Civilization VI for Switch Review: Gameplay Impressions and Speedrunning Tips

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistNovember 22, 2018

Firaxis Games

Civilization VI is the latest modern classic to make its way over to the Nintendo Switch, smartly utilizing the system's unique features to provide an interesting twist worth revisiting or experiencing for the first time.  

Firaxis Games' effort follows in the footsteps of the superb Diablo 3 Switch release. Originally launched in 2016, Civilization VI was a critically-acclaimed extension of a classic 4X strategy franchise and Game of the Year contender with plenty of replayability and updates to this day. 

This release marks the game's first foray on to consoles, which is a bold move given the unique aspects of the Switch. Not only is it typically hard to bring a mouse-and-keyboard game to consoles, it would seem almost impossible to bring the layers of depth present in a series like Civilization. 

Once again, the Switch has allowed developers to pull off a feat for the ages. 


Graphics and Gameplay

Civilization VI never set out to win any awards for graphics—which doesn't mean it looks bad. 

This is clearly a scaled-down version compared to its PC counterpart, but the art style gives it a unique feel and wasn't going for uber-realistic in the first place. The randomized maps are varied and look great, and zooming close provides plenty of detail, although it's a bit fuzzy at times. 

The real visual treat here is the flowing unraveling of the map and cities. Those cities expand and change based on one of the many ways a player chooses to lead its populace. This is reflected in dramatic fashion throughout the ages. Battle animations between units is also a nice touch helping to illustrate how a player's decisions play out. 

While nothing world-beating, this is a great looking game for the Switch and one that stays true to the original intent and style. 

Gameplay remains as deep as anything on the market. The game does a great job of doling out tutorials and information for new players, though that won't stop the game from feeling about as intimidating as trying to climb Mount Everest. There are a ton of moving pieces here, but smart design and overall flow helps it all click into place the longer a player gets at it. 

It is pleasure for gamers to get lost in the depth. From something as simple as picking a starting character to choosing a style of empire to construct from dirt (good luck not getting lost on Wikipedia browsing the historical options), the game's sudden avalanche of options includes picking sciences, civics, policies, religions, all sorts of combat units, exploration and building additional cities, if not more. All this before pursuing one of five victory states: culture, domination, religious, science or time/score victory. 

As always with the series, there is a bit of hidden depth to the combat. While viewed as slightly casual-slanted, players seeking depth have to remember ranged units can come into play, as do terrain and elevation. 

These same things apply to map traversal and location. Cities next to natural sources of water will grow faster, but they might be more exposed. A bit of mountainous cover will protect the people but offer less in the way of growth advantages. 

Desperately scratching and clawing for proper balance is as fun as ever. Player nations can become war-weary, which requires a delicate hand to mitigate. And that's not the only hurdle facing war-hungry players—war is expensive. Players can't just slam through the game with brute force as the funds will run out in a hurry, so properly putting time into lucrative trade routes is a must. 

Player agency is at an unmatchable high with the series: Win by brute force. Win via cult-like indoctrination by converting the entire world to the player's chosen religion. Win by becoming a scientific juggernaut, extending reach far beyond the planet itself. 

Unlike many games that try to throw a lot at the player in the hopes of depth, Civilization VI strikes the right chord because it isn't an exercise in frustration. This is fun the majority of the time, and not only does it provide the player options, but it also snowballs into one of the most rewarding experiences out there. 


Switch Functionality and More

It was hard to imagine another release this year outside of the Nintendo stratosphere could get the Switch so right. 

Firaxis Games would like a word with the doubters. 

The left stick serves as a "mouse" and the right controls the field of view. The four bumper buttons reel out quick menus on either side of the screen to navigate with face buttons. Where it gets tricky is when selecting a unit. After doing so, it's the left directional buttons that control the options for the unit. It's not 100 percent natural-feeling, but with a bit of practice, it all begins to flow well. 

Other than playing in handheld mode, using the Joy-Cons with the touch screen is as smooth as it gets. This can take a long time to get used to as well, but dragging and dropping for unit movements and pinching for zoom or map movement is a fun way to play, provided a player has room to bust out the kickstand or set the system flat. 

Performance-wise, the Switch does a solid job, though the late-game can start to chug no matter how a player is using the console. The game fast-flipping through different moves on a bigger map with so much revealed is asking a lot of the system, but it isn't enough to hurt the overall experience. 

As intimidating as initial digestion of the controls might sound, it's nothing close to trying to explain Civilization VI to a newcomer. Players start with a historical figure of their choice and progress through modest beginnings, building a city, civics, belief systems and relationships with other powers and the land itself over the course of 500 turns, which starts in BC and goes well into AD. 

