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With the New Frontiers Pass for Civ VI over, an "Anthology" edition of Civ VI on sale, and no news at all regarding future DLC or expansions, I'm assuming that Firaxis has finished with Civ VI. As such, I want to look back on the game and reflect on the things that I liked most about it, and the things that annoyed me the most.

After the lifespan of Civilization V had ended, I wrote up a pair of retrospective blogs about my personal Top 10 Good Ideas and Top 10 Bad Ideas that went into that game. I'll be doing the same thing now with Civ VI.

I want to stress that this is a list of 10 good and bad ideas -- not necessarily good and bad mechanics. Some of the good ideas will be ideas that I like in principle (or on paper), but which might need more iteration before they truly work as intended. In contrast, there may be some bad ideas that work fine mechanically, but which hurt the "flavor" or theming of the game, in my opinion.

This is, of course, a subjective list of personal favorite and disliked concepts in the game. I'm sure there will be a lot of disagreement, and some of the things I write here will probably be somewhat controversial with the rest of the player base. So I'm interested in reading others' feedback. So if you agree with any of my points, or you vehemently disagree, feel free to post a comment and share your thoughts.

This content is also available in video essay format via YouTube.

This first post will cover my personal Top 10 Good Ideas, and I will follow it up with the next post being about the Top 10 Bad Ideas.

10: Perhaps the series' best musical score

Nothing in Civ VI's soundtrack quite lives up to "Baba Yetu", the title track of Civ IV, but that song has also won Grammy's, so it's a high bar to live up to. Even so, Civ VI might have the overall best soundtrack in the entire franchise, "Baba Yetu" notwithstanding. Christopher Tin should just be the presumptive composer for the entire Civilization franchise, as far as I'm concerned. His unique brand of multi-cultural orchestral arrangements is just so perfectly-suite to Civilization.

But actually, Tin only composed 2 tracks for the entire game: the trailer score that plays behind the opening cinematic of the game, and the main menu title track "Sogno di Volare". But the rest of Civ VI's soundtrack (which I assume was composed by Firaxis' internal musicians) is also phenomenal and worth commending. I especially like how the civilization themes change over the eras of the game, with new instruments and musical techniques being gradually incorporated into the same rhythms and melodies, adding layers of nuance and texture. It helps to give that sense that the civilizations' cultures and societies are becoming more nuanced and complex, and also ensures that the soundtrack does not become too repetitive.

Check out this excellent video from 8-Bit Music Theory about Civ VI's musical evolution.

9: Leader agendas

I expect this is going to be another controversial take, but I like the idea of leader agendas -- in principle! On paper, giving each leader an agenda gives the A.I. leaders more character and personality, and hypothetically improves their play by causing them to better utilize their combination of unique abilities and units. It's a good idea. In practice, however, this didn't quite work out as intended (and I'll talk more about that in the next post). I think this idea needs some more iteration before it will truly live up to its potential.

Leaders in Civ VI have much more defined personalities thanks to their unique agendas.

8: Infrastructure and defense requires continual investment

I have a feeling this will also be a controversial opinion, but I also really like the core idea behind the new Builder unit that replaced the traditional Workers. In older Civ games, Workers could build an unlimited number of improvements. This meant that a player could spam (or capture) a bunch of Workers early in the game, and then use them for the entire game without ever having to invest further in their workforce (other than the maintenance cost for civilian units).

Builder chargers require more deliberate
planning for improvements.

In Civ VI, each Builder now has a number of charges that limit how many improvements they can create. We can argue about whether they have too many charges or too little, but the core difference here is that a civilization must continue to re-invest in its infrastructure and civilian workforce over time, as your civilization grows, or as new infrastructure options become unlocked. Further, the limited charges means you can't just be building improvements willy-nilly simply because you have that idling Worker sitting around doing nothing.

