Like I’ve said before, I’ve always hated the barbarians in Civilization games. I understand their purpose in the early game. They’re a really good automatic balancing tool for map generation. If the RNG blesses you with a bit of extra space, then that’s more blind space for barbarians to spawn in. If you’re close to an enemy, then there won’t be space for barbarians. Either way, you need to build defenses. They also keep you busy during those slow periods of the early game where you would otherwise just smash the “Next Turn” button over and over again. And on top of all that, they’re thematically appropriate for the bronze age.
But then a few hours later you get into the industrial age and you’re still running into barbarians, which are now ridiculously inappropriate, nonsensical, and irritating.
A Barbarian by Another Name
To a certain extent, my problem comes down to calling these non-player units “barbarians”. See, the barbarians usually have access to the best units in the game – even if those units haven’t been built yet! I’ve had gamesIn Civ V, not Civ VI. where I was the technological leader. I was going for some sort of non-combat victory like religion, culture, or science, and I was making sure to keep my neighbors happy. I had a bunch of military units that I’d researched but never built. These units can only be built by a complex society. You need factories. You need an educated workforce. You need electricity. You need access to strategic resources like iron, niter, or oil. And even then, it takes you many turns to make them.
But then here comes a bunch of “barbarians” rolling up with those cutting-edge units, produced for free in their village of mud huts. Now, if this was just some Starcraft-style game about shooting each other then this wouldn’t be a big deal. But in a game specifically about simulating CIVILIZATION ITSELF, this is completely obnoxious.
The last time I brought this up, some people described late-game barbarians as being things like separatists, cartels, rebels, insurgents, and other military groups that aren’t aligned with any government, rather than assuming they’re literal loincloth-wearing savages piloting attack helicopters and aircraft carriers.
This “barbarians are rebels” interpretation certainly makes more sense. My problem with this is threefold:
- That’s not what the game calls them. It would really help if, somewhere after the middle ages, the games swapped labels so that barbarians were called “separatists” or whatever.
- The game visually depicts them as barbarians. I vividly remember a moment in Civilization V where I had to fight a “barbarian” BATTLESHIP. So then I tracked down their home base to finish them off. Their home was a cluster of huts inside a rough palisade wall. That is ridiculous, regardless of what you call them.
- The game already has mechanics for separatists! You can have a city go rogue if their loyalty gets too low. Sometimes individual units can rebelThis mostly happens in response to the work of enemy spies, but it does happen. and you’ll end up with a hostile tank rampaging through the heart of your nation. In this case, it’s a tank built by a PLAYER as a product of their complex society, not a tank conjured up out of nowhere by a bunch of losers camping out in the wilderness.
Also, I feel strongly that rebels, insurgents, barbarians, or whatever we call them, should never have access to the latest technology and never ever have access to technology that hasn’t even been built yet. Yes, you sometimes wind up with camps or outposts of people equipped with modern weapons. They get weapons that have become commonplace in the wider world: Assault rifles, grenades, etc. But they don’t build those things themselves. They obtain those things through theft or trade. It’s literally impossible for them to obtain weapons more advanced than the superpowers they’re attacking. Please, don’t drag me back to TIM Island. That place is a madhouse.
As a rule of thumb, I think these non-faction units should only obtain units that:
- Are available to 2 or more players.
- Have been built at least once by a player.
I’ve always had this problem with the series, although Civilization VI made it worse by intensifying the frequency of barbarian activity in the early game. At Prince difficultyThe default. they spawn incessantly. You’ll finally stomp out a barbarian camp that’s been harassing you for a dozen turns, and another one will pop up before your units can even make it home. I’ve found turning them off helps a lot, although the game logic doesn’t adjust for non-barbarian games. I’ve had rival leaders call me up and berate me for allowing barbarians to run rampant in my territory when playing a game where barbarians literally can’t spawnI assume that the AI looks at how many barbarian camps you’ve taken out to judge if you’re doing a good job, and this logic would fall apart if there aren’t any for you to kill.. Also, killing barbarians in the early stages of the game is going to be your main source of Era Points. Without them, I found it tricky to avoid a dark age.
But my big gripe with barbarians is that they make the early stages of the game so much more combat-focused, and…
I’ve NEVER Liked the Combat in Civilization
I’m here for the long-term strategic planning, not the combat. I realize this is a bit like saying, “I like Tomb Raider, except for all the climbing,” but that’s the kind of fickle thinking you get from half-committed casual fans like me. I’m not saying that the game would be better if the designers got rid of combat entirely. You need the combat because the game would be too shallow without it. Also, it would make no damn sense to simulate civilizations without warfare. That’s like trying to simulate dodgeball with no ball.
