Our conversation with Civilization VI's senior gameplay designer - Part 1

Anton Strenger explains Firaxis's changing attitudes about victory strategies, research, and the kinds of interesting decisions they hope players will be making moment-to-moment.

As part of my Civilization VI preview, I had the chance to chat with Firaxis’ Anton Strenger, Senior Gameplay Designer. We talked about, the new tech boost system, playing the map and not the numbers, modding, military and diplomatic changes, and why workers work so differently.

ROWAN KAISER: First question, something that was a big deal for me in Civ 5: win conditions. It felt like that was a game that was different from some of the other Civilizations in that it was more about picking out how you want to get to the endgame and going down that path. Is that something that you've continued with, or wanted to be more free-flowing?

ANTON STRENGER: I think a lot of our fans had felt this way about V as well, that in order to be effective you had to pick a victory strategy early on, and once you got towards that in the late game it was harder to pivot.

RK: Right, ability to pivot and desire to pre-plan. Which is not necessarily a bad thing or a good thing, but it is a thing.

AS: We want you to adapt and play the map differently every time. And so a big part of that is giving the player the flexibility to change their civilization and their strategy a little bit more easily than V did. I think for example Civilization V, part of the victory strategy and part of the late-game momentum that you had came from the social policy choices that you made. And those were locked in; once you had gone down the Tradition social policy tree, you couldn't change your mind later and put them into something else.

Civilization IV was much more flexible in that regard, the civic system, and you could change depending on what you needed at the time. And I think with VI we landed at a really nice place in-between where there is some persistence, there are those legacy bonuses [note: the longer you spend with a government type, the stronger a permanent bonus you get becomes], there's the government choice that you make, there are the policies you have at any given time. But, you know, every once in awhile, and any time if you pay gold for it, you can switch your strategy and go in a new direction.

And I'd say too, a lot of the victories in Civilization V were more dependent on, you know, the culture victory was really good if you had a small empire, and domination and science victory were better if you had bigger, wider empires.

In general in VI we're trying to be less tall-or-wide than we were with Civilization V balance. We want to give players more freedom to expand if they want to, while still keeping smaller-city empires viable. But I think it's less of a cookie-cutter strategy, like you need the magic number of cities in order to go for this type of victory. And it's certainly something that we're keeping a close eye on when we're balancing.

RK: One of the things that I noticed playing was the quests to get boosts. A lot of them you have to sort of want to plan to go along to, and that seemed to have a little bit of that "I want to pick my plan and stick to it" but on a much smaller scale than the grand victory condition idea.

AS: I'd say it could. And there are definitely some of those boosts that you could kind of take advantage of without needing a particular map configuration, but a lot of them are going to be a lot easier if you have the sort of right map to support it. So it's meant to be, it's never meant to be a constraint on the player, but I think of it as sort of like dangling shiny things, off the path that you're used to doing.

So maybe you don't normally play a naval game but if you settle on the coast which is right next to your starting spot, you get this tech boost for sailing, and then you might consider exploring this other strategy that you didn't before.

RK: Which is definitely good for me, who tends to not want to do naval-type game, but then I see the little quest that says you get the boost if you get some kills with the quadrireme.

AS: Yep, and certain city-state quests as well will key off of those quests, so they'll want you to get the technology boost for sailing, so if you get the boost for it, not only do you get the progress towards the research, but you get the city-state envoy as well [note: envoys are how you gain influence with city-states. Some are chosen by the player, some are added by completing city-state quests]. The civics tree also has boosts as well. They're similar, little objectives you can work on as you go through the game.

RK: I also noticed that they worked when you were doing that research. So if you has something that took nine turns, and you were five down, and then you popped the Wonder that you needed then you would have it show up. That was a good little synergy with what I was trying to do, like "Oh, I know the Wonder is coming, so I can get this super fast even though it doesn't say that now."

AS: Exactly, yeah. And I've definitely lined up things like that before. For intermediate and advanced players, I think that's gonna be really fun. You can say "oh, well I know this technology is gonna take ten turns, but I know that within four turns I can have builder over there to make an improvement to give the boost, so it's actually only gonna be five, and I can line things up just right, which will really accelerate me along that process," kind of maximize what you're getting out the boosts.

And there are lot of ways to take even more advantage of the boosts. You can trigger them through these conditions, but through Great People you can also trigger them that way. So, like, you can get Great Scientists which will give you technology boosts. A lot of the Great Scientists will give you random ones but some actually call out particular technologies that those scientists were good at historically.

Then China's unique ability, the Dynastic Cycle, is that they get 60% instead of 50% for each boost. So it's a way to, if you're really good at the boosts game, or you really want to take that to the next level, you can squeeze more out of every single boost that you get, and so a person playing China very well is gonna have a lot of advantages in that way.

RK: Especially if they can make a large China that gives them the opportunity to do all those boosts.

