For Civ fans, the future has been set in stone since October 2016: no matter how good Civilization VI was at launch, it wouldn’t be done until it had gotten two expansions. Well, now it’s got them.
Building on the content introduced in 2018's Rise & Fall, and adding a whole raft of its own new features, Gathering Storm radically transforms the way Civilization VI plays, going well beyond the usual “add new leaders and menus” routine by shaping the way the world itself behaves around you.
This piece was first published on February 11, 2019. We’re bumping it today for the game’s release.
For the last couple of years, even after Rise & Fall’s release, Civilization VI has existed in a weird place. It’s a very good game, but also rarely feels like it has excited the series’ fanbase like 2010's Civ V. There are probably a number of reasons for this; Civilization V is still fantastic (and even looks great despite its age), and its matured scale—with both its expansions already out and settled in—makes it seem more fully-featured.
We might also just be hitting a point in the life of this series where a new Civilization is like a new iPhone, an exercise in pleasing but diminishing returns. There are only so many of these games people can play in their lives before the fundamental building blocks of their design start to blur into each other.
That’s my generalising guess, anyway, and I think it’s a bit unfair on Civilization VI, which has tried harder than most other games in the long-running series to differentiate itself from its predecessors. I remarked at launch that it felt much more board-gamey than other Civ titles, which has always been the latest game’s strongest point, and I’m glad that it’s being leaned on so heavily in Gathering Storm.
My favourite thing about Civilization VI has always been how physical it is. Because its districts spread out from your cities across the map, and your precious builders are so powerful with their terrain-shifting abilities, Civilization VI’s world has always felt incredibly tactile, as much a plaything as the game’s units and menus.
The main focus of Gathering Storm, as you might have guessed from the name, is on this world. Only now we’re exposed to its perils. No longer is a map simply a blank canvas, waiting for the player to fill it up with cities and farms. It’s now a living place, one that is heaving and resisting human occupation at every turn.
Maps are now littered with hazards. There are volcanoes that erupt, rivers that flood, droughts that ravage crops, blizzards sweeping over polar regions, hurricanes swirling across the seas and tornadoes roaming the plains, all designed to remind the player that the planet is an immovable, immortal force shaping your games, and that it is constantly going to wreck your shit.
On the bright side, it’s not like these effects are entirely random. This is a millennia-spanning strategy game, not a SimCity map. Most of Gathering Storm’s fury is tied to its geography; of course a river floods, that’s what rivers do, and if you want to settle next to a volcano then don’t go crying to Sid Meier when fire and brimstone rains down on your city every thousand years or so.
Nature’s wrath keeps you on your toes (you can reduce the intensity of disasters if you like, or even turn them off), and you’ll even need to clean up after the damage left by most events, but it’s not all bad news. There’s risk v reward at play, because volcanic eruptions might destroy a district, but the ash left behind makes for amazingly fertile farming ground, so there’s definitely incentive (or at least compensation) if you’re forced to build a civilization in dangerous territory.
You spend most of a Gathering Storm game as the victim, helplessly watching on as the planet lashes out at your cities but towards the end of a game, as you reach the industrial era and beyond, the tables have turned and it’s you who is hurting the planet. This expansion goes big on man’s environmental impact on the Earth, tracking everything from temperature increases to sea level rises, even finding a very Civ-like way to turn it into a competition, with each side’s contribution to CO2 levels compared.
This all has a massive impact on your game, far beyond existing as numbers in a menu screen. As temperatures and sea levels rise, destructive storms become more frequent, while the rising sea itself is even more important, as it slowly floods the map’s coastal areas, trashing improvements and districts and creating housing shortages as your citizens flee inland.
At times it can be confronting, and even depressing to play through the later stages of a game in Gathering Storm. Civilization games have always felt a bit frantic and finite as you approach the modern era, like a giant doomsday clock is ticking down in the skies above you, but to now see the world eroding at its fringes as you do so makes it so much worse.
Though I do appreciate the added busywork this provides. I tend to pursue science victories in Civ, which unless the shit is really going down usually involves barricading my borders with fortresses and clicking “next turn” until my spaceship launches. It’s usually a boring way to end things, but having to manage the end of the world (and its associated cleanup and civil works responsibilities) at the same time made for an interesting challenge.
Weirdly, there’s also some psychological relief to be found in taking direct action against climate change, instead of just reading depressing tweets all day and resigning yourself to the impending death of all insects and essential crops. In Gathering Storm climate change is something you can proactively fight, as you’re able to build coastal flood barriers and switch an entire Civilization to clean and renewable sources of energy, so it’s great that the game can make me feel empowered about the process, even if the sensation is fleeting and artificial.
I don’t mention renewable energy in passing, because power is now very much a thing in Civilization VI. Cities with industrial intentions can no longer just churn out tanks for free, they need to be powered in order to run at their optimal output. At first you can only do this with coal and oil, which of course plays a huge role in melting ice caps, so later on in the game it’s very much worth the extra time to build stuff like solar farms and hydro plants.
Keeping the lights on across a Civilization can be a bit of a hassle, straying into the realms of micromanagement when this is a series that works best with broader brushstrokes, but it’s worth it for the granular control it encourages over your environmental decisions.
