How do you fix something that isn’t broken? It’s a question that the just-announced Civilization VI needs to address in order to justify its existence.
Civilization V is widely considered to be the best in Firaxis Games’ series. The 2010 release and its two major add-ons perfected the Civilization‘s core idea of raising up your chosen people — through research, cultural progress, diplomacy and war — from the stone age to modern times.
Or so it seemed.
Longtime Firaxis staffer and Civilization VI lead designer Ed Beach looked back on Civ V a few years ago, just as pre-production work was starting on the newly announced follow-up. He quickly noticed a significant issue.
“We’ve found a lot of cases [in Civ V] where people would either discover through their own gameplay or [in] forums … that there are recipes or paths through the game that are going to be successful every time,” he told Mashable during a recent interview.
Some of those recipes include winning strategies, like restricting your civilization to no more than four or five cities. Others pushed toward specific research paths and build priorities. Among the game’s Wonders — structures that offer major benefits but can only be built by one civilization per game — owning the National College and Great Library together amounted to a significant science advantage.
For Beach, the unpredictability is what makes Civilization such a winning experience. You never know what you’re going to get in a given playthrough. Civ V‘s hidden formulae for success ran counter to that idea.
“A lot of the richness of the game, and the replayability, comes from the map.”
“[We realized] a lot of the richness of the game, and the replayability, comes from the map,” Beach said. “So what we wanted to do with Civ VI was make people respond to that map. We wanted to make them play against the map, play with the map, and really not have a prescribed path they could take through the game every time.”
Civilization VI is as big as any of the games that preceded it, but all of the major gameplay shifts coalesce around the fundamental idea of playing the map.
City-building sees one of the most dramatic changes. Previously, you would choose a tile to build a city on, then fill out the surrounding tiles inside its borders with farms, mines and other enhancements. Meanwhile, city improvements — like barracks, libraries, churches and bits of infrastructure — were automatically built into the central city tile.
The farms and mines haven’t gone anywhere, but the cities no longer occupy a single hex. Instead, Civ VI introduces the idea of “districts,” where discipline-focused buildings are constructed.
The science-driven “campuses,” for example, house research buildings like libraries and labs. Military-focused “encampments,” meanwhile, are home to barracks and other facilities for cultivating a fighting force.
“We wanted to make you have to build your cities into the map,” Beach said. “Each game, you’re going to have to look at the terrain, figure out which districts are best where. And that’s going to be a unique layout puzzle that is presented to you every time you play the game.”
Location matters when you’re placing districts. There are bonuses for maintaining the sprawl and placing similar districts on adjacent tiles, but there are also physical features in the land that benefit some districts more than others.
Since campuses are populated by scientists, you want to place them in locations that provide research opportunities. A campus in the mountains allows scientists to build an observatory and study the stars. Another near a rainforest allows for the study of a diverse ecosystem. That sort of common-sense district placement guides the player — and it translates into bonuses, like increased research speed.
“It becomes a very intricate puzzle, trying to [place the districts] — and also your farms and your mines — into the right places to lay out your city,” Beach explained. “That’s a challenge you’re going to face every time you expand to a new city.”
Another wrinkle comes in the form of tech boosts. Much like district placement does for city-building, tech boosts take a common-sense approach to rethinking a civilization’s march through the research tree.
“It becomes a very intricate puzzle, trying to put everything into the right places to lay out your city.”
“[In past Civilization games], you just click on a node in the tech tree and that research would get queued up. Then slowly, passively, you would make progress toward those techs and they would just unlock for you,” Beach said.
You’re still waiting a certain number of turns for research to complete, but Civ VI introduces tech boosts that can significantly speed up that process. And once again, it all comes back to the map and the resources available to your civilization.
“It was always kind of weird in the tech tree before that you could put research time into sailing and navigation and other types of maritime technologies if you hadn’t even settled a coastal city yet,” Beach said. “Now … when you establish a city on the coast, that’s going to give you half of the research credit you need to unlock the sailing technology.
“Similarly, if you want to get into masonry, you’re going to have to establish a quarry. If you don’t have stone blocks it’s going to be pretty tricky to get too far with masonry.”
It sounds like a game-changer. No longer is progress through the tech tree a matter of beelining your way to the most helpful research options. All the competing civs enjoy tech boosts, so slogging through without taking advantage of them means you risk being outpaced by the competition.
“It gets back to not having a prescribed path through the game,” Beach said. “Some games you might not start near the coast, or you might not start with a stone quarry type of resource nearby, so you’re going to have to make adjustments.
“But you’ll have other tech boosts nearby instead, so you’re going to have to make a decision: Do I take the same path that I’m used to taking [without any tech boosts], or am I going to take advantage of some of the speed-ups that are available and maybe I’ll find a new way through the tech tree?”
All of these elements evolve over the course of a single game. There’s a rush to create large, interconnected farmlands during the Middle Ages, but that results in a displaced population. As time goes on and farmland becomes less essential, you can start replacing those farms with suburban communities — called “neighborhoods” — to house more citizens.
There are plenty of other new features, as well. Military units can have specialized soldiers attached to them. You could, for example, enhance an infantry squad with an anti-tank gunner to make it more capable against mechanized units.
Civilization leaders and the diplomacy of dealing with them have evolved as well. Now, each leader has his or her own agenda that is inspired by their real-life actions in history. Many of these agendas are at odds — both with your own goals and with the goals of other civs — which means that, in reading the map, you’re also figuring out who lives nearby and what he or she might be plotting.
Civilization V was and is a great game. But perfection is a myth, and Civ VI aims to improve on the series’ core ideas once more with common-sense adjustments. The idea is to put you in a place where you’re making choices based what makes the most sense.
“It’s really fun to engage with the boost system and the city planning system, because you just feel like you’re dealing with real world types of issues,” Beach said. “And the smarter you are about those issues, the more the game rewards you for it.”
Civilization VI comes to PC on Oct. 21, 2016.