Replaying and reshaping the history of the world in a video game is no small undertaking. But Sid Meier’s Civilization games have been working at it, with ever-bolder strokes, for some 25 years.
And that’s a pretty impressive history in its own right.
In case you’re not familiar with this long-running series, however, let’s start with some background.
Each of the turn-based strategy games in this franchise have invited players to assume the role of one of history’s great world leaders. Players then build their civilization over the course of some 500 gaming turns—going from prehistory all the way to the near future.
Each turn allows players to improve cities, to mobilize armies, to research technologies and cultural advancements, to negotiate with other civilizations and so on. The goal is to figure out how best to create a well-balanced country that can dominate the rest of the world through scientific exploration, astounding culture, military might or, in some cases, even religious conversion.
With Sid Meier’s Civilization VI all that gameplay stays intact … only with a whole lot of upgrades. In fact, there are enough multi-layered enhancements here to make the latest Civilization entry feel almost like a completely different game.
The biggest adjustment changes how the bird’s-eye view map is laid out. It’s much more like the real world now. Rather than stacking up cities and their buildings in one tiny clump, urban areas get spread out more on the world’s hexagonal grid map. The result? Players have to think further ahead regarding how they want their cities to grow.
Urban areas are now composed of a limited number of districts that help determine whether that metropolis will be, for instance, more science-focused or more concerned with troop development. Will leaders care about building museums or churches? Is there enough housing to keep the great unwashed … washed? Are there enough amusements to keep them happy? Enough farmland to keep them fed?
There’s no stockpiling of national wonders in this iteration, either. If you want to build the Parthenon, the Great Library or the Eiffel Tower, you’ll need the proper surroundings and space to do it. In other words, the civilizations being built in Civilization VI increasingly reflect the complexity and resources of the real world in this simulated take on them.
There’s also a big difference in how your society marches through history this time around, too. In past games, a Tech tree of possible choices helped a player plot a path forward. Meanwhile, a blocky grid offered up development choices on the Cultural side of the coin. Civilization VI, in contrast, splits some choices off into a Civics tree, too. That allows and even encourages experimentation with the different types of governments—from oligarchies to monarchies to Communism—and it illustrates the different styles of leadership each can offer.
Speaking of leaders, renowned historical figures now interact with the game via more historically accurate traits and agendas. So if you’re playing against the hot-tempered AI of Germany’s Fredrick Barbarossa, for instance, you’d better be careful when helping out any surrounding city states, or you’ll be incurring his war-happy wrath. On the other hand, the manly and mustachioed Teddy Roosevelt is very happy to wave a big military stick to keep peace on his continent. Oh, and China? Qin Shi Huang isn’t so keen on any neighboring states building a lot of national wonders. He’s also proud of his early development of gunpowder, and he isn’t afraid of using it, don’t you know.
Now if you’re reading all this and thinking, “Boy howdy, just those bits feel like a whole lotta stuff to keep track of in a game,” you’re absolutely right. I’ve played Civilization games for years, and the new particulars here were a bit daunting at first. Sorta like learning a new language. But as with any language, given some time and practice, it all starts to make sense.
Of course, that time investment is something to weigh when considering this game. Sid Meier’s Civilization VI is involving enough that even when you’re totally up to speed on all the new rules, it can vacuum up hours and hours of your time. Other drawbacks include the coarse words “d–n” and “b–tard” in some of the game text. Meanwhile, some printed historical references talk of the world’s opium trade and an ancient character’s incestuous relationship.
With a little parental boundary-setting and guidance, though, the colorful characters and strategic historical maneuvering in the latest Civilization contest can be a whole lot of fun—even teaching a few history lessons along the way.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.