The 'Civilization' series finally finds god, and with it, the end of my sword.
My glorious Roman Empire ignored religion for too long and it almost destroyed me. While I built roads, raised armies and sought trade deals with nearby city-states and rivals, my neighbor Spain kept to itself, built churches and spread the good word of Protestantism. Which was fine. As the Roman Emperor Trajan, I'd established a religion based on the worship of the mighty turtle and then forgotten about my people's spiritual needs as I concentrated on getting tanks before my rivals.
"Foolish Spain," I thought. "This is a Civilization game. Glory and riches goes to the ruler who builds a spaceport or conquers their rivals. There's no easy path to victory through the gods." Then, almost too late, I checked the scorecard and realized Spain was about to declare victory … a religious victory.
Civilization 6 is very different and much better than its predecessors.
The 25 year old strategy video game series from famed designer Sid Meiers is a turn based journey through history where players, both real and AI, battle each other for victory over a randomly generated planet.
Unlike other strategy games, players don't necessarily use the military to dominate their opponents. In Civilization, players can win by being the first to establish a Mars colony, building cities so culturally rich that they become tourist destinations, and now, for the first time, by spreading their culture's religion across the globe. It's a game changer and I didn't see it coming.
I've been playing Civilization since the game's first incarnation in 1991. I used to watch my dad play the original on our beat up old PC. Back then, patches came on floppy disks sent through the mail. I consider myself a bit of a Civ master and my strategy hasn't changed much through the game's many iterations.
Players spend their turns establishing and developing cities, exploring the land and researching technology that unlocks new advantages. In every Civ game I play, I rush economic advances. Money can buy a lot of shortcuts in Civ and it's never a bad strategy to pursue it.
After I make my civilization an economic giant, I rush gunpowder and unlock advanced military tech before my opponents. I always figured that if a mix of economic and military domination was good enough for America, it was good enough for me. It worked well, until Civilization 6.
The new game does a lot to reinvigorate the series, but the most exciting development has to be the complete reworking of how religion and its effects. The first three games in the series largely ignored spirituality. The original had some religious buildings with bonuses that kept a cities population from rebelling, but that was it. Civ 2 and 3 ignored it almost completely.
Civilization 4 and 5 fleshed out the game's spiritual side, but religion was still an extra easily ignored. Smart players used religions to grant their societies bonuses, but ignoring faith didn't usually hold a civilization back.
The God and Kings expansion for Civ 5 reworked the games religious system. For the first time, players could craft their own spiritual system and tailor its bonuses to their culture. Players who wanted a cultural victory could use religion to develop choral music and give them a bonus to tourism. Militaristic players could research holy warriors to buy cheap land units to assault their rivals.
Civilization 6's religion system is like Gods and Kings on steroids. In Civ 6, players can craft their own religion and shape it as the game progresses. Players put down special religious buildings, then attract a series of prophets to their civilization to found and shape their religion.
Players can either pick from a list of historical religions such as Buddhism and Catholicism or design their own from the ground up. While playing Rome, I decided to design my own for fun but I didn't take it too seriously. Players can name their religion and pick from a long list of symbols to personalize it. There's a great picture of a turtle, so I picked that and called Rome's new religion Turtle Worship. I built some temples then ignored faith to focus on money and guns.
Philip II of Spain was my closest rival. He held the coast to Rome's East, establishing a paltry four cities that didn't take up much space. I'd blocked him from expanding early and left him alone. Spain was weak, couldn't reach any other civilizations via the land and was so backward technologically that I completely wrote it off as a threat.
While I worked on Rome's infrastructure, building roads, trade routes and universities, Spain sent dozens of red-cloaked missionaries across the map, spreading Protestantism and converting civilizations left and right. I ignored it.
Civilization 6 keeps track of how close each civilization is to victory in a handy scorecard. It shows how many civilizations are left and where they are on the path to victory. When a civilization launches a space probe, it ticks a box on the path to a science victory. When a civilization takes in another dozen tourists, it shows on the path to a cultural victory.
During the mid-game of my Rome campaign, just before I'd developed gunpowder and before anyone had expanded to the second continent, I checked the scorecard to see how I was doing. To my horror, Spain was about to win the game.
In Civilization 6, players can declare religious victory by converting all the other civilizations to their religion. I did not know this going in. In the mid game, long before any other player could claim victory, Spain had converted 5 of the remaining 6 civs to Protestantism. Only Pagan Norway stood in its way, and Philip II was making headway into Oslo.
Hoping to counter Philip's dominance, I quickly tossed up temples and began churning out religious units to spread Turtle Worship. One problem—Philip's missionaries had already converted every city in my civilization. Every new temple and missionary I built was Protestant. Spain had wiped out Turtle Worship and there was no way to bring it back.
I only had one option—genocide. I marshalled my forces and declared a Holy War on Spain. I spent the rest of the mid-game developing my military and razing Spain's cities to the ground. Protestants died by the millions as Rome's armies marched through the streets of Madrid, smashing temples and murdering priests.
I won. I leveled Spain, destroyed all its cities and prevented Philip II from winning a religious victory, but switching my focus from development to war had consequences. To my West, Germany spent the years during my war with Spain quietly developing its technology. By the time I'd finished off Spain, Germany had already launched a satellite—the first step towards a science victory. I was behind.
Religion changes the game in Civilization 6. It's an easy, sneaky way for weaker civilizations to eek out an early or mid-game victory. Tiny Spain, cut off from the resources on the fertile continent and relegated to a small strip of shore doubled down on temples, faith and missionaries and almost won.
It's a new and exciting change that made this veteran civ player feel something he hasn't felt in a long time from the series—challenged.