Review: 'Civilization VI' Is as Complex and Compulsive as Ever

Return of the only game in the world where Gandhi is a warmonger

'Civilization VI' game is out, continuing the series' 26-year streak. Credit: Firaxis Games

I'm trying to expand my capital, but those damn barbarians are knocking at the gate again. I've rained gold and prestige on the city-states that border me, gaining their ear in the process. I've established trade routes to the farthest-flung reaches of the world, enriching both myself and my allies. Most importantly, I've negotiated a fragile peace between my expansive industrial hub and my warmongering southern neighbor, but yet I can't seem to shake these club-pounding hordes. I've massacred wave after wave of them, but they remain undeterred, continuing to harry my southern territories, pillaging my fields and setting my precious library alight. As soon as I wipe out one band and claim their camp, a different one emerges from the north, setting up on the outskirts of my thriving city. In Civilization VI, the latest entry in Sid Meier's storied strategy franchise – now entering its 26th year of existence - pacifism doesn't really seem to be an option.

Then again, when it comes to Civ, one should resist the urge to issue such broad proclamations – betting your fledgling empire on them is a fool's errand. Though exaggerated caricatures of world icons like Teddy Roosevelt and Gandhi might populate the randomly-generated worlds you're trying to conquer, the action here is anything but cartoonish. Civ is billed as a "grand strategy game," and it's an apt tag: the game is interested only in the grandest of human activities – the invention of the wheel, the building of Stonehenge, and, most of all, the cultivation of empires.

If your palms aren't sweating yet, don't worry, they will be. While the spreadsheet generals that reduce notoriously complex games like Crusader Kings or Europa Universalis to an exact science might find themselves right at home, your first few games of Civ VI are likely to come off more as high slapstick than high strategy. There are many ways to win a game of Civilization beyond simply annihilating your rivals – you can focus on science and become the first culture to colonize space, for instance. But at first, when compared to straightforward military dominance, these multiple "win conditions" seem more like ways for your opponent to outwit you than vice versa. Given enough time, though, you come to realize that any path to victory hinges on your ability to keep your opponents guessing.

Firaxis, the studio that makes Civ, faces an impossible problem with every installment: Do they focus on building up what works or fixing what doesn't? Trapped in the intricate gears of the systems they have built, with VI they opted to knock down most of the clockwork and rebuild it from the ground up rather than face the task of artfully maintaining it. Civ V made fundamental changes to the way you arrange military units on the game's map, requiring that each one inhabit its own tile. This seemingly simple modification had a huge effect on how you actually played the game – now that position mattered, Civ became inherently more tactical. Civ VI does the same thing, but for city-building. Every building, wonder, or "improvement" you build occupies actual space on the map, so the layout of your city is absolutely integral to your civilization's success.

Valuable improvements like mines or farms can only be constructed on terrain that can support that construct – if you don't have bananas within your territory's limits, you can't build a banana plantation. And edifices that don't depend on such terrain receive resource bonuses from their surrounding tiles; build your Campus district next to a mountain, for example, and you'll receive a bonus to your science resources every turn. This science feeds into your "technology tree," which determines the rate at which your civilization develops technical innovations like gunpowder or rocketry, but this isn't the only tree you'll be trying to climb – Civ VI also has one dedicated to civics, which is in turn connected to your "culture" resource, which your cities spit out every turn.

If that all sounds a bit complicated, that's because it's designed to be – this is, after all, a game that takes a handful of hours to play even on the "quick" setting. Achieving full mastery of its intricacies will easily take you dozens. The tutorial puts in a noble effort, educating you in sonorous tones about the basics of city-building and the various resources that your civilization runs on, but it can't quite replicate the chaotic shuffle of the genuine article, especially the transition between the early-game into the mid-game, when you're expected to make the hyper-specific bets that pay off hours on down the line. For longtime fans, the in-game advisor does a decent enough job of explaining the new wrinkles in the old template. And if all else fails, the labyrinthine "Civilopedia" serves as an exhaustive catalog of all the game's concepts, big and small.

That's the word for Civ VI: labyrinthine. By the time you've seen enough of it to determine whether or not you even enjoy it, the question is moot. You've digested its interlocking systems so thoroughly that, like it or not, they're part of you now. Such is its insidious nature: for all its soaring symphonic overtures and passionate rhetoric about the steady advance of humanity in the face of unimaginable adversity, Civ depicts all of human endeavor – from literature to sailing to knitting – as intractable conflict, a never-ending struggle to dominate your enemies that reduces every field imaginable to a rat race across a doomed planet. And while jockeying for position on the biggest stage of them all has an undeniable appeal – even if it is a race that you have to train a lifetime for – I can't shake the feeling that, win or lose, I wouldn't really want to inhabit any of the empires I've spent so much time and effort building.