The bad news is we've been losing sleep. The good news is that we couldn't be happier about it. A new Civilization is here and as the dawn rises on our burgeoning empire, so does it outside our blinds. Out of the five days we've spent reviewing the full version of the latest 4X effort from Firaxis we've gone to bed at dawn three times. The pull of just one more round has never been stronger.
At first glance it might be easy to dismiss a new Civ as just more of the same. And to a certain extent that's true. The basic concept remains the same, but each entry has a different flavour to it and Civilization VI has a bunch of new and tweaked mechanics that you'll need to figure out and work to your advantage. But the base premise is the same as are your basic options for how to customise your experience. The quickplay option of playing a random civ on a small map is a nice diversion, but we tend to want to play longer games, with a certain civ on a larger map.
Overall, it is easy to see that a lot work has gone into making every action more meaningful for the player. There is less micromanagement, less automation, but more intelligent and meaningful choice. The change in the builder (previously known as worker/engineer) is perhaps the most telling. This unit is now limited to three tile improving actions (something that can be increased via policies or civ specific perks). In a way this makes the improvements more precious, and of course given the new districts (more on that later) you'll need to improve fewer tiles over the course of a play-through.
Wonders and Great People have been tweaked. Wonders now take up a tile of their own, and boosting that one mega city to ridiculous levels of production and building them all is no longer an option. It's realistic and many wonders are now conditioned as well. You'll need the right sort of tiles and in some cases a religion. Certain wonders have massive effects (an early one we tend to want to build is The Hanging Gardens that gives you a 15% growth boost in your cities). Great People are perhaps not always as potent (some have rather minor powers), but the process of earning them (and the option of buying them with gold or faith) makes for a rather interesting set up.
The split of the tech tree into techs and civics makes a lot of sense. The civics mostly unlock policy cards you can use to customise (there's a different number of slots for policies depending on your government type), and this is an area where you can spend a ton of time and effort in order to maximise your output towards whatever you need at that moment. Specific policies will let you build certain military classes quicker, others can help your economy, and others earn points towards Great People or towards Envoys for city-state benefits. There is tremendous depth here, and adapting your policies to your current needs is a bit like having car that can also be turned into a boat and a plane (much like something Q would equip 007 with). There is a fee to unlock the ability to change things around, but policies are tremendously powerful as they let you shift the focus of your entire empire with a few swift alterations. This speaks to the new depth of gameplay that's present in Civ VI; you have so many tools that even after 30+ hours playing the game we're still learning about new layers and nuances that can be used to our advantage.
Barbarians have been altered, and now they'll start by sending out scouts from their camps. If they see your cities and are not taken out they'll soon return with rather more troubling groups of early units that are quite capable of causing havoc wthin your empire. You're well advised to take out the scout and seek out the barbarian village as soon as possible. But it should be said that barbarians are only really a nuisance in the early game, and it's not a complete game changer. It's more of a gentle tweak to make dealing with barbarians more interesting.
You'll now build districts in the tiles around your city centres where you'll focus on things like science or commerce, and buildings that tie in to a specific district are also built there. This also means they can be pillaged and destroyed and you'll have to consider this as you guard your territory from intruders. Districts have adjacency bonuses, for example you'll receive bonus science if you place your science district next to a mountain, placing your harbour district next to a commerce district yields you more coins, and so on. Lots to consider. And you won't have room to build every district in every city as there are also wonders and your normal tile improvements to consider.
City-states are another area that has changed and improved. And perhaps this new system of envoys is a great replacement of the diplomatic victory. You earn envoys either through steady harvesting of points, or through completion of city-state missions. These envoys can be deployed once (no take backsies) to one city-state, the civ with the most envoys (above a set limit) gets to enjoy a special relationship with the city-state in question. This brings bonuses (they're different for each city-state and could be gold, culture, or faith related) along with support in wars, and being able to see their territory the same as you'd see your own. As the other civs also play envoys, it's a rather neat mini-game, a race where you'll have to pick which city-states to focus your efforts on.
Civ V might have unstacked the units, but here it's the cities that have been unstacked. Combat itself, however, is fairly similiar to Civ V. We played a very interesting session as Rome where we had to explore the military aspects of the game. As usual the saying that the meek shall inherit the Earth does not really apply to Civilization. Sure you can play as a pacifist, but being aggressive early and winning a few early wars does a lot to cement your progress and stature in the game, and there's always a tendency for early advantages to grow larger and more significant over time.
In this game Egypt and Cleopatra grew annoyed with us, mocking us for our lack of an army (playing more towards science and culture as we tend to do), and were angered by our decision to try and expand in a way that cut her empire off from expanding to the west and north. She declared surprise war on us (the AI does this a lot, with very different degrees of preparation). Cleopatra had built a decent army, but it was mainly warriors and with our healthy economy we could build archers to fend her off and signed a rather beneficial peace agreement growing our coffers even more. As that war ended Norway and Spain both declared surprise war on us, but neither had prepared an invasion and we still had a decent army left from the altercation with Egypt. Norway, stuck far to the south, weren't really a threat so we instead looked west towards Spain and went about dismantling their empire, laying claim to their capital. Norway having issues with America (they would get defeated soon after), signed a peace agreement without having fired a single arrow in our direction and we also made peace with Spain after capturing half their empire, leaving them crippled along the western coastline of our Pangea continent.
