Civilization VI

Is Civilization VI Too Complex For Its Own Good?

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When Civilization VI was announced, I sent a note to my friends and family: “Will be unavailable for several weeks after October 21”. But thirty hours into the game, I was wondering if I’d made a mistake.

The basic game of Civilization never changes. You start with one city, you build more. You race up the technology tree, stopping off to build your favorite units and wonders. Nothing new under the sun, right?

But this time around, my game felt sluggish. My cities didn’t grow fast enough. The other nations raced ahead in technology. What was I doing wrong?

Some of my troubles were self-inflicted. I jumped in at “Prince” difficulty and didn’t pay much attention to the tutorials. But I’ve been playing Civilization since I installed the first one over twenty years ago. I’ve spent more time playing Civ than I spent in classrooms in college. I expect this old friend to behave the way she always did.

AsI stared at yet another defeat screen, though, I had to acknowledge that this was not my old friend. I had met somebody new with a familiar face, and I wasn’t sure how to grab a beer and hang out any more.

Civilization VI policies
There’s a cunning plan in these policies… somewhere.

Learning How to Conquer the World Again

I didn’t give up on Civilization VI. It was never a serious question that I would; I have too many years of emotional investment. And as I poked away at the game’s new systems, I finally started to understand them.

The social policies look like a confusing mess of options at first. Over time, though, you begin to anticipate what you need. A bonus against barbarians now. Later on, a better defense for your cities. Still later, a push for more science or art. Eventually, you can time your policy advances so that you shift cleanly into the right policies as you need them.

Where the policies are obvious and confusing, the district adjacency system is almost invisible. Civilization VI supplies icons to show where a campus can earn extra light bulbs, but you have to learn to read the board for good district locations. The game doesn’t tell you about great hexes that are just out of reach, nor remind you that a future district might be more efficient in a hex you’re about to use now. You have to learn all that over time and repeated play.

It took about sixty hours before I started consistently reading the map for good district placement. Maybe I’m just a slow learner, but that’s a long path from struggling to competitive.

Clash of Civilization Clans

Civ has always rewarded long attention spans. Nobody would put hundreds of hours into it if it wasn’t a deep game. But I wonder if Civilization VI hid its complexity a little too well.

Yes, it’s easy to get started. And I might have gotten into the swing of things faster if I hadn’t jumped into the deep end and stubbornly avoided the tutorial. But it took almost a hundred hours to start feeling good about how I played, and even if you cut that in half that’s a long time to gain some mastery.

The cost of that long path may be reflected in Civilization VI’s achievements. A little over 80% of players have won badges for basic activities like building improvements and changing governments. 37% of players have won a Settlers-level match and 36% have won from a typical Ancient-era start. Wins at higher difficulty levels drop quickly: 26.9% at Prince, 12.7% at King, and only 5.2% at Immortal. Those are some pretty low numbers after three months on the market.

Steamcharts also shows significant player attrition since release. Activity peaked during the October launch with 162,314 concurrent players; January’s counts average around 24,000 with peaks of 40,000 on the weekends. Since November 21, Civilization V has actually had slightly more players at any given time.

After five years on the market, it’s no surprise that any followers Civilization V still has are dedicated souls. But it is surprising that the game has more players that the follow-up, especially since its all-time peak was only 91,020. It looks like a lot of people tried Civilization VI but didn’t stick with it, and that the game didn’t hold hardcore fans as well as its predecessor.

Personally, I’m glad I stuck it out. I’m no Zen Master of Civ, but I can keep up now. I like the art, and love the music. The multiplayer community is friendly and fun to hang out with on Saturday nights. But for most gamers, this iteration of Civilization may be just a little too advanced.

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