2016-12-10

Civilization VI - it could have been great

Queen Victoria on my Western border has just offered me a joint declaration of friendship. Trade between our empires, England and Germany, is flourishing. Peter the Great of Russia to the East is a different matter. He keeps denouncing me for being behind in both technology and culture. He's a wonder building machine and keeps churning them out one after the other. My greatest worry though is Norway across the great sea. Harald Hardrada is leading the world's most technologically advanced nation and is already starting to work on space race projects before anybody else has even unlocked the secrets of rocketry.

The tensions with Russia escalate and war breaks out. Peter commands his unique units, cossacks, a frightening force in a land war. I take advantage of a strategic blunder and shell Moscow with field cannons and artillery. Once the capital falls the rest of the country is soon to follow. Peter admits defeat and my empire has just doubled in size. The spoils of war include all of the world wonders Russia built and a treasure trove of its cultural great works of art, music and writing.

Russia sending all its troops on a sailing trip while I get ready to invade the capital.

Meanwhile Norway has become dangerously close to winning a science space race victory while America under Teddy Roosevelt is working towards a cultural victory. They already lead the rest of the world in tourism by a huge margin. I send all of my spies to Norway to infiltrate their major cities and sabotage science and spaceport construction. Trying whatever I can to delay progress on their mission to Mars. While James Bond is performing the subtle art of sabotage for me I'm ramping up bomber production at home. I have discovered a source of uranium and the Manhattan project is well underway. My plan is to Blitzkrieg Norway and nuke them back into the stone age.

My major port city of Hamburg has constructed the Venetian Arsenal world wonder, producing two fleets for the price of one. This allows me to quickly grow my armada and get ready to cross the ocean to invade Norway. At this point Harald is launching one more rocket away from victory. I'm still decades behind in technology and stand no chance of catching up. My aircraft carriers are loaded with long range bombers and, protected by my unique U-Boot units, race to reach the coast of Norway.

Nuked Norway. The tool tip on the right shows how close they came to victory.

I declare a surprise war and in a single turn nuke the major cities of Ålesund, Nidaros and Sarpsborg while at the same time bombarding all coastal cities from battleships. This war is brutal and swift. Within just a few years I have conquered all of Norway's cities fending off a premature end of the game just in the nick of time. But there's no time to rest, my empire is spread thin financially, having to support the new Viking colonies across the ocean. America is creeping ever closer to a cultural victory and the entire world now thinks of me as a villain and warmonger.

It doesn't take long before half the world declares war on me and the other half refuses to trade or even talk to me. This is bad - already strapped for cash I'm going bankrupt without international trade. My military units desert and disband and my cities revolt against my rule, spawning rogue units roaming around the country, pillaging my infrastructure. I become even more ruthless. I have since upgraded from regular nukes to thermonuclear devices and don't hold back on using them. The major English metropolitan areas of London, Manchester and Birmingham all get reduced to radioactive rubble. I follow up by sending ground troops in and razing them to the ground, irrespective of the fact that my own troops are also dying from the radiation.

My bankrupted empire after the war. Loosing 400 bucks a turn and spawning all these red insurgent units everywhere.

America is out of reach for my military so I keep sending my spies to perform heists of great works of art. This should postpone their cultural victory for a while yet. My own path to victory is to either burn the entire frickin' world to the ground and be the last man standing or build the spaceship myself, finishing what Norway started. In the end I build the spaceship and fly to Mars, winning the most exciting game of Civilization VI yet.


Fuck this planet. Let's go to Mars instead.

This is Civilization VI at the best of times. According to Steam I've spent 59 hours playing it. I've won the game by Science Victory, Religious Victory, Culture Victory and Domination Victory. I've won the game playing as six different nations. I've won the game on Prince, King and Emperor difficulty. I've won the game on Small, Standard and Large maps. I've won the game on Continents, Inland Sea, Island Plates, Shuffle and Pangea maps. I think I have covered what it has to offer pretty well. And still I hate it. It is fatally flawed from a user interface, technical and AI point of view.

