Relevant information to note before reading this early impressions / review:
- I was not given a review copy.
- I have no affiliation with anyone at Firaxis or 2K Games.
- Specifications of the system used for this first impressions article can be found here.
- At the time of writing this article, I had played the game for forty-eight hours and have managed to get to the fourth floor once. Woo! Go me.
- I've played every Civilization game on PC or other computer, going all the way back to the very first game, where I sat swapping disks constantly on an Amiga 500.
There are a swath of changes that I want to look at in a bit of detail, hopefully without boring you to death. Let's get right into it.
Districts are the clear headlining change in Civilization VI, as they introduce gameplay that hasn't been seen in the franchise before. Rather than everything being built in your city with the surrounding tiles being used solely for improvements and resource exploitation, you now need to plan ahead and plop districts down in suitable places around your territory. This idea is something that I first saw in Endless Legend, another 4x game. The same mechanic has also been added to wonders, which now need their own tile and often come with some locational restrictions of their own, too.
There are a total of eleven districts that can be built, not including the city centre and spaceport, which is only required for scientific victories. Some civs receive a replacement for one of the districts as a unique trait.
Getting a grip on the new system can be a little challenging, especially as the game isn't exactly forthcoming with information surrounding adjacency bonuses (for instance, building a scientific campus in the middle of a rainforest gives a massive boost to scientific output), nor with how the cost of districts scales the further you get into the game. What has become apparent is that the building time for districts increases the further you are into the tech and social trees - suggesting that the best tactic is to build cities early and often before you get too advanced, as new cities struggle to get going.
Districts allow your cities to specialise. You're not going to be able to build them all in each city, nor should you want to. If you have a city surrounded by rainforest, that'd be a great candidate for a campus and commercial hub. If you have a city within range of the coast with plenty of water resources available, that's a great place for a harbour. Speaking of which, harbours can be built within the territory of any city, whether they're on the coast or not. You can now have cities that produce naval units set inland. That's a massive change.
Some districts are restricted by placement requirements. Encampments (military district), for example, cannot be placed adjacent to your city centre. For the first few games, you're going to mess your districts up. They introduce an extra layer of two of forward planning and thinking that's new to Civilization. This is especially true of industrial districts, whose late-game buildings can share their output boosts with cities that are within a six tile radius.
Districts and their buildings aren't all one-trick ponies, so you'll find some overlap between them. For instance, some holy buildings can also give extra production, science or culture. Encampment buildings boost production as well as housing (more on this later), whereas harbours are a bit of a jack-of-all-trades.
I love this new twist on the Civilization series. It makes the entire game a more strategic experience than ever before.
Workers are gone. In their stead, we now have 'Builders'. Rather than constantly having to manage dozens of these guys and getting rather bored doing so (or worse, automating them and watching as they screw everything up), these new Builders only have three charges. That's three charges to either build an improvement, clear away a feature (such as woods, rainforests or marshes) or harvest a resource (like wheat, rice, bananas). Builders can be buffed by a couple of policies and wonders to increase their charges.
This is another change that I like. Gone are the tedious days of spending ten minutes per turn just shuffling Workers around the map - and it's another change that promotes strategy. Prioritising the exploitation of resources and deciding which square you should clear to make room for a district or wonder are now frequent considerations. There's room for a tip here, too. When you're building districts or wonders, you will often have to sacrifice a tile with a feature or resource. You should always remove the feature or harvest the resource with a builder to ensure that your city gets a yield. Sometimes you can pay for over half of the building that's going down on the tile this way. If you simply overwrite it with a district, you do not get the yield.
Happiness has also been removed from the game. This is a massive change, as long-time players of the franchise will realise almost immediately. This means that Civilization VI doesn't really have any explicit penalties to over expanding and spamming cities. However, the new housing and amenities systems do force you to think carefully about expanding.
