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Civilization VI’s new expansion is a disaster-filled look at climate change

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Gathering Storm

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Firaxis

My warrior never saw the incandescent death headed their way. After clearing out a barbarian encampment, they should have had at least one turn to recover. Instead, they were promptly obliterated by the eruption of the volcano next door.

Clearly, my situational awareness could use some work. (Note to self: when directing troops, be wary of ash clouds looming over mountains.) But these kind of unpredictable cataclysms are definitely one of the biggest draws of Civilization VI’s latest expansion, Gathering Storm.

Normally, I write about science, not games, so I was really curious to see how well the game’s events lined up with real-world disasters that I cover, from individual events like major storms and droughts to the drumbeat of climate change. The expansion doesn’t get every single technical detail right — volcanoes don’t smoke, for one — but introducing folks to jargon is not usually why people play video games, and overall it was a dynamic expansion of the Civ world.

In the game, the disasters make city planning more of a challenge. Is it worth farming in a floodplain? Or building a campus next to that volcano for the extra science points? Just like in the real world, sometimes the reward is worth the risk, and the newly fertile soil from a flood might be a decent trade-off for temporary destruction. Other times, you just keep your fingers crossed that the volcano goes dormant quickly, or that you can research dams before the next major flood, or flood barriers before sea levels rise.

And boy, do the sea levels rise. If you don’t have those flood barriers in place, saltwater rushes into tiles on the coast, wiping them clear of improvements with the fury of a rampaging army. Not that I wasn’t warned. The game tells you which areas will flood first, second, and third as you and your fellow civilizations push carbon dioxide into the air, so you can avoid those areas while settling. (Or not, you do you.)

Firaxis

Not producing any carbon dioxide is pretty difficult once you get to the later ages. Starting around the industrial age, you have to excavate and burn coal and oil to power your cities, which pump out the greenhouse gas. These cities are now power-hungry fiends, and won’t work properly if you leave them half-powered, much less completely in the dark. You’ll get a chance to switch to solar and wind later, but by then, sea levels could have already risen. And sometimes, other nations will block your efforts to switch fuel sources — during one game, nuclear power was banned.

If that all sounds horrifying, don’t worry. Unlike the real world, there is an option to reduce the natural hazards. You could just earn an early cultural victory and ignore the later ages with their climate catastrophes entirely.

I inadvertently tried that with one of the new leaders, Kristina, who gains diplomatic favor every time you earn a great person. She dominated the reintroduced and revamped World Congress. The mechanics of diplomacy are appealing — you have to spend favor to get your way with your neighbors and the other nations of the world — but I wanted to see more eruptions. With Kristina, I kept the natural hazards at the standard level; two, on a scale of zero to four. I saw a few floods, and some hurricanes, but the good stuff was always happening on another continent. The next time I played, I turned it up to four, which led my poor warrior to get destroyed by what I can only assume was a lahar, or maybe a lava bomb spit out by Lautaro volcano.

I know it was Lautaro volcano, because in this version of the game, volcanoes and rivers are named and labeled on the map. Getting word of the Seine flooding in France, or Arthur’s Seat erupting in Rome was way more interesting than just hearing that a random volcano went off somewhere in my fictional world. Giving disasters names is also really common here in the real world — it helps us wrap our heads around what might seem to be random events.

The map is beautiful in other ways, too. While disasters happening within your sphere of influence are vivid and bright, with lava flowing down slopes or silt clogging streams, disasters that you hear about but don’t witness are represented with sketch-like drawings in the fog of war. It’s like hearing about a tornado through a newspaper instead of being there.

Sadly, more and more people are right there, and not just in the game. They live near natural hazards, which turn into disasters only when people are in their path. As the world gets increasingly crowded, we’re bumping up into hazards more and more, something that is beautifully illustrated in this version of Civ. As your empire expands, your exposure to hazards increases.

But through the doom and gloom, Gathering Storm offers an optimistic view of a world beset with perils, both natural and human-made. Randomized future technologies let players develop advanced batteries, or AI, or other ways to cope with a rapidly changing world. There are diplomatic paths to action, infrastructure projects that can protect cities, as well as incentives for conservation. It’s a low-stakes place to wrap your head around climate change without some of the existential dread that hovers on the outskirts of any modern discussion of the environment.

It’s a lot easier to build a better world in a video game like Gathering Storm than in real life. But trying to build even a simplistic version of one can be a whole lot of fun.

Civilization VI: Gathering Storm is available February 14th on PC.

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