If I were to list the ten most influential, important, and outstanding game franchises of my childhood, nine out of those ten series would be Nintendo made — or at least prominent on Nintendo systems. The odd duck out would be Sid Meier’s Civilization: a titan of PC strategy gaming for well over a quarter of a century, and the source of many a sleepless night growing up. I remember each entry (except the first, which was before my time) with distinct clarity — the FMVs of Civ II (featuring the greatest Elvis impersonator in video games), the Grammy-winning title song of Civ IV, and the hexagonal unit-stacks-be-gone revolution of Civ V. Each title has devoured hundreds of hours of my time, save the most recent entry, Civilization VI, which I played a bit more sparingly (by which I mean “only a couple dozen hours”) due to wanting to spread my playtime around to other titles a bit more.
Well, apparently Firaxis caught word that I wasn’t slaving my life away to the altar of Sid Meier, because now they’ve up and ported the game to Switch, marking only the second time the series has graced a Nintendo console, after the so-so DS entry Civilization Revolution. And the port has my greatest hope — and deepest fears — realized in full: Civilization VI is a glorious, nuanced, and grand time sink that will snuff any modicum of free time you may have already been afforded.
Given that Civ as a series isn’t much of a fixture on console, I’m going to mostly be comparing the game just to its PC version and not so much previous entries, as I assume most people interested in picking it up are either a) Civ vets looking to see if the portable version is worthwhile, and b) total newcomers. But whoever you are, you should definitely look at this title in a series that has always stood the test of time.
Through the ages
The concept of Civilization is simple yet grand — from the first discoveries of the stone age through times of war, peace, and all in between, you must emerge the superior civilization of the world — whether by military might, cultural dominance, religious hegemony, or scientific superiority. Along the way you’ll make explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate in order to achieve your desired victory condition as one of a couple dozen civilizations, each based on a prestigious and notable empire from real history.
Civilization doesn’t really have a story in a traditional sense — every game is procedurally generated from scratch, and what leaders you’ll encounter are random unless you set them yourself. So while there’s no real “plot” to speak of, each new campaign brings with it its own set of emergent stories — you may have one playthrough where France and the Aztecs are your bros and then Australia stabs you in the back like a jerk, or one where you’re locked into a war with Egypt for thousands of years because they won’t stop producing that one counter to your heavy cavalry, or — inevitably — one where Gandhi just nukes you without remorse. Story isn’t the focus, but some zany scenarios and geopolitical situations will inevitably arise, and it’s something I love about each Civ.
Far from being homogenous, each separate leader and civilization comes with its own array of perks and abilities. For example, in my first campaign in the Switch version I played as Saladin of Arabia, who reflected the Arabian Empire’s rich history of religious and scientific progress by offering Faith and Science bonuses in conjunction. Other civs can offer everything from minor stat bonuses to game-changing gimmicks (like the Congolese, who can’t found a Religion but can take on the benefits of all faiths within their borders). The huge variety in the civilizations means that each one sports radically different playstyles, meaning that a campaign with each of them feels like a completely different experience — especially as you try to go for different victory conditions at different difficulty levels.
That said, I do wish the particular selection of civilizations was a bit beefier. While the Switch version does include some of the PC DLC civs, it lacks the Rise & Fall expansion, which means its starting roster feels just a little sparse. And the distribution by geographic location isn’t exactly equivalent either — there are just as many Greek leaders as there are from the whole continent of Africa, for example. It’s not a huge deal, and since the aforementioned R&S expansion is coming soon to the iOS version, I imagine it (and the recently announced Gathering Storm) will hit Switch eventually. And it’s not the teensiest selection I’ve ever seen.
Aesthetics of past, present, and future
When Civ VI was first revealed for PC, there was tift by some fans over the artstyle, which moved away from the general realism of previous titles for a more cartoonish appeal. And I can say with wholehearted non-ambivalence that I love it. The stylism in both designs and animation adds a rich sense of life and personality to each leader you come across, as does their voice acting in their native tongues. Their appearances do a fine job of appearing like caricatures without being offensive or unpalatable, and it generally gives the game a softer edge, as do the nice saturated colors and rich browns of unexplored/unseen territory. My sole complaint is that the leader backgrounds lack the richness of Civ V’s, and that’s a mostly negligible comment.
But while the stylism is great and holds up, there’s no denying that the port takes some hits in terms of visual fidelity. It’s most notable with the UI, with is elegant and unobtrusive on PC, but bigger and blockier here so you can use the touch screen (more on that in a bit). Most of the gameplay actually looks pretty great and runs surprisingly smoothly… at first. Later in the game as you’ve got the map fully explored and a bunch of actions clogging the system it’ll slow down a bit, mostly whenever you enter a city’s production screen. In terms of actual visual sharpness, the downgrade is most noticeable with leaders who have a bit of salt-and-pepper colored hair, as it looks kinda staticky and poor on the handheld screen. It’s an understandable bummer, though I would say it’s not enough to dampen the game’s portability.
