Like I said last time, I really missed being able to play tall in Civilization VI. The other thing I miss is min-maxing by building “specialty” cities. And the other, other thing I miss is building wonders.
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and Despair!
I LOVE building wonders. Lots of them.
When managing a tall empire, it’s immensely useful to have cities cooperate. If I’ve got 4 well-established cities and one new one, then I like to use my booming economy to bootstrap the new addition. My big cities bank up money, and then my little town can plow through the first five or six critical items. A new city needs a lot before it’s useful: Some basic defenses, a building to boost growth / food output, a builder to tend the land, an economic building so the place doesn’t drain my coffers, and a factory-type building to get production up. The exact build order depends on the terrain and what stage of the game you’re in, but if you’re building tall then cities need to be robust.
Productivity tends to compound. The stronger a city is, the faster it can grow, which means a little boost at the start can have a massive impact on the city over the long term. I actually think this is part of the strategy. I think that “What build order will maximize my growth in this city?” is a more interesting question than, “How many cookie-cutter cities can I cram into this peninsula?” So I want my big cities to help the little ones, until the younger city is large enough that it can begin to specialize.
My problem is that in Civ VI, this type of cooperation just isn’t possible under normal circumstances. That dinky city needs to grow on its own. Even if you’ve got a complex civilization with a booming economy, there’s very little your government can do to help the city along. You can’t just use your enormous GDP to prop up your new / recently conquered cities.
(Actually, there are a few special abilities that slightly get around this. But they’re all very situational and none of them are available until the mid / late game. By that time, the tall player has fallen far behind.)
Even when dealing with the stuff you CAN buy, the game is designed to make this process as unhelpful as possible. Let’s say my new city just spent an agonizing 10 turns trying to make a spearman. I’m 2 turns from finishing it, but then some barbarians come knockingWith the spearman they produced for free in their primitive camp with no population, no tools, and no economy, but don’t get me started on the outrageous bullshit that is “barbarians” in this series. and I suddenly need that spearman RIGHT NOW. In the old games, I could spend a little bit of coin to knock out that last 16% and get the unit done this turn. In Civ VI, I can only buy an entire NEW unit for full price. That means I’ll be spending 100% of the money to make this unit instead of the little bit needed to finish the one I’ve been working on. Then in 2 turns the second spearman will pop out, and now I’ve wasted a ton of money on an additional unit I don’t wantUnits can cost upkeep per turn, so you don’t want more than you need.. That is SUPER annoying. I suppose I could cancel production, but either way it means that I’ve just wasted an agonizing 10 turns of production.
This gets really bad when it comes to wonders. In the old games it was possible to make some sort of helper unit – a trade wagon, or some other non-combat thing – and sacrifice it to complete a wonder. So I can have city A begin building the Great Pyramids, while cities B, C, and D pump out helper units to hurry the process along. There’s a bit of loss in the process – spending 100 productivity on helpers won’t translate into 100 units of progress on the wonder – but it’s worth it. Hurrying a wonder like this also cuts down on the risk that another player will finish off a particular wonder juuuust before you, which is a brutal setbackOnly one of each wonder can exist at a time. So if someone else ninjas the Hanging Gardens from you, then you won’t be able to finish it. On lower difficulties you get some of your costs back, but the greater loss is the sheer TIME you invested in building the dang thing, and the opportunity loss from NOT building a bunch of other stuff that could be benefiting you right now..
Consider the situation where City A has a massive productivity output, but no use for a particular wonder. Meanwhile, City B is the PERFECT place for this wonder, but it has such a low production output that it would literally take half the game to construct it. If cities can help each other, then I can use this to strategically place wonders exactly where I want them.
But Civ VI doesn’t let you do this. Not only does this make the game less interesting for me, it also further punishes the player for building tall. If I have 30 cities and one of them spends 30 turns on a doomed wonder project that gets ninja’d in the end, then that’s a loss of 3% of my total economic output for that time period. If I’ve only got 5 cities, then I just wasted 20% of my output. Ouch.
Also, the wonders in this game are far more numerous and their bonuses are smaller. They just aren’t the game-changers that they used to be. You can argue that this makes sense from a simulation / balance perspective, and that’s fine. But this was one of my favorite things to do, and it’s now a lot harder, riskier, less rewarding, and offers the player less flexibility in terms of clever tricks to optimize progress.
What I Learned From Cheats
At the start of this series I mentioned that I played around with some cheats. I’ve never done that with a Civ game before, and I found it to be both amusing and informative. So here are a couple of things I observed while using a cheat mod.
1. The Game is less prone to rubber-banding than I assumed.
The most recent update to the game is the Gathering Storm ruleset, which introduces the idea of catastrophic weather: Volcanos, droughts, floods, dust storms, climate change.
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 when I used cheats I was able to see the entire board, and I could tell this was not the case. I was WAY ahead, and yet the storms were always pretty randomly distributed among the players.