When the Gathering Storm expansion introduced natural disasters, keeping a few Builders around to repair damaged improvements became much more important. This would come at the opportunity cost of not having spent all of the Builders' charges on improvements for your cities. In older games, you'd just have spare Workers sitting around with little or nothing to do because all your tiles had already been improved, and repairing damaged improvements would be easy.

In Civ VI, the limited number of build charges at your disposal, and the frequency of disasters and pillaging, requires the player to be much more deliberate and thoughtful about what improvements to prioritize.

In addition to having to continually re-invest in a civilian workforce, cities in Civ VI can't defend themselves automatically, as they could in Civ V; you must build walls in Civ VI for cities to be able to defend themselves from siege. Enemy units aren't able to simply walk in and capture an undefended city (as was the case in Civ IV and earlier), but they would still have to spend several turns fighting the city itself. But the city is not able to attack back unless it has constructed walls. Further, there are multiple levels of walls, so border cities will have to re-invest in defense in order to repel invasions from technologically-superior foes. Or at least, this is the case in principle. In practice, however, city defense is still very easy in Civ VI, and I'll be talking about that in the next post.

Civilization VI - Tsikhe and Khevsur
Defending your cities ostensibly requires re-investment over the course of the game.

7: There's a full-fledged reconnaissance unit line now

Scouts have been a frustrating unit in past Civ games. They are useful at the very beginning of the game, but then get quickly out-paced by the combat strength of classical and medieval units (including Barbarian units). At this point, they either die the first time they encounter an advanced barbarian unit, or they have to be recalled back home and camped in cities for the rest of the game, never to be used again. They aren't effective at mid-game exploration, or for exploring other continents once ocean travel is unlocked. Civ IV did allow Scouts to upgrade to Explorers, which gave them some mid-game use, but they were still pretty weak and easily killed. Civ V never had an upgrade to the Scout at all, allowing it instead to upgrade into the normal ranged unit class and lose access to the fancy reconnaissance promotions.

Civ VI finally includes a full line of reconnaissance units going all the way up into the modern era. To be fair, the wait from Scout to rifle-wielding Ranger was a long wait in vanilla Civ VI. But with the release of the Gathering Storm expansion, the medieval Skirmisher unit was added to fill in that gap and add more seamless viability for the Scout line.

Scouts are no longer a unit that you use in the first era or two then retire. They are actually useful (as recon and exploration units) throughout the entire game. Having a viable recon unit for every other era of the game allows the player to press forward with exploration and reveal more of the map in the early-to-mid game, and gives an actual explorer unit that can be effective at revealing the interiors of other continents once ocean-travel is unlocked. It also means that I don't feel like the Scout's interesting promotions are being completely wasted on a useless unit.

Scouts upgrade to useful exploration and recon units.

I do wish that Civ VI's Scout and Skirmisher unit had slightly stronger combat strength against barbarians (perhaps a +100% defense against barbarian attacks), because they are still a bit flimsy and prone to being destroyed by swarms of barbarian units that descend out of the fog of war. Or maybe the "Survey" policy could have included a combat bonus for recon units against barbarians to go along with the experience buff? Either of those would make Scouts and Skirmishers much more useful as long-distance expeditionary units that can operate in isolation. As it stands now, I usually just try to group them up in task forces of 2 or 3 to support each other. Regardless, I'm satisfied that they are actual useful at stages of the game beyond the initial exploration of the immediate vicinity of my start location.

6: Diplomacy isn't completely toothless

One of my biggest pet peeves with Civilization as a series has been its insistence on this winner-take-all, zero-sum, one-nation-to-rule-them-all victory philosophy. Winning at the exclusion of all other civs means that diplomacy is never more than a means to an end. The only exception was the Permanant Alliances of Civ IV, which allowed close allies to join together into a single super-power and win the game together.