AS: Right, if they got a lot of open land for the tile improvement ones, kind of varied ways to get their fingers in the different "Eureka!" moments.

RK: So, speaking of the builders, they're changed so that they only do a few improvements instantly and then disappear. What motivated that change, because that's been consistent with Civilization from pretty much the beginning?

AS: A couple things. So, first off, in many ways we're trying to cut down on the amount of automated things in Civilization. We took a long hard look at Civilization V, and Ed Beach, the lead designer, and me, we both worked on both expansions, and we played the game a lot, and we noticed things like: you have a bunch of workers in Civilization V late in the game and they're automated, or not doing really doing anything special or interesting. They might be building some roads, waiting for oil to pop, it's kinda weird to just have them around.

But that bottom-right part of the screen is like "okay, what decision do I get to make next?" You know, Sid Meier's definition of a game "a series of interesting decisions" so I feel like every time you go to that corner it should be something fun, something interesting for you to choose between. At least in Civilization V, when it was those workers who just didn't have much to do, it was never very interesting for me. So we took a long hard look at that. We wanted to make builders more of an active choice, with more intention behind it. So I think that's one thing is the automation thing.

The other thing is I think it sorta gets players into the habit of them looking at the map much more closely. So players that would just kind of automate workers and forget about them and not really know what the farms versus the mines were, by having you choose each of those things yourself, it really brings into focus what the land is doing for you. It gets players used to reading the land in that way, which is useful not just for the improvements but also for the districts.

As for the instantaneousness of it, we thought it was it was one of those things, like "why has it always taken some time? What would happen if you just got it right away?" Having them be instantaneous but then deplete the charges and then eventually you have to build more was a nice way to get the workers out of the way when you didn't need them, and to make them a constant decision of, like, "oil's on the field now, when do I want to build another builder to have them go out?" Or maybe I kept one for that purpose in particular, but it's kind of wasted, that charge is just sitting there. So I think there's a lot of factors that went into it.

RK: I feel like a good strategy game you can describe what the core loop of it is with a sentence or so, and with Civilization it was "slowly expanding mastery of a map." And then I come here and see this, and that's what you've honed in on.

AS: Sort of doubled down on it, yeah.

RK: And I felt that as I was playing it! I wasn't going and looking at amount of production in my cities, I wasn't going and seeing how much research each is coming with, what I was doing was looking at where I could put whatever on the map, what should be my next push in what direction, physically or geographically. That was definitely an interesting switch.

AS: Yeah, I think the pace of movement and exploration is a little bit slowed down as well, compared to Civilization V. Part of the reason for that is that we want players to take their time exploring the map, that's a really fun part of the game, but there's a lot of information to digest. It's not just about where you're gonna settle your city and what resources are nearby, it's also about what's a potential campus location? What's a potential holy site location? [note: Campuses and holy sites are the districts for building extra science and faith points] What's a place where I can build this Wonder, or that Wonder?

So there's a lot of factors that go into placing your cities, and unstacking those cities once they are placed, where you're gonna put what. It's really cool, and I think it's one of those systems that as players play more and more, as they start getting at the nuances and peeling back the layers, they're like "oh, if I put a campus next to mountains and rainforests, it gets even more science to start with, then the next time they play they're going to be able to take advantage of that and look for that. Kind of like build it into their knowledge.

But at first, if you're playing on lower difficulties, there's nothing wrong with building a campus on a desert tile in the middle of nowhere. You're still going to be able to build your library and your university there and get some science going. But there's definitely a lot of nuance there that is there for repeated playthroughs.

RK: Yeah I could see that happening, because normally what I look for in placing a city is not having be all desert and mountain nearby, and having as many strategic resources as I can get, but then if there are a bunch of mountain tiles, then that's actually good for other things.

AS: That's one of the big shifts for me, in VI, is when I got a mountain start in Civ V, I was kinda like "ennhhh, mountains." Like it's a nice natural barrier but it's not going to be that good for me. But when I get a mountain start in VI I'm actually excited because the campus and the holy site, two of the earliest districts you get, both get bonuses from that, so it's really cool.

RK: I noticed you've removed a lot of the tricks I've used in Civilization to get the most movement points. And that's probably good, but that was an initial barrier, realizing that I can't move one square and then cross the river [or try to end every turn moving onto a hill, a process which now takes an entire turn].

AS: There are a couple reasons for that. One was the exploration pace that I mentioned. The other one though, yeah, we felt that it was little bit meta-gamey to have players [do that]. You're playing the map when you do that in Civilization V but you're doing it in sort of abstract board gamey way. We want you to play the map in VI but we want you to do it in the world, with the actual terrain.

So yeah, we slow down the movement in that you can't move [just] anywhere for your last movement point. You gotta have the full cost to go there. And yeah, a lot of our more experienced fans have definitely noticed that.

Tomorrow: questions about military gameplay, the new split between civic tech and research tech, and more.