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This year marks the 25th anniversary of Sid Meier’s Civilization. It’s an important milestone for a series that has shaped the strategy genre in countless ways over the last quarter-century. The release of Civilization VI is the next big step, and after 2014’s good-but-not-outstanding Civilization: Beyond Earth, which felt more like a spinoff than a sequel, expectations are high.The good news is that in the 15 hours and several hundred turns I've poured into a pre-release version of the game—which features all of the structural and mechanical features from the retail release, half of the game’s 20 distinct civilisations, a comprehensive list of different map types, three map sizes, and two game speeds—Civ VI is already very good indeed. It might even be the most in-depth Civilization game to date.Sure is purdyOf course, the most recognisable change is the art style. While Civ VI retains the functional hex-grid structure introduced by Civ V, developer Firaxis has dropped the more realistic look, redesigning everything with brighter colours and cartoonish characters more similar to those in Civilization Revolution. The results are absolutely gorgeous, and while I’m sure the visuals will divide opinion, I’d argue Firaxis has picked the better-looking of the two aesthetic approaches. The game has a real sense of flair, and screenshots really haven’t done it justice—it looks beautiful in motion.From snow-capped mountain ranges and sand dunes, to coastal oceans lapping against the shore and rivers that glint in the morning sun, Civ VI captures nature and makes it look breathtaking. Cities look amazing too, each of them recreated with different architectural components depending on the civilisation you play as, while there’s even a day/night cycle, which brings cities to life with twinkling lights and campfires. There were times I would just sit back and relax, looking at the individual buildings and units, zooming in up close to admire the intricacy and detail that Firaxis has poured into every single aspect of the game.The visual design riffs off the Age of Discovery—the period of overseas exploration between the 1500 and 1800s that helped globalise the Earth. There's a real focus on cartographic imagery which influences everything on screen, with lovely flourishes like astrolabes that adorn the game’s newly refined overlay. Firaxis has even used the fog of war to further sell the period aesthetic, resulting in an ink-and-paper crosshatch effect to depict unobserved areas, and arty drawings of sea monsters and compasses to represent portions of the map you’ve not yet ventured towards. The map organically ebbs and flows like a living thing as you move around it, and seeing new stuff—whether it’s a natural wonder or a brand new civilisation—is a compelling reason to continue scouting around the world.My first city, surrounded by a few farms and a mine.Enlarge / My first city, surrounded by a few farms and a mine.Even as a relatively experienced Civilization player, Civ VI already feels like it’s the deepest game in the franchise. Developed by the team behind Civilization V’s two expansions—Gods & Kings and Brave New World—Civ VI contains all of the religious and cultural features from those expansions at launch. It sets the stage for a fuller experience from day one, and the most impressive thing is that the game remains understandable and relatively accessible to newcomers. Everything is easy to grasp thanks to a better-designed user interface and a well-voiced tutorial advisor who guides you through the game’s countless different concepts and functions.Setting up my first campaign, I did what any Civ player does when faced with a new game in the series: read. Even with only 10 of the final 20 leaders available, I still spent the best part of half an hour scrolling through the details of each one to uncover their differences, and which playstyle I liked the sound of. Much like Civilization games gone by, each leader has their own different traits, with unique buildings and special units available to them, which define them in unique ways.From a purely presentational perspective, the leaders themselves are far more expressive this time around, with wonderfully animated leader screens that convey their personalities as humorous caricatures. I particularly loved the way Philip II of Spain is a pompous git who's precious about his religion, while Tomyris of the Scythian Empire (that’s Central Asia to you and I) is a hard-as-nails badass who hates civilisations that backstab others. Then there’s Germany’s Frederick Barbarossa (pictured below). That stern look and bushy beard aren’t just for fashion—he’s a tough leader and you don’t want to get on the wrong side of him.Frederick Barbarossa of Germany. We got off to a bad start, but we got there in the end.Enlarge / Frederick Barbarossa of Germany. We got off to a bad start, but we got there in the end.After re-reading everything several times I opted for Hojo Tokimune, Shikken (or regent of the shogunate) of Japan in the 13th Century. More than anything, I liked the look of his unique samurai unit for melee combat, as well as his unique Meiji Restoration bonus, which grants extra adjacency bonuses for all my districts (more on which later). Having explored my surroundings a little, I decided to establish my first city on a river, a little way inland. Access to fresh water is vital, so setting up cities on a river or on the coast is advised. From there, I expanded out. jump to endpage 1 of 3Build, build, buildOne of the best changes to the early game is that workers have now been swapped out for builders, which greatly increase the pace at which you can erect buildings like farms, mines, and camps on your hex tiles. Rather than having to wait five or 10 turns for a single worker to finish building some farmland, the builder unit is now an expendable resource that you can use to instantaneously build an improvement on a tile, eating up one of the unit’s three charges in the process. This greatly increased the value I placed in my builder units, and also kept me on my toes as they can easily be overtaken by pillaging bandits.Barbarians are much more active, and also much smarter. They spawn randomly beneath the fog of war, and then send out scouts to explore the map. Should their scouts find you, they actually return to their base of operations to report back before sending barbarian warriors to hassle you. Because of that, guarding your builder and settler units with a scout