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5:14pm on Friday, 28th October, 2016:

Civilisation VI


So, I've been playing Civilisation VI for past few days. I'm disappointed.

I do like the fact that Sean Bean is the narrator and that someone else with a northern accent is the advisor. Lots of the English city names from are from Yorkshire, too (they even have Hull in there!). OK, so the short quotations Sean Bean says fall flat on their face (as if they were selected by someone who has been trained in what a sense of humour is, but who doesn't actually possess one personally), but at least someone made the effort.

I also like the graphics, because they look just like the kind you get in those free-to-play mobile phone games that scream "look at me, I'm polished". Civ6 is indeed polished, but it's the kind of polish that pleases those who just like to look at their own reflection, rather than bringing out the best qualities of the game beneath.

Before I launch into what I don't like about the game (which is more often than not what I would like if only they'd done it differently), I'll just say that I'm only on my fourth game. The first game was the tutorial; the second was on a standard map at easiest-level difficulty; the third was on a huge map at second-easiest-level difficulty, which I abandoned after about 6 hours of play because I'd started on an island and by the time I could get off it there was nowhere to settle; my current game is also at second-easiest-difficulty on a huge map, but with two fewer opposition civs in order to give me space to grow if I wound up starting on a one-city island again (which I didn't, as it happens). It may be that once I've played the game for hundreds of hours the full glory of its interlocking systems will present itself and I'll see what a wonderful masterpiece it is. However, these are my thoughts after only 30 hours of play.

Briefly, it tries too hard, it puts too many disparate things together, and the result is a mess.

I'll start with the interface. It's all over the place. Now having an interface that feels as if it's been constructed by four individual interface designers who have been locked in separate rooms and forbidden from communicating is a Civ classic, so I can't say I'm too bothered by this. I have yet to find out where the button is that tells me where my units are, though (I suspect there may not be one). I can't even find the button that brings up the Civilopedia – I have to use F9, which I only discovered would do it by looking at the key bindings in the Game Options menu. There are issues with the policies menu and the spies menu that shouldn't be there (really, the number one reason I want a spy is to stop people spying on my capital city, so I have to click on the capital at the top of the screen, then click on the confirmation button at the bottom of the screen, then click on the counter-espionage for my city-centre at the top of the screen – I'm going to wear out my mouse mat). As for "Japan has a Apostle", we knew about that a/an article problem back in the 70s and managed to get by just fine.

The alert system is a crock. Some things you want to be told about (for example, when one of your cities has been converted to another religion), you're not told about. Some of the things you do want to be told about (for example, when someone builds a wonder), you're told about forever because the message flag just won't go away, it sits there the whole time.

Related to this, there's no fortify-until-enemies-are-near facility. This was great in Civ5, but inexplicably it hasn't made it to Civ6. Enemies can walk right past your fortified units without awakening them (or by extension, you). Similarly, if you give a unit a movement order that will take several turns to complete, the game doesn't interrupt it when the unit comes across hostiles, it just keeps on with the move. Wouldn't my settler be able to figure out that walking up to the barbarians was a bad idea and that maybe a change of plan would be advisable?

The game isn't as buggy as some previous releases in the Civ series have been at launch. OK, so half of the occasions when I've quit to desktop the game has hung and left the screen in play mode so I can't even call up a task manager window from which to kill it; that merely requires a logout and login to fix, though, and my save files aren't scrambled or anything. The rest of the time, the game runs pretty smoothly.

That's not to say you don't have to be careful, though. Non-combat units, such as settlers and great people, can be attached to military units which can then act as escorts. This is a fine idea in theory, but in practice they decouple a lot. Basically, you have to chain them together then make the one that moves furthest sleep. You can then move the other one fairly safely. If you don't do this, then you may suddenly find your great admiral sailing away on his own as his fleet plays catch-up (or perhaps the other way round). Also, sometimes when you give a unit a move it'll execute it but leave the unit stacked with another unit that you'll then have to move – whether you want to move it or not. This seems to happen in city-centres a lot when units disembark via the harbour and displace the garrison.

In terms of gameplay, there are some concepts from Civ5 that I was really hoping would be dropped for Civ6, but they're back with gusto. The two that particularly stick in my craw are city states and spies.

I don't like city states. They sit in the middle of my territory, surrounded, spoiling the look of the map. I want to crush them and take their stuff and make the map all my colour, but then other civ leaders will think I'm a warmonger. If I have an envoy-friendly wonder, or helpful government policy, or civ unique ability, city states are OK: I can get bonuses from them. If I don't have these things, though, I might manage to keep suzerainty over one or two of them but the rest will merely over-produce units then pile in on me when their suzerain declares war. I could switch city states off in Civ5; I can't switch them off in Civ6.