2. The Exploration AI is atrocious.
I feel betrayed. For years I’ve been happy to put my civ scouts on auto-explore and ignore them while they filled in the map. Sometimes I’d see it do something questionable. Perhaps it would head east, then several turns later it would cross to the west side of my territory while there was still lots of unexplored terrain to the east. I always assumed there was some logic to the system that eluded me. Maybe it was avoiding danger, or it was prioritizing revealing areas close to my cities. It’s kind of hard to get a sense of what they’re doing when they only move a couple of tiles at a time and you’re preoccupied with running your cities.
Then I used the cheat to give my scout a few dozen moves per turn, just to see it cover a lot of territory at once. The result was so atrocious that it’s only a tiny bit better than moving at random.
I wish I’d saved a video / gif of the result, but we’re going to have to settle for my terrible drawing to illustrate:
I was on a Florida-shaped peninsula. It moved in a series of arcs where the farthest point extended slightly with each pass. This resulted in a massive waste of potential. It would go down the already-explored east coast, reveal a small slice of territory to the south, and then travel all the way up the fully-explored west coast, then down the coast again for another pass to the south. Even at the far southern tip of these arcs, it was doing a lot of overlap so that it was only revealing a few tiles of new material.
My guess is that the AI is designed to attempt an outward spiral. If it gets stuck against a barrierImpassable terrain, a coast, or a foreign border. it simply reverses direction and attempts to spiral out the other way.
This might be a useful means of navigation if all games took place on an infinite flat plane, but when this logic runs into a complex mountain range or coastline it fails completely. It seems to value maintaining the spiral pattern more than revealing terrain. There doesn’t seem to be any logic that drives it to consider the question, “Does my projected path ever reveal any terrain?”
Maybe I’m wrong about how it was written, but after observing the exploration AI for a long time I can say with confidence that it’s complete garbage. It wastes a majority of its moves. Given how expensive these units are in the early game and how vital it is to reveal terrain as soon as possible, relying on the automated exploration is a huge liability. It might be tedious, but manually nudging that little bastard around the map is massively better than trusting the AI.
3. The climate change model is a facade.
The Rising Storm expansion purports to simulate climate change. As the factions industrialize, atmospheric CO2 goes up and the ice caps melt, which will flood coastal areas. The game lets you create projects to re-absorb CO2. That’s an interesting idea, but I don’t think it works in this context. Despite the game prodding you to “Build a civilization to stand the test of time”, your actual goal is to do no such thing. Your people don’t need to live in this world permanently. As soon as a player reaches a win state, all other concerns vanish. The problems of nuclear proliferation, overpopulation, energy, fossil fuel supplies, biodiversity, climate, giant asteroids, and the rising popularity of loot boxes stop being a worry, because Player 2 just completed their religious conquest of the planet and the game is over.
Sustainability problems just don’t make a lot of sense in a competitive game with a visible finish line. Why would I spend my precious production to very slightly reduce climate problems for everyone when I could just use that same production to reach my win condition and render the problem moot?
Worse, the climate simulation is silly. With cheats, I was able to soak up all modern CO2, and then soak up even more. I took CO2 levels to pre-industrial levels and yet the polar ice caps were still melting. You could argue that this makes sense from a climate change standpointI have no idea. I’ve never really cared to study the finer details., but that doesn’t change the fact that this entire game mechanic is doubly useless: Players have no incentive to take care of the planet, and even if they do it anyway it doesn’t seem to make any difference.
I guess this problem is only noticeable if you’re cheating, but that doesn’t seem like a good justification for such a dumb mechanic. Maybe it’s more useful in epic-length games against human players or something? Whatever.
I’ve got one post left in this series where I gripe about something that’s been bugging the crap out of me since I discovered this franchise.
 With the spearman they produced for free in their primitive camp with no population, no tools, and no economy, but don’t get me started on the outrageous bullshit that is “barbarians” in this series.
 Units can cost upkeep per turn, so you don’t want more than you need.
 Only one of each wonder can exist at a time. So if someone else ninjas the Hanging Gardens from you, then you won’t be able to finish it. On lower difficulties you get some of your costs back, but the greater loss is the sheer TIME you invested in building the dang thing, and the opportunity loss from NOT building a bunch of other stuff that could be benefiting you right now.
 Impassable terrain, a coast, or a foreign border.
 I have no idea. I’ve never really cared to study the finer details.
The Mistakes DOOM Didn't Make
How did this game avoid all the usual stupidity that ruins remakes of classic titles?
Let's ruin everyone's fun by listing all the ways in which zombies can't work, couldn't happen, and don't make sense.
The plot of this game isn't just dumb, it's actively hostile to the player. This game hates you and thinks you are stupid.
The story of me. If you're looking for a picture of what it was like growing up in the seventies, then this is for you.
The Death of Half-Life
Valve still hasn't admitted it, but the Half-Life franchise is dead. So what made these games so popular anyway?