Game expansions are usually a matter of physical enlargement. Like a new summer house built in the garden, they manifest an extra space to inhabit, within familiar confines. Civilization expansions, at least since Civilization 4, are different. They are more like internal refits: a new kitchen and a lick of paint in the kids’ bedrooms, a sense of light and space.
Rise and Fall rolls up its sleeves and takes its mission of improvement seriously. As well as adding the requisite new leaders, units, maps, buildings and wonders, it tinkers with the fundamentals, making significant enhancements to the original. These renovations are entirely welcome, though they fall short of fixing Civilization 6’s most irritating shortcomings.
Most striking of all is a bold acknowledgement that civilizations can thrive without aggressive military strength and conquest, relying on peaceful achievements to make their mark on history.
I’ve written before about how this series bullies players into armed conflict, satisfying the strategy genre’s core principle of conquest. But in Rise and Fall, the emphasis is on nudging the player away from fighting, and towards more creative means to victory.
Playing Rise and Fall feels less like a campaign, and more like a sandbox. This shift is achieved by the concept of citizen loyalty, which is closely tied to the power of a nation’s culture and a city’s distance from its capital. A weak culture and a far flung empire is a bad combination It’s been used before in Civ games of the past, but never with the clarity of purpose shown here. In essence, my people will stay loyal to me only if they feel a part of the greater empire. This entails infrastructure investment in roads and cultural buildings.
Governors are a new panel of powerful units who offer different strengths and boosts, all of which can be upgraded over time. Installing a Governor in a city will prop up its loyalty, but there is a price to be paid. I must make a choice between using my limited number of Governors to yield useful benefits from large, established cities, or to quell resistance in small, distant outposts.
Regrettably, overall score is still heavily weighted towards expansion and acreage, but this simple mechanic is a useful break on reducing the game to an endless cycle of conquest and expansion. Large empires that lack cohesion are weakened by their fringes. This is an accurate reflection of world history.
My cities are more loyal if military units are garrisoned, rather than away, campaigning. Again, this is an idea we’ve seen in Civ games before, especially when ‘happiness’ was a central concept in societal stability. But here, it feels more organic and less forced.
Conversely, the cities of my neighbors must also deal with this challenge. If I invest in culture and judicious use of spies, neighboring cities will rebel against their leaders, leaving them open to voluntarily joining my empire, or to relatively easy conquest. I can take my enemies’ cities without going to war against them, or risking a reputation as a warmonger. Free cities spawn hostile, advanced barbarian units, and so are fair game.
All this investment in culture, religion, trade and infrastructure means I’m not spending so much money on military units. And as someone who finds greater pleasure in perfecting my civilization than in gaining territory through might, this is a satisfying shift in direction.
But there’s more. Now, each era I pass through is its own mini-game, in which I must accrue enough points to avoid a dark age, or attain a golden age. The penalties or boosts herein are based on … loyalty. So if I fail to make era points, my citizens become less loyal and I become dangerously weakened.
Points can be gained by military means, but they are more easily won through building wonders, gaining scientific knowledge or focusing on religious matters. All this is celebrated in a satisfying scroll of great achievements.
Rise and Fall won’t penalize me for military expansion, assuming I can maintain the loyalty of my newly conquered subjects. But it rewards me for being more creative and less aggressive.
Which brings me to another change in the game, one more difficult to quantify: enemy AIs.
Developer Firaxis has tweaked the AIs so they are less idiotic than previously. In the 30 hours I played, they felt to me less likely to make nonsensical decisions. They were more focused on their own interests than in blatantly provoking me into silly gameplay challenges that broke any sense of my being in a world-building simulation.
As a result, my games were much more enjoyable and realistic. My enemies behaved more like people — sometimes irrational, but generally understandable — and less like the botched product of game design zeal.
They are still wont to stupidity, warning me of my impending bankruptcy when my coffers are bulging, or attacking with insufficient care for their armies. But they are improved, up to a point.
Without a doubt, the biggest failure of Civilization 6 is its insistence on engineering enemy leaders as foils who clumsily goad me into doing things that make no sense for me, or for them. It’s a crude gameplay device to manufacture conflict among the world’s leaders.
For example, Cleopatra is really happy with me if I build a great army. But she despises me if I prefer not to waste my money on military units. This is farcical. No leader wants their direct and hostile neighbor to be spending a fortune on the military.
Unfortunately, this aspect of the game has not changed, at least not enough to make a difference. It seems to me that in a game of competing civilizations, conflict will arise naturally when leaders’ interests clash, usually over land, city-state fealty, resources, religion, resources or plain old personalities. Even while the AIs have improved markedly, these unnatural agendas remain an annoyance.
Still, I played my games with a specific intent to engage in more creative diplomacy, especially now that specific alliances are possible. I can create, say, a cultural alliance with another leader, giving culture boosts to trade routes.
This gave me a sense of a relationship with my allies, and I came to trust that (generally) they wouldn’t do something stupid that might negate all my wooing. Again, this shifts the game away from knee jerk militarism and towards a more cooperative atmosphere.
A new mechanic, called Emergencies, allows different nations to team up against rogue or overly powerful enemies, sharing the spoils if they succeed. This is clearly based on historical realities like the Napoleonic Wars. It adds an element of challenge to mid- and late-game as well as a brake on countries who might be getting too far ahead. But I found it slightly artificial.
I enjoy military campaigns in Civ games, but I’m convinced that developer Firaxis has made a good choice in Rise and Fall. This expansion is a recognition that the magic of this series is in giving players lots of choices — sometimes difficult choices — as we all strive to stamp our own personalities on what is, effectively, a simulation of personal political leadership.
Civilization 6: Rise and Fall was reviewed using final “retail” Steam download codes provided by 2K Games. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.