I don't like spies. They cost too much, their number is capped, they mean that no matter how good you are as a player your opponents can coast along in your slipstream, and having to give them missions every few turns (the same mission every time, in my case – counter-espionage on capital's city-centre) is a pain. There are too many things people can attack with spies and too many opponents for you to be able to fend off: it's as if all your doors and every window are permanently open. I could switch spies off in Civ5; I can't switch them off in Civ6.

Some concepts from earlier Civ games that had been dropped make a reappearance in Civ6. In general, they're concepts that were dropped for a good reason. Fortunately, pollution isn't one of the ones to make a return, but trade units are. Yay, more clutter for my screen that could have been abstracted away. Also, cities will revolt if they don't have enough amenities (the new name for happiness), spitting out a couple of units which will then proceed to pillage anything and everything, making the city even more unhappy. I can't tell you how pleased this makes me (mainly because it doesn't).

A rather more positive innovation is to bring back stacked units in a limited form that avoids the stack-of-doom effect and the lone-pikeman-holds-off-wall-of-knights effect. What happens is that once you get the right tech levels you can combine two (later three) adjacent units of the same kind into super-units. For example, you could combine two adjacent bombard units into a single unit that's more powerful than either individual unit but not as powerful as two separate units; you'd do this because the combined unit only occupies one map space, so you can bring more firepower to bear this way. Combined units are glued together (they're effectively a new, individual unit) rather than chained together, so have none of the issues that chaining has.

OK, so now let's look at some of the new ideas that Civ6 introduces.

I'm going to start with religious warfare. In Civ5 it was very annoying when nearby civs sent missionaries and prophets into your territory to convert your cities, because you couldn't stop them except by declaring war. In Civ6, you can stop them by building your own units (apostles and inquisitors) who can fight incoming apostles and missionaries using theology. This kind of combat is fairly simple, and there aren't many unit types, but at least it means you can stop those pesky missionaries from turning everyone to Eastern Orthodoxy. Well, it would if the pesky missionaries came alone. What actually happens is you get waves of apostles and missionaries swarming over from religious-oriented civs, so rather than helping the situation it makes it worse. Also, if within two tiles of each other there are my apostle and three apostles from other civs, why do the others all attack my apostle? Why don't they attack each other? Religious wars, then, while a fair idea in theory, completely suck in practice if you're not the one riding roughshod over everyone else. I wouldn't care, but they do this even when I've switched off religion as a victory condition – they just want to stop me getting a few minor buffs.

Eureka moments are a new idea that has its faults, but on the whole is positive rather than negative. The idea is that undiscovered technology advances can be given a research boost if you undertake certain actions beforehand. For example, if you build a couple of triremes then it'll make it easier to research harbours or something. This means that in part your research is defined by where your actions are taking you, which makes a lot of sense. The problem is that until you've played the game a few times, you don't know that if you do X then you'll get a boost for researching Y, so you won't plan for it. Still, occasional surprise Eureka Moments for doing something you hadn't realised would trigger one are quite nice (in a variable period reward reinforcement kind of way). They're more important on smaller maps than larger ones, though, because on larger maps you have more cities, so more is going on all the time and you can more easily trigger a Eureka Moment without really trying. On a smaller map, you have to plan more if you want to nurture them.

Speaking of large and small maps, none of they are all that big. I went for the biggest map possible (size "huge") and it doesn't feel much bigger than a standard map on Civ5.

Leaders now have agendas as well as personalities. This means that if you do something they approve of (eg. have a large navy) or something they disapprove of (eg. having more wonders than they do) they'll tell you and adjust their opinion of you accordingly. In the early stages of the game, you have no way of knowing whether what they say is approving or disapproving. If Gandhi tells me that there's a difference between having a weapon and actually using it, is he warning me for having too big an army or congratulating me for not attacking anyone with it? He's told me this in three of the four games I've started, by the way, and still I'm none the wiser. Also, although each leader has one agenda which is historically accurate, they each have a second agenda which is hidden. This means you can inadvertently offend a leader and they just won't let it lie. The more leaders there are in play, the greater the chance that one or more of them will hate you no matter what you do.

