Sid Meier's Civilization VI Review — Complex Systems Made Handheld Accessible
The turn-based strategy game Civilization VI finally made it to Switch, coming with a mostly accessible control scheme for those new to the series.
Sid Meier's Civilization VI
Review copy provided by the publisher
With the Nintendo Switch acting as both a portable and home console, the possibilities it proves are quite unique. Games for the platform can embody the usual traits of current day HD console games, or they can be designed for quick pick up and play sessions meant to be experienced in handheld mode. By finally putting Civilization VI on the Switch, here is a game that can fit either need.
It’s likely that a large number of people who bought a Switch do not play games on other platforms, so this iteration of Civilization VI could be their first experience with the series—it certainly was mine. With that in mind, it was important to delve into the perspective of a newcomer. As accessibility and ease of play are primary goals for many games on Nintendo platforms, it was important to me that this game that I initially found intimidating would exemplify those principles.
For the most part, it did.
“As accessibility and ease of play are primary goals for many games on Nintendo platforms, it was important to me that this game that I initially found intimidating would exemplify those principles.”
As I discovered rather quickly, Civilization VI is all about building civilizations. Jokes aside, I was quite pleased that this port was designed with novice players such as myself—upon starting up my first game, I was asked if I was new to either Civilization VI, the Switch port, or the Civilization series as a whole. Selecting the third option resulted in a guided experience that caught me up with the basics of the turn-based game, while also being a little less hand-holding than the tutorial.
And boy, were there a lot of systems to wrap my head around—it turns out that building a civilization from the ground up is a bit complicated. A lot of the bread and butter of the gameplay involves establishing cities, producing and utilizing resources, and moving units such as warriors, scouts, and settlers around the large, hexagonal map to make gains for your civilization (my personal thoughts on how the game depicts this later). The systems get deeper when it gets into the culture nitty gritty, with religion, civics, and science developments being a large part of managing a civilization.
The player will act as or encounter and deal with several historical figures, not limited to Theodore Roosevelt, Cleopatra, and Mahatma Gandhi. These anachronistically-placed leaders will all deal with situations differently, having their own agendas and advantages that players will have to keep in mind. These leaders are represented by animated character models with scripted dialogue, and they could very well become your enemies or allies, depending on how you play the board with your units. Encroach on someone’s territory, and either side may end up declaring war. Democracy’s tough, man.
“And boy, were there a lot of systems to wrap my head around—it turns out that building a civilization from the ground up is a bit complicated.”
Assuming players pick the option of “New to Switch,” the main selling point is just how it controls on the console. For the most part, it operates as a hybrid of how I would expect the game to control on both home consoles and on mobile. It’s entirely possible to navigate through the game’s board and menus through buttons and an analog stick, but handheld mode makes full use of the touchscreen.
During most of my playtime with the game, I elected to use the handheld controls instead. It took me a comical amount of time to figure out how to select different units when they occupied the same hex space, but using the touch screen for selection was a breeze. It’s a minute difference, but I found myself playing Civilization VI lying down in bed more often than sitting upright in front of the television.
The touch screens go further than simple button presses, with gestures one would expect coming from an iOS game coming into play. Tap the screen with three fingers to pause, swipe around the map, pinch to zoom in and out, and so on. “Intuitive” is a cliched term for this kind of stuff, but seeing how difficult I found the systems of this game to be, having the touchscreen available to me made it just that. I still found myself baffled by some of the HUD elements, with many buttons not being labeled, but I chalked that up to my own damn attention span missing some prompts earlier in the game.
“…I found myself playing Civilization VI lying down in bed more often than sitting upright in front of the television.”
It wasn’t too long into playing Civilization, however, that I found my own personal views on warfare and colonization to hamper my experience. I can stomach hyperrealistic World War II games quite well, but the way this game depicts a wider scope of colonialism from the top down is what made me a bit uncomfortable. In fact, it’s probably the vibrant, bright colors that made the experience all the more unsettling.
I’ve been familiar with the theme songs of the recent Civilization games, as I have friends who won’t stop sending them to me—yes, the choral composition and instrumental arrangements sound nice and all, but it’s indicative of just how optimistic and cheery the game is. From the opening video to Sean Bean’s soothing narrations, the game is trying to invoke this sense of wonder and enthusiasm, when what you are recreating in the game are acts of colonization, assimilation, and straight-up war.
Most players are able to separate the politics from the gameplay, but Civilization VI not only felt so inherently political, but violent. History was probably the subject that I followed the closest in high school, so with much of that context in mind, especially with everything about the world that I’ve learned since then, winning a match through a “religious victory” or total domination didn’t bring me too much satisfaction. Yes, these are all simulations and virtual people, but I found the win conditions a bit too hard to fist pump to.
“Most players are able to separate the politics from the gameplay, but Civilization VI not only felt so inherently political, but violent.”
I doubt that most people eyeing this game will really be troubled by the content and presentation, and I’m not expecting moral objections or anything of the such. Having never dived into the series, I can only assume that it has lasted for so long due to its impact on the genre, and for that, I’m happy that anyone interested in either the series or the genre as a whole can finally experience this on the Switch.
Even hours into my time with the game, I still felt as though I was far from mastering the nuances of Civilization VI. I’m still on the fence on whether or not I want to pursue a greater understanding of the game, not entirely because of my aforementioned concerns, but because I’m not so sure I’ll be able to understand it by the end. To me, there’s a difference of having intrigue and having fun in a game, and I can report that the only real fun I had playing Civilization VI was renaming “Washington” into “ButtTown.”
Still, I really do admire the care put into making this game playable for the Switch—it seems like such a perfect fit on paper, and it works in execution. I can’t imagine that the audience who bought the Switch just for the Nintendo first-party games will be interested in Civilization VI. If any of them do end up purchasing it, the learning curve will likely be steep. But if they’re able to move past that better than I could, the controls on Switch should make it feel like a breeze.