Civilization VI doesn't really buck the trend of winner-take-all victory conditions, but it does attempt to make substantial effort to reward peaceful and diplomatic play. As of the Rise & Fall expansion, alliances level up over time, providing scaling rewards for both civilizations. While this doesn't allow close allies to win the game together, it does encourage and reward long-lasting alliances and sustained peace.

There are rewards for maintaining alliances and sustaining peace.

The concept of "Emergencies" also gives a little bit of teeth to diplomatic play. In principle, it allows for coalitions to gang up against a snow-balling civilization to keep snow-balling in check. It's a good idea -- in principle. In practice, it suffers from the inability of the player(s) and A.I. leaders to coordinate their military efforts and present a unified front against the target of the emergency.

But there are also non-military emergencies, such as providing disaster relief to civilizations ravaged by hurricanes, tornadoes, volcanic eruptions, and so forth. I believe it represents Civilization's first stab at representing foreign aid as a mechanic.

All these "diplomatic" actions provide points, which can translate directly to the Diplomatic Victory condition. The Diplomatic Victory in Civ VI isn't just an "economic" victory, as it was in Civ V, nor is it a "Religious Victory", as was the case in Civ IV. In Civ VI, for the first time in the series, the Diplomatic Victory requires genuine diplomacy.

5: A more living, dynamic world

One of the biggest design goals of Civilization VI was making the map much more relevant to the gameplay experience. I personally feel that Civ VI is a resounding success in this particular department.

Terrain adjacency bonuses for districts, placement restrictions for wonders, and stricter movement rules for rough terrain all make the player have to more carefully consider where we put cities, how we grow and specialize those cities, and also how we maneuver our units and plan battles and wars. The map itself has so much more character in Civilization VI, and the shape of my civilization in any given playthrough feels like much more of an emergent property of the underlying terrain. The natural disasters added by Gathering Storm further add to the sense of the game world as a sort of character, since the world itself now reacts to how the civs treat it.

Vibrant, color-coded districts and 3-D models for all infrastructure reveal a lot of the game state at a glance.

Civilization VI's cartoony visual style was criticized when the game launched, but I always liked how informative it is. The simple, vibrant graphics, combined with the un-stacking of cities into color-coded districts, allows the game map to convey a lot of information about the game state in a manner that is easily readable at a glance. Not only can the player see exactly what infrastructure is in every city, but the game also show structures that are currently being built (including different graphics for various states of wonder construction progress to give the player an idea of how close the wonder is to completion). There are also distinct animations for improvements that are being worked. This not only makes the world look more alive, but it also gives the player a better idea (at a glance) of what your cities are producing (and what enemy cities might be producing), without having to navigate through different screens or menus. I can look around the map to see if anybody else is building The Forbidden Palace (for example), and decide to not even bother starting the wonder if I see that another civ already has it more than halfway built.

4: A crisis for all humankind

Speaking of natural disasters, Civilization VI takes seriously the greatest existential threat to modern civilization: anthropocentric climate change. Disasters are present throughout the game, but rampant greenhouse gas emissions from industrialization will ramp up the frequency and severity of those disasters in ways that have the potential to throw a wrench into a push for a particular victory.

The map itself poses a threat to the player.

Climate change shakes up late-game play by adding some extra emergent challenge. Some players might dislike the random element, but I personally think that there is enough perceivable consequence that the randomness doesn't bother me. Further, every civ contributes to climate change. It isn't just localized pollution like what we've seen in previous games. Everybody has a stake in how all the other civs are developing their industrial and military infrastructure. This can force late-game conflict if a particular civ is refusing to reign in emissions.

However, there is a big, fat "but" that goes along with this particular mechanic: it doesn't quite go far enough. But I'll talk more about that in the next post about the Top 10 Bad Ideas, so stay tuned.

