Civilization VI: Rise and Fall review

Games show their politics through their systems, and the latest Civ expansion definitely overhauls what we're used to expecting out of the series.

Sid Meier’s Civilization games have always been about two things: rapid progress towards the future, and unrivaled conquest and expansion. Indeed, the first installment of the quintessential 4X series boasted only two victory conditions: winning the space race or crushing everyone else into submission. And while other, less warlike (but no less domination-minded) concepts like religion, culture, and international diplomacy accreted around the games, the idea of constant, breakneck progress never left. Sid Meier’s Civilization, along with its sequels and side-quels, have always espoused the lie that human progress is wholly linear, with technological and sociocultural advancements stacking on top of each other like stories in a continually-growing tower, ever-reaching for perfection.

Rise and Fall is the first time the series has decided to showcase a slightly different picture, a more sinusoidal story of humankind, with periods of prosperity sharing pages in the history books with bouts of recession.

The expansion’s major new feature is the new Ages system. Now, entering each era can trigger a Dark Age, a Golden Age, or the elusive Heroic Age. Encircling the Next Turn button, there now lies an ominous countdown to the end of an era, as well as an indication of your Era Score. You raise this score by earning micro-objectives, what the game deems Historic Moments. These can be smaller achievements like encountering a new city-state, or more major accomplishments like completing a world wonder or founding a religion. Earn enough Historic Moments, and you enter a Golden Age, providing a huge boost to your cities’ Loyalty (more on that below; just know that this is a good thing), as well as a choice between a few different bonuses. Historic moments are also prettily displayed in two-tone sketches in a new timeline feature, allowing you to bask in the smug glow of having your accomplishments immortalized in (pseudo-) printed media.

Fail to make a mark in history, however, and you’re forced into a Dark Age, with severely curtailed Loyalty. Making up for that is the temporary ability to equip Dark Ages-specific policy cards that reflect your ruthlessness by providing both a significant bonus and a major penalty: “Robber Barons” for example, provide extra gold and production in exchange for amenities. And if you manage to climb out of a Dark Age into a Golden Age, you instead enjoy a Heroic Age, a sort of “Golden Age+” with even more bonuses.

Multiple, interconnected gameplay systems is a hallmark of Civilization games, and the new Ages system injects some much-needed dynamism to gameplay. A civilization’s progress is now far more interesting, with alternating Dark and Golden Ages adding color to your goals, forcing you to change in order best make use of your lot. The game complexifies its vision of human progress, by highlighting periods of hardship and the austerity measures one can adopt to escape them.

Similarly, the new Loyalty system is a deterrent to the unchecked, cancerous growth of an empire. While previous games offered disincentives (such as culture or happiness penalties) to founding too many cities, Rise and Fall’s Loyalty system ensures that mismanagement of your cities can lead to outright rebellion. Citizens of every civilization now generate loyalty in cities, and if you do choose to metastasize and found or conquer a far-flung city deep within enemy lands, you may find that it quickly bows to pressure and changes allegiance all on its own. To combat this, civilizations now have the ability to appoint Governors to their cities (from a choice of seven), who manage loyalty and provide bonuses based on their area of expertise. Even governors may be hard-pressed to save your insurgent towns during a Dark Age, however, so care is essential.

The Loyalty system also has an unexpected side effect: domination victories are much harder to pull off, now that maintaining conquered cities and colonies is so much more challenging.

Could it be a new argument the game is making, one in favor of more peaceful victory conditions? Along with the new Emergencies system, where weaker civilizations are encouraged to band together against a warmongering bully, could this mark a turn in the series toward an anti-colonial stance? After all, even before its release, Rise and Fall stirred up controversy precisely for a perceived colonial, expansionist message. The inclusion of the Cree as a playable civilization drew sharp criticism from the Poundmaker Cree Nation’s Headman: "It perpetuates this myth that First Nations had similar values that the colonial culture has, and that is one of conquering other peoples and accessing their land.”

As expected of any expansion in the series, Rise and Fall boasts an array of new wonders, units, and civilizations. They’re fun, of course, and give you new toys to play with. But much like with Civlization V, it appears that Firaxis will use the base game’s expansions to introduce innovative new systems that will, over the course of the next few years, turn Civilization VI into a much richer, more layered and addictively satisfying experience. And this time, it might even upend our notions of what a civilization can be.

Verdict: Yes