NEW YORK — In September, Sid Meier's iconic Civilization series will celebrate a quarter-century of recreating world history from scratch. As such, it's high time for a new entry in the series. Civilization VI will launch for PC on Oct. 21, no doubt keeping armies of armchair historians busy for hundreds of thousands of man-hours to come. Civilization has been such a mainstay in the PC gaming world that it's hard to believe any serious gamer has never experienced it.
This is the part where I raise my hand sheepishly.
Aside from an hour or so with Civilization: Beyond Earth a few E3s ago, the series is totally alien to me. I couldn't honestly tell you why. I like world history; I like strategy games; I like victory conditions that don't involve combat. But as any Civ fan can tell you, each game is big. I can handle running through a series of missions, but controlling humanity from the Stone Age up through the space race? That's a lot of responsibility for one gamer.
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Civilization VI’s developer, Firaxis, invited me to try out the game for myself at a press event in NYC. I was allowed to play through the first 150 turns of a game with a relatively small map and somewhat relaxed diplomatic conditions. Did I do well? It's hard to tell; my civilization was still standing at the end of my session, so that's a start. If you've never played a Civilization game before, perhaps your experience will turn out like mine. And if you're a seasoned veteran, you can point out everywhere I went wrong. Here's what happened when I tried to shape the future of humanity.
Cult of Personality
The first thing I had to do was choose a race and, by extension, a person to lead it. (The choices are fixed; you can't mix and match leaders and their civilizations.) Sarah Darney, the game's project art director, recommended that Catherine de' Medici of France might be a good choice for players of a diplomatic bent, since her special ability lets players hear gossip from neighboring civilizations. Other leaders, like Teddy Roosevelt from the United States or Pedro II of Brazil, have strengths that might better orient them toward combat or research.
Darney also drew attention to some other features that distinguish Civilization VI from its predecessors. Rather than having cities as all-encompassing structures, players can now customize individual districts to direct their energies toward specializations like military encampments or artistic achievements. She was also quick to highlight "active research," which gives players bonuses on the technologies they research if they complete in-game objectives. You may get a little extra boost from researching farming techniques, for example, if you go out and irrigate some land.
Players can also customize their systems of government with four different policies as their societies evolve. As you research new technologies, you'll receive cards that can affect your military, economic and diplomatic skills, such as generating more gold per occupied territory, or churning out military units faster. Early on, I didn't find that the cards had significant effects, but they definitely seemed like the kind of benefit that could add up significantly over time.
Dawn of a New Age
When civilization dawned on my French companions, there wasn't much to see: one small band of settlers and another group of clubmen. I admit, between the game's plentiful menus and plethora of options, I was a bit overwhelmed. Darney helped me take the first few tentative steps on the road to the future. Settlers can found cities; military units can explore the map and do battle with barbarians in the nearby countryside. Soon, I had founded Paris and wiped out a group of disorganized attackers.
(Luckily for other newbies, the full game will have more in the way of tutorial content.)
If you remember your world history textbooks from high school, you'll know what I had to do next. Paris needed to start researching the basics. A small stone quarry paved the way for mining iron. Learning how to make pottery was the first step toward a system of irrigation. I had to study mathematics, writing, animal husbandry, and everything else a fledgling civilization needs to survive.
I learned right away that Civilization VI is not a game that can be rushed. This turn-based strategy title takes place on a series of hexagonal grids, and you can theoretically do one thing per grid. Annexing new territory costs gold, but each new territory generates a trickle of gold as well. Churn out builders, and you can construct farms and mines to make the most of your annexations. Scouts can find new territory and contact nearby civilizations. Military units fight, while settlers can found new cities and carts can establish trade routes.
What's tricky about the game, however, is that every new unit you recruit, every technology you research, and every fortification you assemble takes time, measured in a number of turns. Churning out settlers may only take two turns; building a district to celebrate music and art could take nine. You have to be patient and plan ahead, but you also have to adapt to circumstances as they arise. If you spot a barbarian tribe advancing, you may have to put your construction plans on hold — but will you make some swordsmen now, or research how to train mounted cavalry first? Civilization VI offers you a lot of choices, and there's very rarely one clear or "right" way to advance.
France Takes Shape
When I first sat down, I approached Civilization VI with something akin to mild panic; there was so much to do, and absolutely no way to know if I was doing it right. As the turns wore on, however, I started to find my groove. Playing off de' Medici's strengths, I decided to take France in a diplomatic and artistic direction, emphasizing my accomplishments in math, music and philosophy. In order to avoid other civilizations declaring war on my relatively defenseless burg, I sought them out and forged trade alliances early on, increasing my wealth and making them less likely to attack a source of wealth.
I was pleased to find that Civilization VI offers a wide variety of victory conditions; you don’t need to conquer your enemies or build the mightiest city in order to win. You could also aim for a scientific or diplomatic victory, which rewards you for researching certain technologies or achieving stability with your citizens and neighboring territories. There are tons of different ways to play, and the game takes a fairly agnostic approach as to which one it prefers.
When the demo ended, I was well on my way to a thriving, peaceful France, although I was by no means there yet. The Industrial and Modern ages still stretched out before me, and I noticed that many of my allied civilizations were advancing faster than I could. Obviously, there are still a lot of things about the game I have to master — or acquire basic proficiency with — before I can shape world history as I see fit.
Try to Take Over the World
Did I like Civilization VI? I think so. The game is colorful and logical, and appeals to my inner history buff (even if nothing that happens is particularly true-to-life). However, it also advances at a fairly slow pace and feels overwhelming for a newcomer. Since there are so many different things to pursue and so many different ways to win, Civilization VI can feel overwhelming at times.
On the other hand, I think it will be exactly what Civilization fans want. It's a bigger, more detailed game than Civilization V, with a lot of the same hallmark gameplay that's made the series so popular over the last 25 years. The game will come out on Oct. 21, and we'll take a deeper dive then in order to learn how an entire game plays out.
And in the meantime, I should probably install Civilization V on my computer. History is long, and I've got a lot of catching up to do.