Six questions we still have about Civilization VI

For the past week, 2K has provided critics with an “Early Access Preview” version of Civilization VI. It’s mostly the complete game–the chief limitations are in the starting options. We could only play with or against ten of the planned 20 civs, only play on Prince difficulty, only on quick or standard speeds, and without significant advanced setup options.

After the playable preview a few months ago, where I could only go into the medieval era, I was feeling pretty positive about Civ VI. The Early Access Preview confirmed that positive feeling: this is a game that feels familiar in the right way, and novel for a long-running series.

But playing deep into multiple Civilization VI campaigns has given me questions for the full game–a surprising amount, actually, since I thought this version would feel more complete than it did. But the biggest question comes from the most rigid constraint, the setting to Prince difficulty.

Are the Civilization VI computer players going to be able to keep up?

In every game I played on Prince, even my very first, when I didn’t know how half of the stuff worked, I found myself well ahead of the AI players in power and score. I’m not the world’s best Civilization player–I usually play on Monarch–but the strength of my position in each of these campaigns meant that I never felt seriously threatened.

The AI didn’t declare a dangerous aggressive war on me after the first era or two, which was smart on its end, since I would have crushed it. But the lack of threat to me meant that I was rarely forced to make difficult choices. While this was good for learning how to develop infrastructure, it meant that I never had to engage with several game systems.

Tactically, I never had to decide how to defend or attack the on-map districts versus city cores, for example. Other civs’ hidden agendas, where they’re supposed to respect or hate you depending on certain behavior, like having high population or not, ended up being easy to fulfill. I never had to make a decision to change my focus in order to keep an angry neighbor happy, for example.

I did see good things from the AI at the micro level, like enemy barbarians attacking when healthy and retreating when damaged, but not enough about their overall behavior. If, at the proper difficulty levels, the computer players can mount a decent challenge, we’ll be able to see how well these systems are supposed to work.

How well will multiple civilizations interact with one another and the player?

I mentioned “agendas” above and it’s worth going into a bit more detail. Each computer-run civilization has two agendas that influence their diplomatic preferences and are supposed to guide their own behavior. The first agenda is public and consistent with the civ: England wants to colonize every continent in the game, while Brazil wants to gather as many Great People as possible.

There’s also a second, hidden agenda, that’s randomized. These, from what I’ve seen, tend to be more generic, like being liked for high population or similar government types. As you add spies, you can start to see what these are directly, although they can be figured out easily at times.

The big question I have, though, is: what will these agendas do in more difficult games and games with varied civs? There are two parts to this: will they make games more interesting for players, and will they make game worlds more interesting?

In the former case, I can imagine a situation where, for example, my civ is between two major powers who could declare painful war on me. One of these civs might want me to generate culture, the other, faith. In a difficult enough game, I’d have to choose which one to appease and which to antagonize. If this works, it’ll be fascinating, and the groundwork is there. But I haven’t seen it yet. (It didn’t help that leaders like Pedro of Brazil, who gets mad at you for being more successful at what he wants, weren’t present in this build.)

Perhaps more importantly, it might make Civilization more interesting as a simulation. One of the reasons I’ve been more excited by Paradox games like Crusader Kings 2 in recent years is that they present a complex world for you to be a part of, while Civilization V tended to feel like every game was only about you and your potential path to victory.

But the agenda system could make for interesting stories with or without player involvement. Teddy Roosevelt’s aggressive demands for continental peace could force him into self-defeating wars. Pedro of Brazil’s need for Great People could also combine with someone else’s request for Faith (best used to purchase Great People) to create a bipolar rivalry. Again, this potential is there, but whether it can be seen by players and read as a story that they can be a part of is essential.

Will all of the victory conditions work?

There are five victory conditions in Civilization VI. Three of them are normal Civ stuff that I’m not too concerned about: Science, which as ever, is a space colonization race; Domination, the capture of everyone else’s capitals; and Score, which kicks in at the end of the game if nobody’s won directly.

The Religious victory is interesting, but I’m not certain how well-balanced it is. In this, if you found a religion at the start of the game–a process restricted by the need to recruit one of a small number of Great Prophets–and convert a majority of cities in each civ in the game, you win. It sounds straightforward enough, and seeing the AI launch small armies of missionaries and apostles at one another as they engage in theological combat is pretty neat.

