Design Thoughts: Civilization 6

Sid Meier is credited with a quote that most designers would recognize, attempting to define what games are in the simplest terms:

"A game is a series of interesting choices."

You could argue that it's pretty easily refuted and contradicted by a number of contributions to the field, but it's still an intriguing lens with which to look at game design.  And when looking at the Civilization series, along with most of the other games Sid Meier was involved in, you can see pretty quickly that this mentality permeates his studio's design.

Civilization reads as the natural evolution of board games into digital space.  Far more complex than most board games, but hiding much of that complexity behind the scenes.

In playing Civilization 6 recently and pondering its design, I was suddenly a bit intrigued.  In a very real way, the Civilization games are a complete contradiction to the things I consider wise and worth pursuing in design, but they're still pretty damn good.  

There are obviously many different types of design, and I know that this contradiction against my set of design wisdoms is really just a clashing of different methods, but that makes it no less interesting to me.  In fact, that's exactly what suggests there are real things here worth considering and learning from.

One of the commonly accepted design wisdoms I operate by is to always seek elegant simplicity.  The goal is for a game to be deep, not complex.  Complex things are often intimidating to learn, and can scare away much of your intended audience before they ever reach the deeper parts of the game.  Complex things also tend to be somewhat stressful to keep mind during play, offering too many different factors and angles to consider for the player to be comfortably enjoying themself.  And depth can be accomplished without complexity if one seeks out designs that are intuitive and natural, and that fit together well.

Some newer designers are irresistibly tempted to try and add every awesome idea that comes to mind to whatever their working on, striving to leave no bit of potential unseized.  And so they pile one idea on top of another, on top of another, on top of another... adding and adding everything they can think of that is interesting or novel.  And while every one of those ideas may have been good in their own right, the whole is made weaker by stacking so many things that don't fit together cleanly.  Sometimes one systems distracts from another.  Other times, portions overlap each other and are hard to distinguish, muddying the gameplay and confusing the player.  More is not better.

And yet, that is essentially what Civilization is.  A dozen systems, each made to play out over a long period with many aspects to learn, all stacked on top of each other so that your attention is constantly split in several directions.  And more to the point, every one of those systems touches on and influences every other one of those systems, so there's no way to master one aspect of the game without mastering all of them.

But for the most part, it works.

It works in part because that complexity is actually integral to the core fantasy.  Managing a civilization IS complex.  And all of the systems the game represents are intuitive and expected parts of what it would take to manage a civilization.  They didn't pile system upon system haphazardly - they pursued each system because they are each things that are attributed to what a civilization is.  Through that, there is still a connectedness that makes them all part of a greater whole that the player can easily accept.  And also through that, the player is getting somewhat of what they expected when picking up the game.

It also works partly because this is what strategy games do.  As a genre, strategy games aren't really made to be approachable to just any type of gamer.  They aim to engage certain kinds of minds who appreciate the challenge of managing a variety of things at once, and who find satisfaction in considering the long-game even as factors constantly change around them.  Inherent in the genre is a degree of acceptance that this experience won't be for everyone.

It also works in part because of the turn-based architecture.  Giving you all the time you want to make decisions takes away a great deal of the stress that might otherwise come from them.

But perhaps most importantly, it works because after putting all of these systems in one place, the developers took the time to attack the problems that result from this kind of complexity and painstakingly smooth them out.

In truth, that's all that most design wisdoms are warning against.  They're not there to say something absolutely can't work.  They're there to warn you of roads that will be hard, expensive, or frustrating to develop.  There are ways to reign in complexity successfully, they're often just more challenging than wisely avoiding much of that complexity in the first place.  And in this case, over many sequels and evolutions, many of those hard lessons have been learned and the game has been tuned around them.

