Interview: Civilization VI Snr. Gameplay Designer, Anton Strenger
Civilization VI launches next week and yet, there isn’t much left to reveal. The fan community has already seen most of the changes, knows what the new world wonder bonuses are, and are likely formulating their own strategies right now. It’s all thanks to 2K’s and Firaxis’ boundless confidence in the title, allowing press and streamers to showcase every inch of the preview build weeks in advance.
Sure, it doesn’t have all of the leaders, any of the advanced settings, or even the latest performance tweaks, but as far as publically-viewable content is concerned, this goes beyond the norm. Thus, 2K flew Anton Strenger, senior gameplay designer for Civilization VI, halfway across the world to give Eastern media valuable insight into the workings and history of the game.
Strenger’s first encounter with Sid Meier’s work was at the tender age of 11, when he watched a friend play the 1999 sci-fi game Alpha Centauri. It “ignited his imagination”, convincing him to pick up a copy of Civilization III and its sequels, but it clearly wasn’t enough. At graduate school he scored an internship at Firaxis to work on a Civilization V DLC, before getting hired full-time for the expansions and subsequent releases.
To kick things off, Strenger walked us through a general presentation for the game, explaining how the new districts model helps bring player accomplishments out onto the map itself or how they’ve brought back many of the popular features from Civilization V and its expansions.
He had a couple of interesting tidbits too. The new religious victory, for example, is now one of the fastest ways to win the game, whereas the revamped city-states are a great platform for launching surprise attacks thanks to military levies.
The real highlight, however, was getting some one-on-one time with the man himself. We pore through the new gameplay decisions, learn how the new city-state system came about, and take a stab at finding out what makes Civilization such a beloved series.
Moving onto a new Civ is always exciting. Before we jump into it, what would you say were the take-away lessons from Civ V, Beyond Earth, and their expansions?
Anton Strenger: Civilization V we made a lot of changes that we really liked and wanted to keep. Among the highest were the hex tiles and the 1-unit-per-tile system. For Beyond Earth there were a lot of interesting experiments that the lead designers tried – I don’t think there was anything in particular that we took from that game but a lot of the interesting innovations that they made in the diplomacy system in the Rising Tide expansion kind of have interesting parallels with the diplomatic agendas that Civ VI ended up having.
We’ve seen some other popular 4X games hit the market in these past few years. Were any inspirations to Civ VI’s design?
We take lots of inspiration from different games and one of the things that I really like about Firaxis is that the designers and developers there… we’re not insulated that we only play our own games. We really like to play other games and see what’s popular out there, see what we enjoy, and we enjoy lots of different genres and types of games.
But there’s not a game in particular that inspired Civilization VI outside of the Civilization franchise itself. Actually, more than other video games, I’d say Civilization VI takes a lot of inspiration from board games.
Our lead designer, Ed Beach, is actually a board game designer as well. He’s published several civil war military battle games and he’s also published two board games – one is called Here I Stand and the other one’s called Virgin Queen. They are very detailed, historical scenario card games that also have a board and kind of have war pieces moving about. A lot of the mechanics in those types of games, as well as other board games that we like to play for fun at lunch, will sometimes spark an inspiration for a system we’d like to try.
Awesome! So moving onto Civ VI proper: You’ve placed great emphasis on locations and how each tile is important to decision making but, the more I play the game, the more I get the feeling that single super-city strategies are no longer a viable tactic. Is this goodbye to Venice for example?
I don’t know if it’s goodbye to Venice per se but it’s definitely a very intentional move away from single super-cities. One of the things we really disliked about Civilization V was how one city could get half of all the world wonders to itself; it was really cool and really powerful but it just felt kind of weird.
So the idea to have districts and buildings and wonders, to kind of use tiles almost as another resource type, was an idea we wanted to try early on and we’re really happy with the results. It’s definitely still viable to have a smaller empire but single cities are going to be much more challenging. You’ll have to be very careful about what districts you place.
There have been plenty of presentations and talks on how you’ve changed the early-game – barbarians are more aggressive and you don’t get penalties for waging war in the Ancient Era. We’ve also noticed that captured settlers don’t get turned into builders now. Why the change?
(Laughs) Um, yeah. It was kind of something that we tried as an experiment. The reason, I believe, that settlers became builders in Civ V was that it was seen as too powerful to capture another player’s settler. But the A.I. in VI has improved quite a bit and it’s kind of frustrating if someone catches your settler and it turns into a builder, but then you can’t get back your settler.
