There are competing impulses when it come to strategy game design. The first is towards an ideal of elegant simplicity, where every decision confronting players is meaningful, comes with clear trade-offs, and is easy to relate to the overall objectives of the game. The complexity and ambiguity of conflict, whether historical or speculative, is abridged or abstracted into a handful of transparent choices. The way Civilization games often pose a stark choice between, say, building a Wonder or an army’s worth new units gets to the essence of civic and political tensions without burdening a player with too much detail or management.
But the second impulse, the id to the superego of games design, is our desire to fuck around with cool shit. Which brings us to Civilization VI: Rise and Fall.
Everything in this expansion feels like it’s the answer to a different, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” brainstorming conversation, aimed at trying to bring to life some different historical dynamic, or perhaps just to bring back some favorite element of a previous Civ game. Wouldn’t it be cool if cities could break away from you if you don’t take steps to ensure their loyalty? Or if you could appoint governors who provided special, situational bonuses to their cities? Or, wait, what if your allies could become better allies the longer you stood by one another, and the more your traded? And most of all, shouldn’t civilizations’ journeys through different eras be marked by Golden Ages of renewed growth and potential, and Dark Ages of diminished capacity?
All these additions place more emphasis on the journey you take through each session of Civ, rather than your overall strategic destination. Cities can change hands peacefully, as borders change based on who people identify with rather than the nation that claims them. Friendships can endure and deepen if you nourish them, becoming more than marriages of convenience to be cast aside the moment they outlive their usefulness. Exploration, discovery, development… each act has the potential to become a milestone in the saga of your people, and contribute points toward sparking a Golden Age.
In ways large and small, Firaxis seem to be trying to get away from the winner-take-all, national Darwinism view of history that’s been baked into the series from the start. It’s no accident that this expansion, then, features the Cree under Poundmaker and the indigenous communities known as the Mapuche, both of whom introduce more strategies of coexistence and even resistance rather than pursuit of outright dominance.
These are interesting notions that are antithetical to a lot of what Civilization games have always been about: a steady march of progress carrying chosen nations to a date with historical destiny, while others are left behind or crushed entirely. It’s not just that winners write the history in Civ, but they are the only ones to escape it into the Future. Rise and Fall attempts to retcon other cultures, worldviews and, values into a story that’s always been shot-through with nationalist and colonial romanticism.
But the Civ series isn’t really built to handle all these ideas. Rowan Kaiser described the irreconcilable tensions within Rise and Fall as Firaxis trying to turn Civilization into something it’s not and has never been, which sums up a lot of the choices and ambitions that have guided the series since Civ V.
Where Paradox strategy games have always been focused, even obsessed, with the mechanisms that shaped, guided, and constrained historical politics, Civ has never tried to be a simulation of history so much as a fantasy deathmatch dressed in history’s finery. Now, with Rise and Fall, it’s trying to remain true to that identity while also acknowledging that there are other ways to build a great civilization aside from claiming all the best land as your own, killing less militaristic neighbors, and eventually trying to escape the discarded husk of your planet entirely.
But all these new ideas exist on the fringes, or the margins, of the historical paths that Civilization VI has already marked.
The points you collect in order to trigger “Golden Ages” are handed to you as you go about your other business. Build a diamond mine because it’s a valuable luxury resource, and Rise and Fall runs in and says, “Your civ has created its first luxury good!” Research apprenticeship so you can build industry and you get a notification that, now that your civilization has researched its first medieval tech, the Medieval Era has truly begun and you’ve been awarded points toward a golden age. It’s a novel addition to Civ VI but not one that really changes many plans. It’s more like the game is asking if you could “pick up a few Golden Age points from the store on your way home?”
Alliance levels end up being more like loyalty points and membership benefits than a radical new dimension to diplomacy. Governors feel like a fussy and inflexible micro-management task that exists on top of Civ’s traditional city management mechanics. City loyalty only really became an issue for me when I expanded aggressively outside my starting area and into someone else’s backyard and I usually got enough notice that there were problems that I could head-off any revolts. It was a more effective check on military conquest, but outside of that I found loyalty easy to ignore.
Rise and Fall introduces a lot of cool ideas and possibilities to Civilization VI, but leaves them to the side of the rutted roads we’ve traveled so often. They are there, but you don’t have to think about them or engage with them too much if you don’t want to.
In how it prizes elegance and simplicity, the craft of a game designer is much like that of a storyteller. You try and create a clear and comprehensible narrative in which people can locate themselves and the ideas that are important in the story, and rest gets flattened or ignored. But as essential as this process if for helping people make sense of a game or a narrative, it inevitably promotes an idea that those factors that survived the cutting process are the only ones that matter, and that the outcomes they drove were in some way predetermined.
Rise and Fall is aware that there is far more about the history of human civilization that a game of the same name could and perhaps should attempt to capture. But we already have a clean, simple story. Everything else can exist at the edges, included, but not so important that you can’t ignore it.