Civilization 6 and choices, choices, choices
Meaning is a conserved quantity
Civilization 6 seems like it should have been a great game. It’s leaps and bounds ahead of the first four games in the series, in terms of production value and the variety of clever little subsystems. Combat mechanics based around one-unit-per-tile add a tactical dimension to warfare, which used to be mostly about technological or numerical superiority. Districts and adjacency bonuses challenge the player to think carefully about how to develop cities in order to realize both their individual potential and to make sure they play nice with each other.
So why doesn't it work?
Can you build an empire that will stand the test of time? — Tagline from the Civilization series
The tagline captures the empire building that Civilization is supposed to be about, and every game in the series delivers on this promise by allowing the player to nurse a primitive tribe represented by a single settler into a sprawling empire of cities with a standing army of hundreds of units. The gradual accumulation of more stuff in the form of cities, units, world wonders and technologies makes this growth much more tangible than simpler number goes up-systems.
Its instructive to contrast the progression system in Civilization with the sort of character building you have in RPGs, for instance the Diablo series. A key difference is that level-ups in these games mostly unlock new, stronger options, but the player still controls only a single character who just does one thing at a time. Civilization, on the other hand, gives you more of the stuff you are controlling: each new city has a build queue and each new unit can move every turn, allowing for the explosive growth that characterizes 4X games. Only a few of the systems, like research, respect the treadmill logic of RPGs, where bigger numbers go into larger buckets, maintaining the roughly the same overall pace.
Is it a good idea to put bacterial growth into a game?
A game is a series of interesting choices. — Sid Meier, original designer of Civilization
Any successful game needs to make the player care about what happens — what ultimately makes options interesting is that they branch off into different possible futures, where the player might eventually conquer continents like Genghis Khan, build a technological powerhouse of an empire, or perhaps see his efforts laid to waste by Roman legions. The simplest model of games focuses only on how choices eventually result in winning or losing, but the success of sandbox games like The Sims and Minecraft shows that players can be just as motivated by sandboxes where they can try to realize their creative visions.
It is nonetheless essential that choices must have a non-negligible effect on the game's trajectory. Otherwise, they become hollow: at best merely uninteresting, at worst they feel like homework. In this framework we can understand the tension that is constantly threatening to tear a game of Civilization apart: Growth is modelled by more stuff, but more stuff means more choices (sometimes referred to as management by Civilization players). And while these choices serve the same mechanical function throughout the game, the significance of each individual choice becomes diluted. A single playthrough of Civilization can only trace out one trajectory, and it is very difficult for an exponentially growing number of decisions to all have consequences that the player cares about. Five units can be a company of heroes: five hundred units can only be statistics.
One Good Game Is Better Than Two Great Ones. — Sid Meier
This quote might seem like some words have accidentally gotten swapped around — it makes decent sense for one great game to be better than two good ones, but how can one merely good game be better than two great ones? Sid Meier refers to the problem of combining mostly separate subgames into a single game, which is something that sounds like a great idea until you actually try doing it. Numerous attempts have been made to merge tactical combat resolution (Heroes of Might and Magic) with a proper 4X strategy game (Civilization), none of which have been particularly successful. More successful attempts like X-Com has a tactical layer that is clearly the centerpiece, inside of a strategical layer that mostly serves to string together combats as a campaign, both in terms of resource management and storyline.
The underlying problem is a pseudo-law of games: meaning works like a conserved quantity, such that it is not enough for a layer of complication or for a subsystem to be good in its own right. It must also play nice with all of the other systems in the game: if the payoffs are too small, the player will ignore the irrelevant subsystem or be annoyed by having to click through non-decisions if they are imposed on him. Similarly, even if all subsystems are in perfect balance, mechanically speaking, they still compete for the player's attention, and even an otherwise interesting system can feel like a hurdle if it gets in the way of that part of the game the player really cared about (like shooting aliens).
The Civilization games should not work in theory, but still do in practice. — Stolen from somewhere, probably via Soren Johnson, but I can no longer track down the source.
Instead of asking why Civilization 6 does not work very well, it is perhaps better to try to understand how any Civilization game can work at all. The fundamental problem is that Civilization goes for a much more real and satisfying form of growth than most games, but that this form of growth inevitably bombards the players with more and more management that makes the game feel slow. It’s not uncommon, even for people who really love Civilization and who sink hundreds of hours into it, to grow tired of games when they start dragging somewhere around the industrial revolution. It’s not that they don’t like the game itself anymore: they will happily just start a new game that hasn’t yet become bloated with non-decisions.
A somewhat unpalatable solution to this problem is automation: allowing the player to turn over some of the less interesting choices to the AI, particularly workers building tile improvements and governors managing the build queues of less important cities. Somewhat similarly, better UI allows the player to manage larger armies and empires more efficiently, greatly reducing the tedium.
