Sid Meier's Civilization VI - Brutal Backlog

August 5, 2019
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Brutal Backlog is a semi-regular feature where the JDR team plough through some of the unplayed games on their shelves (both digital and physical), disregarding their age or the technical limitations of their era. Only the very best games will stand up to scrutiny today. 

I first discovered Sid Meier’s Civilization II as a schoolkid in the ‘90s. It was transformational — a stunning game that I would play for hours, game after game, just trying to get that win the way I wanted it. After that I bought and played to death the third iteration, the fourth, and the fifth.

The sixth came out very soon after adulting got really real, i.e. I had a child. So it was a no-go for me at the time. Finally I have the opportunity to play it but given its very nature, I’m hoping that a dip in, dip out approach will work well given my limited opportunities to play and my total lack of any chance to have a proper session (two children in the house now you see). 

Look, I've said cultural victory is my aim... Here's what that takes

The Big Bang

The Civilization series is a big one which has been around for a number of years. I’m personally very well versed in leading my own civilisation from start to finish but for those unaccustomed to the games’ wonders, jumping straight into the sixth iteration could lead to all kinds of confusion (N.B. Thanks Ed!).

So, let’s start at the beginning - The Big Bang, or basically just a chance to understand what a Civilization game is, how it works and some of the key fundamentals ready to read about whether the latest game is worth playing. 

In Civilization you take the role of a great leader of a real-life historical civilisation. That might be Gandhi, leading India, Catherine the Great leading Russia or someone else, and their corresponding great leader (or leaders, depending on game and Firaxis the developer’s choice). Your remit is simple: build a civilisation from scratch to stand the test of time and sit head and shoulders above all others. Rule the world, basically.

Your first task is to found a city. Every game begins with you having a settler which can be used to found said city. Dependent on the civ you have chosen, you may have other units. Each civ has differences to others which can provide benefits for certain playstyles, strategies and the like. These differences are normally linked to the civ you’re playing as, so for instance you might have naval benefits if playing as Great Britain, or something relating to ancient building production if playing as the Romans. 

From this point onwards you continue through time, guiding your civilisation. This will be through a variety of mechanics. There’s the research required to unlock technologies from animal husbandry to nanotechnology. Over time you can develop your government and reap the rewards that can bring in-game, since the benefits or otherwise of Democracy versus Feudalism can be significant and varied. Religion is a thing and so is culture, each of which can play a part in growing your population organically and inorganically, if a city chooses to become part of your civilisation. 

Why is Rome my smallest city?

The way you can grow your civilisation and support the various mechanics in place is via management of the map. Your city will grow based on the resources available to it, which vary by position on the map — each map is split into squares with each square having food or other resources within it. You can cultivate the resources, and build your civ’s footprint by producing units. A builder can then make roads, mines and other tile improvements. Military units can defend a city or travel and attack as needed. Buildings like granaries, banks, theatres can improve the lives of your citizens, as well as impact the game mechanics. 

Over time you’ll found multiple cities, your empire will grow and the resources, buildings and people within it will grow too. Endgame is reached when one or more victory condition is achieved. That could be domination — you have defeated every other civilisation through force or otherwise, or by another method. Cultural victory is my favourite, whereby my civilisation is just so damn enjoyable to live in or visit, that there’s no point in anyone else. 

Every game’s starting (and end) conditions can be modified and personalised to suit the game you want to play. The map can be random, Pangaea, Earth as in reality or something else. The size can be small or big, the civs in play can be random or chosen. Over time your opponents will be the leaders of the other civilisations. When people talk about a civ they mean the leader, but that’s on behalf of the actual civilisation too — the meaning behind the term is interchangeable so you will hear people talk about the civ telling them they hate you as well as the civ growing in population. 

At least, that’s how things have been since the dawn of time and before I found my new civilisation in this, the latest version of the time-consuming and delightful series. 

4000 BC

So I haven’t really started yet. This is year zero in-game. What I have done is gone through Single Player on the menu to “Play Game” and found out that route leads to a default random setup. Hell no! I wanted to choose my civ. So, I started again, much to my annoyance when it meant another unhealthy load time. This of course is PC dependent, but it’s not as if mine isn’t an overclocked beast with...a dilapidated GPU. Oh yeah — it was rather good five years ago when I built it. Maybe this will be the game to push me into upgrades?

3000 BC

Hmmm. I decided to start as China, in the hope that I could push for a cultural victory given the beneficial aspects of this civ and its leader, Qin Shi Huang. My logic here is twofold: one, it has production benefits (build things in fewer turns and reap the rewards earlier and for longer) early on for ancient and classical wonders — which generate culture — and two, it has a unique wonder in the Great Wall of China. There’s more to it but this is enough for me right now — after all, I don’t know how the new aspects of this game will impact my strategic choices based on previous game experience.  It’s now fairly early in the game and the builders I produced have been kidnapped by barbarian hordes and Rome has denounced me due to my lack of territory. I have very little idea what I’m doing yet, either. There’s a tech tree which I get as that’s normal in Civ games, but also a civics tree where I decided to choose professional games ahead of political philosophy. My reason? I give you Maximus Decimus Meridius: Are you not entertained? Is that not why I am here?