3: Barbarian clans

I have mixed feelings about the New Frontiers Pass as a model for delivering content updates for the game. I think that Civ's expansion model has been a very successful one. If given the choice between seeing full expansions or seeing only smaller DLC, my preference is for the traditional full expansions. That being said, there is certainly merit in the way that the New Frontiers Pass allowed the developers to get more creative. The idea of modular game modes and rulesets (like optional rules or house rules in a board game) offers a lot of flexibility and opportunities for experimentation that simply wouldn't be available if the mechanical ideas had to be constrained to a single, themed expansion. We certainly would not have likely seen any of the mythological or supernatural content if New Frontiers had been a single, full expansion because designing an entire expansion around mythological and supernatural content likely would have alienated a large portion of the player base and would have limited the audience and sales.

I personally don't care for the mythological and supernatural game modes offered by the New Frontiers Pass, and I didn't play them. I focused instead on the new civilizations and leaders, and the few historically-themed game modes. Perhaps my favorite of the New Frontiers game modes is the Barbarian Clans mode.

I have mixed feelings about New Frontiers Pass as a method for delivering content.

Following up once again on the previous points about representation of different cultures in Civ VI: one of my complaints with Civ as a model of world history has been the de-humanizing approach that it takes towards "barbarians". They are treated more like wildlife or a force of nature, rather than human beings. They cannot be reasoned with. All they do is wander the map and kill and pillage without any real goal or motive, and certainly without any remorse. It's a problematic depiction to say the least, because throughout history, the term "barbarian" (or "savage", or any of various other synonyms) has been used by powerful cultures to disparage smaller, less powerful cultures -- no matter how advanced or compassionate they might be.

The Barbarians Clans mode in New Frontiers is the first version of Civilization (outside of custom scenarios) that starts to treat the barbarians a bit more as people. For starters, each clan is given a name and a symbol as a place-holder for a simple cultural identity. Mechanically-speaking, the major civs can actually negotiate with them by bribing them to not harass your cities or trade routes, to hire their armies as mercenaries, or to sic them on a rival civilization or city state. And if they are left alone to their own devices long enough, they can even found their own city states, bringing them completely in-line with all the other "civilized" peoples of the game.

The representation is not perfect. They are still treated as mostly irrational. They don't really have any specific wants or goals. The only way to reason with them is to bribe them with gold. And it's also problematic that they become "civilized" by settling down and founding a city. This invalidates their former, tribal existence from being a "civilized" way of life, as if living a nomadic or pastoral lifestyle makes them less human. Nomads and pastoralists still exist today, and they are no less human -- and no less "civilized" -- than you or I.

Barbarian Clans have place-holders for cultural identity, and can be reasoned with.

Nevertheless, I think clans is a step in the right direction for Civ. Personally, my hope for future Civ games is that the concept of "barbarians" will be completely removed from the game and replaced with something more akin to nomadic / pastoral equivalents of city states. Instead of being generic barbarians, they could be given names and unique attributes based on historic nomadic or pastoral groups such as the Lakota / Sioux, Navajo, Papuans, classical Slavs and Turks, Huns, Mongols, Vikings, and so forth. Just like city states, they would be inherently neutral cultures that have some limited diplomatic interactions and some unique perks for being friendly with them. Unlike city states, they do not build permanent cities, but rather move around regions of the map. This would allow more diverse cultures to be represented within the game, and would validate the lifestyle and cultures of millions of people throughout the world.

2: Unique city-state abilities

Following up on the idea of greater cultural representation, one major upgrade in Civ VI is that city-states each have their own unique abilities that grant bonuses to the city-state's respective ally. Not only does this create additional strategic options, but it also allows representation of additional cultures that aren't the playable civilizations. Firaxis can't possibly create a playable civ and leader for every significant culture or country throughout history. There's just too many. City-states allow those cultures who don't make the cut as playable civs to still be present in the game, and giving each one a unique ability allows for the uniqueness of their culture and history to also be represented.

