Sid Meier’s Civilization VI (Switch) review – World of Wonders

Until recently, I’d taken it as a given that a 4X strategy game would be nigh impossible to make work on any console, let alone with the limited screen space of a handheld. Until recently, I’d also taken it as a given that 4X was a particular niche that I’d never enjoy; I find even “regular” strategy games to be tiresome and frustrating, before you add in all the extra layers of complexity and micromanagement that a 4X game brings.

On both counts, Sid Meier’s Civilization VI on Switch has been a revelation.

With some clever streamlining of the user interface and an intuitive gamepad control scheme, Civilization VI feels natural on Nintendo’s handheld. Instead of trying to squeeze all the information from the PC’s interface into a much smaller screen, the Switch UI is simplified so that only the most important information—resources, minimap, selected unit details, and the turn actions icon—are kept on screen. All the other less immediately pertinent information is still there, it’s just tucked away in sidebar menus that are a button press away. Considering how much information Civilization IV can throw at you, it’s a neat solution that keeps the screen free of clutter.

The control scheme is similarly well designed. Civilization is traditionally a mouse-driven game, and a lot of those inputs are replicated with the touchscreen, but I found myself almost never using them because the button setup works so well. As well as manually scrolling about the map with the analogue sticks, you can quickly cycle between idle units or available turn actions (set new research, queue production in cities, etc.) at the press of a button. Another button lets you check a log of alerts, and a couple more open up the aforementioned sidebars so you can drill down into menus dealing with everything from technological advancement to your policy agenda to diplomatic relations.

As console ports of games designed purely for mouse and keyboard go, Civilization VI on Switch is about as good as it gets. That’s a good thing, because I suspect that this port is going to open the series up to a whole new audience who, even if they have a decent PC, would normally find 4X games far too daunting. Such has been the case for me.

Somehow, being able to play from the comfort of a bed or couch, and being able to pick it up and play a few turns here and there makes the whole learning curve much easier to manage. There’s a very good tutorial, too, which is designed for complete newcomers in mind and takes you step-by-step through how the many different aspects of the game work. Even with that, it still took a couple of hours for the game to really click with me—there’s a lot for even a basic tutorial to cover!—but since getting past that initial bump, Civilization VI has quickly become a game that I keep coming back to.

The basic goal of Civilization VI is, simply, to build and grow your civilisation from a small group of ancient settlers to a modern-day global superpower. Where most strategy games focus on military conquest, that’s just one path to victory here; you can also win through technological advancement, religious domination, or cultural significance. The unique traits of each civilisation naturally make them lean more towards certain approaches—you’re going to have a much easier time going for a religious victory with Gandhi-led India than a domination one—and every player will have their preferred style of play.

At the same time, you can’t just ignore other paths entirely, or your negligence will be your downfall. Even if you’re focused on a culture victory, let your military languish and you’ll likely find yourself at odds with a warmongering neighbour and unable to defend yourself; fall too far behind in scientific development, and you might find your game cut short by another civ’s uncontested race to launch their Mars programme.

At the same time, you need to be mindful of the agendas of each other civilisation with whom you share the world. Ultimately, you’re in competition with these other players—only one civilisation can win, in the end—but diplomacy and good international relations are still vital to success. Trade is key to production and development, especially in the latter parts of a game when uncontested land is sparse; similarly, war is a drain on resources and long, drawn-out conflicts can be detrimental to all involved.

However, try as you might, you can’t please everyone. Each civilisation’s leader has certain agendas that are close to their hearts; cross them, and they’ll denounce you and maybe even declare war. But with different leader agendas often directly contradicting one another—as in Gorgo’s reverence for warmongering nations and Ghandi’s love of peacekeepers—or at least demanding competing priorities, you’ll inevitably end up transgressing at least some other civilisations’ goals.

It’s this interplay of different systems that makes Civilization VI so fascinating. There’s a constant balancing act between trying to push your own agenda and managing those of other players, all while making sure you cover all your bases. It’s great when everything goes according to plan, but figuring how to deal with the fallout when things don’t is, perhaps, even more interesting.

As complex as that sounds, Civilization VI avoids simply dumping everything on you at once. Aside from the aforementioned tutorial, the natural flow of the game means that a lot of the finer detail doesn’t necessarily come into focus until much later on. Growing your civilisation starts out as a fairly simple resource management affair until your first meetings with other nations add a basic layer of diplomacy, which then grows in complexity as technology advances and agendas become more apparent. Some key mechanics, like tourism (which the culture victory condition is based upon) don’t really come into force until the very late stages of a game that can last upwards of 20 hours.

(That said, early decisions do have long-lasting consequences, and on higher difficulties, they can be the thing that wins or loses a game. But on easy to medium settings, you can generally just take each new thing as it comes.)

All this adds up to make Civilization VI an enthralling game indeed, one where you can pick up and play a turn or two while you wait for the bus or play for hours on end as you work to perfect your civilisation. With the Switch version, Firaxis has managed to make a welcoming experience in a genre famed for its inaccessibility, even for total newcomers. Online multiplayer is notably absent from this version, but that seems a small price to pay for Civ on the go.

Score: 4.5 stars
Sid Meier’s Civilization VI
Genre: 4X / Strategy
Developer: Firaxis Games / Aspyr Media
Publisher: 2K Games
Platforms: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PC
Release Date: 16 November 2018
The publisher supplied a copy of the game for this review.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.