So we wanted to keep that high-stakes gameplay early on and to allow players to make very big power plays if they were able to catch a settler.
You mentioned that we could combine units in the presentation earlier and I believe you were referring to the corps system. When you do that, however, the increase in health and combat power isn’t that much. When would this be a useful tactic?
Yeah. It’s very much intentional that the combined strength isn’t quite as much as two separate units but it’s still very useful in particular situations. One I can think of is when there are many units on the map and you’re looking for a way to make them stronger without having to train more.
Because of the one-unit-per-tile rule and the tactical nature of a lot of the military gameplay, sometimes it’s useful to have a very strong unit break through an enemy line or to hold a particular key position. So even though in some situations it might be better to have two separate units that are both pretty strong, sacrificing one to make a unit extra strong for a particularly key area can sometimes turn the tide of a war – like if you’re in-between two mountains or defending a city.
What about the late-game? By turn 270 or so I’m already chasing down my victory condition and just focusing on science and production. What has changed in that regard?
We haven’t talked a lot about it yet but the air combat has definitely been upgraded after Civilization V and I think it’s much more active. The combining of units into corps also changes the late-game quite a bit. And the final governments that players have access to, kind of like the ideologies in Civilization V expansion Brave New World, will start putting players into certain camps later in the game.
So players that have both the democracy government will be friendly towards each other but will very much dislike players with a communist or fascist government. It sort of starts polarizing some of the players in the late-game, diplomatically speaking.
Also later in the game, once players have met most of the other players on the map, the city-state system kind of enters a new stage. Based on the governments and the later, powerful policies, you can send envoys to control city-states in different ways and try to turn the tide of different battles in a very interesting Cold War-style.
You mentioned you were heavily involved in city-states themselves. Could you tell us what developing that was like? How did it evolve over time?
City-states were a system I inherited when I started working on the Civilization V expansion packs so I didn’t do the initial design, but I liked the ideas of it so I helped refine what was there. But moving into Civilization VI and getting the chance to redesign the whole thing from the foundations… there were a couple of changes I wanted to make.
The idea of city-states I think is very compelling, especially for certain types of players that aren’t particularly aggressive. It’s nice to have other players that aren’t trying to win to kind of be their friend if you want them to; it’s like having nice NPC buddies in your club.
That was very compelling but there were a lot of annoyances in the Civ V system, in the way that you would try to invest in a city-state and it was usually with gold. And influence would decay over time, which was done for a very smart reason but just ended up feeling like the relationships didn’t last and that you kept having to micromanage it.
So the idea of tying the city-state relationships to envoys was probably the key inspiration moment for me, and the other designers concurred as we were developing it. Kind of having that same influence competition but condensing it into more discrete tokens. I mentioned board games earlier – when I was designing the city-state envoy system I think of them as little poker chips that you’re placing on the board. “I have more tokens than you so I win” or “my stack is higher than yours” or whatever. That was definitely the sort of feel that I was hoping to get from the system.
Because we wrote all of the game’s logic code for Civilization VI to be much more modding-friendly and also to allow us to more easily shift bonuses around, to re-use a lot of code for that, it became very easy to give each of the 24 city-states their own unique suzerain bonus. I thought that would really help give a lot more replayability and a lot more variety to each map.
In Civilization V, each cultural city-state was always the same, they would give the same culture bonus. They had a different name but that was about it, so I really wanted to give more personality to the city-states in their names, their icons, and their bonuses.
I actually considered having a mechanic where you could buy envoys with gold but I was like, “Ahh that’s going back too close to Civ V.”
Let’s talk religion, which is another big change aside from districts. What were your key focus areas or things that you wanted to do with religion?
Well, we really wanted to experiment with having a religious victory type which we haven’t done in the Civ series before. We introduced the idea of religion in Civilization IV that Ed Beach, our lead designer, later refined in the Civilization V expansion Gods and Kings.
So a lot of the basics of how religion works in Civilization VI uses that some model but again, it’s rethought to use the unique parts of “unstacking the cities” and districts in the game. And it’s much higher stakes now because you’re not just spreading your religion to get more bonuses; that’s part of it, but you’re actually spreading it to potentially win the game and potentially win it earlier than any of the other victory conditions.
When upgrading my apostles I’ve noticed that the abilities can be kind of random. Why is that?