Oh, arse. That volcano looks rather angry...

Now, excuse me whilst I restart. With all of the above happening, combined with my not knowing what I was doing then — and knowing a little bit more now — I think it’s right to scrap everything and have another go. I could go on, but I feel like I’ve encountered various problems already which will make things difficult from hereon in, and right now I need to learn — not just get my arse handed to me.

See you at around 3000 BC, hopefully in a better state…

3200 BC (Round Two)

Right, I’m back. Time moves very quickly early on (as the game progresses one turn takes fewer and fewer real years) and not much is happening. Is that because it seems to take forever to build any units, or is it because I can’t automate my workers? What a ridiculous design decision that is, by the way. Let them do all the improvements in all my world automatically, please. Ideally like they would in past games in the series — so I don’t need to micromanage every builder unit I have when I need them to make an improvement to a tile on the map, such as building a farm. Or am I just missing something in the game’s user interface which would allow me to do this? The game is sizeable and complex and sufficiently different to the fifth game that there is — as always — a period of learning required.

2480 BC - The Classical Era

So I’m now in the Classical Era because I completed research into horse riding (one of the technologies I can invest resources into researching). I’ve only played thirty-nine of five-hundred turns so far, so a long way to go, but this early game — first time through at least — isn't massively engaging. I am learning all the mechanisms, like the civics, policies and all the rest, rather than using them strategically in the best way to plan for multiple victory conditions in the late game. This is despite my restarting! At least I feel a bit more confident than on that aborted playthrough. Hopefully by the end of this, I will have that. If I do, I’ll be straight into another game and am probably going to be absorbed by Civilization VI for quite some time…

1560 BC

Right, things are hotting up. One civ has just denounced me because I apparently decided to settle in land he felt was his. I think my population has just grown faster, mate. Also, I now have a pantheon within which a religion may be founded; some districts are being built (big new mechanic — I can’t build things like the Colosseum without a particular district it seems) and a new type of government. Still can’t get builders to do much of use automatically, mind. 

825 BC

I’m finding it difficult to learn the cues for things, to be honest. I don’t know obviously when a turn has been finished, or a new one started. I don’t quite know what each choice I make is meant to be doing, either. The latter I have no experience in — as the game is new with lots of choices I have which are new and decisions to make which are also new — and that’s fine, I’ll get it. But the former? That’s just bad user experience design, no? Onwards and upwards as I look to found a fourth city. I must make sure I’m in a good place, both city and population-wise as we head into the AD years. Get that solid base and grow from there. That means I need a decent number of cities so I can enable population growth to match or exceed other civilisations, whilst also providing me with a bigger part of the map, more resources and the chance to produce more units and buildings. 

163 of the 204 tourists needed. Getting there.

525 BC

I was really struggling to build the Colosseum. I had the appropriate everything, including districts. I just couldn’t see anything on screen to allow me to build it when just selecting it in the production queue wasn’t working. Turns out I needed to zoom out to see the possible locations I could build. Fine, but why did the game keep sending me to my city centre if that’s what I needed? Anyway, I can now build what I want, and I’m able to crack on. 

I’ve met Cleopatra and she seems quite nice so far. She’s giving me gifts via her trade delegation. Very nice...but for how long?

450 BC

Oh, yes. My Civilization is so brilliant that a Great Writer came to it and has produced a Great Work of Writing. This gives me culture and tourism ongoing, and that means my chosen strategy — looking to gain a cultural victory, for which tourists are a necessity this time round — is getting off to a good start. I hate war. I keep agreeing to open borders with Frederick of Barbarossa and Cleopatra just so I don’t upset anyone. I’m the Gandhi with the right setting

Yep, Cleopatra has just told me I’m weak and not good enough to bask in her glory. It’s a powerplay, of course, one which I’m unsure she can truly back up…

150 BC

WHY THE FUCK CAN I NOT AUTOMATE BUILDERS?! This was a really good option — to automate the work of the builders — which we no longer have. It’s just vanished. For what bloody reason?

100 AD

I have built the Colosseum. I am a golden god! Well, I feel very cultured at least as I can now have all kinds of gladiatorial activity happening in my civilization’s cities, despite the fact it should have been a few hundred years ago in real historical context. Heck, at least I now know HOW to build a wonder…

250 AD

This is getting better now, since after it originally started strongly there was a bit of a lull. With four entertainment complexes within my civilization, people want to create a professional sports league. That’s pretty nice. I’ve been floating through this to date, with a somewhat puzzled look and furrowed brow but maybe I’m getting going again. It feels like everything is starting to come together, which makes sense. A game like this will always take time to get to grips with — much more so if you were a series virgin as well — but the payoff, if all goes well, will be comparatively large and equally as long. 

There's Rome in all its glory. You can make out Chichen Itza and Oxford University, obviously.

