The world’s premiere 4X strategy game has finally landed on Switch! It promises the real deal – the full Civilization VI experience – distilled to handheld form, and it’s a relief to report that Aspyr has done a fine job squeezing Firaxis’ game onto the hybrid console. Beyond a few small issues, it feels at home on Switch and joins a growing stable of impressive ports to the Nintendo's platform.
And it could have gone so wrong! Civ is a massive beast with a long history which just gets more complex as you peel back layers, but VI does well onboarding all-comers. An advisor offers optional tips depending on whether you’re a complete series virgin, new to this specific game or just the Switch version. A standard 500-turn game takes you from 4000BC to 2050AD on a curve that races through early history and slows as you approach modern times. You’ll create settlers, builders and military units that evolve over time, expanding your hex empire and hopefully dominating the world through Culture, Religion or Science. Failing that, you can conquer other civilization’s capital cities and win through military guile alone. Cunning!
Firaxis offers plenty of alternatives to the standard game. Newcomers will likely botch their civ into a dead-end long before they hit the ADs, so a cordoned-off tutorial gives a decent overview. Things like map size and game speed are easily tailored to suit your mood, and bespoke scenarios give you more options if you want a quicker empire-building fix.
From a choice of 24 available civilizations – each with bespoke buffs, buildings and an emblematic (not to mention immortal) leader – we went for Queen Victoria. The reassuring and inimitable Sean Bean provided a rousing endorsement of our colonialism as the map loaded and we soon set about building units, harvesting resources from surrounding hexes and sending out scouts from London to explore the hexagonal world. Ye olde blank parchment replaces the ‘fog’ from previous entries; a pool of colour follows your units, leaving settlements and landmarks inked on the map, a simple, beautiful effect. As your capital city grows, that pool bleeds out, expanding your view of surroundings. The whole game looks fantastically polished and detailed.
There’s a lot of information to take in at first. Zoom is handled on the Z-triggers with the camera on the right stick and standard pinch-to-zoom on the touchscreen. Hitting ‘-‘ toggles tool tips, as does holding your finger on any icon. The D-buttons navigate a unit-control bar on the bottom right. With a unit selected, a larger info box appears that can obscure the field – you’ll be making adjustments if you’re eager to watch animations play out.
‘Trays’ on either side of the screen slide open with ‘L’ and ‘R’ revealing icons for tech and civics trees – it’s here where you steer development, enact policies, set agendas and contact the various leaders you meet through diplomatic channels with offers of friendship, trade or declarations of war. The leaders themselves are a delightfully animated, capricious bunch of caricatures, switching from jovial to spiteful at the drop of a hat – just as they should. Getting to know their quirks is one of the game’s pleasures. You can delve through menus finding out what gets them riled up – why exactly do I disgust Teddy Roosevelt so? Sending delegates and envoys will keep you up to date on hearsay, too.
The bigger picture is tough to keep in mind when you fix your sights on specific goals. Unit automation might seem convenient but can lead to unwelcome surprises when scouts bungle into hostile territory while you’re knee-deep in city renovations. This is true whether you’re playing on a beastly ultra-wide monitor or a smartphone, and while your window on the world is smaller on Switch, Aspyr has done sterling work scaling controls to work on the touchscreen or TV, keeping text and UI readable.
Even if you’re well-versed in Civ’s way of doing things, assumed knowledge won’t always hold you in good stead. Cities now grow on the map more organically, with Districts sprawling out and taking up a hex where buildings were previously ‘stacked’. Cities founded in mountainous and desert regions now offer scientific and religious perks, and Religion is a major factor – while distracted on another front, Felipe II’s missionaries flooded our peacetime cities. We came home to find half our civ now Catholic and Spain on the verge of a Religious victory!
Audio work is top-drawer all round; textured and varied. Your civ’s stirring theme evolves through various instrumentations through the eras – Greensleeves and Scarborough Fair for England – and you’ll hear other themes from the civs on your map. It’s soothing and punctuated by some addictive ‘accomplishment’ sounds when units/works/civics/techs complete and Sean Bean pops up to deliver an inspiring or irreverent quote on the subject. Periodic ‘Eureka’ moments create mini goals to motivate and guide you to different possibilities, and Great People can be attracted and recruited to boost progress.
Of course, series veterans have done it all before. Newbies won’t appreciate the nuances and changes to the formula, but equally, they’re not saddled with the weight of expectation or the discomfort of something so internalised and familiar now working differently. For noobs, there’s no adjustment period, evaluation or weighing each system against previous iterations; simple novelties like renaming cities might elicit a grin, though not for old hands. While this version benefits from the tweaks in the two years since launch, it’s still the base game, lacking the Rise and Fall expansion. You do get some DLC civs and scenario packs including Vikings, Poland, Australia, Persia and Macedonia, and it’s more than enough to be getting on with, but some might feel short-changed.
Depending on your perspective, other areas that might not live up to expectations. Civ has always had sizeable loads while it boots up your game, and that’s no different here. Likewise, the framerate gets a little choppy in the late game – an explosion of activity around 1500 with most of the map revealed means fast camera movement leads to some chugging. It’s not terrible by any means, but 60fps junkies should take note. By far the biggest disappointment, though, is the lack of online multiplayer. Many players will see this as a black mark against this version, and we sympathise. Local multiplayer is supported with multiple consoles, but if you’re Civ-playing hermits like us, that’s not much use.
However, Civ has never been a multiplayer game for us; it’s always been a personal battle between machine and man, the clock and our addiction – and now we can stretch our time with the game by taking it on the bus. For a portable version restricted to Wi-Fi-only, it seems a sensible compromise. If online play is important to you, you’ll have to stick to PC. Cloud saves are supported, though not on Nintendo’s end – you’ll need to sign up for a 2K account to enable them, an irritating but painless process.
As with any successful developer in a maturing industry, Firaxis finds itself having to freshen a lauded formula without transforming the fundamentals. The streamlined UI is great, but Civ requires a certain complexity that can’t be polished away. It’s a poser that a handful of the best series must address. Just how do you improve, say, Tetris? The Switch iteration has an advantage: many Nintendo gamers may never have played before, and this is one hell of an introduction, honed and tweaked through years of trial-and-error. It’s never been friendlier – an impressive feat considering the daunting scale of systems and possibilities. Civilization is as huge as you want it to be. Trying every civ and exploring every branch would take years, and that’s never been a more attainable goal than on Switch.
If you think Civilization peaked at IV, the sixth entry won’t change your mind, but we envy anyone who’s never played the series – Civilization VI on Switch is a brilliant introduction. Watching - and influencing - how the world unfolds is as addictive as ever, and the boon of portability make this a great way to play. Lack of online play is an obvious disappointment, but the core game works fantastically well on the handheld and we had an absolute blast; take our advice and get stuck in. Also, give Phillip II a wide berth – true to his word, he’ll get your wealth one way or another!