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24 hours in Civilization VI: my ongoing war with bazooka-wielding barbarians

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The last time I played Civilization VIat E3, China needed more crabs. This time, Japan needs more guns. It's the beginning of the 20th century and I've pulled my adopted country through 5,000 years of history. I've invented planes, discovered medicine, and constructed wonders, but because I neglected to focus on military affairs, I'm being battered by a gang of barbarians with bazookas.

Civilization VI, like its predecessors before it, is based on human history, but the strategy game is never historically accurate. Discoveries are jumbled up — I built ships and universities before I worked out how to make a wheel — and famous real-world figures are born far from their actual homeland. In my game, legendary Carthaginian commander Hannibal Barca was born in Japan, while 20th century Japanese admiral Togo Heihachiro found a new home in Queen Victoria's English empire.

It's based on history but it's not historically accurate

That's the reason I didn't have guns by the time the 1900s rolled around: I was spending my time prioritizing research into electrical items. That makes good financial sense for Japan, which is the only one of Civilization VI's factions that can build an electronics factory to pull in extra cash, but bad sense when I'm left to defend my borders with a squad of crossbowmen and some dudes with pikes.

Not only do I not have guns — I don't even have particularly good walls. I built some stone fortifications around my capital city of Kyoto about a millennium ago, but I never bothered upgrading them, assuming that my remote position in the north of my home continent would keep marauding armies at bay. My border settlements have proper walls, erected a few centuries back to keep any of my opponents from getting overly handsy with my land, but Kyoto's a barbarian free-for-all.

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Clearing the map of barbarians is a rite of passage for a nascent civilization, but my game of Civ VI kept popping them back into existence, long after my opponents and I had developed atomic weapons. I guess they could be imagined as rebels or insurgents, but the game kept calling them barbarians, streaming well-equipped anti-tank soldiers out of primitive wooden encampments well into the 1980s. It was an incongruous sight, but then so too was its backdrop: a vision of the world where Teddy Roosevelt rules the United States as a Taoist theocracy, where Queen Victoria bows to the Spanish empire, and where Japan — isolationist for years in the real world — relies almost entirely on foreign trade.

History's not the only thing that's been pulled apart. The self-contained cities of earlier Civilization games have also been exploded, changing Civilization V's template so that industrial areas, harbors, banking centers, and other specialized areas count as "districts." If you want an entertainment district, for example, to keep your citizens happy, you'll need to find a space for it in the halo of tiles surrounding your city center.

I had to clear ancient farms to make way for new factories

That forces you to make choices about what you want your cities, and your civilization as a whole, to specialize in. Your own limited resources, the confines of the world map, and the territorial jockeying of other factions in-game ensure that you rarely have space to fit every district you want into a city, so you'll be revising your cities as the centuries pass. This makes thematic sense: of course you'd be paving over wheat farms laid down before your people had their own written language, and replacing quarries, plantations, and horse paddocks with air force bases and theater districts.

But it also forces players to micromanage more as the game goes on. I was playing an early version of Civilization VI, with kinks to be ironed out and tutorials to be added in, but each turn added more fiddly work as I scoured menus and my existing cities to work out what I could and couldn't replace. As well as choosing districts, you now need to add smaller-scale improvements by hand. To grow your cities, you need food; to get food you need farms. To create a farm, I had to train a builder, send it to a nearby food source, manually select the farm option, and then move it back to safety. On top of that, each of these builders is only capable of a few tasks (three as standard) before they disappear, meaning you'll need to produce a new construction crew every few turns if you want to expand fast, or change your cities' focus.

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With one or two settlements, this system is great. I built Kyoto into the carefully manicured art town it is in real life, with a theater in the cultural district to the north, temples to the east, and industry far to the south. But when your empire crosses the sea, as mine did by the early 1800s, you're keeping tabs on eight or nine different cities. As technological progress marches on, you're given tens of different construction options in each of these locations, and it feels like you need the mind of a chess master to keep track of what's going on.

The late game requires a lot of micromanagement

By that point, I stopped trying to manicure each of my new cities, turning growing settlements like Tokyo and Osaka into industrial and research powerhouses. I wasn't going to dominate the other cultures through religion, and by the time I'd moved beyond the musket (in about 1965) it was clear I wasn't going to win a military victory — but I could still succeed with a science victory. Finally following the course of real-world history, I threw Japan into manufacturing, engineering, and science, trying to land a human on the Moon and establish an Elon Musk-esque colony on Mars before my peers.

It was no good: Roosevelt's religious powers were too strong, and, supported by the huge American Imperial army, he convinced the whole planet to convert to Taoism before I could blast my way offworld. America succeeding with religion and guns — maybe Civilization VI's history isn't so strange after all?

Civilization VI is out on Windows PC on October 21st.