Amenities are the new happiness. If your city doesn't have access to enough amenities, yields will drop. The more displeased with the lack of creature comforts available, the worse things get. Eventually, your citizens will start to revolt, spawning as barbarians just outside your city. At this point, you could be in a whole heap of trouble. Ensuring you have enough amenities is no problem if you keep control on how quickly your city population grows or if you carefully plan city placements. Amenities are gained by exploiting luxury resources (only one of each type, mind), filling out your entertainment districts and through some social research and policies.
Housing is the second part of the happiness replacement experiment. It's related to the population of your cities. In order for your city to continue to grow, there needs to be enough housing. If there isn't, growth will slow down and eventually come to a complete halt. Housing can be increased either by building certain districts, improvements or buildings.
CULTURE AND GOVERNMENTS
As well as the traditional science tree, Civilization VI brings us a social 'tech' tree, too. It works in much the same way. Each advance gives you a choice of policies that you can swap in and out of your government. They give a range of bonuses, including anything from increased production speed toward units or wonders to buffing international or domestic trade routes. Interestingly, some of them also have wider-reaching advantages. Getting to the Feudalism social tech will increase the output of farms that are adjacent to one another. Others will give access to special units or buildings, while both the entertainment and theatre districts can only be obtained by going through the social tech tree.
It is, however, a little flat. Somehow, the pacing seems off. By the mid game, you'll be going through a procession of turns where you'll learn a new social tech every turn or two - and this happens because as you approach the mid game, the social tree splits into only two branches. Annoyingly, because district production cost scales with how many social and regular techs you've researched, you'll often be in a position where you're learning social techs that aren't useful to you that also slow down your district building. I'd love for there to be a way to slow down culture production temporarily without having to sell buildings or sacrifice amenities.
Governments have also been given a bit of a do-over. They are researched through the social tech tree (more on that below), for starters, rather than the science tree. Each government comes with a flat bonus, such as improved combat strength for your units, and a number of slots that you can fill with policies (also from the social tree). This gives you a great deal of flexibility as you can now combine a fascist government with policies based around faith or trade.
Adopting a new government will grant you a legacy bonus that's defined by your previous regimes. The type and number of slots you get are built into the government - fascism, for instance, comes with four military, three economic, one diplomatic and two wildcard policy slots. It's the wildcard ones that are key, as they allow you to place any policy module you like into them - so you can put a military policy there when you have a classical republic regime, even though it doesn't have any military slots by default.
Since Civilization V did away with unit stacking (thanks so much for getting rid of the dreaded stacks of doom), Firaxis have been looking for a way to tweak the combat as you get further into the game. In Civilization VI, not only does the unit variety increase by an order of magnitude the later you get into the game, you can now, from mid-game or later, combine two of the same types of unit into a corps, and three of the same type into an army.
Following the common theme of the changes implemented for Civilization VI, this is again a strategic choice. Do you want to keep your three units? Or do you want to merge them into one super-powerful unit? There are pros and cons to both. If you're having a hard time with production times, merging might not be the best idea. If you're in an era of peace and have time to build up an army, then it might be a good thing to do.
The art style deserves a bit of a mention seeing as there was a bit of controversy over it when the first screenshots emerged. Personally, I like it. It brings Civilization back to looking more like a board game, and gives it a comfier, warmer feeling. Some people have said that the units look like they came from Age of Empires Online - I can't disagree, they do. The animations are much improved (although some seem to be stuck at 30FPS which is a very minor annoyance) while the city and tile rendering is fantastic. You can see every little improvement that gets added to your city in far more detail than before. You can see also see your wonders in minute detail. It's pretty enough to take a screenshot of and make your desktop background.
There are a number of little quirks and regressions from Civilization V, some of which are pretty hard to understand. There's a ton to get through so I'll start from the beginning. I'd also like to preface this section by saying that it's been a heck of a long time since I played Civilization V without any expansions or mods at all, and while I have done my best to accurately recall what was available in Civilization V on launch, there may be a minor error somewhere.