What was, is, and will always be nice is Civ’s soundtrack, which is filled with very relaxed and subdued tracks. Because the game lacks much in the way of blood-pumping action, it ends up filling a lot of dead air in the interim, and it’s more than pleasant enough to spend entire days, if not weeks, listening to. The style of music even matches the civilization you play as — Japan features instruments like the shamisen, while America has some old timely Colonial tunes you can listen to. It’s very easy to simply melt into a lull during a campaign because the music is so beautiful and reserved.
What a Wonder-full world
Civilization’s gameplay is about managing your units, cities, and overall resources in order to vie for one of five victory conditions — Domination (capture all of the world’s capitals), Culture (attract more international tourists than there are domestic tourists in other nations), Religious (have your religion become the majority religion in all civilizations), Scientific (become the first civ to launch a mission to Mars), and Score (the “consolation” victory awarded if the turn limit runs out). Sound complicated? It is a little, but each victory condition has certain strategies you can focus on to gain an edge.
The bulk of Civilization comes down to what you produce in your various cities, whether they be soldiers to conquer others, Wonders that can only be built by one civ for a massive benefit, or — new to VI — specialized districts that will increase your output and amount of particular resources. A Campus will net you scientific boosts; a Holy Site will help you found a religion; a Theater Square will give you cultural boosts, etc. Figuring out how to allocate your resources properly while also managing your turn-by-turn units is essential.
VI’s improvement to the classic ideas of the series make it one where you really have to consider your macro-management carefully. No long can you send your workers out for infinity as you stack every wonder and improvement possible; now you have to pick and choose what to build and plan accordingly. Going hard in on religious output may leave you behind in the culture wars, and dedicating yourself to a massive military may lead to you running out of money. Between all that and picking the right government, promotions, and placements on the map, and there’s a real and tangible sense of give and take, of risk and reward. It’s incredible.
But while I love Civ VI’s gameplay to death, I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that the Switch’s interface simply isn’t ideal for it. The game works okay with a button layout, but it really was built for a mouse and keyboard — while things are streamlined enough to be serviceable, it’s a lot harder to figure out information. You can use the touchscreen too (in fact, I would recommend a hybrid of the two), but I found it a bit cumbersome and it led me to send my units cavorting off in the wrong direction on multiple occasions. Maybe my fingers are just too pudgy. But regardless, I felt the loss of easy mouseovers and quick, seamless unit directions at several points.
And at first, I thought that this might be an insurmountable hurdle, something that tainted and diluted the experience of the Switch version. And then I realized that it was 2 in the morning and that the only reason I was stopping was because the battery was running low. Civilization’s addictive quality cannot be undersold or overstated — I literally missed my stop on the bus after one day of owning it because I was so absorbed. It has a continuous, never ending flow of gameplay, one that will have you saying “one more turn, just one more turn” like a mantra of madness as you descend in a vortex of hatred towards Qin Shi Huang because that jerkwad declared war on you for no reason and now you must exact sweet, sweet revenge. There is no other game that I find myself harder to pull away from. And now that it’s portable? Sayonara, productivity; hello, Production bonuses.
To stand the test of time
Besides the porting nitpicks, Civ VI does carry the usual array of bugbears that plague every entry. The AI is and always will be as dumber and fickler than the lead in a love triangle soap opera, though it is at least bewildering enough to provide amusement a lot of the time. If you make it to the mid-game the majority of the time you’re going to win, unless you make a massive misplay. Diplomacy options are improved compared to the past, but it still feels like wrangling with a tempestuous array of 0s and 1s that adore you one minute and want to cut your spleen out the next.
I would also make the qualification that you should only pick up the Switch version if you use the console primarily in handheld mode, or go for a 50/50 split between handheld and TV, because if you’re primarily a couch potato then you’re really better off getting the PC version — even if you have a lower end PC the control interface alone makes it worth it. But portability is something that no desktop can touch, either.
Through all of those complaints, which may seem like something substantial, I can’t shake my sheer adoration for this gobsmackingly evergreen and enduring good game. As somebody who usually tires of procedural titles after a few runs (or “beating” it in certain cases), I can never fully stop playing Civ. It’s at once therapeutic and perpetuating, like the video game equivalent of painkillers, as hours evaporate effortlessly as you strive to finish a trade route or conduct some espionage or — inevitably — nuke Gandhi back.
For a full priced game, Civilization VI provides some of the most bang for your buck you could ever get. It’s a simply endless pool of content that engages without overwhelming you, that satisfies with simple strategy and pleasant aesthetics. And hey, if you crack open the Civilopedia, you can even learn a thing or two about history!
If I had to bring just one Switch game to a deserted island, it would without a doubt be this one. And I know that I will continue to love this entry, this game, and this franchise for many ages to come.
Leave a Comment
System: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: November 16, 2018
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: Firaxis Games / Aspyr Media