or warrior is vital for protection. I spent around ten turns feeling bitter when a surprise ambush of barbarians pillaged one of my most precious trade routes to nearby Madrid. I’d taken my eye off the ball and fallen into complacency around Turn 60, and I paid the price for it.The map looks gorgeous, with its bright colours and crosshatch fog of war.Enlarge / The map looks gorgeous, with its bright colours and crosshatch fog of war.As well as unique buildings and units, Civ VI also adds two agendas for each leader which shape how they play. The first is a historic diplomatic agenda, which is based upon the leader’s personality during their real-world time in rule. It essentially outlines how they like to play Civ. For example, Japan’s is Bushido, which means that they like leaders with strong military stats, as well as high faith and culture outputs. England’s, on the other hand, is called Sun Never Sets—Queen Victoria likes civilisations from her own continent, but doesn’t like those on continents where England doesn’t have a city. These historic agendas are designed in a way that makes repeat play as interesting as possible, adding new levels of diplomatic consideration as you see how individual civilisations will interact with one another.The second agenda is randomised and remains hidden until you reach a certain affinity with each leader. It takes a bit of time to get to grips with this system, because the diplomacy screen is stuffed full of information, but these hidden traits and philosophies throw unique scenarios into the mix. A leader may not like civilisations that ally with the game’s AI city-states, for example, or they might dislike those that follow a religion different to their own. It’s a clever system that adds unexpected situations to deal with, while also giving tangible context for the AI’s actions. It’s a great way of removing the confusion from previous games, in which the AI often acted rashly to the point of frustration.As my capital of Kyoto expanded, I quickly started to comprehend Civ VI’s biggest mechanical change—the unstacking of cities. Now, rather than exist in a single tile, Civ VI depicts your cities in all their glory and spreads them across a wider area using what it calls districts. These specialised improvements are placed on tiles of your choosing around the city centre, and with 12 in total, each one varies in function and effect. The campus grants you science points, while the holy site amasses faith. The commercial hub is used for economics, while the theatre district progresses cultural ratings. Most impactful is the harbour, which completely revolutionises play. It means you no longer have to build a city directly on the coast to have access to the ocean, because a harbour district can be placed there instead to build naval units.Civilization VI got an extended demo at this year's E3, complete with narration by Sean Bean.Districts are simple to understand and look fantastic once cities start to expand, and each has several improvement layers to build upon as you progress. The campus can be upgraded to feature a library, a university, a research lab, and more, and it becomes a strategic choice to decide which kind of district you want to have. Each district also each grants different adjacency bonuses, as well as buffs and penalties depending on what kind of tile they’ve been built on. If you want to do well in science, for example, you need to utilise mountain tiles to your advantage. I really enjoyed experimenting with the different districts and their placements, and it also gave me cosmetic decisions to make in terms of how the city was laid out. It’s almost as if there’s a SimCity-style mini-game buried within Civ.With the completion of each district you gain an amenity, which is Civ VI’s way of measuring a city’s happiness. Managing contentment is much easier this time around, because a city’s happiness is now handled on a local level rather than on a global one, meaning that individual cities have their own specific happiness rating rather than your civilisation having one overall score. It makes things far simpler to manage, and there’s now more time to play with the game’s more interesting ideas. It also means that you can build cities as tactical outposts, without worrying about them becoming unhappy and it tarnishing your entire population in the process.Behold: Two tech treesIn terms of progression through the game’s historical ages, Civ VI makes one huge change: the game’s tech tree has been—cue audience gasp—split in two, dividing up the scientific and cultural progression of a civilisation so that they’re in some way independent from one another. One tree is for pure science, while the other—the new civics tree—tracks your cultural progression, which also represents governmental and political policies.A quick look at the early civics tree—you can see the "Eureka!" boosts beneath some of them.Enlarge / A quick look at the early civics tree—you can see the "Eureka!" boosts beneath some of them.The civics tree seems to fix Civ V’s limited approach to game victory scenarios, and now allows you to focus on culture as a meaningful way to progress. Now, rather than gain access to the drama and poetry improvements that would in the past have been a scientific project, you have to research them separately. It makes a lot of sense, and cultural wonders—the Colosseum, or the Oracle—are tied to this tree as well. It also directly influences the types of governments you find. Governments take on the form of different templates—from chiefdom in the beginning, all the way on to ideologies like democracy in the late stages—each of which have a certain number of slots that you fill with policy cards in order to modify them, of which there are four types: militaristic, economic, diplomatic, and wild.You unlock more card slots as you create more complex governments, and each has a direct impact on your how you play. One might increase productivity in all cities, while another gives you a 50 percent increase in strength against fighting barbarians. These cards can be switched at any time, allowing you to utilise their effects in quick bursts, or over a longer period if you’re playing the long game. There are benefits for staying with a particular type of government for extended turns, however, and penalties for switching government too many times. The game even throws your civilisation into anarchy for a few turns if you switch governments too often. It’s a much better way of fitting a government to a scenario, even if it took