Yeah, unlike the military unit upgrades the apostles have I think nine or ten different promotions. When they’re trained for the first time it selects a random three that you could choose from, and the motivation behind that was to use gets players to use apostles differently. They’re a very versatile unit: you can use them to spread religion; you can use them in theological combat to attack other religious units without having to be at war, which is very useful; or you can sacrifice them to upgrade your religion and a new belief to it.
So there are a lot of different uses for them and we didn’t want players to fall into a pattern of always using them for this or always using them for that, and by having these random promotions you’re not sure which ones you’ll have access to every time. The promotions will kind of sway you in a certain direction and maybe get you to try and use the unit in a way you haven’t really done before. It’s kind of a similar philosophy to the way that technology boosts will maybe lead you down a direction that you haven’t explored.
You might have an apostle and you might have been planning to use it right away to upgrade your religion. But if you see that it has access to a promotion that makes its ability to spread its religion much more powerful, you might think twice about it. “Maybe I’ll go over to this city and I’ll spread it there” and “maybe I’ll change my strategy because I have this unexpected surprise.”
That said, after a while, my apostles were limited to just a single upgrade. Was that due to any reason?
Ah, yeah. They are mostly random but there is some kind of game logic in there to try and bring abilities that you haven’t seen yet in the game. So I think if you’re training a lot of apostles the list might grow shorter, like “Hey why don’t you try this one?”
Something really interesting too is one of the religious city-states, whose unique suzerain bonus is, instead of choosing from a random three, you’ll get to select from all ten of them. So if you make friends with that city-state you get to very particularly choose what bonuses you want every time and that’s a really fun ability.
Let’s say a player wishes to remain secular — what defense options does he have? Because you really need an apostle to fight back.
Even if you don’t have a religion of your own, your cities that follow a certain religion do get access to that religion’s units and buildings. So if we’re playing a game together and you founded a religion but I did not, once you spread your religion to one of my cities I can use my faith resource to train missionaries and apostles in that religion. If I wanted to I could keep spreading it because I want it in my other cities because it has nice bonuses.
If another player starts spreading their religion and I want to push yours out, I can use their apostles to do that. So that’s one way to defend but, ultimately, if you don’t find a religion of your own your options are limited. It’s not always a bad thing because religions will always give bonuses to the cities that have them. It does make for an interesting game if you have someone that’s very strong and they’re making a go for that religious victory – if you don’t have a religion of your own to push back you might have to bring out your army in order to deal with it.
To start a war.
Yeah (laughs). And we’ve seen that many times a religious victory often has a military component because you know, you could wait to convert all the civs to your side or, if there’s one particularly annoying civ or has their own religion, you could just go and conquer them. That would also help.
Ah but then they’ll have a casus belli to fight back.
While trader gossip and delegate observations feel much more natural in the game, there isn’t a large overview of what’s happening between the different civs at any one time. I mean, in Civ III we had a map?
Oh yeah, that web. A lot of the relationships are really hard to boil down into a map anymore. There’s a lot of complicated things going on and we experimented with ideas of how to show everything all on one screen but it just became very noisy.
It’s something that Civilization V also didn’t have but there are fan-made mods that made a version of it. That was interesting and a lot of people liked to play with that, so we hope that in Civilization VI if people want that information again they’re definitely welcome to mod in a screen like that.
But we did make efforts to show the nuances of the diplomatic relationships. When you’re on the diplomacy screen and you select a leader, just before you talk to them you get a kind of snapshot of what they’re about. What their agendas are, what they think of you, and there are some of the buttons you can click and see more information.
But also it sort of tells you what relationships they have with other leaders, so if I’m looking at your portrait while we’re playing together I can see, “Oh you’re friends with so-and-so and you don’t like so-and-so” and piece together a picture of who your friends and enemies are. But it’s always one-on-one, it’s not a whole web.
One of the other things related to diplomacy is how you’ve dropped the world congress and its victory condition. Are there any plans to include that in the future?
There are no plans to include that right now. I think that’s probably the only system from all of Civilization V and its expansion packs that didn’t make it in for VI. It’s actually one of the systems that I worked on personally in Brave New World so it’s definitely something I had a lot of fun with developing, but a system like that also depends a lot on the systems that are already in place. It kind of brings everything that’s there to the next level.
Especially with the interest that we’ve added with the diplomatic agendas and the city-states, there’s a lot of new things and we felt that having a world congress in addition to that would be a little too complicated. We wanted to let these new diplomatic systems have their spotlight and to see what the balance was like, to see how the fans respond it.