If you've been playing Civ 6 for a while, it may be difficult to remember when and how you learned each aspect of the game, but the team that built it clearly put a lot of thought into how they would introduce only one or two elements at a time, and give you time with each of them before introducing something new.  And even better than that, they made those gradual introductions feel like they were in your control, chosen at your pace, even though that's mostly an illusion.  You choose when you unlock trade routes by choosing when you research the civic associated with it.  The same thing with tourists, or spreading religion, or crossing oceans.  Each happens when you decide based on your strategies, but the opportunities to make those decisions are comfortably spread apart so that you're never stuck absorbing too much at once.

When comparing Civilization to other similar strategy games and clones, this is one of the most stand-out differences: Civilization strives to introduce only a few aspects of the game at a time so that you aren't overwhelmed while you are still learning, and the difference that makes is pretty noticeable.

Even in this there are inevitable exceptions that couldn't be overcome - the expected costs of complexity.  In choosing your leader and civilization at the start of your first game, you're not likely to understand many of the bonuses they offer yet.  In choosing where you build your first tile improvements, you're not likely to know what impact that will have on your districts later.  And some of the impacts that culture, trade routes, and tourists have on your civilization may not be clear entirely until you've played through a few full games.  But you might also claim that learning these imperfections in your planning effectively encourages you to want to play another game to incorporate those new learnings as well, so it's a bit of a two-sided coin that reinforces exactly what strategy players typically enjoy.  It's one of the poisons you often have to choose when designing a game to get something else that is important and valuable.

The other major cost of complexity--the inevitable tax of many considerations that burden you as you get further into the game--this you can still feel very distinctly deeper in play, especially if you've expanded your civilization beyond just a few cities.  The constant need for check-in of non-garrisoned units, the constant near-meaningless decisions of what you will produce next in each city, the regular untenable trade requests from other civilizations... many of the things that may have been interesting or valuable early in the game pile up to the point where they are simply chores and burdens to be maintained, all for questionable worth.  This cost of complexity is hard to avoid without automating or retiring aspects of the game as you progress, both of which tend to be uncomfortable to players in one way or another, as they might still find limited value in them.

But no game is perfect.  I hold no particular ill-will towards anyone that these flaws exist.  It's fascinating seeing what they were able to overcome, and were the rough edges are still plainly visible.

After playing through several games of Civilization 6, I found myself asking the same question I ask of most lengthy games I play, "Am I actually having fun?"  It's often difficult to distinguish feeling compelled to play a game vs. actually enjoying it without taking a step back, and while the difference matters little to some players, I like to be certain that I'm gaining more value from a game than simply passing the time.  With Civ 6, I found this question strangely hard to answer at first, because the game offers something beyond just compulsion, but something that stands out as distinctly different than the 'fun' I find in most other games I play.

Whenever I talk about what really works with Civilization games, one of the first things that comes to mind is how exceedingly well they propel you to want to play the next turn, over and over, until far more time has passed than you would possibly have guessed.  I'm not sure I have the willpower to play a game of Civilization for only an hour.  Every time I've tried, it ends up being 4 or 5am by the time I wrestle myself free of its grasp to get some sleep.  That desire to always see the next turn speaks well to how the game engages curiosity, and how well it invests you in wanting to see the results of each action you make.  But pressing that next turn button strikes me as compulsion more than fun.  It's that lost sense of time I have within each turn that suggests to me I'm finding something of more value between each press of that button.

I certainly learned of a few world 'wonders' and historical leaders I wasn't aware of before, so there's a tiny bit of value in that.  It engaged and challenged my strategic and creative mind here and there, so there's real value there.  And it certainly made me think more critically about designs I hadn't before, so there's definite value to me there too.  I think the Civilization series does have real value as a game, it's just excelled at creating such an effective compulsion loop that it's hard not to notice that aspect of it first.

"A game is a series of interesting choices."  Perhaps not, but Civilization certainly is.

As my girlfriend once aptly put it, "This game is boring to watch."  Neither Civilization nor XCom looked appealing to me at first glance, but in play they definitely grab my interest.  None of these designs look like things I would ever choose to pursue, but in practice, they made for fantastic games.  I'm glad for these designers who think in very different ways, forcing me to back up, pay attention, and learn a bit.