Civilization VI review: Learning from some (but not all) of history's mistakes

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Civilization VI

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At a Glance

Just like that, five days are gone. I fell into quite a few “One More Turn” traps over the weekend, looked up more than once to realize it was past 3 A.M., and I come before you now having made my way through three Civilization VI campaigns.

I’ve got thoughts, both good and bad. But I’ll say this up front: Civilization VI ($60 on Steam or Amazon) is better than Civilization V was at launch.

All roads lead to nukes

A hell of a lot better, really. Oh, the honeymoon’s already worn off and people have started complaining that “Civilization VI isn’t as good as Civilization V with all its expansion packs.” The cycle continues, and I’m sure Firaxis will release at least two expansions (and then an all-encompassing Gold Edition) over the next couple years to fix some of Civ VI’s weaker points.

Civilization VI

But baseline Civilization VI is pretty solid, at least as far as the amount of stuff in it. Espionage, trade, religion—all the B-tier systems Firaxis shoved into expansions in the past make at least a cursory appearance here, along with city states, resources (both strategic and luxury), and a decent number of factions. It at least feels like a full game, which could not be said about its predecessor at launch.

I’m also loving most of the new features—particularly “Districts” and “Active Research.” We’ve touched on both in the past, but only within the confines of the first 150 turns. Blown out to a full-length game the pair start to show flaws, but I think they’re both a valuable twist on the Civ formula.

Districts (seemingly “borrowed” from Endless Legend) make the map livelier, for one. In previous Civ games, all buildings were constructed within the one-hex (or square) tile of the city in question. Barracks? In the hex. Monument? In the hex. Stonehenge? Hex.

Civilization VI

In Civilization VI you still have a city center that houses some of the more mundane buildings. Specialized buildings are now broken out into their own self-contained hexes—like the Commercial Hub for Banks and Markets, or the Industrial Zone for Workshops and Factories. Wonders are also broken out, taking up an entire hex for themselves.

This makes planning a city a bit more hands-on, deciding which districts to construct (you’re limited to one district per every two population in the city) and where to construct them (there are placement bonuses and requirements for both districts and wonders). On the flip side, it makes warfare a bit more strategic because you can individually pillage districts and deny your enemy those benefits.

And as I said, it makes the map just a bit more interesting. Where once there were empty hexes or generic Builder improvements, now cities sprawl across the map.

Some failings, though: 1) The build restriction means it’s easy to back yourself into a corner. The Aerodrome, for instance, is a late-game district that allows you to build aircraft. But if you’ve built the maximum number of districts in all your cities and you’re 50+ turns away from the requisite population growth? No aircraft for you. Not unless you settle another city or conquer one with a spare slot.

Civilization VI

Which leads into another issue: You can’t remove a district, once placed. Say you built a Campus early in the game but later you realize you’ve used up the only hex which could support a certain Wonder or another, more important district—well, too bad. That Campus is there to stay, a permanent reminder of your failure to plan ahead.

It’s a weird choice, considering districts are just generic buildings. If a player wants to (or needs to) demolish and then rebuild 30 turns of work, it seems like that should be allowed.

Then there are Wonders. These extraordinary works of engineering have always been a high-risk/high-reward investment, but with each now taking up valuable real estate in addition to an ungodly number of turns, the stakes might be a bit too high. I found myself loathe to build most Wonders, particularly since their benefits aren’t typically worth the work. A shame, since with the return of Civ IV’s “How-It’s-Built” cutscenes for each completed Wonder the presentation is the best it’s been in years.

Moving on to Active Research: Basically, by completing certain actions you can “Boost” your knowledge of scientific or cultural pursuits, effectively cutting your research time in half. Building three adjacent farms might bring you closer to finishing off Feudalism for instance, or an Oil Well could get you closer to mastering Plastics.

Civilization VI

These tasks interplay across both research trees—the traditional Technology Tree and a new one for governments known as the Civics Tree—and allow you to ping-pong your way up with some amount of skill. I like it! It makes Civ VI feel more than ever like a story of actual human achievement, with menial actions (like owning six military units) dovetailing right into new pursuits.

But it all goes wrong towards the end. Both the Tech Tree and Civics Tree peter out in the late-game, railroading you down just a few research strands and with boring and uninspired units/buildings filling each new milestone. It’s like the game’s signaling to you “Okay, we’re almost done here. Let’s wrap this up.” Worse, a few of the late-game techs don’t even have an Active Research side-quest at all, seemingly tied to nothing in human history.

It’s a disappointing way to wrap, and I hope we see those latter-day eras expanded on in a future expansion.

There are also some weird bugs. For instance, one tech is boosted by building two forts, but the unique Roman forts (constructed by Legions) don’t count. Why? No idea. Same with a tech that asked me to construct seven unique districts, but the unique Roman “Bath” district (an Aqueduct replacement) apparently didn’t count.

All the small things

Anyway, those make up the majority of the changes—Active Research (and the new Civics tree) plus Districts. I think they’re both smart additions with a lot of potential, and a bunch of flaws I expect will be ironed out in the coming months and years.

