Sid Meier’s Civilization VI, or How I Learned to Deal With Change

Build an empire to stand the test of time.

It’s fascinating how certain bits of culture become associated with specific times in our lives. For me this has especially been the case for computer games, the first type of electronic gaming we had in our home after my parents bought their first computer in the early 1990s. As an adult, no series of games has forged these associations quite like Sid Meier’s Civilization series. While I dabbled in the fourth installment, it was Civilization V that truly hooked me. It was part of the tapestry of my time in grad school, and in fact I have found it hard to return to it since that time. That’s partially because I’m not in that time or place anymore, but it has more to do with Civilization VI, which came out a little over three years ago and has become my most played game in that time.

Interestingly enough, Civ VI came at an equally transitional time, as my family and I were preparing to move overseas. It went on sale on Steam mere days before our departure, and our busy schedule was such that I wasn’t able to complete my first game until we had already moved. Civ VI was there in the wee hours of jet lag, and as I got used to the reversed time zones there were a few 3 AM wake-ups where all I could do was fire up my new game. In my first three weeks in Asia I think I approached about 75 hours. It’s become my go-to strategy game, and indeed one of the only ones I enjoy with very little reservation. But it did take a little while to get there.

To understand why it’s important to consider the evolution of the series as a whole, particularly the transition to the fifth game. It was Civilization V that transitioned the map to a hex-based layout, and imposed a limit on how many units could be in one of those hexes. It was also a more transparent game than Civ IV, which by the end of its lifecycle had become quite sprawling. These changes were controversial in the overall fandom, but it explains why I was able to latch onto the fifth game instead of the fourth, which eluded me a bit. Civ VI keeps those same elements, making it feel like a more evolutionary game than its predecessor. But it’s far from a retread.

Nothing quite like seeing those Wonders get completed.

The big change in Civ Vi was to make cities take more than a single tile. Players now had to found a city center, where a few buildings were available, but everything that is even vaguely specialized now had to be put in a specific district. Science buildings required a Campus District, production buildings an Industrial District, and so forth. All of these districts got bonuses depending on their placement as well, so city layout was suddenly a huge consideration. Not every city can support a Theater District, so not every city will be much use for generating culture. This made city planning a lot more granular, requiring some considerable foresight to really make any sense of it at all. In fact, while the Civilization series has always been pretty heavy on micro-management, Civ Vi is a big step up from the previous installment. There were now two “tech trees” in which to advance, one for scientific discoveries and one for cultural. And then of course all of those wonders took their own hex as well, requiring even further planning. Lest we forget, when I first played it was without any of the expansions. Two of them have since been added, along with copious DLC. As of early 2020, Civ VI has sprawled out to incorporate city loyalty, governors, climate change, and a re-jiggered diplomatic subsystem. It’s a sort of frog-in-boiling-water situation for me, but I can’t imagine what it would be like to take it all in at once.

The upshot of all of this is that I liked Civ VI without really loving it. Meticulous planning has never been my strong suit, but this was a game that felt like it demanded it. It felt much fussier and slower to me, and I constantly forgot to tend to different mechanical subsystems. It was the first time I had been a fan during the release of a new installment, and I soon discovered it was a little like having to learn to tie your shoes all over again. Familiar strategies failed me, and concepts I thought I understood eluded me. I was basically enjoying myself, but it all felt so weird and foreign.

Always fun to play Civ and find a natural wonder from the country where you live.

How appropriate then that I would grow into Civilization VI while I experienced the arc of moving to a new culture. My surroundings were strange and unfamiliar, and the world around me didn’t function in ways I understood. There were many times that I longed to return to what was familiar. But the thought of returning gave me little pleasure. The unfortunate truth of life after a big transition is that it’s become impossible to recapture what came before. You’ve changed too much, and you can’t experience the old stuff without carrying the new stuff with you. Returning to Civ V pointed out to me all of the different things that I had now internalized from the newer game, and what used to feel comforting now felt kind of thin and unpolished.

I now find Civilization VI to be a much more satisfying game than Civ V. Some of the things I initially didn’t care for, like multi-hex cities, have become a source of much enjoyment. In older games, the cities eventually all took on the same flavor, since you could build every building in each of them. But now the cities have to respond to their surroundings, and your strategy has to adapt. I recently played a game as Teddy Roosevelt and America, and my intent was to pursue a cultural victory. But I had such a great placement, well-suited to science and production, that after about 100 turns I had shifted to a science strategy, one that paid off well. It just feels more adaptive, and the different leaders feel less scripted than they did before.