Occasionally I’ll try to imagine a game that contains all the Civ stuff I like without any of the stuff I hate, and I can’t picture itAnd no, it’s not Sim City, smartass.. I’ve never figured out what it is that I enjoy about fussing with the layouts of my cities in Civ, so I’m not sure how that idea could be transplanted elsewhere.
Anyway. I don’t like the combat. Making matters worse is that the combat itself really breaks the flow of the game. Once a war starts, the pace of the game slows to a crawl as you spend every turn fiddling with dozens of little units.
Here’s the kind of scenario that drives me up the wall:
I’m going for some sort of cultural / religious / science victory, and so I’m trying to get the other factions to leave me alone and fight each other. But then one of them just HAS to pick a fight with me. So I spend several turns crash-spending to get my army up to size for a proper fight, and divert all my resources from science and start dumping it into military production. Then I have to spend a dozen or so turns getting everyone into place. Then I (hopefully) spend the next dozen or so turns crushing the invaders.
Now, the AI won’t let up just because you wiped out their army. They’ll keep pumping out units and harassing you forever, because the AI LOVES this combat and could do it all day. If you want them to go away, you need to give them a bloody nose. This usually means taking a couple of their stupid worthless annoying low-population citiesTheir good cities will probably be far away and hard to reach unless I’m willing to spend the next two hours clawing my way through their entire empire, one worthless city at a time..
So I spend another handful of turns marching my guys into position and batter down the defenses of their nearest city. Then once the city is helpless I realize none of my units are able to capture it. Some units can capture and some can’t. On one hand, I get that a trebuchet can’t roll into a city and announce that it’s running things from now on. On the other hand, that trebuchet isn’t rolling around the countryside all by itself, is it? It presumably has people taking care of it. I guess those people didn’t bring any firearms with them so they have nothing to point at the civilians inside?
Fine. Whatever. I spend a few turns building a footsoldier, then a few more nudging him across the map, one turn at a time, until he’s near the city. Then just as I’m one space away, the target city JUST HAPPENS to crank out an anti-personnel unit that wipes out my footsoldier in a single turn and now I need to spend another dozen turns building another and moving it into position. Except I can’t do that because I just closed the game. I can’t bear to spend the next two hours of my life with this fussy nonsesense just so this stupid AI will fuck off and bother someone in his own weight class. This entire war is a foregone conclusion, but the AI doesn’t care.
This is made worse by the way unit movement is handled. Advanced units are able to move many spaces per turn, but they can still only attack onceEr. My memory on this is a little vague. I’m not sure if this was always the case.. So my tank can only kill one spearman a yearOr whatever the years-per-turn rate is at this point in the game.. This means that fights take the same number of turns, regardless of how mismatched the two sides are. Per turn, each of your massively overpowered future-machines can still only defeat ONE feeble dude with a low-tech weapon. If your adversary is feeling frisky, they can flood the map with worthless units that completely stonewall your modern army for ages.
Civ VI doesn’t change the combat very much from the previous versions, but I wanted to whine about this anyway. This is one of those situations where I honestly don’t have any suggestions for the developers. I don’t think you could fix this for me without ruining it for proper fans of the series.
One final note: At the start of this series I mentioned I wasn’t a fan of the cartoonish art. People in the comments asked the perfectly reasonable question, “Why can’t Civilization games be cartoonish?” And yeah, given the silly layers of abstraction these games have, it makes a lot of sense to lean AWAY from photorealism. But I still don’t like the art style.
The only explanation I can offer is that it reminds me of a lot of the art I see advertised on mobile games. Maybe I’m just put off because this art style has been used to sell crap for the last few years? Or maybe the art suggests a certain comedic vibe that the game itself doesn’t deliver on? I dunno. I can’t say it’s bad, but it did feel odd to me for whatever reason.
So that’s a big pile of random thoughts and digressions on the Civilization series in general and occasionally on Civilization VI in particular. I’ll admit this series was a little light on detailed analysis due to my status as a detached casual fan. That’s fine. I think it worked out anyway. We had some good conversations about 4X games, some people taught me a bit more about the mechanics, and I was reminded that I should really find the time to revisit Master of Orion 2 again someday.
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 In Civ V, not Civ VI.
 This mostly happens in response to the work of enemy spies, but it does happen.
 The default.
 I assume that the AI looks at how many barbarian camps you’ve taken out to judge if you’re doing a good job, and this logic would fall apart if there aren’t any for you to kill.
 And no, it’s not Sim City, smartass.
 Their good cities will probably be far away and hard to reach unless I’m willing to spend the next two hours clawing my way through their entire empire, one worthless city at a time.
 Er. My memory on this is a little vague. I’m not sure if this was always the case.
 Or whatever the years-per-turn rate is at this point in the game.
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