475 AD

There’s Chaucer, and The Canterbury Tales! A new Great Person and their Great Work, in game language terms. I’m getting to grips with all the game’s cues and user interface at last. It still seems unintuitive to start with, but once I learnt how it lets you know there’s a location the new great person can go to and write his works, for example, then I know what to look for next time. Perhaps in reality the game is just mind-bogglingly complex and the fact I’m actually understanding it part way through my first playthrough is a great achievement by Firaxis? This particular point is a totally new mechanic, so if this is also your first experience of Civilization games, then you should also be able to understand. To that end there is a great wealth of support by way of tutorials, an AI advisor who you can get all kinds of support from and a comprehensive encyclopedia. 

640 AD

I currently have the game windowed in 1024 by 768 resolution. This is so I have enough screen space to write as well, but really the more screen real estate you can afford for the game, the better. There’s so much to see in the game world that my current view is limiting. If you have a 4K monitor and the PC to run the game at that kind of resolution, your experience would be immeasurably superior to mine. And the one I have is still really rather good. Note — having gone to a bigger resolution it is vastly superior (I do need to switch windows to write but it’s a minor inconvenience given I can do that rather than being forced to play full screen). Give me more!

When you zoom in, the detail is there to see. The game is really pretty.

760 AD

There are certain games where the first playthrough is really just you getting to grips with it. Football Manager is one, and Civilization games another. This iteration is no outlier, as I’ve suggested a few times now. The depth on display is immense, with all kinds of mechanisms working away if you choose to get to grips with them — civics, policies, districts and all the rest, including the things experienced players are so very used to, like the tech tree. I’m nowhere in game time, either. There’re 500 turns in total in a game and I’ve completed about 150 of them. 

It’s worth restating that for those entirely new to the series, this iteration really looks after you and will ensure you learn how it all works, if you’re willing to put in the time required for a first playthrough — accepting that the fog of war will only slowly disappear, but disappear it will.

1010 AD

Bill Fucking Shakespeare. Romeo & Juliet. A new Great Writer and a corresponding Great Work — both of which are pretty damned cool ones to have as part of MY civilization. I need say no more. Not that he’s really anything more than a special unit onscreen which ultimately helps my culture score.

1380 AD

Builders which are NOT automated are less irritating now I have unlocked more skills and the like, meaning they have much more work to do. Super stuff. I still need to micromanage them, like. This game though is getting very, very good right now. 

1540 AD

Stuff just keeps happening — it’s brilliant. Great people, new civics, a chance to change my government (welcomed by the people), it’s all just making me so giddy. This is so much fun! How long will it last..?

1715 AD

As I get to grips with things even more, I’m just becoming obsessed with certain things. I want ALL THE GREAT PEOPLE. And I want that sweet culture and tourism. Come to me baby. Oh, yes, I nearly forgot. Those delightful world wonders will all be mine. Wait, Frederick has just built the Great Library? Damn him

You know, the little touches baked into the map are really helpful, again, once you get to know them and used to them. Any units you have sleeping, for example, have a flag above their heads relating to what they are. It’s unobtrusive but it means if you want to find something without going into the menus it’s totally possible. 

Lights, camera, action! Modern day entertainment ,baby!

1775 AD

So, it’s now time to just turn the throttle up and go full speed towards my — hopefully — cultural victory. To achieve this I need twice as many tourists coming into my country as any other single nation has its own domestic tourists. I’m quite a way off but growing all the time. Put everything into the cultural path. Forget about anything else. 

1828 AD

What becomes increasingly clear as you progress through your game is how each mechanic works. Take districts, for instance. First time around, I built a district because the game suggested I do so. Next time I know how to find where I can place them and now a few districts down the line I want to build them so I can then collect the benefits. To win. To win well. 

1896 AD

Every now and then some civ will come to me and tell me how terrible I am, or how they hate me. Still. It does get a little tedious. Nothing seems to come from it, nor do they explain why. It’s odd. Perhaps it’s due to the difficulty level I’m playing on — slightly below centre — but there is no threat with teeth, from anyone, ever. 

In other news I’m realising all the things I could, no, should have done differently. I’ll play until the end, of course, as I need to see how the endgame works, but for the next run, there will be changes. Oh yes. 

1973 AD

Oh yes. There I was in 1973 thinking I was going to be getting a spaceport soon, when I recruited a new Great Person, had them create a great work and bazinga, cultural victory is mine. To the victor, the spoils. 

I did it and here's what my Civ had to say about it!

Final Verdict

Civilization VI is a superb game, as good as any of its predecessors. The depth seems stunningly so on this first playthrough of learning and wonder; if that’s the case then many, many hours will be spent playing this game. Even if it isn’t, there are more run throughs to do and different victory conditions to aim for. There is so much I can do differently, want to do differently and WILL do differently. Now, excuse me whilst I go and start up another game!

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Worth playing? ABSOLUTELY - and why don't you own it already?
Luciano Howard

I've been gaming for 35+ years on the Commodore VIC-20 to the PlayStation 5 and pretty much everything in-between. I enjoy all kinds of games but if I had to pick a couple in particular, I'd say I adore Mario and love Dark Souls. I can talk about either an awful lot should you want to!