Civilization VI

Now for the smaller things, and I’m just going to bullet-point these out for the sake of expediency.

The Good:

1) The menu music is fantastic. Christopher Tin, who you may remember from Civ IV, returns here and outdoes himself. I’ve yet to load up the game without sitting and listening to the menu for a bit.

2) Trade is important. With production-oriented buildings relegated to the optional Industrial district, the main way to build up a new city is now to drop a few trade routes in its lap to get those valuable bonuses. And since roads are now built by trade routes (sort of genius, if you ask me) it’s a win-win for merchant-heavy empires.

3) Fewer strategic resources means more backroom dealing. Starting a game without a valuable resource like Horses or Oil is a common occurrence in Civ VI, and it means you’d best have allies who are willing to trade—or a military you can use to take their goods by force.

Civilization VI

4) Great People now feel actually interesting and useful. They’re subdivided into a ton of classes (Engineer, Artist, Writer, Scientist, etc.) and draw from a pool of real-life people. Some provide absolutely incredible bonuses—for instance, one Great General turned my sole mechanized infantry unit into a top-tier mechanized infantry army, while a Great Scientist gave me an instant 500 Research towards my current pursuit. These are game-changing effects.

The Bad:

1) The UI is a mess. Here’s a good example: If you’re re-basing a Trade Caravan to a new city, a sidebar pops up. You need to select a new city from the sidebar. If you click directly on a city, nothing happens. But if you’re re-basing a Great Person? No sidebar. You need to click on one of your cities (now highlighted in green) directly. It’s literally the same exact action, but with two different ways of going about it.

It’s also weirdly difficult or sometimes impossible to surface information that should be obvious. Mousing over a hex means a two-second wait before any pertinent info appears, the Envoy screen is all over the place, passive tech benefits don’t get their own icon, certain unit actions are hidden for seemingly no reason behind a “+” icon, and the Diplomacy screen is both unreadable at a glance and littered with unskippable (and repetitive) cutscenes.

Civilization VI

2) Speaking of Diplomacy, the AI is bonkers. My favorite occurrence so far: Catherine de Medici convinced me to start a joint war with America. I agreed, we went to war, and then two turns later she denounced me for being a warmonger. In a war she started. Our relationship never recovered, and I’m sad to say I had to wipe her off the face of the Earth after I was done dealing with ol’ Teddy Roosevelt.

Keeping the AI happy on any difficulty higher than Chieftain is basically impossible. They don’t even like each other. Every faction is perpetually unhappy and willing to start a war at the drop of a hat. And then completely fumble that war, even when the odds are in their favor. I’ve also found diplomatic trades lopsided, with the AI always offering way more than it needs to or accepting a raw deal for no reason.

3) This brings me to early-game military action. Barbarians are rampant, with camps often spawning right back into the area you cleared a mere two turns earlier, the second you’re out of line of sight. I like that they’re a bigger threat in the early game, but it’s almost too much now, particularly if you’re playing an expansionist empire.

4) And you’d better be playing an expansionist empire. Civ VI removes the penalty for creating new cities that appeared in its predecessor. The result is that “Building Tall” is not even feasible anymore, and factions that come into their own in the late game (America, for one) are much more difficult than spammy early-game empires like Rome and Sumeria, which can build outwards faster.

Civilization VI

5) The Culture Victory is a let-down, particularly because the game doesn’t signal that you (or anyone else) is getting close to winning. There aren’t measurable steps like in the Science or Domination victories, so when the game goes to a cutscene and says “You win!” it feels almost like an accident.

6) Lastly, another aesthetic concern: Districts don’t change in appearance. Cities still go through all the eras, transforming with each step up the rung from Ancient to Information Age. But that Ampitheater you built in the Theater district in the Classical Age? It’ll still be there 2000 years later. The contrast between that Romanesque look and your city full of skyscrapers starts to get a bit weird after a while.

Bottom line

It’s a promising start to the Civilization VI era. Not a perfect start, and I think longtime fans could be perfectly content playing a full-bodied Civilization V for the next two years, giving Firaxis time to get the kinks out, expand on its better ideas, and wrap it all up in one big package at the end.

But if you’re desperate for something new after six years, I’ve had quite a bit of fun with Civilization VI the past few days, despite my complaints. Both Districts and Active Research are compelling additions, and personally I think this is the freshest Civilization has felt in a long time. It’s an age-old formula, but one that’s made some vital changes this time around.

See you back here next year for that inevitable expansion.

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At a Glance
  • Civilization VI has room to improve (particularly the AI), but this is the most complete a baseline Civ game has felt in ages and a few smart tweaks on the formula distinguish it from its predecessor.


    • Active Research makes even the mundane feel more important
    • Districts give life to the map and add a new layer of strategic play
    • Menu music is stunning


    • The AI is absolutely pants-on-head stupid sometimes
    • The interface is all over the place and could stand some polish
    • Late-game tech trees are uninspired and hollow
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