The potential problem is that it might be too easy to achieve. In every game I’ve played, one civ gets an upper hand by the mid-game, and on a smaller map or with a more aggressive player, I could see many games cut short by a religious blitz.

But the victory I’m most worried about is the Cultural victory. If you read the victory screen, it talks about how you can win by getting culture points and pulling tourists to your civilization, with terminology that sounds a lot like Civilization V’s culture victories after the Brave New World expansion.

The problem is that in Civ V, it was clear how culture and tourism interacted with one another. Culture was defense, tourism was offense. You could see how long it would take before one side’s tourism would overwhelm another’s culture at the current rates, for example.

In Civilization VI, though, I don’t see any measures like this. You can do things like build National Parks to increase tourism, and clearly that’s good, but exactly how much good it does seems to be utterly obfuscated. There are numbers that go up and down, but exactly how and why they’re doing that, and if those numbers have any meaning outside of the culture victory, is unclear.

I’m also a little concerned by the lack of diplomatic or commercial victory options. Civ VI is clearly pulling back from the importance of victories after its predecessor may have overstepped in that direction, but having options for some styles of play but not others doesn’t make a huge amount of sense.

How long will it be to be an expert?

In every Civilization game, after a game or two, it’s fairly easy to look at a spot on the map and say “this would be a good city location” or not. You learn to read the symbolic language of the map fairly quickly. Likewise, you also learn the paths you need to take in order to go down the tech tree to get what you want. Need more happiness? Here’s what you need to get theaters, and so on.

Things like this seem less important in Civilization VI than ever before. In my interview with Firaxis’ Anton Strenger, we talked about the advantages of focusing players’ attention on the map and quests instead of trying to manipulate menus to squeeze every single advantage possible from the game.

Now, those sorts of min-maxing options are present in the game, but they’re downplayed. Meanwhile, some aspects of the game like districts are actually more complicated for players. By this I mean that districts receive a variety of different bonuses by where they’re placed on the map, and it’s not easy to read what that might be before you even build a city–so you could a notable amount more gold per turn if your city is built one hex to the north, but you won’t actually know this until you either build the city or learn to read the map.

Likewise, the new quest system, which halves research time for techs and civics if you achieve a simple goal, like building three farms leading to faster Irrigation research, tended to focus me on exploiting that system for fastest research, instead of working toward the thing that might benefit my empire the most.

In both of these cases I found myself just winging it, and picking the thing that seemed nicest, instead of actually knowing what the best strategy would be. That’s fine–great, even–for creating a good experience. But the further I played, the more I wondered if I was doing the right thing or going through the motions. I was a little frustrated starting three or four games and still not being able to really see where districts should go, or finding myself picking whichever research was fastest instead of making an informed decision based on current need.

This is a sort of personal issue to some extent. I certainly could push myself to do more planning. But the game pushes players down this path, and I don’t think I’d be alone in letting myself be pushed. I hope the feeling of expertise does come relatively quickly, but I think it’s possibly that Civ VI may be a little offputting to casual players who find themselves not quite understanding, as well as the intense number-crunchers feeling like it might lack depth.

How are you so pretty, game? HOW?

I mean, just look at these screenshots. The level of detail is amazing–farms that aren’t worked by cities are brown, those that are, a lush green. It’s so impressive.

How well will it run?

Okay, this one’s cheating a bit. At the preview event a couple months ago, my biggest issue was how quickly the time between turns became a slog. But either the PC I played on at the 2K offices was surprisingly weak, or the code has been optimized, because it’s a lot better now. On my home PC, which is pretty good (but nowhere near top tier) I had some time between turns on standard-sized maps, but it was neither excessively annoying nor significantly worse than the last few Civ games have been at launch.

I did have a few crashes, especially in the very late game, but nothing like the apparent nightmare that was the Civilization V launch. We’ll see if the crashes are fixed for release, and if my experience was representative.

In the end, I was a little surprised that I didn’t become obsessed with the mostly-complete form of Civilization VI that I’ve been playing. But that was mostly because I needed a more full range of options in order to take advantage of its potential. We’ll see if the full version lives up to that promise in a few weeks–Civ VI is scheduled for release on October 21.