It was always a bit ironic that a game called “Civilization” would be driven by the least civilized interaction between nations.
The Civ series has gone from strength to strength, flowering in layers of new mechanics and interesting systems that take the player beyond rote simulations of war.
Expanded diplomacy; the addition of cultural, diplomatic, and science based victory conditions; expanded espionage; ideologies, all did their part to make Civ about something more than war. But, as another storied franchise reminds us, war never changes.
Civilization VI’s Rise and Fall DLC, released earlier this year, is at once minimalist and elegant with its additions to the series, expanding a range of mechanics that--mostly--make non-military action even more appealing, while lending badly-needed meaning to the game’s inevitable wars.
But critics have a habit of overselling Civ’s iterative changes as a kind of ‘de-militarization.’ In the end it’s difficult to escape the militarist logic of the series, which still runs like blood between Civ VI’s hexes. This, in the end, is what made the addition of a Cree civ to the game’s roster controversial with the actual Poundmaker Cree.
Headman Milton Tootoosis told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that the Cree civ “perpetuates this myth that First Nations had similar values that the colonial culture has, and that is one of conquering other peoples and accessing their land. That is totally not in concert with our traditional ways and world view." Civilization, he added on CBC Radio, “continues to promote some of these ideologies that are connected to concepts of colonialism and imperialism and that doctrine of discovery.”
"I found myself back at the barricades of more endless wars through the ages, locked in the zero sum game of Civ’s victory conditions, incentivised towards imperialist jousting."
Civilization’s new systems are not just garnish, but it’s impossible to deny the validity of Tootoosis’ criticism about the game’s essence. When I finally got my hands on the DLC, the Cree were the first civ I played; though they were thoughtfully represented in some ways (their theme music is authentic, and was performed by The Poundmaker Singers), I found myself back at the barricades of more endless wars through the ages, locked in the zero sum game of Civ’s victory conditions, incentivised towards imperialist jousting.
The “peace, good order, good governance” that Tootoosis says characterized the actual Chief Poundmaker’s tenure were always elusive in Civ; that hasn’t changed with Rise and Fall.
So what has? As I said earlier, this expansion is a subtle thing, to the point where it grated on Steam’s always-colorful commenters. The aptly named AggressiveRock, for instance, said the expansion “adds little quality” and that “the new additions in terms of mechanics are ‘eh’ at best, and don't add a lot of depth or interest to the game.” Many comments in a similar vein can be found on the Steam page. In a sense, there’s something to this. We’re not seeing anything as earth shattering as, say, Brave New World here. This is a considerably more workmanlike expansion.
But Brave New World moved us so deeply because, unlike Civ VI, Civ V was a rather incomplete game out of the box: a world gaping with holes. VI, by contrast, was a much more choate experience from the get-go. This expansion reflects that success with its minimalism; there’s just not a lot left to add (unless you want to get really radical, a point I’ll return to later).
What happens instead is, frankly, impressive as a case study in successfully elaborating on your own game mechanics. Everything Rise and Fall has added is an eloquent extension of pre-existing systems. With the exception of Governors, most everything feels like an enhancement to systems you’re already familiar with--Alliances, for instance, now have levels and specific purposes.
Emergencies are also worth looking closely at. An “Emergency” is declared when a civ undertakes an extreme action--capturing a capital city, converting a holy city, or using a nuke, say. Other civs are summoned by the Emergency to take part in some kind of military action to redress the emergency; liberating the city, say, or converting it back to its native religion. The allies get special bonuses to help in their mission, and the prospect of significant rewards if they succeed. The target, if they manage to thwart the alliance, will also be rewarded. The mechanic elaborated here, of course, is war itself. Emergencies give content and meaning to the otherwise colourless, often random declarations of war that (still) punctuate the game. Now, instead, one has the sense that she’s responding to an international crisis of some kind (or causing one).
The latter feeling is especially important as it gives a sense of weight to actions that might otherwise be undertaken cavalierly. Converting your opponent’s Holy City is now no longer a standalone action, but something that represents a geopolitical commitment of 30 to 60 turns worth of your time. It’s a strategic decision that commits you to a large undertaking; this is all to the good.
Ages, meanwhile, have been spun out into the most refined iteration of the classic division of epochs in Civ (ancient, medieval, modern, etc). Now, your actions can earn you era points, part of a minigame in each age, where the acquisition of points determines whether you enter a Golden Age, a Normal Age, or fall into a Dark Age. Given that “The Dark Ages” is one of the most common historical metaphors in our lexicon, it’s a long overdue blessing for Civ to give us an actual simulation of a dark age in the game, and it works brilliantly. The screen darkens, you choose abilities that help you endure the age at a cost, and you try to hold your nation together as the new Loyalty mechanic turns against you, threatening to make your cities rebel.