Imagine our surprise when our dearest friends to the north, Russia, led by Peter the Great (who apparently had a hidden agenda) decided to try and lay claim to our lands. By now we had a sizeable territory and a fair amount of veteran units. So in spite of his pleas as we took out his units one by one, we decided to rid the game of this backstabbing traitor. This in turn prompted Egypt to rise again, but now we'd managed to make strides in technology that made Cleopatra's mounted archers taste the fierce power of our Field Cannons. Her capital was soon ours and in the peace agreement she signed away all her gold, luxuries and great works. The balance of power had tipped over to such an extent that all that remained was to decide how we wanted to win the game.
This takes us to the one negative aspect we've experienced and that is that the AI sometimes makes rather odd choices. Making a convincing, yet imperfect AI is a challenge (a perfect AI would always make the optimal choice and would likely destroy all but the very elite of Civ players), and the convincing part is sometimes lacking in the middle levels of difficulty (there are a total of eight to progress through). We experienced some rather erratic decisions at times. Maybe some tweaks and patching is needed to improve the AI behaviour, even if it behaves well for the most part.
There are some interesting mechanics with combat, escorting units, creating corps, and so on. Much of this stems from the innovations Firaxis introduced in Civilization Revolution, and these ideas have shaped how combat become more focused and strategic, with less micromanagement. But really it feels very similar to Civ V in this regard, and the major changes are found elsewhere in this latest instalment.
There is plenty of variation and flavour to each civilisation and this is something that has evolved over the years. In a way, if played correctly, each civ is overpowered, but the key here is using their starting advantages as much as possible while using policies, religion and districts to either boost that or fill in gaps. China is a great example. Each tech and civic has a "Eureka moment" that lets you earn half the point needed unlock it in one go by completing a mission. An example of this is that building a city on the coast buys you half the progress towards the sailing tech. Now China has a perk that makes each "Eureka moment" count as 60% instead of 50%, something that's bound to help you get ahead in the science race, if you just make wise choices elsewhere. Other perks are similarly powerful, and so it becomes a game of not just playing towards your own advantages, but also trying to keep other civs for getting the most use out of theirs.
We've gently touched on religion, something that was sorely missing from the base game when Civilizaiton V launched. It's a massive feature here and founding a religion early is a great way to outmanoeuvre your opponents. Our one objection to how religion works is that this is probably the most micromanagement-heavy aspect of the game. Once you're religion has been founded you'll want to spread it, and you'll need to deploy missionaries or apostles (these can wage religious war against competing religious units). Like builders they have a limited number of actions, but given you'll likely build up a lot of faith points if you focus on religion, you'll be managing hordes of religious units each turn, and if other civs do the same it's going to be a fairly tedious tug of war over cities without a state religion. The good news is that if you don't focus on spreading your religion, your faith can be spent on Great People as well, and that's true even if you don't found a religion. But there are some great benefits from founding a religion and tailoring its benefits or perks yourself. You'll therefore want to make sure you trigger a Great Prophet early on as only a limited number of civs can do this.
Something should be said of the presentation. We enjoyed the filters and map views and the way wonders are now depicted on their own tiles on the map, it really makes for a more unique and interesting landscape each time you play. Clearly more time and effort than ever has been spent on making the leaders come across as more than just paper cutouts. Even if they can become a bit repetitive over time (can't you get over our war from a few centuries ago, Spain? Madrid is mine now), it feels as though there are some actual relationships forged here during a session. That's largely down to how it is being presented. Teddy Roosevelt feels like someone trustworthy. Cleopatra is seductive yet fierce. And Qui Shi Huang, well he'd look right at home in The Hobbit for some reason. We also love the fact that the leaders speak in their native tongue. The music and narration is also superb. There's no Baba Yetu here, but such themes come around only once in a franchise lifetime and we enjoy the slightly pompous theme that accompanies the sweet intro sequence.
Sean Bean has stepped in to fill the void left by Leonard Nimoy as narrator. It's hard to compare the two, but Bean does a great job and he does it his own way. There are some great moments of comedy snuck away in there in the descriptions of wonders and natural wonders, and this is one production that Bean gets to see from start until finish, and not die a gruesome death a quarter of the way in.
To say that Civ has lasting appeal would be the most obvious statement you could make in gaming. This is a game you can play for years, and as we're being served a generous helping of civs (now more diverse and interesting than ever) right off the bat, lots of new mechanics to fully explore, all the usual means to customise and tailor the experience (the Inland Sea map is something we'd like to explore next), and then there's multiplayer for those who really want to challenge themselves (depending on who you're playing with, of course). We always get hooked on Civilization when a new game launches, and it's not until six months or maybe a year on that we'll know if this is the best one in the series to date, but the potential is definitely there for that to be true. It's deeper than ever and also plays quicker than ever - a combination that's truly an accomplishment. As another dawn rises we're already planning ahead for our next session.