I was originally going to title this post “I Hate Civilization VI”, but then I realized that this was a backwards way of looking at it. The hate goes the other direction. This game seems to have been designed to be deliberately hostile to my playstyle.
Then as I did more research into the franchise, this series grew into being a sort of retrospective on how these games have evolved over the years. We’ll talk about Civ VI eventually, but it’s going to take me a while to work through all of these observations and digressions.
Like I’ve said in the past: I am a very casual fan of the Civilization series. I’ve played about half of them, but aside from Alpha CentauriObviously Alpha Centauri isn’t part of the Civilization franchise proper, but it was made by Civ creator Sid Meier and is pretty much a Civ game game in everything but name. Also, it’s my favorite entry in the entire genre. I’ve never played any of them for a particularly long time. I’ve never done a deep analysis of the mechanics, I’ve never messed around with the higher difficulty levels, I’ve never spent any serious time with the multiplayer, and I typically play the games for a few weeks and then never touch them againAlpha Centauri was the exception, but the 90s were a weird time for me. I only played one or two games a year, so when I did get one I tried to make it last.. I’m something of an interloper to this genre, and I’m willing to bet a lot of fans would say that I’m playing the game “wrong”.
And that’s fine.
I’m making this clear up front because I’m (eventually) going to criticize Civ VI and I don’t want fans to feel obligated to defend their territory. I’m not demanding that the designers change things to suit my preferences, I’m just describing why I had a miserable time with Civilization VI. Everything I say here should be taken as descriptive, not proscriptive.
But before we commence with the bitching and moaning, let’s talk about…
The 4X Genre
Civilization games belong to the 4X genre. For you youngsters, when we talk about 4X we’re talking about a game where you…
- eXplore the gameworld to find good locations to…
- eXpand your empire so you can obtain new resources which you can…
- eXploit to gain tactical and strategic advantages that will allow you to…
- eXterminate your enemies!
(This is not to be confused with the Microsoft 3E strategy of Embrace, Extend, and Extinguish. Although, a lot of Microsoft’s behavior in the 1990s makes sense if you assume Bill Gates was treating the entire software industry like one giant 4X game that he needed to win.)
So the 4X genre consists of games where you explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate. Generally, this can cover a lot of games. It obviously includes Civilization, but it also includes turn-based space games like Master of Orion. Simple enough, right?
Of course not.
Like all genre definitions, it’s a little muddy and there are additional attributes that everyone sort of takes for granted. For example, Rise of Nations would easily fit the 4X description given above, but that game is played in real-time and so it gets lumped into the RTS genre with the likes of Starcraft. And while we’re at it, a lot of RTS games also feature the 4X attributes, but they’re never called 4X games. So in addition to the 4 X’s, I think the genre comes with two additional baked-in assumptions:
- The game is turn based.
- The game simulates something on an epic timescale, not a single battle.
We could interrogate this further and talk about how 4X games also overlap with the city-building genre in games like Anno, or with Grand Strategy games like Europa Universalis. We could probably probe these genre boundaries all day and not get anywhere, so let’s just back slowly away from this exercise and move on.
The Civilization Series
The games are properly called “Sid Meier’s Civilization”. I’m normally wary of games where the lead designer feels the need to put his name before the title, but this is one of those cases where the grandstanding is earned. Sid Meier is an absolute legend. It’s true that not all of his games are critical and commercial successes, but his hit-to-miss ratio is incredible. I can’t think of anyone else that’s designed this many classics, smash hits, award winners, and critical darlings. This is impressive considering just how fiendishly difficult this area of game design is.
Meier likes to design these games following the 33/33/33 rule. The idea is that 33% of the game remains consistent from the previous entry, 33% should be previous material with some extra tweaks or refinements, and 33% should be entirely new. That’s a tall order, considering how fiendishly complicated these games are. Sure, sometimes it’s hard to balance your RTS. Maybe your MMO or shooter needs a buff or a nerf here or there to keep things even. But that’s nothing compared to the mind-boggling complexity of Civilization.
Oh, it’s hard to balance the three factions in Warcraft / Starcraft? Well try balancing a Civ game where every match features eight out of dozens of possible factions / leaders with their own collection of unique units, buildings, and bonuses.
Does it take a lot of fiddling to balance the maps in your multiplayer shooter? I’m sure it is, but don’t let Sid hear you complaining about it. His games take place on procedurally generated maps of variable size, played at a variable timescale, and featuring a number of unique eras where different tiers of resources move in and out of importance.
Is it hard to manage player progression in your MMO? I’m sure it is. But that’s peanuts compared to the progression in a Civ game where events are shaped by the swirling forces of resource availability, topography, city-states, nations, economics, culture, religion, science, and good old-fashioned warfare.
On top of all of this, Civ games have this unique obligation to strike a balance between recreation and re-creation. You need to make the game fun, but that fun should in some way simulate or approximate the growth of nations over a period of 5,000 years.