Another big change I appreciate is the combat, which feels much snappier than it did in Civ V. In that game it often felt like a battle of attrition, the stacking limit creating a slog of a fight that dissuaded me from ever pursuing a domination victory. I have never been much of a fighter in the first place, so I didn’t need much convincing. But it feels like Civ VI has a better handle on the stacking limit combat. I couldn’t begin to explain the mechanical causes of this, but combat feels less protracted, and a little less tilted in favor of defenders. I’m not at all sure why this is, but I know what I experienced, and I like it a lot. The importance of combat has also been tuned back from the original release. In the base game I found combat necessary at a very early stage, but after all of the expansions and DLC it feels like you can play a mostly peaceful game if you like.

It’s hard to read here, but there’s a subtle bit of social commentary for those who live in the Philippines in this picture. You may notice that Catholicism has been replaced by Jollibee.

Like any big change, there are things that I will never be wild about. It introduces a Religious Victory, where you have to convert the whole world to your religion. It’s fine in principle, but it doesn’t feel very organically integrated with the rest of the design, more of a parallel game happening alongside the main game. The recent Gathering Storm expansion reintroduced a Diplomatic Victory, but it feels like it requires a very specific set of variables to make it work. It remains the only victory I haven’t achieved, though I’m sure I’ll get there eventually.

But the things I loved, the stuff that has made me fall in love with Civilization in the first place, is all still intact. Going all the way back to the original 1991 Sid Meier design, the Civilization series has been a master class in short-term goals paired with long-term strategy. These games do such a great job of presenting you with all of the milestones that are just around the corner. You’ll complete Petra in two turns! There’s a World Congress coming up soon! You’ve almost finished researching a new type of government! Civ VI emphasizes this even more, by creating a timeline of all of the specific milestones your civilization has achieved. No matter how bad you play, accomplishment and affirmation is right around the corner, and when you look back on the whole game you’ll see the sweep of everything laid out behind you.

As long as Sid Meier’s Civilization keeps that quality, it will be the most popular strategy game series of them all. I’m not sure I’d characterize it as the best or the most accessible, but in my experience it’s the most addictive. You can get hooked without ever really understanding how to play well, to the point where hours can pass by and you barely notice. “One more turn” is the common refrain, and every Civ player since 1991 has experienced it. I’m glad I stuck it out through the rough early going, because it has proven to be a rewarding and addictive game. As I’ve moved to a new culture, Civilization VI has helped me process changes. It taught me that change is always tough, and that I have what it takes to get through it.

The Games I Want About the Things I Like

adventure time!

In the 21st Century, everything is a shared universe. It can get exhausting when we get one more piece of media from Marvel or Star Wars, and in gaming we are given countless offerings from other franchises. Whether it’s Warhmmer, Dungeons & Dragons, or the Cthulhu mythos, the age of IP dominance is alive and well across all of popular culture. But while this can be exhausting, there’s a good reason for it: people like what’s familiar. When you really like Star Trek, it’s nice to have a game that’s lets you set phasers to full, or set the warp drive and engage.

For me at least the issue is not so much the presence of so many different franchises, but that we are offered the same ones over and over. Granted, there have been lots of great games based on a lot of different media, but there remain some gaps. Well, not so much gaps as specific franchises that I would love to see on my tabletop or laptop screen. So let’s look at some popular franchises, and look at some ways that I think you could make them into first-rate game experience. Mostly this is just stuff I’d like to see. Indulgent? You betcha, but it’s my blog and I can indulge all I want!

Adventure Time Board Game

Let’s start with the one that I think is the biggest slam dunk, one obvious enough that I am not the first to make the connection. Adventure Time has a decent claim to being the most important animated series of the last decade, and even though its run on Cartoon Network has ended it still has its fans. That’s why it’s able to support a few games already, notably a couple 3DS titles and Card Wars, a kinda-sorta collectible card game that actually has a counterpart on the show. But for fans like me and my sons, I think an old-school adventure board game is the perfect format for Pendleton Ward’s particular brand of insanity.

When I say “old-school” I have one particular game in mind: Talisman. Talisman draws heavily from the same pool of old-school roleplaying that informs the insanity of the Land of Oo. For crying out loud, Finn even makes mention of his “alignment” in at least one episode. Killing monsters, getting loot, and going on bizarre adventures is basically all you do in Talisman. It has that same sort of mildly nonsensical arc, where you can meet goofy monsters, random stuff happens to you, and you fight your way to get the Crown of Command. All that’s required is a coat of Adventure Time paint, and I think it sells itself. The powers that be keep circling around this idea by setting Talisman in the Batman and Kingdom Hearts universe. Maybe they’ll get there eventually.