When you start a new game in Civilization VI, there are precious few options to choose from. I remember being able to tweak all sorts of stuff in Civilization V - random leader personalities, raging barbarians, turning off war, disallowing certain diplomatic relations. I also remember being able to choose from maps and actually see what they'd look like before the game got started. Not so in Civilization VI, as many of the options I took for granted are now MiA. You can make basic changes to map type, size and properties such as world age, resource distribution and so on - but the only other tweaks available are turning off barbarians and goodie villages. That's it.
When you get into a game, you see for the first time how much of a rework the UI has gone through. The plan appears to have been leaving as much screen real estate to the game world as possible. The result is hit and miss. Perhaps my biggest bone of contention at the moment is that the mechanics of Civilization VI are several times more obfuscated than Civilization V was - or indeed just about any of the Civilization games that came before it.
Even some basic notifications appear to be missing. For some reason, the pop-up telling you what you've found in a goodie village doesn't always trigger. You get a little icon above your unit's head showing what they found, or a unit will be dumped in your nearest city - and that's it. Additionally, sometimes the camera will pan away too quickly, leaving you to guess what was discovered.
This isn't all the game fails to tell you, either. Players who have hit the mid game have been finding their production slowed to a crawl for no discernible reason. This is something that baffled me for the first five or six games, too. It wasn't until I took to Reddit and started discussing possible reasons with other Civvers that the reason was discovered - the social and tech discoveries you've made, the more production costs go up. The game makes no mention of this, anywhere.
Going back to things that are missing - there's no build queue. That's a pretty painful omission. That gets its own paragraph. I don't have much to say about that other than this - ouch.
The minimap is far too small, especially at 4K. If you want it bigger you either have to hack the game's configuration files or turn on UI scaling (which, from asking around, only seems to be available to people running native 4K resolution). The problem with UI scaling is that it's too heavy handed. Instead of boosting the size of UI elements by 20-30%, it instead seems to double the size. This obscures vital visual cues in the game world and makes assessing information at a glance almost impossible, especially as the game world gets cluttered with units and cities.
The returning strategy view looks absolutely gorgeous. I actually use it this time, especially when I'm looking for resources that need to be exploited or want to quickly check on what's happening within the fog of war.
Speaking of the fog of war, Civilization VI's implementation of it is something that seems to be splitting people right down the middle. Unexplored areas look like a pirate's map, with little illustrations and a very arty texture. Areas immediately around your units and cities are completely uncovered. Areas outside of your current range of vision turn into a hand-drawn map - the same colour as the unexplored areas but with hand-drawn details.
You can see resources, city borders and barbarian encampments and it does update without you having to visit the area again, which is something that didn't happen in Civilization V - however, I've seen a lot of complaints that it looks too much like unexplored areas. I can see their point of view - it certainly took some getting used to, and there are still times where I have to look twice to take in the information, which suggests to me that its design needs tweaking a little. This, to me, is a case of form over function - and that's a criticism that I can level at quite a few areas of the UI.
There are a couple of pretty major balance issues in the launch version. First and foremost, selling units. You get a large amount of gold for selling a unit. Combine this with a policy that gives you a production boost to certain types of units, and you can actually spam-buy buildings and units. There's no restriction on the amount of units you sell per turn, where you can sell them or the amount of gold purchases you can make.
This has a knock-on effect for builders, too. It is far more efficient to sell a builder that has one charge left than to use them all up. If you sell two in one turn, you've lost two charges, but gained enough gold to buy three more. The more builders you sell, the better your return.
There's another smaller issue with builders at the moment, too. They can remove woods and rainforest from tiles. This has been a feature of Civilization games going back a few versions now. This time, there's no penalty for doing it outside of your borders. So you can happily send a team of builders to cut down trees anywhere on the map, and production will be sent to either your closest city. This production carries over from one building to another, too.