1: Representation of more cultures, and new sides of familiar cultures

I've always seen the Civilization games as learning tools almost as much as they are entertaining video games. Even though Civ does not even attempt to follow the course of real-life history, its systems and strategies have some educational value. And of course, there is the Civilopedia, which does provide extensive historical context for most of the content of the game.

There are unfamiliar leaders for familiar civilizations...

Something that I really like about Civ VI is its emphasis on representing cultures and leaders who have not gotten much attention in previous entries in the series. While there are still some series mainstays that we've seen in every Civ game, like Gandhi and Montezuma, there are also plenty of fresh faces. Leaders like Julius / Augustus Caesar or Napoleon (who have been in almost every game previously) have been passed over and replaced with other characters that I know little-to-nothing about, such as Trajan of Rome, Chandragupta of India, and Catherine of France. It's nice to get to learn about some new history that I didn't know about from playing previous games in the series.

One of my personal favorite historical anecdotes that I learned from Civ VI is the story of Tomyris of Scythia and her war against Darius of Persia, culminating in an epic act of revenge for the Persians having murdered one of her sons. Scythia is a civilization that had never been included in the series before, as the niche role of "mounted archers from the steppe" archetype was usually filled by civs like the Mongols and/or Huns in previous games.

... And unfamiliar civilizations with new leaders.

I also like that each leader has a specific ability that is separate from the civilization's ability. Further, Firaxis provided multiple leaders for some civilizations, with each leader having a different ability that modifies the ability and play-style of the civilization. Having separate civ and leader abilities, and having multiple leaders available for each civ should (in my opinion) become a staple of the series moving forward. This could allow, for example, representation of multiple dynasties of Egypt to be included as alternate Egyptian leaders, from Ptolemy to Rameses to Cleopatra. Similar logic could be followed for civs like England and France, allowing alternate leaders to represent those nations' medieval, enlightenment, and modern histories. I'm imagining a Civ game with Richard the Lionheart and his unique Longbowmen, Queen Victoria with her unique Redcoat, and Winston Churchill with his unique Spitfire unit all being available as leaders for England in the same game. This just opens up so many possibilities for additional representation, not only between civilizations, but also within within civilizations.

Creative use of this feature could also allow some pairs or groups of civilizations to be collapsed into one civilization, which different eras of that civ being represented by different leaders. For example, one could argue that the Byzantine Empire is just a continuation of the Roman Empire. Hypothetically, a Civ game could drop the Byzantine civilization and incorporate a Byzantine emperor as an alternative leader for Rome, complete with a Dromon and / or Cataphract / Tagma unique unit and Byzantium-inspired ability. This could potentially free up development resources for Firaxis to represent a different culture as a full civilization that had never been in the game before.

Another example could be representing a Holy Roman Emperor as an alternate leader for another civilization, instead of needing to have a whole Holy Roman Empire civilization. The precedent of leaders like Eleanor and Kublai Khan being available as leaders for multiple civilizations could easily be adapted to a Holy Roman Emperor. Charlemagne, Otto I, Frederick Barbarossa, or other Holy Roman Emperors could arguably be an alternate leader for France, Germany, and / or Italy.

Having a single leader represent multiple civilizations opens lots of possibilities for future games.

Runners Up and Conclusion

I also want to give a special mention to some runners up. I did not specifically mention the unstacking of cities in Civ VI in this list, even though I do like the mechanic. I didn't specifically put districts in the Top 10 because I kind of lumped them in with #5, the Living World and increased relevance of the map. The districts and their adjacency bonuses are a big part of that, so I didn't feel it necessary to specifically give an entire topic to districts. Another honorable mention goes to the inclusion of a clock in the main U.I.. As someone who easily loses track of time while playing Civ, having a clock on the screen is a godsend. Now I just need to hope that Cities: Skylines 2 will include such a clock as well!

There is certainly a lot to like in Civilization VI. But it's not a perfect game, and there is also still plenty to dislike. In my next post, I will go over my personal list of Top 10 Bad Ideas in Civ VI.

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