There are addictive games, and then there are Civilization games. Sid Meier’s Civilization has undergone several changes throughout its 25-year history, but one thing has remained constant — players who tell themselves, often at four in the morning, that they’ll only play one more turn. They never do, and from what we saw of Civilization VI at E3 this past week, that won’t be changing anytime soon.
The Civilization games are turn-based strategy games that see you build up from a group of settlers in ancient times to a spacefaring empire spanning continents. To do that, players need to carefully decide which technologies to research, which social policies to pursue, how big of an army to build, and which buildings and world wonders to erect within their borders. At first, all that’s needed is to guard against early barbarian attacks, but the game really starts rolling once other civilizations are encountered. Over the years, more diplomacy and trade options have been implemented to let players make alliances and reap economic benefits. But, as anyone who’s watched a rival civilization swoop in on a prime piece of real estate knows, sometimes things come to blows.
The games are light on action, with a much slower and more ponderous pace that nonetheless gets its hooks in. The almost endless amount of ways players can tweak their civilization, cities, or policies every turn creates endless opportunities for tinkering, and with some new development coming about every turn, it’s hard to save the game, quit, and go to bed (usually those three happen in very rapid succession).
But, the franchise is in a tight spot right now. Civilization: Beyond Earth, an offshoot game that takes place in space, proved to be a rare misfire, with adherents quickly flocking back to Civilization V or IV. Even V wasn’t a hit until two expansion packs came out that dramatically revamped culture, religion, trade, and diplomacy. But, V still had issues — limits on the happiness of an empire made it not worthwhile to build an expansive empire, while AI-controlled civilizations seemed to act strangely, suddenly issuing declarations of war or denouncing the player, all to make up a few turns later. It also had a weak late game — once the player decided to pursue a military, science, cultural, or diplomacy victory, it was very hard, if not impossible, to change on the fly, leading to repetitive slogs toward victory or defeat.
At E3, 2k games showed off a short trailer detailing some of the changes in store for VI. Cities will be much different — while it’s always been possible to tailor cities to certain needs (military or cultural, for example), they often felt like featureless clones of each other. In VI, players can build districts within cities that help to differentiate them. If you need a border city to be more martially-minded, build a barracks district. Something a bit closer to the capital might get an arts district, instead. These districts can determine which wonders can be built, and those wonders will now take up tiles on the map, instead of being rendered in the central city tile. This also makes combat more interesting and strategic — instead of having to plow through all the way to the central city tile to weaken an enemy, it’ll be possible to attack a district or a wonder to put a dent in another civilization’s science or cultural progress.
You’ll be free to build more of those cities, too. In V, your civilization’s happiness put a cap on its growth, because running an unhappy empire was a one-way ticket to an L thanks to large decreases in production. This time, happiness is different in each city, so if you’ve got a few malcontents in one city, they won’t drag the entire empire down with them. City-specific factors (like wonders, we imagine) will determine city happiness, but it sounds like this could change as the eras pass. At one point, the Chinese empire featured in the demo hit the industrial revolution, with one of its cities becoming suffocated in smog. It sounded like it was possible that environmental factors like those could affect happiness, but we’re not sure yet.
Connecting cities is also going to be much different. Instead of having to manually build roads between all of your cities (a chore in V), roads are automatically built between cities when early trade routes are established. Trade routes, both between your own cities and those of other civilizations or city states (neutral players that can’t expand), will now have more bonuses depending on how each city has been specialized.
War will change, too. Unlike before, when units always remained independent, military and civilian units can now be combined to form escorts or entire battalions. By relegating one martial unit to one tile in V, players were very limited in how they could go about besieging an enemy civilization. Being able to mix and match various military units should help to make war much more dynamic than in V, in which war tended to play out the same way (with a lot of siege weapons). Here’s another wrinkle — military districts can produce units just like the city center can, so an invading army can’t be content to just make a beeline for the center and surround it.
Dealing with other civilizations will make more sense. From the beginning, you’ll be made aware of each rival leader’s tendencies as you meet them (their goals or what might make them angry). However, they will still have hidden agendas that need to be sussed out through observation or the use of scouts, trade routes, or spies. This should lead to fewer surprise attacks and sudden betrayals, and will hopefully make long-term alliances stronger. In V, it was a bit easy to simply ignore other civilizations once automatic trade routes had been established (until it came time for war). This time, there’s going to be more strategy involved in dealing with leaders and their machinations.
One of the biggest changes being made is to the builders. Instead of waiting around forever for workers to complete a farm (or, excruciatingly, a trading post), they’ll wrap up in one turn. The trade-off is that builder units can only be used so many times before they disappear — a way to stop players from developing too fast, while solving the late-game problem of workers left with nothing to do (also, a keen-eyed commentary on the real world).
Another major change is in store for the social policy tree. In V, once a certain path (arts, economy, religion, science, etc) had been chosen, it was nearly impossible to switch gears without falling too far behind the competition, especially at higher difficulties. The new system hasn’t been fully detailed yet, but it will rely on cards that confer certain bonuses when active. We understand that those cards can be swapped for others later in the game without too much in the way of consequences, which should make the late game much more dynamic than it was in V.
Civilization V‘s biggest problem was its weak late game, which turned a fun, strategic game into a mindless slog as you got further entrenched into your chosen path to victory. It sounds like it will be much easier to change the direction of your civilization on the fly in VI, and more importantly, it sounds like there will be far more opportunities to disrupt a rival civilization that looks like it’s nearing victory. Each city will have to be as carefully managed as an entire empire in V was, and going to war should prove to be much more varied. It’ll also help that the tech tree has been split up, with science point going toward the tech tree and cultural points going toward the new civics tree, which includes all the advances in economics, government, and the arts that used to be in the tech tree in V.
But, one of the most enjoyable parts of getting a new Civilization game is seeing which historical leaders get the call to lead their respective empires. So far, we know that Egypt, China, and the United States will be in the game. We didn’t catch who will be leading China this time (it’s a guy, not Wu Zetian as it was in V — the Chinese capital in VI is Xi’an, if that helps history buffs identify him), but in Egypt, Ramesses II is being swapped out for Cleopatra, while in the States, George Washington is getting a breather while big stick-wielding Teddy Roosevelt handles business. And yes, that means the Rough Riders are a unique unit for the U.S.
Sid Meier’s Civilization VI is on track for release on October 21 for PC, Mac, and Linux.