That resource management extends to introducing supply requirements for the upkeep of units—fighters need aluminium, tanks need oil—without which they’re severely underpowered. Strategic resources themselves are now also commodified; no longer listed as abstract sources, there’s now an actual numerical value applied to how much of it you’ve got, so you can trade stockpiles of iron for coal, and check at a glance whether you’ve got enough oil to power your units and cities.
Less successful is the expansion’s other big introduction, or technically reintroduction. Civilization V’s World Congress makes a long-awaited return, only it’s now nowhere near as cool.
Where in Civ V it was a powerful tool, able to quickly and drastically shape world affairs with tools like trade embargoes, now players are continually being asked to vote on inane, randomly-generated issues like whether duplicates of a luxury resource should provide a boost, or whether a single player’s trade routes should be worth a few extra gold coins.
I found very quickly that I’d rather be clicking straight through most proposals as they weren’t worth my time, but you have to vote on every single issue, which sucks. I’m the immortal leader of a world superpower, surely somebody else can handle backwoods trade negotiations!
Returning alongside the congress itself is the ability to win a diplomatic victory, though this has undergone a few important changes. Diplomatic wins are now earned by collecting votes at the World Congress, which can be bought/influenced by spending a new resource for Gathering Storm, called diplomatic favour. You can also spend favour in trade negotiations, and can earn/lose it with war declarations.
It’s a new way to win, and I like how this new system encourages more wheeling and dealing behind the scenes to gather more favour, but diplomatic wins can still feel cheap and sudden, particularly since it’s so easy to game the AI into trading diplomatic favour with you.
A final addition worth mentioning is that to go with the increased busywork of cleaning up/protecting your cities from climate disaster, the endgame has also been beefed up with additional tech and civics. There’s a whole extra era of near-future government types, advanced aquatic builder improvements like seasteads (think BioShock) and offshore wind turbines, and even the return of the Giant Death Robot, which can be upgraded through future tech research and which is wonderfully overpowered.
What’s new in this expansion is of course super important, but it’s also worth pointing out what hasn’t changed. The continued failure of the AI to present coherent diplomatic positions, reactions that make the barest of sense and implausible trade suggestions continue to plague Civilization VI. Anyone hoping for a magical fix in this department will be disappointed.
Which is sad, because a big part of what makes this series special is its character. I’ve criticised other 4X games for lacking Civ’s heart, since the feeling that you’re dealing with actual characters can really help elevate the experience, but in Civ VI’s case the spirit of your artificial opponents has never matched the quality of the animation and voice acting.
What they’re lacking in brainpower is at least partly made up for by the nuts and bolts of Gathering Storm’s new characters. Some are just rearrangements of existing ideas given pretty faces, but others arrive loaded with genuinely intriguing new possibilities. The Maori begin every game at sea, for example (borrowing one of Colonization’s greatest tricks) and earn bonuses in the turns it takes them to establish a capital, while Eleanor of Aquitaine is available across two factions, able to lead either England or France.
Like I mentioned up top, the long-held view by many fans, born not just of their experiences with Civilization V but of Paradox’s titles as well, was that at launch Civilization VI was a raw and unfinished thing, whose true power and focus would only be revealed after a couple of expansions. This line of thought held that at launch Civ V was a hexagonal travesty, for example, but after two expansions it’s now considered an all-time classic
I think this view is unfair, and maybe even a little bit self-destructive. That’s not how games work, and to hold every big strategy release to that standard is unrealistic. Civilization VI was a great game at launch, and an even better one after Rise & Fall.
It’s now better still.
I call these expectations destructive though because it feels like Gathering Storm, in its attempt to add so much to Civilization VI, has maybe added too much. At any given moment there’s now so much to keep track of, from trade routes to spy networks, strategic stockpiles to science gains, climate status to diplomatic relations, city loyalty to religious affairs. It’s a heavy load, and Civ VI—and its interface—is creaking under the strain of it.
I look over everything added in this expansion and aside from the environmental and climate system, few of the additions really made a dent in my enjoyment of the game. The World Congress’ revival is a bust, and the game would have survived easily without it. And it’s odd seeing so many new things added to the game, to the point where even a casual small-map playthrough requires loads of menu gazing, when fixing (or at least doing a better job of obscuring) the poor AI would have been a more welcome change.
The very heart of Civilization VI’s original premise, with its emphasis on shaping the world and expanding your city’s footprints across it via districts was fantastic, and I’d have loved to see that honed and refined further—like the climate systems and late-game improvements have—rather than simply seeing more complex systems piled atop of it.
This is why I love the environment impact and disasters in Gathering Storm so much. They really play to Civ VI’s strengths directly; this is a game all about building, but floods and rising sea levels are a direct and elegant means of challenging this in an exciting new way.
Yes, it’s a shame Gathering Storm’s other introductions couldn’t have the same impact, and that some will no doubt be disappointed that this second expansion couldn’t put a bow on the Civ VI experience like Civ V enjoyed with Brave New World.
Yet even taking its whiffs and missed opportunities into account, I’ve still loved every hour I’ve spent with Gathering Storm. It’s an expansion that may not stick its landing, but which should still be applauded and admired for the way it sets out to change the very world we play on, and succeeds.