User interface:

  • The interface has race conditions where you have a unit selected and give it an order but the auto unit cycle jerks the unit away from you just then and auto selects a different one so your order goes completely haywire. Hard to describe but infuriating in practice.
  • The user interface ergonomics are terrible. You are constantly made to travel huge distances with your mouse for no good reason. An example is placing spies: you click end of turn at the bottom right corner of the screen, then select a spy mission at the top left, followed by bottom left and top left again. Why?!
  • There's a lot of mindless busywork like placing defensive spies, trade routes and spreading religion. These work OK at first, but once your empire grows it's mind numbingly repetitious. Spies and trade routes "expire" after some number of turns and you have to set them active again. Why not just allow me to give them a mission and stick with it until it's either no longer possible/valid or I change my mind and assign a new one? Why do I have to remind the stupid spy every N turns that yes, you are still supposed to defend the capital and yes, that trader there should still bring production to my city.
  • There are no usable overview screens. Not for my own empire (Really? We don't maintain a spreadsheet of how many U-Boots we have and where they are?!). Nor for the state of the world (Who's at war with whom? Who has what to trade?). The information is available, but it requires a lot of work to get to. I miss the clear charts of Civilization IV.
  • The game looks gorgeous, but all that detail often obscures the most important information. I have forgotten about a battalion of tanks in the middle of a war simply because they are so hard to spot in all that's going on on the map.
  • There's a complete lack of keyboard shortcuts. I can't move units on the map without using the mouse. Bombing runs require way too many clicks.
  • You are forced to sit through useless audiences with the AI players all the time. The game pauses and loads the animated AI character just to deliver a single sentence like: "Your army is weak!". Why can't I decide whether to receive a delegation? Ironically the AI can refuse to see me, but not the other way around.
  • Lack of feedback for critical events. Why am I suddenly at peace with this city state? Ah yes, it's because the Suzerain changed.
  • Outright bugs. An AI talks to me and during the negotiations we declare war. Once I leave the diplomacy screen it's peace again because we weren't actually able to declare a war due to some existing contract.

Technical:

  • Loading times are insanely long. I usually have my cell phone ready and browse Facebook or read news while the game is booting up. I always play ironman, not ever reloading during the game (a leftover from playing Civilization exclusively as multiplayer) - I don't want to imagine how frustrating the game must be if you save game cheat and reload frequently. In fact, that's the reason I didn't put more screenshots in this post: I can't be arsed to wait for the game to load.
  • Turn processing takes an eternity. I complete my turns faster than the AI does. Which is especially bad, because:

AI

  • This is where the game falls completely flat. The AI is just terrible. Firaxis has designed a game that its own AI doesn't know how to play. It feels as if a checkers algorithm was competing at chess. It's utterly hopeless. In all of my games I have never even seen the AI conquer a non-city state city. They are constantly at war with one another or the player but most of the time you don't even notice because it gets all of its units stuck in a choke point and won't even make it to the battleground. Completely ineffective. My war with Russia in the description above was symptomatic: Russia had stronger units, the larger military and a huge bonus to unit strengths from the difficulty level I was playing at. Yet, while I was getting my artillery lined up to shell its capital, Russia decided to send all its land units out to see. Embarked land units can be picked off one by one with battleships and that's what I did while the units were just floating there for no reason whatsoever and with no destination to go. Same for Norway. Norway was technologically way ahead of everybody else and I was expecting strong resistance. Yet when I arrived at the coast they didn't have a single defensive unit. The only reason they made it so far ahead in research was for the advantage the AI gets over the player. The cities weren't even improved - only the most rudimentary infrastructure in terms of farms and mines and such. Yet every single village had a spaceport, nevermind you can only ever use three at the same time or that a rural village of a handful of farmers will take centuries to build a rocket. The AI is a clusterfuck of epic proportions and fails at every single step of the way.

This is a tragedy because I can see the potential. Many innovations in this iteration of the series are really nice. I like city districts and how they make the terrain more relevant. I like that they got rid of the dedicated city screen and made the map the central UI element. Policy cards offer a detailed and nuanced way for setting your governmental policies. The way traders automatically construct roads takes away a lot of micromanagement. It looks gorgeous. And yet... sigh.

I love the series and I really want to like this game. Alas, while it is a step up from the equally flawed Civilization V, it is no match for the masterwork that was Civilization IV. I spent literally hundreds of hours on that one (luckily this was pre-Steam and I don't have exact counts ;-)). It got so many things right from a game design perspective. I used to play that with a chronically ill friend in Germany. He has since passed away from the mucoviscidosis he was suffering from, but while he was still alive, Civilization was our way of keeping in contact despite being in different countries. We usually played cooperative games against the AI at difficulty levels that saw us lose more often than we'd win. Making the rare victory feel so much sweeter and deserved for executing a flawless strategy over many hours. I remember us beating the game in a domination victory one turn ahead of the AI reaching a space race victory. It's a turn based, slow paced game, but it can still get your palms sweaty and your heart rate up. Triple so in a competitive multiplayer setting ;-) Firaxis, please
Make Civilization great again!