Now we’ve seen some hints that there might be multiple leaders per civ. Could you give any confirmation on that?
I can neither confirm nor deny that but it is something we realize that fans really appreciated in the past, like Civilization IV would have multiple leaders for a different civ. It’s certainly something that’s possible with modding – for example, Rome, you decide that “Well Trajan’s pretty cool but I rather have Caesar; I like Caesar and for him to have this ability.” Players can totally mod that in and our gameplay effect system makes it really easy to mix-and-match different abilities from different things.
So even if there’s a special gameplay bonus on a world wonder that we’ve already made work in-game, and you want to take that world wonder bonus as it applies to one city and use that same code to apply a similar bonus to all cities when you have this Roman leader, you could do that pretty easily.
I look forward to seeing what fans make and what leaders they choose to try out. We have so much fun making the games ourselves, it’s nice to see players not just play the game but also tinker, develop, and design their own things too.
The A.I. leaders, as you’ve mentioned earlier, now have both overt and hidden agendas. Would it be possible for us to adjust or tweak what these agendas are in the advanced settings?
There are a lot of advanced options as with every Civ game but I don’t think there’s one to tweak the random agendas in particular. There are some things that change with difficulty levels so the opinion that another leader will have of you is definitely dependent on their agendas but there’s also a randomized first impression value. So, just based on random chance, Rome might have a good impression of me and our relationship is off to a good start.
The higher the difficulty you play as, the more negative your first impressions are likely to be, so that is something the players can sort of control. The agendas are also heavily moddable using that same system that I mentioned before, so if players want to add new historical or random agendas they’re very much encouraged to do so.
We also have a little bit of custom logic in place, where there are certain historical agendas that don’t mesh very well with certain hidden agendas. Normally any leader can have any random agenda but there are certain ones that we rule out, we say, “Okay for this leader don’t pick this one because it interacts in a very strange way.” But again, using our modding tools it’s pretty easy to just, through XML, have a leader use an agenda all the time or crank up the varying values of how strongly they favor it.
Speaking of difficulty, in the preview build far we only have access to Prince. How will difficulty scaling work for Civ VI?
There will be eight difficulty levels and Prince is kind of right in the middle. There are about ten factors that we change as the difficulty goes up and one of them is that first impression thing that I mentioned earlier. The basic philosophy is that the A.I. will get bonuses on higher difficulty levels and on lower difficulty levels the player will get bonuses. But we never allow the A.I. to cheat or to know information it wouldn’t otherwise know.
On the higher difficulty levels, the A.I. will have significant advantages in science and culture and production but they won’t be able to look around the map where they haven’t actually explored. So we try very hard to respect that information fairness – our lead A.I. programmer actually spent a lot of time before Firaxis working on real-time strategy games and that’s something he’s very conscious of, making the A.I. play fairly.
The reason I ask is that the Deity- and Immortal-level players will now have eurekas and inspirations so it’ll be even easier for them to stay ahead. How will the A.I. manage to catch up?
Well a lot of work has gone into the A.I. to make sure that they actually do compete for eurekas and inspirations. They’re actually just as good as a human player in a lot of cases at pursuing those. For players on the highest difficulty levels, I think pursuing the eurekas and inspirations in a very effective way will probably be a big part of that.
Conversely, on the lower difficulty levels, those who play on Warlord or Settler often have trouble adjusting to Prince or higher because the bonuses often act as a crutch rather than a learning aid. Are there any thoughts on that?
Oh that’s interesting. Yeah, I hadn’t really thought about it that way. We definitely want newer players to be able to have fun with the game, to explore the systems and the sandbox without worrying too much if they’re making the right decisions. I think the right attitude for starting out and learning Civilization is to play on a lower difficulty level and just to have fun and explore. There’s no wrong decision.
I mentioned before in the presentation how each district has unique bonuses you can get by placing them in particular areas but, you know, you can place a campus district – the science one – in the middle of the desert somewhere and it’ll still be a place where you can have your library and your university and it’ll still give you some bonuses. It won’t be the best place but for a new player that’s totally fine, it’s how they get to learn about how the districts work. And once they get to that Prince level they can start digesting a little more, about how to squeeze the most benefit out of things.
