Sid Meier has described his games as “a series of interesting choices.” But to many players Civilization can - at least initially - feel more like a series of intimidating choices. I’ve spent thousands of hours tweaking production queues and manually working tiles over the past 25 years of Civ, but I know for many players the biggest hurdle they face is simply where to begin. In addition, Civ 6 reinvents so many of the core systems of the series that even one-more-turn veterans are likely to find themselves stumbling through those first few games.
Here’s ten commonly asked questions about playing Civ 6 for the first time, and my advice on how to make those initial choices much less intimidating.
1. Do I just pick the default settings or what?
The default settings are a solid choice, unsurprisingly. Larger maps significantly lengthen the time of play while faster speeds throw a lot of decisions at you and can get overwhelming. You might consider playing on a Pangaea map rather than Continents in order to meet more civs more quickly and dig deeper into diplomacy. In terms of difficulty, new players should start on Prince so the AI is not getting the cheap buffs it receives at King or higher and you’re not picking up bad habits from the penalties the AI is hit with at lower levels.
2. So how different are all these leaders and which civ should I pick?
Each civ and leader has a set of unique characteristics that don’t so much dictate your style of play but nudge you in a particular direction. Gandhi, for example, favours religion. But what you end up doing with all that faith is up to you. For learning the game I think there are four strong, well-rounded choices for your first civ. The Greek duo of Gorgo and Pericles have straightforward but powerful traits with a cultural bent; Trajan of Rome benefits from economic bonuses and gold is the most flexible of your resources; and Frederik of Germany can not only build an extra district per city but can also build a superior version of the most useful district, the Industrial Zone.
3. Right the map’s loaded and I can see my guy. Do I just pitch my tent here?
When you start a new game your first settler is placed on a tile the game deems to be a pretty good spot to build a city. You’ll have an assortment of useful resources nearby and, in my experience, a supply of fresh water from a river or lake. It’s true there could be better spots elsewhere on the map to found your capital but finding them will waste valuable turns and in all likelihood get you killed. In Civ 5 it was usually beneficial to spend a turn moving your settler onto a nearby hill or next to a mountain to maximise production or science boosts. That’s not the case in Civ 6 thanks to the introduction of the district system, but more on that later. In short: settle for that initial location.
4. I know I probably need all these things but what do I build first?
A scout is the best choice for the first unit to build. In the early game you want to explore the area surrounding your capital to reveal other civs and city-states, plunder tribal villages, and assess the lie of the land for prime spots to expand your empire. Scouts, with their extra movement, are the quickest way to achieve this. I always build one immediately, and a second if I’m playing on a map that I know has a lot of contiguous land, such as Pangaea. The only time I wouldn’t build a scout is if I know for sure I’m on a small island that my starting warrior can explore on its own.
5. Why won’t these bloody barbarians leave me alone?
In Civ 5 barbarians were a nuisance. Here, they are a genuine threat to the existence of your early empire. Barbarian encampments spawn randomly in unexplored or greyed out areas of the map. They send out scouts to find your land. Upon reaching your borders they’ll report back to their encampments. At this point every new barbarian unit spawned from that encampment will make a beeline for your territory to pillage and blockade your resources, attack your units, and generally make your life hell. I didn’t properly deal with barbarians in my first game of Civ 6 and ended up with my capital overrun to the point I actually quit and started a new game. The solution here is twofold: first, when you see a barbarian scout, kill it as quickly as possible; second, because your capital cannot defend itself at the outset (unlike in Civ 5, cities cannot attack units until you’ve built walls) you need to invest in an army. Scouts are pretty good at taking out other scouts, but I recommend building a second warrior and at least one slinger to protect your home.
6. I’ve met someone. Should I attack them?
Eliminating a rival civ early on can be a huge advantage over the course of the game. Not only do you get their capital, but it means there’s now less competition for all the vacant land in between. You’ll be able to settle more cities and build a bigger empire sooner than you would have done otherwise. A second advantage lies in the fact that warmonger penalties are far lower in the early game - indeed, no penalties are applied at all in the ancient era. Even if you’ve met Gandhi, for example, by the time you take Montezuma’s capital, he’s not going to be displeased with your thirst for blood. Some civs, like the Aztecs, Sumeria and Scythia, have strong early military units that further encourage an early war strategy.
7. Wait, what… Why is my population not going up?
Okay so this is probably the most complicated, least intuitive part of Civ 6. Bear with me here.
For every citizen in a city, you need two food per turn to keep them fed. So a city with a population of eight needs 16 food per turn from the tiles you’re working plus food arriving via traders plus food from the granaries, water mills etc you’ve built. If it’s less than 16, you’re starving and the population will eventually drop to seven; if it’s more than 16, you’re growing and the population will eventually rise to nine. But sometimes you’ve got a food surplus but you’re still not growing - or you are growing, only super slowly. This means you’ve hit a housing and/or amenities threshold and until you add more your growth will be constrained. Housing capacity can be increased by building granaries, aqueducts, and sewers as well as tile improvements like pastures and, much later, neighbourhoods.
Amenities are acquired from improving or trading luxury resources, unlocking some civics and constructing certain buildings. When your city growth has slowed, it’s probably a good idea to think of building a settler or at least diverting surplus food production into hammers or gold.
8. There’s a whole world out there. When do I settle new cities?
When your capital reaches a population of four its growth will likely slow for the reasons outlined immediately above, and then even further when it hits five and reaches its housing capacity. This is when you should switch production to a settler in order to found your second (and maybe third) city. By now you should also have scouted enough of the surrounding lands to have picked a couple of good spots for expansion. Look for areas that have resources and geographical features like a coastline or mountains not found in your capital in addition to good sources of food and production. Don’t spread your cities too far apart either. I like to keep them no more than 5-6 tiles away from each other. Keep expanding for as long as you think there are good city locations left to secure.
9. What should I prioritise?
While the optimal strategy in Civ 5 was to focus on science - and not just for a science victory, I mean, you’re going to win that war if you’ve got tanks and they’ve got cavalry - that does not appear to be the case in Civ 6. It’s still early days, of course, and the community is in the middle of testing theories that may be upended with the arrival of a balance patch. But the consensus right now, which is definitely backed up by my own experience, is that production is king. If you’re not working mines and lumber mills, and not building encampment and industrial districts, you’re leaving a lot of hammers on the table. Put it this way: there’s little point in having researched factories if you haven’t yet built a workshop.
10. How do districts work?
Perhaps the most obvious example of how Civ 6 has remixed existing features of the series, districts can be confusing to newcomers and previous players alike. In essence, districts let you specialise your cities, prompting them to focus their citizens efforts on science, production, gold, faith, culture, the military, or some combination of these. When placed on the map, districts provide an immediate boost to its vocation and gain bonuses for being adjacent to certain landmarks.
For example, a campus gives science per turn that is boosted by surrounding mountains and rainforest; building a library and a university on the campus and assigning citizens to work the tile will grant further boosts to your tech research and acquisition of great scientists. It’s important to think in advance about the best spots to place districts since those adjacency bonuses are useful but don’t worry too much about maximising each and every one. Also, don’t hold off on building a farm on that grassland tile just because you think you’ll eventually build a commercial hub there - you’re missing out on that extra food while you wait. And finally, while your capital will likely have the capacity to build all six districts, smaller cities might only be able to contain two or three, so think about which ones will yield the greatest benefits based on their locations and your play style.