Workers in Civ6 are called "builders", and they have a new mechanic. They don't take time to create improvements, but they can only do a certain number of them before they die. There's no way to recharge them that I've discovered, but you can build wonders and set policies that will give them more charges to start with, or that make them cost less to build. I'm OK with this; it's a bit different, and it does introduce some interesting decisions (at least until the stage where builders take 20+ turns to make instead of 6).

I've mentioned policies a few times. These are part of the revamped civics system. So, you have different types of government, each one of which will sustain a set of policies of different kinds. For example, the basic, chieftain government has two policy slots: one military, one economic. Later ones will have a variety (say, three military, one economic, one diplomatic, one wildcard). Wonders and probably civ-specific abilities can add more slots. The policies that go in the slots are either military, economic, diplomatic or none (ie. they only go in the wildcard slot). You gain access to policies through a kind of civics research that runs parallel to science research: there's a civics tree alongside the tech tree.

Now this civics tree is an idea that seems nice on paper, but in practice it doesn't have enough substance to it. Most of the options on offer to customise your policies are padding, and there are very few synergies between them that could be used for deck-building fun. It's a nice try, but it's just another level of complexity that doesn't buy a great deal.

Another new innovation are city districts. Well, they're new to Civ6, but they were in Endless Legends before then. The idea is that rather than build your market in your city, you build a commercial centre on one of the tiles controlled by the city and then build the market, bank, stock exchange and so on in there. There are maybe half a dozen or more different centre types. Tile developments and city districts can buff each other if they're placed in a happy proximity relationship, so for example residential areas will provide more housing if you put them next to national parks rather than industrial zones.

Again, this is something that at first glance might appeal (not to me, but then I've played Endless Legends...) but it's stodgy. There are so many adjacency buffs that if you don't plan your entire city out from the moment it's founded, you're going to end up costing yourself. If you're lucky, when you realise your inevitable mistake later you'll merely have to flatten a tile you've already developed in order to build something you prefer; if you're unlucky, you won't be able to build what you want to build regardless of whether you're willing to bulldoze your financial district, you're just stuffed. This is the kind of mechanic which works well in boardgames that are entirely built about it, but in Civ6 it's like a mini-game that you make a move in once every 20 minutes for 10 hours – oh, and you're playing a different version of it in every one of your cities.

Another of the consequences of introducing city districts is that it imposes a fixed scale on the game. This is something that Civ5 did with its ranged weapons (on a real-world map, my archers could fire across the English Channel) and which Civ6 makes worse. London could build its trade district in Ireland or Belgium on a world-sized map, but only in Essex or Hampshire on a UK-sized map. I really don't know why these city districts were implemented, because all they do is limit what land you can develop for food and give attackers something else to pillage. I didn't like the idea of districts in Endless Legends and I don't like it in Civ6.

This disconnect between fiction and gameplay is something that bedevils 4X games, and it has done for decades. Here's another example from Civ6: suppose I want to build a stadium. Sure, there's no problem with that if I have the entertainment district in place and have researched the professional sports technology – oh, but I will need to have built a zoo. Why is that? Why do I have to build a zoo in a city before I can build a stadium there? Something else that happens a lot in 4X games (although RPGs are greater villains in this regard) is having an explanation for an action that only makes sense occasionally. In Civ6, I can add barding to improve my unit of horsemen: that's fine. It's still barding when I add it to improve my modern armour: that's not fine. Look at what the labels are labelling, people.

You may notice that few of these new systems really integrate with each other. This is a theme with Civ6. It tries to be everything to everyone but then neglects to have them talk to one another. It ends up taking paths that are more RPG than TBS. Civs now have way too many bonuses/units/abilities unique and specific to them. This may be intended to add variety, but instead it adds predictability: the civ is going to follow the natural advantages it has every time. When you choose your civilisation, you effectively lock yourself into how you can win. It's like a character class in an MMO. If someone is winning some other way, there's nothing you can do to stop them except try to win your own way faster, because the dice are so loaded in their favour that unless you have a complementary set of bonuses you stand no chance.

This means it's hard to tell who's winning and why. You can see who's leading in each of the winning categories, but not how close they are actually to winning. It doesn't really matter anyway, because Civ6 appears to have a definite end game to it. This seems intended to be some kind of all-bets-are-off, race-to-the-finish extravaganza that really rattles the nerves. Civs that were behind can suddenly pull out their special abilities and rain cultural artefacts down on their heads, or rack up production for spaceships, or fill their museums with archaeology. It all ramps up, anticipating a thrilling conclusion – but actually it's a grind. I won my first non-tutorial game by accidentally tying up the tourist market while I twiddled my thumbs waiting for my spaceship to Mars to be completed. There are too many things going on here, with different hare-and-tortoise approaches that are meant to make it exciting but which feel artificial and forced.