This brings me to my personal favourite change to the game, one which has been more or less absent since Civ IV: the ability to ‘flip’ an enemy city peacefully, using Culture. Once again, you can make your civ so attractive that foreign cities will overthrow their government just to join yours, all without a shot being fired in anger. These are the kinds of mechanics Civ needs to deepen in order to create a richer experience; there’s nothing that beats the feeling of converting cities this way, even if it’s easier to take them by force. Of all the new systems, Loyalty remains the most opaque, despite all the UI changes made to accommodate it. It makes targeting a specific city for conversion an exceedingly difficult thing to plan. But further embellishments should, hopefully, fix that right up.
What links all of the changes--and what makes them truly elegant--is that they expand on one of Civ VI’s core themes: forcing the player to think ahead. Every game of Civ, from the very first, has been a kind of chess that rewards foresight and planning. Civ VI has, as a whole, simply doubled down on that in every way. “De-stacking” the city, by separating it out into themed districts and making Wonders take up entire hexes was about forcing players to make long term strategic decisions. You had to plan to make space for Broadway or the Sydney Opera House from the Classical Era, for instance.
Now, the new Age system’s Dedications--little bonuses you select at the start of each new age--compel you to focus on something specific, be it espionage, trading, or religion, for the next fifty turns or so. Emergencies force you to ask whether it’s worth it to capture that capital, and whether you’re prepared for the consequences to last up to sixty turns. Governors, which have to be purchased one at a time with the same currency used to promote them, also reward long term thinking. Someone you hire in the Medieval Age may turn out to be crucial for the Space Race.
That, in the end, is what makes this expansion so thoroughly successful, despite the lack of bells and whistles. There’s a thematic unity that makes each addition as intuitive as it is useful and elegant. This workaday DLC may not please Steam’s ostentatiously angry crowds, but it’s a beautiful portrait of measured game design that plays to the game’s core strengths.
The larger issue, for the generations of Civ and its imitators to come, is that those core strengths are starting to get a bit stale.
This brings us back to the portrayal of the Cree and why it’s instructive. Of course the game felt inauthentic to the Cree, as it does to most civs. Civilization has always been a jumble of anachronisms and historical fanfic mulched into a fun evening at the computer; Gandhi’s love of nukes is, after all, a legendary joke about the series that perfectly captures the essence of Civ’s silliness. This game is not a history or anthropology lesson. But the way in which the Cree are inaccurately portrayed points to an enduring challenge in Civilization: how it continues to fail to live up to its name. Tootoosis’ criticism points to everything Civ has yet to adequately or accurately simulate. Its vision of ever-expanding, extractive empires remains a narrow and culturally-specific view of what a nation looks like. Humanity has admitted many philosophies of governance to its traditions and cultures, after all.
There are flashes of it in Civ VI. National Parks finally turn the tide of acquisitiveness back against the player, rewarding prudence and stewardship rather than the impulse to strip mining every hex (they can only be built on ‘unimproved’ tiles). But everything else is too zero-sum. Religious victories are, often as not, military victories by another name. Perhaps a true Civ expansion could explore other political dynamics.
At this year’s Lost Levels event, an independent series of microtalks that takes place alongside GDC, UC Santa Cruz Ph.D student Max Kreminski spoke witheringly about what they called “mining games.” They described them in their zine as games that “embody a fundamentally extractive approach to gameplay. The player’s presence in the game world makes the world less alive, less interesting, and generally worse over time as they drain the world of its content.” They contrast this favourably to “gardening games,” which “distribute content primarily across time rather than space.” As Kreminski would have it, such worlds, like Animal Crossing or Cities: Skylines are about cultivation rather than consumption.
While I’m loath to assign a moral value to one type of game over the other (“mining games” can be delightful; I’ve been a fan of Civ since I was ten), it’s worth exploring how this series--which needs to reinvent itself with each new instalment--could better simulate its geopolitical ambitions through a more “gardening” focused mentality; National Parks and Civ’s system of Great Works--complete with curation--are mechanics that could be given greater depth.
I could leave it there, but I think it’s worth pointing out that in Civilization: Beyond Earth there was an attempt made to do something different that merits some consideration, pointing to interesting mechanical issues to explore. Civ:BE, which takes place on another planet, has aliens that take the place of Barbarians. Except, unlike the red-shielded Barbarians that have made every Ancient Age annoying since the 90s, these aliens are clever and not necessarily your enemy. They respond to your input. If you stay out of their way, they’ll mostly stay out of yours. If you attack them, they’ll become aggressive.
This is a small, simple thing. But I do wonder what it would look like if it were elaborated upon the way Rise and Fall elaborated on, say, war or Ages. How might the game find other, more intriguing ways of simulating interactions--even conflict--that didn’t centre around war or expansion? Those twitchy bugs in Civ:BE may hold intriguing answers.
Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.