And I think our advisor system will help with that. There’s a standalone tutorial which explains a lot of the basics of the game and we’ve put a lot of effort into that tutorial, it’s been localized into all the different languages, and it’s a really good entry point for players who haven’t played a Civilization game before.
But for players that have played a Civilization before or the ones that finish the tutorial, we have an advisor character. Kind of similar to Civilization V but much better, who will at certain points chime in and say, “Oh, you just got your first government. Let me explain to you what governments are if you want to learn more.”
It’ll start peeling back the layers of how these systems work and hopefully explain to the players how to take their strategy to the next level.
Earlier on you’ve confirmed that there’ll be multiplayer mods. Could you offer us a little more detail on that?
Yeah. First off, it was one of the highest requests that we got all throughout Civilization V. The way that our technology was set-up just didn’t make it very easy but it was always something that we heard from the fans about and we wanted to support it for Civilization VI. So we definitely made that a priority very early on.
And we’ve actually experimented with multiplayer mods within our own office. For multiplayer modes, we support the more traditional “have a bunch of players and go through a normal game” but we also have these scenarios. There are three different ones and they take place at different times in history, and they each have custom victory conditions so you play a much shorter session than a traditional multiplayer game.
In the office when we play it usually takes about an hour and a half to two hours; it’s a very sort of, intense (laughs) competitive experience when I play it with my co-workers. It’s really fun and is a much quicker session for players who don’t want to spend a whole day or have to coordinate everyone playing at the same time.
It’s definitely something important to us and having mods in multiplayer is a huge plus.
You say you’re always listening to the fans for feedback. What does Firaxis look out for when planning the next update or patch?
I would say so. I’m trying to personally take a more quantitative approach to some of my design. We are adding telemetry to Civilization VI so that we’ll get some anonymous data of what tech boosts players are going for or how much science they make on each turn and stuff like that. We’re hoping to use that to realize some general trends and see what players find as really powerful choices and what they might not like doing so often.
We’re definitely going to use any opportunity we get to have a patch or something like that. We’ll take a whole look at the balance of the game and hear our fan feedback because we want it to be as fun and as balanced a game as possible.
I think we do a great job of doing that, even before release. We have a great testing team, we have very talented developers that have done this sort of thing for a long time, but, you know in the hands of millions of fans there’s always new things that come about or things that we didn’t expect. It’s always very humbling to see the kinds of things that they can come up with and go, “Oh yeah that’s really smart, I didn’t think of that.” And then we’ll adjust accordingly (laughs).
Civilization itself is a prolific series, to the point where you have folks like Mark Zuckerberg playing it. What do you think makes the series so special, where hundreds of people stay up all night playing your games?
That’s a very good question. I think Elon Musk is another person that has said, “Oh I play Civilization.” Yeah, it’s very humbling to know.
I try to think back to when I was a kid playing it and what that spark was for me. I think… I think there’s a lot of things there. In part, you get to interact with human history in a very interesting and personal way so, you know, compared to something like a history class where it might be boring, you get to see these leaders for yourself and play with their bonuses for yourself and sort of be inspired by the historical things that actually happened in our world.
For me, it was sort of a jumping off point. I became inspired to learn more about history after playing the Civilization series – that and I also had a very good high school history teacher – but it ignites the imagination in that way. And it does it in a very deep, resonating way because unlike a story in a fictional game this is a story about things that actually happened. It’s combining them in new, interesting, and sometimes whacky ways but ultimately it’s about a very human story and I think that resonates with a lot of people.
It’s also kind of about seeing the different permutations of history. What if Rome was not powerful? What would have happened if this leader, who was really awesome in real life, actually died early or whatever. It’s kind of interesting to play what-if and to kind of ask history certain questions about what might have happened if the world were a little bit different.
Any parting thoughts?
Hmm. Everybody that works on this game cares about it and cares a lot about our fans. We think we have the best Civilization game yet. We’ve taken a lot of lessons from a lot of hard-earned criticism from previous games, and we’ve tried to make the best possible Civilization that we can.
And I also hope it’s the most approachable Civilization yet for new players that may not have tried it before or may have been intimidated by it before; I would encourage them to give it a shot. We have a lot of tutorials and advisor things in place to help new players and, like I said before, there’s no wrong decisions when you’re learning.
Use it to have fun however you like and if you want to work your way up to crazy competitive multiplayer then, good for you also (laughs).
Thanks for your time!
Civilization VI launches worldwide on 21 October 2016 for PC.