The British Empire is on the verge of collapse. Government House, nestled on a headland just across the Thames from the centre of London, is somehow simultaneously underwater and ablaze. Once the home of Oasis, the city of Manchester is now little more than a shrinking island as entire coastal neighborhoods disappear into the rising sea. Maybe the sun never sets, but it’s getting awfully late in the day.
However, this is no post-Brexit apocalypse. It’s simply the state of play in my game of Civilization VI. The upcoming expansion, Gathering Storm, introduces the concept of climate change and, as I and every other civilization on the planet burn through consumable fuel resources, global temperature rises precipitate the polar ice to melt and the ocean to breach the walls of London. Time to rethink my strategy.
Following on from last year’s Rise & Fall, Gathering Storm is the second major expansion for Civ VI and, based on the evidence so far, it suggests a continuation of Firaxis’ efforts to disrupt the established meta. Where Rise & Fall delivered the ability to transition from a Golden Age into a Dark Age and back again—a system designed to chart the ebb and flow of an empire throughout history—Gathering Storm is more concerned with a gradual accumulation of choices slowly building over the course of the game before unleashing fury towards the end. You can see the dark clouds approaching. The question is: how long can you keep them at bay?
“We usually look at the second expansion of a Civilization title as the one where we make sure our content is robust and complete all the way to the end of the game,” explains Civilization franchise lead designer Ed Beach. “For Civilization V, that was the additions of ideologies in Brave New World, with an emphasis on the World War period.
“We’re taking a different tack in Civilization VI—this time we are focusing on the present time and the ecological struggles with climate change that face mankind in the 21st century. That’s the big new addition with Gathering Storm, confronting players with decisions about how they are relating to the planet. There are winning strategies both ways: the diplomatic player probably wants to treat the planet well and participate in worldwide climate accords; a more militaristic player may not care and may even consider the fact that rising sea levels could deal damage to some of his coastal enemies.”
Beach says Firaxis built their climate model using the predominant scientific conclusions on how the Earth is changing. It’s actually a fairly straightforward relationship: CO2 emissions from exploiting resources such as coal and oil add to the global temperature. As the planet gets warmer, polar ice melts, sea levels rise, and finally flooding, storms, and droughts become more frequent.
Weather events occur from the very beginning of the game. Settle on the floodplains of a river and at some point, the banks are going to break. Similarly, some mountain tiles are now designated as volcanoes, which can become active, erupt, and cover adjacent tiles with lava. More randomly, blizzards, typhoons, and dust storms can now spawn on the map and trace a path of destruction through your lands.
Early on, these events aren’t too bad, and can even be beneficial. A flood might injure a warrior you had stationed along the river or require you to repair damage to a wheat farm. But once the flood passes and you’ve cleaned up the mess, it’s likely the tiles’ soil will have been fertilized and will yield additional resources for the rest of the game.
The idea of “playing the map” was a big part of the design ethos driving the development of Civ VI. Opening specialist districts constructed outside the city center to all kinds of bonuses based on adjacent terrain, as well as restrictions on where World Wonders can be built, requires you to adapt to the specific circumstances in front of you. You’re playing the map as presented, rather than relying on some pre-defined optimal strategy. This idea is explicitly reflected in Gathering Storm’s climate change and weather events.
“Yes these changes were indeed deliberate additions to accentuate this feeling of playing the map,”
“Yes these changes were indeed deliberate additions to accentuate this feeling of playing the map,” says Beach. “Settling in a floodplain or near a volcano is obviously fraught with peril, yet mankind has continued to do just this for centuries. Why? Well, these are some of the most fertile agricultural areas on earth. With these tradeoffs in mind, these two natural disasters were the first ones we prototyped for Gathering Storm. They proved immensely popular with our testers so we kept going and added coastal flooding, droughts, and four kinds of storms before we were done.”
In the late game, as storms and floods hit with greater frequency and severity, these events can be devastating. In my game as England, led by new alternative leader Eleanor of Aquitaine, I’d been engaged in a border skirmish with India when a freak storm ripped through the city of Bristol, pillaging my only Encampment district. At a crucial moment in the war, I was unable to resupply my frontline with reinforcements until the armory and stable had been repaired. Thanks to the weather, I had to pursue a peace deal or risk being overrun.
Worse, in the situation I describe at the top of the page from later in the same game, the rising sea meant my Government Plaza district was destroyed, presumably for good, taking with it the powerful bonuses of its Audience Chamber and other internal buildings. Meanwhile, Manchester lost five workable tiles, including a Neighborhood district, its sole lumber mill, and the very spot I’d planned to build a Theater Square, leaving it with a population of 23 but a housing capacity of just 14. The Civ late game has rarely been so unpredictable and dynamic.
Indeed, according to Beach, “Our primary goal with this expansion is to make the world and map seem more dynamic, more alive.” He also helpfully points out where my England game might have started to go wrong, and suggests some of the choices I could have made to, if not prevent environmental catastrophe, then perhaps mitigate or decelerate it.
“Our primary goal with this expansion is to make the world and map seem more dynamic, more alive.”
“Coal, and subsequently Oil, unlock much earlier in the game than their renewable alternatives,” Beach says. “We have added extensive bonuses to the third tier district buildings if your cities are powered, so you’ll want to get going initially with coal and oil so you don’t spend three eras of the game missing out on these significantly higher yields.
“Once uranium and renewables come online, there are several more factors to consider. Solar and wind farms consume a tile around your city late in the game when such spots are very precious. A nuclear plant has high output and very low CO2 emissions, but you need to spend city resources maintaining it regularly or an accident could result. All in all, we have eight different buildings or improvements that generate power all with unique terrain or resource requirements, outputs and tradeoffs.”
Along with some of the other existing civs and leaders, England has had its abilities revised to suit the new features found in Gathering Storm. Specifically, England gains extra Iron and Coal resources, and derives greater additional yields from powering its cities. In combination, this means England comes into its own during the Industrial Era and, to gain full advantage of the country’s unique abilities, you should be building coal power plants in every city and, uh, filling the skies above London and Manchester with horrible black smoke. Needless to say, the first time I checked the in-game World Climate report, my empire was responsible for over 90% of the world’s CO2 emissions. As the water lapped at the door of No.10 Downing St I really only had myself to blame.
Since the beginning of time—well, 1991, to be precise—Sid Meier’s Civilization has tended to view humanity through an optimistic lens. Of course, it’s a very Western Civilization-centric perspective that, amid depicting the atrocities of war and colonization throughout history, one can remain hopeful and keep faith in the idea of the march of progress. So, perhaps, all is not yet lost for England, just like all is not yet lost for our own planet.
“Our warming planet is a story that is still unfolding and will take at least the first half of this century before we get to any conclusive outcome,” says Beach. “So to give that phenomenon time to play out, we needed to extend our game 25 to 50 years into the future. That meant adding a few new steps or considerations to both our Science and Culture victories. It also meant the era needed to include new tools to battle climate change, help with these extended victories, and provide high-tech military options.
“Since all these items are advances that mankind hasn’t yet fully unlocked, we felt it was a bit presumptuous for us to know their precise order. That’s why we hit on the idea of shuffling their order and position within the trees each game. The contents of those nodes remain hidden until you research the prerequisite.”
In previous Civ games, you would still pump science or culture into researching generic “future” technologies and civics once you reached the end of their respective trees. There was little point to this—it was merely counting down to the eventual winner. With Gathering Storm, there’s the admission that, however hopeful we might be, we still don’t quite know what the future holds. And as a strategy game, Civilization still has that one final curveball to throw our way. Will it be enough to save England?
Civilization VI: Gathering Storm releases on February 14.