I finally get it.
All those times on the schoolyard in the 90s where my friends would recant hours-long sessions in front of Sid Meier’s Civilization series, the appeal of which I never understood because it looked like you were playing a very complicated board game against nobody, now feel familiar to me. After sinking several hours into the newest edition of the series that’s been going strong for 30 years, Civilization 6, I finally understand the attraction, even though the game is often completely confounding and opaque in it’s machinations.
Civilization 6 is a turn-based game in which you start out with a small settlement, and grow your population and lands into an empire over hundreds of years. It’s like Sim City on steroids, giving you granular control and agency over your trajectory as a ruler that feels daunting at every turn, even as it grants you a huge amount of power and the satisfaction of achieving world domination. You’ll have to manage technological advancements, religion, relations with both neighboring cities and countries, fend off threats from environmental disasters and from warring factions outside your gates, and so. Much. More.
If Civ 6 sounds like an overwhelming experience, you wouldn’t be wrong. I think if the game was more fast-paced, it would probably induce brain problems, but the turn-based system keeps the pace relatively manageable. Thankfully, the thoughtfully-designed interface (once you get the hang of it) lets you juggle all of your key elements and shunt away anything that isn’t critical at that moment. The grid system is intuitive and allows you to manage individual units and settlements easily. The graphics and the music – usual orchestral stuff – are up to par with a game of this type and serve their purposes well, if in a fairly unremarkable way. You’re pretty much just moving pieces around a board, so don’t expect Uncharted or Final Fantasy production values here.
When you start a new game of Civilization, you have a few options of how it’ll play out. You can use one of a few scenarios where you’re assigned a ruler (I chose Cleopatra) and you’ll be given a designated area to start your empire, or you can create a game yourself and decide the conditions. This latter is more interesting but adds so much more work to even begin your game that I ended up spending a lot more time in my Cleopatra scenario.
Even though it’s – on paper – a lot larger in scope, I think the one shortcoming of Civilization 6 over, say, a game like Frostpunk is that it doesn’t do enough to impress the gravity of your decision-making on your population and on the world at large. Every choice I made in Frostpunk – things like whether to enact child labour in order to keep the heat going, or to stop doing life-saving surgery so that those resources can be reallocated to growing food – was agonizing, and came with both good and bad implications that made me think hard about my morals and values. In Civilization, and maybe this is my experience as a new player, it mostly feels like calculus. Attack this city or send an envoy to these tribal lands and make various numbers go up and down. It doesn’t feel very connected to how the population is affected and makes it easier to make the, well, easier and perhaps more ruthless decisions.
All of this being said, Civilization 6 offers a lot to gamers that are interested in this sort of thing. It’s deceptively easy to get sucked in and there’s a natural progression of just trying to figure out the interface to managing multiple cities at once. There’s a real feeling of accomplishment when you look over your newly-built empire and admire your hard work and the hard-fought victories of your population. That moment that your first city achieves space travel, or builds a monument to last the ages, or develops the world’s first great writer or scientist is an adrenaline rush that’s unique to Sid Meier’s series. It’s a feeling that, now that I get it, I’ll be chasing for hours.
Civilization 6 is available on PS4, Xbox One, PC, and Switch. We reviewed the PS4 version.