A Civilization to stand the test of (free) time
I have had to check what day it was at least three times in the last week.
Some may put that down to the new year, stress, or just absent-mindedness. But no, it’s largely down to the fact that the Spaniards had the gall to try and spread Catholicism near my Macedonian Empire. So, I marched on Bilbao, then Madrid… And then made sure to convert the rest of his cities to Taoism (founded by John the Baptist, obviously). And, not long after, broker peace. But not without making sure I took all of their cocoa and their diamonds in the process.
Oh, and I may have committed a teensy bit of genocide against the Spartans somewhere along the line. But, I promise you, it was like that when I got there, and moreover, they started it.
Strength in stories
See, the most fascinating parts about Sid Meier’s iconic Civilization games aren’t so much the games themselves. No, the most fascinating parts are the incredible stories that emerge from them. It’s the kind revisionist history that reads like the best kind of bad fan-fiction. That may sound like a backhanded compliment, but it’s not. 4X games and grand strategy games offer up the kind of narrative freedom that story-driven blockbusters can only dream of. Why? Because the only rails you can drive the story off are the ones you lay yourself.
With rare exception, all you’re ever given at the outset of a game is a warrior, a settler… All within a big wide world, replete with untapped riches. And, of course, the limitless freedom to proceed as you like. The next 500 turns — give or take — are up to you. Plus, it’s near-impossible to walk away from a game of Civ without a story to tell.
I’m not here to speak to Civilization VI in-depth, because it’s already been discussed ad nauseam. The game has been out now for over two years.
Its first expansion, Rise and Fall, was released around this time last year. And, we’re on the cusp of the release of its second expansion, Gathering Storm. Anything that needs to be said about how Civ VI plays compared to its forebears has already been covered in depth.
In short, city-building is more nuanced. There’s a great deal more depth in terms of how you build cities rather than simply what you build. City-states offer a bevy of new options that allow you to chase a diplomatic approach without having to constantly negotiate with the often scatterbrained AI. Thoughtful refinements to things like culture, religion and the hex tile system properly consolidate their presence in the series. It’s a mostly triumphant sequel that offers up a few wrinkles here or there. Of course, in the classic fashion that any new Civ tends to do.
What we’re here to really talk about
But really, I’m not here to talk about that. I’m here to talk about how Civ VI on the Switch specifically is the worst thing that has happened to your free time in years. “Why?” you ask. Because you no longer have any excuse to not play it.
Ordinarily, the fatigue that can set in with a Civ game will wear on all but the most committed folk. Not to mention, the hiatus that can result from that often proves to be permanent. Coming back to a game of Civ in medias res is nearly impossible. There’s too much context that needs to be relearned — too many wheels in motion to reasonably keep track of things.
“Why is Hojo Tokimune mad at me? What was I trying to build here? What year is it?”
It’s simply easier to start fresh, but of course, that same burnout can strike just as easily the next time. And that’s when the save files build up, unresolved. With all too many epic sojourns across the stage of history cut short by the pesky imposition of real life.
Civilization on the go with the Switch
But the Switch version? Not so. The portability of the Switch means you can manage your empire in the moments between: on the train, in a waiting room, on your lunch break, before bed — the list goes on. It’s in your backpack, it’s on your side table, it’s right there. So, you’re prime to check in on the action no matter what. And, even if you only push through a few turns, it’s enough to keep you on the hook until the next time.
All of this would be for naught if the Switch wasn’t able to adequately sail the deep seas of Civ’s sometimes labyrinthine UI. (Side note: it’s complex by necessity, rather than design). But, the solution it presents deftly negotiates the essentials without a hitch.
An intuitive control system
From zooming in and out with the triggers to unit movement with the left stick to sub-menu navigation with the d-pad… Each element of the Joy-Con has a specific, unchanging use. So, the many different menus you’re presented with are navigated within the same broad context. That way, even the most obscure details are only a few button presses away. Not to mention, the touch screen is always available as a last resort. The sum total is a surprisingly intuitive system that takes very little time to learn and feels right.
Crucially, the Switch port affords you the luxury of playing Civ the way you want to. If you’re the type of player who just wants to get on with the action, you can let the game draw your attention to the important details until your options are exhausted and the turn cycles over. But, if you’re the type who needs to micro-manage every element of every city you control, from resource allocation, to diplomacy, to population growth, you can do that too — and the game never fights back against you for doing so.
It is, without question, the best way to play Civ outside of a keyboard and mouse, and for some, it may even be better than that.
How well it runs on the Switch
Not only that, but the game runs alarmingly well on the Switch’s somewhat limited hardware. Even on the beefiest of PCs, turns in Civ VI can chug along. Especially in the later eras where world wars, numerous international trade routes or apostolic clashes are all too common. While the Switch obviously does hitch up from time to time, it’s never awful enough to frustrate. And, the graphics are surprisingly crisp — particularly the world leaders, who remain as expressive and vivid as ever.
There is one rather glaring flaw in this release, however, which is that, well, it’s Civilization VI. Traditionally, numbered sequels tend to trim the fat of the previous title’s fully expanded form and refine its rough edges. But, they ultimately end up feeling slightly less feature-complete as a result. The addition of things such as governors, great ages, dynamic weather, world congress, future tech and gameplay tweaks in Civ VI’s expansions — not to mention the new assortment of weird and wonderful world leaders — are huge paradigm shifts for the game. Once Gathering Storm drops, it’ll be hard to argue against Civilization VI being the grandest rendition of them all.
Vanilla Civ VI just feels like a bit of a shallow pool in comparison. The only additional content that comes with this edition is the five DLC empires (and their respective scenarios). They include the all-important Australian civilization that was introduced not long after the game’s original release. That much is fine, but the knowledge that there is so much more to be had stings.
For some, the base game will be more than enough, and that’s great. But for Civ boffins who have grown accustomed to what the latest entry in the franchise has become, the step back to the before times will be a bitter pill to swallow. This will be doubly so since there’s no indication as yet that there’s even a discussion to be had about expansions. All it would take is the mere suggestion of platform parity and I would be elated — but also utterly terrified.
Why? Because the sum total of everything on offer here means that for Civilization VI on the Switch is already the most dangerous Civilization ever, if not the most comprehensive. It’s too easy to pick up, too easy to play, and too easy to while away the hours. Imagine if it were the complete package.