me a fair while to realise I was still under the reign of a chiefdom government a few decades into a later era.New to both trees is the excellent Eureka! system, which essentially gives you small quest objectives to complete in order to boost the research of every technological advancement. I made it a priority to discover the ocean in my first game, and when I did so I suddenly boosted my sailing research, halving the turns it would normally take to complete. The same goes for every single research project in Civ VI. Kill a barbarian and you research weaponry faster; discover another civilisation and you spend half the time researching writing; find a Pantheon and you research the mysticism civic faster.From chiefdom all the way to ordered governmental structure.Enlarge / From chiefdom all the way to ordered governmental structure.Everything makes sense, because everything is directly influenced by what your civilisation is doing in the world. More importantly, it opens up new ways to play, encouraging you to throw away tired and tested methods and try something new. I love this change—it might even be my favourite in the game.During the early portion of the campaign, I got to grips with all of these different functions. The game’s districts, the tech tree, the intricacies of the civics tree, and discovering more and more about the complex gossips and agendas system that operates the diplomacy mechanic. Traders have also been subtly revamped so that they create roads automatically when they travel to other cities to establish trade routes. It’s a small change, but a welcome one. jump to endpage 2 of 3It's not a cult, it's a religionReaching the mid-game, it soon became clear that I wasn’t going to beat my closest neighbour, the Kongolese, when it came to culture or science—they simply had too much of a scientific lead. I decided to try and gain a religious foothold, opting to build the holy site district to eventually erect a Pantheon, which would then be used to found a religion that I could spread across the map. Religion is much more in-depth this time.As you amass faith points through the holy site district and other buffs, you can buy religious units in order to spread your chosen religion—either a historical faith, or one of your creation—across the world map. It might seem a little bit complex at first, but ultimately it’s a simple game of using missionaries and apostles to spread your own religion’s influence, while using inquisitors to subdue the heretical influence of others.This greatly improved my religious standing, quickly spreading my “Gamesjournalism” religion across the world, though the sacred consumption of Doritos was sadly not a tenet that I could choose from the lengthy list of beliefs that can be used to define a religion. It was only Catholicism that stood in my way as I used my religious units to great effect.I also put time into building some of the game’s wonders, which are absolutely brilliant. They’re treated much like districts and have specific prerequisites before they can be built (the Pyramids must be built on a desert tile, for example). Then, after the however many turns they take to build, you get a momentous wonder video that depicts the construction from start to finish, and it’s rendered in-game so you see it constructed with your empire surrounding it. It’s absolutely fantastic and gives you a further sense of ownership over the civilisation you’ve worked so hard to put together.The game has many lenses, which show information on the map. This is the religious lens, and the white hexes represent the sacred faith of Gamesjournalism.Enlarge / The game has many lenses, which show information on the map. This is the religious lens, and the white hexes represent the sacred faith of Gamesjournalism.Hitting the modern era, I began to reach the later stages of the campaign. It was here the AI threw up a couple of questionable quirks that demonstrated that the game wasn’t completely finished; leaders kept insisting I move my military units away from their borders, threatening to take action if I didn’t—but I didn’t have any military units on the map at that time. The same went for the few occasions when leaders contacted me to say I had broken promises to them, even though I wasn't able to see what those promises had been. Still, I found huge enjoyment in spreading Gamesjournalism across the world and experimenting with the refined espionage system.Instead of pursuing the campaign towards completion, I started again, this time playing as Trajan of Rome. I decided I wanted to pursue a more scientific angle now that I had a better understanding of the two different profession trees, and how the game rewarded bonuses for districts based on their placement. It was immediately clear that, due to the random generation of the map, my experience was going to be wildly different this time around. I was landlocked, so had no real access to the ocean, but I had a nearby mountain range that would prove perfect for my campus and the ensuing scientific improvements. More than anything, I was excited.Further ReadingThe tabletop games we’ve been playing this summerThat’s my main takeaway from my time with Civ VI so far—despite playing over a dozen hours already, I can’t wait to see more. I’ve still not had time to play around with the rules of war or see what happens to diplomacy when you get into conflict with other leaders. There are new formal types of war, as well as theological wars that I’ve not even touched. I also want to see how the other civilisations interact with one another—especially the more unique civilisations like Brazil—and how those particular leaders inform the way you muck around with the game’s new and improved systems. There’s still so much that Civ VI has to reveal.For now, this is a supremely strong strategy experience that already looks in far better shape than its predecessor was at launch. The improved user interface is a real triumph considering the number of different concepts packed into every facet of the campaign, and it expertly balances depth with a logical set of world rules that make playing so much more enjoyable.Bring on October 21.Sam White is a writer, journalist, and regular contributor to the likes of The Guardian, The Telegraph, and GQ. He passionately believes he has claim to at least one duchy—a claim by disputed by genealogists everywhere. Find him on Twitter at @samwrite.This post originated on Ars Technica UK
Uno could probably make you deader...
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