Civilizations at War: Civilization 6 vs. Civilization 5

By Marcello Perricone 17 Oct 2019 1

It finally happened. After several years of 'will they, won’t they,' Civilization V and Civilization VI have switched places on Steam’s top games list. After an expected, slightly underwhelming launch and an equally expected, slight controversy over the price of its expansions, the latest entry in Sid Meier’s flagpole franchise has surpassed the previous entry by a couple of thousand players.

Newer games dethroning predecessors is in most cases inevitable (with exceptions), but in Civilization’s case the timeline took slightly longer than predicted. Even after the release of both major DLCs, the fifth Civilization game was still holding strong for a few months, and even now it brings in more than 22,000 players every single day. So what gives Civilization V such long-lasting appeal, and why is Civilization VI struggling against its sibling?

civ 6 sample

Civilization Goes Mainstream

First, a little bit of history. Sid Meier’s Civilization V -- the fifth entry in the legendary strategy series created by Sid Meier -- came out in September 2010 to universal acclaim. Urban legend has it that Civ V had an unpopular reception, although major outlets actually gave it scores above 90%; essentially, because it was such a radical departure from Civ 4, it split the player base somewhat much like the split between Civ V & Civ VI, except everyone got over it much quicker.

Over the next couple of years, Firaxis unleashed two expansions for Civ 5 that expanded the scope; added proper diplomacy, religion, and culture to the game; and transformed it into a mile-wide, mile-deep 4X experience that catered to a large amount of playstyles. Fast-forward to October 2016, and Sid Meier’s Civilization VI launches to generally favorable reviews. A few points below the scale of Civ V, but still in the upper 80s and low 90s. The audience, however, is significantly less impressed.

civ 5 sample

Unlike Civilization V, which drastically changed the formula and map of the game world of its predecessors, Civilization VI was more of a tweak of the same formula. While the game itself was in a better state content-wise at launch than Civ V was, the game changed or removed many features -- like the United Nations or proper trade systems -- that were fully integrated into the previous game. The end result was a prettier game complete with a new district system and a fully baked-in religious system straight out of the box, but which still came up short of Civ V and its two expansions.

The price was and still is the biggest obstacle to Civilization VI’s appeal. After the game launched and was found wanting, the world was faced with the option of getting the brand-new Civilization VI for £40, or the vast, excellent, and battle-tested Civilization V with all of its DLC and updates for £10. The idea of paying 4 times for something that was seen as a mild upgrade at best was daunting, and many veteran players who had already forked out a lot of cash on Civ V were reticent to spend money on what could be considered a downgrade.

Ringing in the Changes

Change itself was also the issue. Every new or revised mechanic is bound to stir up dissent, but some fundamental changes ended up being at odds with the how the series’ player base expected to play their game. The move to Housing and Amenities instead of Food to regulate growth effectively removed player’s abilities to shape their own civilization, adding hard gates to progression in the form of districts and tile space that could only be unlocked with time instead of brute force via proper management. The lack of meaningful penalties for more cities -- a staple of Civ V’s strategy -- meant that every single culture was now able to expand unregulated from turn 1, which in turn transformed Civ from a mix of capital, main, and satellite cities into the endless micromanaging of dozens of small cities. In essence, one of the main issues of Civ VI is that while it caters to more playstyles on paper, in practice it caters for less.

civ venice

Civilization V’s mechanics and design philosophy offered deeper differences between empires, from the Egyptians flat 20% bonus to wonder constructions to the English’s +2 movement bonus on sea units. On Civ VI, the Egyptians get a slightly smaller 15% bonus to wonders that *only* applies on tiles near rivers -- making them true to Ancient Egypt but ignoring 90% of the game map’s tiles -- and the English get a rather boring boost to Archeological Districts that only really makes a difference late in the game (and even then, it’s marginal).

But neither of that even comes close to Venice -- Civilization’s most unique civilization, and the stark difference between both games’ interpretations. In Civ V, the fan-favourite faction of Veneza represented by Doge Enrico Dandolo cannot found or annex cities -- its expansion is restricted for most of the game, leaving players with a single city to weather any storm. To make up for it, trade route slots double in size, allowing Venice to stockpile money in fantastic amounts and eventually buy city-states with the use of the Merchant of Venice.

The necessity to build tall instead of wide presents an experience unlike any other in Civ V, and Venice can easily stand toe-to-toe and even steamroll other Civs when played properly thanks to its lack of expansion penalties, its super developed capital, and its overflowing gigantic coffers. Civ VI, on the other hand, has no culture that comes even close to that, and the game straight up punishes building tall over the overwhelming incentive it presents to go wide with expansion.

The general expectation was that Venice or factions like it would come to the game eventually, and once Civ VI went on sale and had a few proper DLC under its belt, it would be a real contender -- but that never came to pass. When the first and second expansions finally arrived, they continued the launch trend of asking the price of a full game for what was essentially a modicum of content. 3 years after launch, prospective Civ VI players were looking at +£100 if they weren’t willing to wait for a sale.

civ 5 xcom

The One True King

Over the last few years, Firaxis has understandably discontinued support for Civ V. Multiplayer games -- the stability of which ranged from reliable to infuriating -- have degraded further since Civ 6’s launch. It’s gotten to the point where many have begrudgingly decided to move to the newer game for a more stable environment for online play. It helps that since Gathering Storm was released in February, Civ VI has had plenty of sales. It was even running a 71% discount at one point, which certainly helps ease the transition.

Now, Civilization 6 finally stands above Civ 5 in Steam’s player count leaderboard. Rumours suggest that a third expansion is on the way, which is one more than Civilization V ever got. It will once again focus on minor details instead of the global picture, with things like plagues and diseases joining the current loyalty and natural disaster mechanics added in the previous two expansions. Civ VI may have finally surpassed its predecessor in terms of playerbase, but in the eyes of the community, only an inevitable Civilization 7 will surpass the legacy of Civ 5.

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