Civilization VI has already been out for (just a fraction over) twelve months, but developer Firaxis is planning for its future three, four, five years from today. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Its predecessor, Civ V, released in 2010 but didn’t really come into its own until its second expansion, Brave New World, three years later.
Out of the gate, Civ V was mostly praised for the way it broke with tradition, introducing a hex-based map and a one-unit-per-tile mechanic. But it took several years and two major add-ons to deliver religion, espionage and a satisfying cultural game, all crucial pillars of the series.
By contrast, “vanilla” Civ VI feels more feature complete than Civ V did; it already has solid religious, espionage and cultural options for those players who find war distasteful or have no desire to establish a colony on Mars. With this head start in mind I asked Civ VI lead designer Ed Beach if Firaxis are thinking about Civ VI and its post-release support in terms of a similar time scale to Civ V?
“Yes, we are,” he says. “The Civ V support model was obviously a big success for us.”
And given Civ VI is more feature complete, where does that leave you in terms of thinking about future content for Civ VI?
“This is probably the one thing I’m most excited about. We have the opportunity to strike out in entirely new directions for the series now.”
Beach won’t go into specifics regarding these new directions, so I suggest one area they could address is the tendency for player interest to trail off in the late-game. Players, Beach agrees, start a lot of games, yet finish few of them.
“Improving on this trend would make our games even stronger,” he says. “The world is so dynamic when it’s being settled in the early stages. We need that unpredictability to penetrate deeper into the game session.
“Anything we can do to introduce factors that cause empires to crumble, wars to break out, major coalitions to form - generally just increasing the level of mayhem in the world - those will all help retain players’ interest.”
It still feels like early days for Civ VI. According to Steam stats, it tends to hover around the lower reaches of the top 20 most played games while Civ V, with its seven-year-old userbase, is regularly in the top 10.
While we wait for the “new directions” of Civ VI’s first major expansion, Firaxis has maintained interest through the addition of DLC packs containing new civs, leaders and scenarios, and a series of free seasonal updates that have fixed bugs and tinkered with features in often major ways.
The recent “Fall” update, for example, overhauled religious play to a significant extent, fundamentally altering the way religious units move and interact, tweaking how religion spreads across the world, adding a handful of powerful beliefs, and redesigning the “lens” that lets you see at a glance the current religious state of play.
Beach describes the religion game as now more of a positional battle for control of key cities that block other religion and help your own faith to spread.
“Although the initial religious lens presented a lot of the necessary data, it wasn’t as useful as we had originally hoped,” he says. “So we reworked that to make all the key factors clearly discernible. In addition we moved the religion units onto their own map layer so these battles [or, as they’re euphemistically tagged in-game, “theological debates”] didn’t interfere with the armies and builders crisscrossing the map.
It’s a huge change. That missionaries and apostles exert zone of control and gain flanking bonuses opens up so many more tactical options for spreading and containing faith, and the new guru unit means you can keep your preachers healed on the frontlines.
Alongside the religious overhaul, Firaxis has also recently released two religious focused civs as DLC - Indonesia under Gitarja and the Khmer under Jayavarman VII. Beach tells me that diversity plays a huge role in determining which civs and leaders make it into the base game and in DLC.
“We have a whole list of criteria we are trying to satisfy, mostly to come up with the most diverse set possible,” he says. “Those diversity factors include geography, historical era, gender, and cultural grouping. And then we also want to make sure we get a set that covers all of the gameplay systems.”
Religion was undervalued previously, at least in the sense that it wasn’t especially useful to invest in faith if you weren’t specfically aiming for a religious victory. But both the newest DLC civs, in hand with the gameplay changes to religion, give new reasons to accumulate faith.
“We have a whole list of criteria we are trying to satisfy, mostly to come up with the most diverse set possible..."
The Khmer, for instance, gain food and housing from holy sites constructed on rivers, and their martyr ability means they’re encouraged to send their missionaries off into foreign lands and get into fights with enemy apostles. If a Khmer missionary dies in theological debate, they earn a valuable relic that draws culture and tourism to their temples.
Conversely, Indonesia demonstrates how faith can work for you even if you don’t actually found your own religion. They gain faith from coastal cities and can then spend that faith on the Jong, a powerful naval unit that, in my experience, absolutely wrecks enemy cities all through the Renaissance Era.
In a further nod to using DLC to cover all gameplay systems, the Khmer get a much-needed buff to the aqueduct, perhaps the most undernourished of districts in the base game, while Indonesia’s Kampung improvement buffs sea tiles and actually makes it desirable to settle small islands.
While Trajan (Rome) and Frederik (Germany) are the most popular leaders in Civ VI, Beach is a fan of leaders who tend to be overlooked by the community. He often plays as Harald (Norway) or Philip (Spain) because he likes exploring and navigating on the high seas, but his favourites are a couple of leaders who are the most misunderstood.
“I think my favourite is Catherine de Medici because I’ve personally invested a lot of time in our espionage system,” he says. “But the one with the cool strategy that gets overlooked is Saladin.
“He’s probably the strongest science leader in the game right now, though many people write him off as just a religious leader. If he can spread a religion across the map it just further boosts his science output. And the Mamluk unique unit that heals every turn is great for making sure Arabia gets a larger empire established by the mid-game.”
I have one more question to ask Beach, and it’s one that’s been bugging me for the past twelve months. Why, oh why, I ask, does the AI build Huey Teocalli on a single-tile lake or Petra on a city’s only desert tile? I mean, I’m glad they wasted all those resources in doing so, but it’s infuriating when I have my eye on those wonders for myself.
Beach summons all of Catherine’s diplomatic expertise to answer.
“That’s not always a crazy move with Huey Teocalli since it does help all of your other lakes in your empire. But yes that can be annoying with Petra, although denying it to other players is potentially smart, too.
“That said, I think we should tune the AI to be less likely to go for either of these builds. This is exactly the type of feedback we like to hear as we continue to look at the AI and further refine its play.”
Thanks, Ed, that’s exactly what I wanted to hear. Here’s to the next three, four, five or more years of Civ VI.