And if you aren’t wild about Talisman, there are a ton of light dungeon-crawling games that are just screaming for Jake the Dog and Finn the Human. Old games like Dungeonquest or Heroquest are layups, and even newer stuff like Clank would work. Adventure Time screams for a good adventure game. Let’s make this happen, Cartoon Network!

Great snakes!

The Adventures of Tintin Graphic Adventure

I’m one of those snooty comics fans whose formative experience in the medium was The Adventures of Tintin. It remains a somewhat niche series in the US, but the rest of the world has grown to love the adventures of Tintin, Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus, and all the others. I also enjoy graphic adventure games from the 1990s, particularly those made by LucasArts. The way they resolve around puzzles, vibrant characters, and compelling stories means that it would be a great fit for Herge’s seminal series.

In its way, this could serve as a bit of a corrective to some tired elements of both Tintin and of graphic adventure games. Adventure games trended toward broad goofy comedy, requiring the player to do some silly stuff to get from point A to point B. This was most noticeable with LucasArts, who for all their great games worked best when they could laugh at themselves. But Tintin has enough different characters that it could be approached almost like Day of the Tentacle, which let the player switch between different viewpoints and plots all happening in different time periods. You can give more serious puzzles to Tintin and Snowy, more comedic pratfall stuff to Captain Haddock or Thompson & Thomson, and even science puzzles to Professor Calculus. There’s a lot of room for variety, globe-hopping, and mystery. Combine it with the ligne-claire style utilized by Herge, and you have a graphical feast as well.

More importantly, it provides an opportunity to address some of the more regressive elements in Herge’s work. Some early Tintin books, particularly Tintin in the Congo, have been justly called out for their colonial viewpoint and the infantilization of African characters. To Herge’s credit, such ugly qualities became less common as later books became better-researched, and as he made friends with people from the lands he was portraying. That said, these books are still tainted at least somewhat by unfortunate stereotypes. To add to that, the world of Tintin is oddly bereft of female characters. A more nuanced view of other cultures and more pronounced female perspectives would be welcome, either in a new story or even in an adaptation of an old one. I’m sure the notoriously stodgy Tintin fan community would lose their minds, but I think we’d have a pretty great game on our hands.

The Stormlight Archive Roleplaying Game

As of the time I’m writing this in 2020, fantasy author Brandon Sanderson remains the rare bestselling author who has never had a screen adaptation of his work. While I would pay cash money to see a screen adaptation (movie or television) some qualities of Sanderson’s work make him a great adaptation for the tabletop world. This has already been done for his Mistborn books, but for me the holy grail would be a tabletop roleplaying game based on The Stormlight Archive. This would be a truly massive undertaking, since the series is projected to eventually cover ten volumes. We already have three with a fourth on the way, each over 1000 pages long. I think that only a TTRPG could do it justice.

Three particular qualities of the Stormlight Archive make it ideal as a roleplaying experience. The first is that, as with many of Sanderson’s books, there’s a mechanical quality to how the world works. Magic in particular is informed by some pretty hard and fast rules. This is more pronounced in Mistborn, and Stormlight is hampered by the fact that after over 3000 pages we still don’t totally understand how or why it all works though. I have no doubt that such an explanation will eventually be forthcoming, but the wait might mean that we won’t see such my game until 2040 or so. But Stormlight also contains some wicked combat, revolving around the legendary shardblades. While their exact nature is also still unwinding, there’s a huge potential for cinematic fights with a magic system that could create something highly narrative. (The temptation would be to bog it down in mechanics, but it could be really fun too.)

The actual world of Roshar is particularly compelling as well. While most epic fantasy series have world-building as an integral part, the different cultures and national politics of Alethkar, Jah Keved, Kharbranth, Shinovar, and many other places lend a rich texture to the world. There are also different religions and cultural mores that would make for some fun roleplaying.  

But the biggest draw for me is the characters. An appropriate subtitle for The Stormlight Archive would be “PTSD: The Fantasy Series.” Characters like Kaladin Stormblessed and Shallan Davar are carrying around painful pasts, dark deeds, and all sorts of trauma. Not only that, but they form all sorts of connections as the series goes on. Roleplaying games like Burning Wheel (unplayed by me) have shown how deeply character backstories and relationships can be integrated into a roleplaying experience. A focus on character and backstory would be ideal for Stormlight, and I’d be all over it.

Look, we don’t need more games, and we certainly don’t need more games based on someone else’s work. But we’re getting them anyway, so hey, it never hurts to dream about what we’d like to see. At the bare minimum, it’s good to prepare yourself for the kind of things that you’ll want to spend money on. These are ideas that would make me post the “shut up and take my money” Fry theme…Now that I think about it, a pick-up-and-deliver game based on Futurama might be fun.