However, these features did not exist the first Civilization game. Somewhat counter-intuitively, the success of Civilization seems to come from making each individual subsystem small and simple, such that it takes little space unless the player actively chooses to engage with it.
Citizen management in the first Civilization game is almost exclusively a trade-off between food and production and very rarely interesting. Tile improvements is barely even a choice: farm and road on flatland, otherwise mines, and railroads absolutely everywhere. Combat is mostly about fielding technologically advanced units and trying to take advantage of the mechanics favoring the attacker. For city improvements, roughly the same build queue can be used in every single city (granary, temple, additional happiness and aqueduct as needed, multiplier buildings the rest of the time).
The vision of Civilization 6 is to improve the game by making every stupid mini-decision complicated and thus no longer stupid: even citizen management introduces trade-offs between food, production, commerce, faith, science and culture. The same philosophy is in place for army composition and tactics, district management, interactions between eureka-bonuses and the technology tree, etcetera. This works fairly well early on in the game, before the exponential growth becomes too overwhelming and before the systems get too far out of balance.
However: is the vision of Civilization really to make the player deal with a somewhat complicated tactics game for war (where the AI is hopelessly confused), a strategy layer for technology and culture (with a weird minigame of quests attached to it) and a tile-based adjacency bonus optimization problem at the same time? Maybe, why not: at least, this is all about empire building. How about also having quirky subsystems for religion, city-state diplomacy, trade units, espionage and great works, most of which produce popups that require the player the make minimal-impact decisions? Maybe not so much.
Civilization 6 does not work in practice. — Unadulterated personal opinion.
In the first Civilization game, uninteresting choices tend to not impose themselves too much on the player, and when they do, they can be made in a split second. A city which does not matter much needs to build something? Pick a random infrastructure building without having to decide where to place it. A leftover military unit is active? Fortify it in a city somewhere. You have enough faith to buy a missionary? No, you don't, there is no religion in the game.
Even Civilization 4, whose main novelty is specialists and great people, resists the temptation of imposing this system on you. Aside from roughly five prompts throughout the entire game (your great people, each of which can be used for a very significant effect with a single click), the system just exists in the background until you decide to start prodding it.
In Civilization 6, your workers have limited charges, so just building something maybe useful and moving on feels stupid. You have to build districts if you want to engage with most of the content in the game, but you also need to choose where, and if you choose somewhere at random you will be asked if you want to replace an improvement or a terrain feature, and it will probably be in a wrong place that will annoy you in the future when you realize you are no longer able to build the Big Ben wonder anywhere. Your leftover military unit needs to be sent somewhere, but there is a good chance it will be blocked by some other unit on the way and you have to redirect it, turning your empire builder into a traffic management simulator. Do you want to spend your quota of trade units making internal routes for some minor bonuses? Get ready for a popup to renew some or other trade route every few turns.
The first Civilization game allows you to pick and choose whatever you want to focus on, be it war or peaceful expansion or exploration or building every single wonder in the game, and you can make instant, probably sub-optimal decisions for the relatively few prompts you are presented with if they do not feel meaningful to you — keeping the overall pace of the game as fast as you feel like it should be. Better yet, since not all that much just happens on its own, you are constantly tasked with coming up with new plans and to put them into action — this has a side-effect of meaning that you spend most of your time doing whatever you yourself started doing because it seemed worthwhile to you. Without being compelled to design new, adjacency-optimizing district patterns to work your way around a strategic resource that you just revealed by inventing a technology. If you do not opt into the espionage system by building a diplomat or a spy, you will never have to deal with it.
Civilization 6, on the other hand, is a game that is very, very proud of each and every one of its subsystems, and it insists that you must engage with them whether you want to or not (and threatens to rub your nose in it if you do not take this seriously enough). While most of the systems are somewhere between decent and clever, in isolation, they cannibalize so much time and attention, from each other and from the empire building game that Civilization is supposed to be, that the overall gameplay tends to feel slow and somewhat annoying. And the worst thing is that you cannot do anything about it. Some turns, just working through your queue of pop-ups and prompts feels like a chore. Perhaps the absolute worst sin of Civilization 6 is that it refuses to let you engage with the game on your own terms, but instead incessantly redirects your attention to the handful of different subsystems, each of which have little connection with the core empire building game and mostly zero connection with each other.
Less is more. — Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Civilization 6 seems like it has a philosophy of making sure you will not ever run out of stuff that happens to you. This might seem admirable — it creates a safety net and allows you to play the game without really bringing any ambitions or plans of your own to the table. However, this design sucks a lot of the air out of the room — it means that while you are putting together a plan to conquer Venice, trying to wrap your head around the logistical pain points that come with one-unit-per-tile tactical warfare, you constantly have your attention diverted to trifles like repeating trade routes. Worse yet, suddenly it’s time to place a new district, so better clear out your working memory and solve some optimal packing problems.
Come to think of it — I never even wanted Venice in the first place.
With games like these, who needs work?