I could probably stop this discussion here. Civ6 has a lot of features, implemented well, but they don't combine to give emergent gameplay: they favour dominant strategies instead. It tries to be the game for people who like any of A or B or C or D, but sails dangerously close to being the game for people who like all of A and B and C and D. It's still quite a lot of fun, and I don't regret spending the sixty quid or more it cost me. I am actually looking forward to playing it after I finish this write-up. When I do finish it, though, I'm going to leave it for a while rather than crank up game five. The reason for this is because of one last feature from previous Civ games that has reared its ugly head again – and this time it's brought bugs.

That feature is war weariness.

So, the idea of war weariness is that when you get involved in a war, your people start to become less productive over time. You start to fall behind in technology, it takes three times as long to build something as it did before, and matters will only get worse until the war ends. This is to discourage players from getting involved in protracted wars to conquer all of another civ; they should stop after a few cities to get their breath back. This in turn allows the other civ to recover and prepare itself for the next onslaught. War weariness is deliberately tiresome and unfun, so players will want not to experience it.

That's the theory. The problem with it is that you can get locked into perpetual wars and never get out of them.

I first knew there was something wrong when I declared war on myself. This has happened several times now. I'm playing as Trajan, then suddenly the animation runs of Trajan telling me he's declaring a formal war on me; or I'm playing as Victoria, then suddenly the animation runs of Victoria telling me she's declaring a formal war on me. What's going on?

Well, what's going on is that a civ I haven't met is declaring a formal war on me. This has to be a bug. A civ that doesn't know I exist shouldn't be able to declare war on me any more than I should be able to declare war on it.

In my current game, quite early on, Russia sent a settler towards a prime spot near my capital. I declared war and captured it. I got a 50% warmonger rating as a result, but as Russia was also trying to convert my capital to its religion I didn't mind that. Hundreds and hundreds of turns later, I'm still at war. I'm not at war with Russia – I'm actually friends with Russia, as Peter the Great admires civs more advanced than his (which I am, because he started on an island only large enough to accommodate one city and I ate his first settler). What happened was that while I was seeing off Peter, some other civ with an anti-warmongering agenda declared war on me, bringing in a third civ using a joint-war mechanic. I didn't discover that third civ for hundreds of turns. There was no combat in that war, which I settled by negotiation (at least I settled it with the civ I could see), but not before I was attacked by another civ that thought it could take advantage of my war weariness. This civ (Sumeria) took a long, long time to defeat, because Gilgamesh wouldn't agree to peace terms unless I gave him back all (well, both) of the cities I'd conquered off him. Sumeria's unique unit is some kind of battle cart that you need squads of pikemen to defeat, but of course with war weariness it takes an age to build just one pikeman, and if you want to take down the city walls you also need catapults – which the war carts cut through as if they were made of twigs. While I was fighting Sumeria, I had a number of other wars caused by my offending the agenda sensibilities of random leaders, plus two irritating religious non-wars (one of which I'm on the point of losing). I finally beat Gilgamesh, but was still suffering crippling war weariness because I was at war with an unknown number of civs I hadn't yet discovered. My cities were occasionally revolting at this stage, due to the war-weariness effects. When I did discover the (it turned out to be three) civs I was at war with that I'd never met before, and managed to sue for peace, I had two whole turns of non-war before another civ I had yet to encounter declared war on me. I've no idea how or why. I'm past caring. As soon as I find them and sue for peace, someone else is just going to step up to the plate and declare war on me anyway, keeping me in a continuous war-weariness lock.

I'm not relishing the end game. I don't know if it's war-weariness or some kind of penalty for having too many cities, but units that a pre-medieval city could spit out in 6 turns are now taking 20 to create. Districts that would have taken 9 turns are now taking 29. If the end game slows its pacing for dramatic effect like it did in my second game, it'll proceed at a crawl. Look, Civ6, all these negative feedback loops might be intended to make me play a particular way, but I have no desire to play that way. Why would I be playing at second-easiest level if I didn't want an easy game? If you don't want me streaking ahead into the far distance, speed up those behind me, don't slow me down. That just makes the game a bothersome, bothersome grind.

I said earlier that war weariness is deliberately tiresome and unfun, so players will want not to experience it. It worked on me: I don't want to experience it. That's why I'll be trying out the Master of Orion reboot until Firaxis makes a few improvements.

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Copyright © 2016 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).