization VI challenged me in ways I didn’t expect, given my familiarity with the series. And while that means I haven’t come away with a win so far (my second play through resulted in happier cities, but stronger competing societies, meaning I didn’t fight the right balance the other way, either), the game has been so compelling that I’m eager to play even more… and looking forward to when the full version is out October 21 so I can dial down the difficulty setting.