You can see how important Meier is by looking at what happened when he left the series and they had to make a game without him. Yes, Call to Power has its fans, but there seems to be a general agreement among fans that it was missing the magic of Sid’s Civ. Meanwhile, Sid was able to take his genius elsewhere and make the best Civ-style game ever, even if it lacked the Civilization name. The franchise needs Sid more than Sid needs the franchise!
Like I said, he’s a legend.
Then again, he was apparently involved with the terrible Facebook-based Civilization World on the tails of the FarmVille craze. So… let’s just ignore how that undercuts the entire point I was just making, and move on.
EDIT: An hour and a half after this went live, RGP said in the comments below:
Minor correction, but Alpha Centauri was made by Brian Reynolds. Sid’s name was only on it for marketing purposes at that point. Brian has talked about this on the podcast Designer Notes on the Idle Thumbs network (which is a series of interviews with game devs that I highly recommend).
It’s been twenty years, and all this time Sid allowed me to believe that he made my favorite game in the series, when it was apparently Brian Reynolds. I’ll never forgive him for this!
My Time With The Game?
Civilization VI came out 4 years ago, and seems to have been embraced as a strong entry in the series. Since then it’s received two expansions: Rise and Fall, and Gathering Storm. Nobody needs my take on this thing. I doubt anyone WANTS my take on it. But you’re getting it anyway, because that’s how we do things around here.
For the record, I’ve barely played this game. According to Steam, I’ve clocked 60+ hours with this thing. In a lot of other genres that’s enough to play through the game multiple times, but in Civilization that’s barely enough time to get a feel for the mechanics.
For the record, I’ve played through the game about four times. But actually only twice. Or maybe I’ve played five games? Sort of? Look, it’s complicated. Here’s the chronology of my feud with this game:
I played pretty much a standard game on standard difficulty. After a couple of hours, it became clear that my AI opponents were impossibly far ahead. All of them. I was dead last. My empire was doomed, and I wasn’t sure what I did wrong. Rather than ride this out, I abandoned the game and started over.
I played on the easiest difficulty, with a gameplay length of “epic”. That slows down the pace of the game quite a bit. In the past, more turns usually translated into more of an advantage for the human player, since your long-term planning has more time to yield rewards. I played using the Rise and Fall ruleset from the first DLC, which introduces the idea of per-faction dark ages / golden ages. I aimed for a science victory, but despite pouring EVERYTHING I had into scientific research, I couldn’t finish the space program before the game ended in 2050, where Montezuma beat me on score. By a long way. That seems… shockingly unfair. Like, I had a good starting position, amicable neighbors, and I played on the easiest difficulty, but I STILL couldn’t finish the space program in time? What the hell? Is the space program just impossible!?
Also, I’m really bitter about this and I want those 9 hours of my life back.
Once again I played on the easiest difficulty, normal speed. This time I played with the Gathering Storm DLC, which does random weather events and climate change. This time I really tried to make sure I stayed ahead on score. It was barely possible. In previous games, the lowest difficulty turned the AI into addle-headed slowpokes who wound up stuck in the middle ages until the late 1800’s. Now they were keeping up with me all the way. Brazil overwhelmed me with a culture victory in the 1700s. I had enough technology and production that I could have prevented this by going to war, but I didn’t want to spend the next twelve hours of my life painstakingly grinding them down in boring-ass warfare.
I searched online to see what I was doing wrong, and once I found the truth I realized this game was a total waste for me. This game was specifically engineered to work against my preferred playstyle.
Pissed off, I downloaded a cheat and LOLed my way through the game, fiddling around with different systems. Surprisingly, the Gathering Storm rules DIDN’T act as a rubber-band system as I expected. I thought the game would punish success with flood and droughts, and reward failure with good harvests. But thanks to my cheating I was WAY ahead, and yet the storms were always pretty randomly distributed among the players.
Not really a proper playthrough. I just did another cheat run to gather up some screenshots for this series and experiment with the AI a bit.
So even though I’ve spent over 60 hours with the game, I’ve only done 2.5 proper playthroughs before ragequitting.
So what happened? Why didn’t I have fun? Considering how feeble the AI is in this game, how the heck did I lose on the easiest difficulty? What’s my playstyle and how did the game undermine it? Over the next few entries I’m going to talk about what I wanted, what the game gave me, and where it all went wrong. So if you’re looking for shallow and uninformed analysis by a fickle fan who barely played the game, then you’ve come to the right website.
 Obviously Alpha Centauri isn’t part of the Civilization franchise proper, but it was made by Civ creator Sid Meier and is pretty much a Civ game game in everything but name. Also, it’s my favorite entry in the entire genre.
 Alpha Centauri was the exception, but the 90s were a weird time for me. I only played one or two games a year, so when I did get one I tried to make it last.
So what happens when a SOFTWARE engineer tries to review hardware? This. This happens.
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