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.
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.
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.
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.