If that sounds bad, things get even worse when Scythia is involved. This civ is currently completely broken. They have a unique trait which gives them a second light cavalry unit whenever they train one. Combine this with a policy that doubles cavalry production and some encampment district boosts, and you can pump out 2 cavalry units per two or three turns (on standard game speed). If you sell all of these units, you can make upwards of a thousand gold per turn, even in the early game. You're then free to spend that on units and buildings. If you want an easy way to get the achievements for beating deity, it's not going to get any easier than this.
Religion is in a bad place at the moment as well. Playing for a religious victory is an absolute mess. It's far too easy to spam units (again, because you're not limited on how many faith purchases you can make per turn). You'll almost inevitably be invaded by literally dozens of AI religious units at some point in the game. When these get around your cities, they block all movement of your units. You either have to declare war or wait for them all to clear away - which tends not to happen. God forbid two religious armies meet. Turns will take minutes to get through and the battles can span twenty turns easily if reinforcements arrive on the scene.
Other items that'll be on the Firaxis to-do list will mostly revolve around how AI opponents interact with both each other and human players. If you're one a map where there's a lot of border friction, everyone gets a little war-happy. I'm not saying this is intrinsically unrealistic - but it does make for some rather confusing gameplay.
It's in these tense situations that the AI seem most prone to losing their minds. First and foremost, AI allies that you have a Joint War agreement with will often denounce you - for declaring war on someone they've just declared war on themselves. There are also some weird scenarios where this treaty will end up with you declaring war on yourself. I'm not sure that's a hallmark of a capable leader!
The AI also appears to have some problems with army management. There have been a number of games where the AI has backed itself into a corner - training dozens of early game units that they never upgrade, presumably due to astronomical maintenance costs, which ends up completely hamstringing them. I've found civs two hundred turns into a game that only have two cities, twenty-odd spearmen and nothing else. I'm guessing the AI isn't allowed to sell units - presumably because of how broken it is - and so they end up stuck if they get too aggressive with army expansion.
AI civs also seem to be able to declare surprise wars without any warmongering penalty, whereas players declaring even justified wars can be denounced literally for ever, even if they declare war on a single AI. Even if it's just a tiny, small war, or more of a skirmish.
Notoriously, Civilization games can be a bit of a hot mess on launch. Civilization V certainly was, with memory leaks and crashes galore that took a fair amount of time to patch out. Thankfully, Civilization VI is a completely different beast. It looks like Firaxis went all out on making sure the game was stable for release. I have not had a single crash or game-stopping issue in my 48 hours of play so far. While there have been one or two fairly widespread issues, particularly relating to Windows Defender (which I don't use), there hasn't been anything that can't be quickly fixed, even by a very average user.
Something related to performance that's a little aggravating is that you still cannot make changes to graphical options without restarting the game. Clearly a hard limit of the engine they've used for the last two Civilization games, it does feel a bit 1999. This is most annoying for people trying to find a balance between performance and looks on laptops or lower-end hardware.
It runs much better than Civilization V did, too. Running Civilization V and Civilization VI on this machine, the difference is clear. Civilization VI is faster and it's particularly noticeable when playing on larger maps.
Forty-eight hours later, I feel like Civilization VI is the best launch state that a Civilization game has ever been released in.
However, because of the niggling issues that I've spent a fair amount of time thinking and writing about, my recommendation is split. So here it is. If you're a Civilization fanatic that's burnt out on Civilization V, it's worth a buy. Use isthereanydeal to find the best price, as the game has been on offer consistently.
If, on the other hand, you're still enjoying Civilization V or you're a more casual fan of the series who doesn't typically sink thousands of hours into them, I'd suggest waiting for a sale, or possibly the first expansion, as we all know that Civilization games don't really hit their peak until one or two expansions have been released.
Now if you don't mind, I have a nuke with Gandhi's name on it.