One of the better changes to the tried-and-true formula in Civilization VI is the Districts idea. Gone is the archaic function permitting a city to take up one square on the map. In are Districts, an outward expansion of cities across the map. A campus built on a certain tile will function much better than on other areas. And resources on the map and relative closeness to an enemy or ally will come into play. 

As if strategy and the things players have to juggle wasn't intimidating before, this asks players to show some massive foresight when it comes to city expansion. It sounds like a little thing, but smart city layouts are what will set players apart in a hurry. 

As hinted, keeping the populations of cities happy is another thing to balance and can't get ignored for risk of a loss. Personality balance also comes into play against other leaders on the map, with everyone from Cleopatra to Frederick Barbarossa liking differing things in rival or friendly cities while also liking or disliking who a player might do business with or go to war with.

Finessing these (such as cozying up to a leader while shifting tons of troops closer to their city before giving a thumbs down) relationships is not only finger-biting material but the most triumphant part of a rewarding strategic experience.  

But that's part of the brilliant fun. Unfolding and stumbling into all the ramifications and cause-and-effect dominoes while trying to carve out a certain kind of world-shaping culture and force is a grand time, not to mention quite the sense of accomplishment when it works. 

For those who don't want to always play the same mode for one reason or another, there are thankfully other non-traditional modes and tweaks players can make to the gameplay, ranging from size of the map to turn speed. 

The developers didn't stop at using the Switch in a unique fashion, either. The base game gets an upgrade as well. For those who have played the original or entries in the series before it, the Switch version clearly has upgraded AI. Not only are enemies and factions smarter this time out, but there is also a serious sense of unpredictability that is capable of shaking up what would otherwise be a ho-hum playthrough.  

We'd be remiss not to mention the amazing soundtrack, which is easily one of gaming's best. As a bonus, it scales in complexity and intensity the deeper a player progresses. As always, the soundtrack here rivals anything on the market. 


Speedrunning Tips and Appeal 

Speedrunning is an inherent part of Civilization VI.

The nature of the game and the seemingly endless ways players can tackle a run makes it a natural fit, which is why the speedrunning categories get broken up into any percent, Domination, Culture, Science, Religion and score. Competitive communities have popped up around time-based runs and turn-based runs, too. 

Granted, most players aren't going to come close to the somewhat-cheesy any-percent world records done in milliseconds. But a famous Civilization IV run, for example, saw a player achieve a space victory in 90 AD.

It's a small sampling of what the depths of the systems in place can achieve, and that example is from two releases ago. But how to start working toward a fun speed run is tricky.

Undergoing a land-grabbing frenzy in the early game is a must—and doing so around luxury resources is essential. Building up towering cities around the latter will make it easier to keep the populations of those cities happier while getting out there and warmaking in search of a quick win. Along these same lines, building up monuments is a viable strategy. 

Figuring out the finesse of the controls is a must. For example, with one unit highlighted, clicking the right stick will bring up a mini-menu of every unit a player has deployed on the map, which they can choose from and immediately jump to with one button press. Experimentation between touch controls or playing handheld will vary by user as well. 

The beauty of a game like this is there is truly no wrong way to commit to a speedrun. The complexity and depth lend to unique strategies from user to user, which makes it a natural for the idea in the first place. The experimentation is a big boon for something like Twitch, with highlight videos and competitions for the runs themselves a nice topper. 



Firaxis Games

Civilization VI is a modern classic still receiving DLC, updates and global attention a few years later for good reason. Rarely does a game even in the strategy department offer this depth, nor does much in gaming come close to the sense of accomplishment provided. 

Granted, it's a little disappointing this release doesn't include the Rise and Fall expansion and doesn't boast online play. But considering the DLCs are more expensive than the base game at this point on PC during sales and the goal with Switch releases lately have centered on local multiplayer, it comes off as a minor complaint. 

In many ways, the benefits of this game coming to Switch can't be undersold. Firaxis gets a major, major win in the form of what is likely many players who are newcomers to the series enjoying the experience. And Nintendo just hit the lottery—after the amazing Diablo 3 launch, here is another monster of a hit from a third-party developer not only sure to do well but guaranteed to make other creators take notice and see the benefits of unique development on the Switch.  

At the end of the day, gamers win above all else. Switch owners get one of the greatest games of all time on their console of choice in an absolutely stacked few months for the system (Diablo, Civilization, Super Smash)—a stretch unseen by almost any platform, ever. 

It'a fitting, really, as Civilization VI's journey through history offers strategy and nuance, with technological innovations on the Switch setting a new standard and likely shoving the floodgates open wider for the system.