Chinese civilization is founded on crabs. Not actual Chinese civilization, but my take on China, an alternate history I explored over 60 turns of upcoming strategy game Civilization VI. The next entry in the legendary series is similar to its predecessors in that it puts players at the beginning of human civilization and tasks them with guiding their society to world domination, but Civ VI simplifies and streamlines many of the more complex elements, making its complicated world easier to read.
I was surrounded by crabs and deer
That's how I ended up with the crabs. My first city, Xi'an, lay on the coast and was surrounded by resources, each denoted with a picture. There was a rock, showing that I could build a quarry in the relevant hexagonal tile; a stag, indicating that once I'd learned basic animal husbandry I'd be able to get access to venison; and — just out to sea — a cartoon crab. By moving a worker unit out to the area, I was able to start my own crab netting operation, helping to feed and grow my populace with delicious crustacean treats.
In previous Civilization games, it was often easiest to set your builders to automatically build farms, fisheries, and other improvements around your cities, but the early version of Civ VI I played at E3 removed that option. Art director Brian Busatti says this was a conscious decision. Firaxis wants players to think more about how they expand their cities, what they specialize in, and where they can leave space for wonders — real-world marvels like the pyramids of Giza or the Eiffel Tower — or for new "districts."
Districts are Civ VI's big new feature, designed to move the machinery of societal development — theaters, universities, factories — out from the cities. "In Civ IV we had these blobs of cities," Busatti says. "If you had a temple in there, you had to really search for it. It was a cool visual aspect, but it didn't promote gameplay." Districts allow players to turn one city into a cultural haven, filling it with galleries and theaters, while another becomes an industrial center, packed with factories and facilities.
Districts are the big new idea of 'Civilization VI'
"You have to make more decisions on how to expand your cities," Busatti says. He describes an example: players who placed a farm near their capital city early on in their civilization's development would be able to replace it with a shiny science district later on, their advanced society no longer requiring such basic sources of food production. Like cities themselves, there are distinct benefits for putting districts in certain tiles, adjacent rainforests and mountains conferring research bonuses.
These decentralized districts also make your civilization easier to understand from a distance: industrial areas belch smoke and temples stand with tall pillars, Civ VI's colorful art style making them distinct. "We wanted to give a slightly more playful look to it," Busatti says of the changes from the more realistic Civilization V and the sci-fi Civilization: Beyond Earth. "We even took stuff from Civilization: Revolution" — the 2008 entry in the series designed for consoles — "but we didn't want to go that heavily stylized." The result is a world of bright colors and floppy-eared dogs, semi-realistic soldiers, and facsimiles of real-world buildings. "It has to be inviting — you're playing this game for 40 hours," Busatti says. "We had to make sure it wasn't drab, and that it was a lively world."
After 25 years, there are already millions of hardcore Civ players around the world, inculcated on its mechanics and complexities and waiting expectantly for the next version — Firaxis arguably doesn't need to work too hard to draw in new players. But Busatti's work seems to have paid off. I only got 60 turns into a game crab-based Chinese civilization, but I made more active choices than I had over decades of previous Civilizations, and its bright and breezy world made Civ VI feel less daunting and more welcoming than before.
Civilization VI is out on PC on October 21st.