Broadly speaking, whenever a game receives an expansion pack, they tend to take that word”expansion” rather literally. Typically what they bring to the table is more of everything you could already do in the base game. More units, more characters, more places to visit, things to do.
Civilization expansions take a very different approach. They give you everything you expect from an expansion pack but they also renovate the proverbial house, tweaking existing systems, addressing player concerns and rebuilding with the foundations. Historically, each expansion markedly improves the current Civ experience and with Civilization VI: Rise and Fall, that tradition continues — even if it can’t fix all of Civ VI‘s bugbears.
One of the longest-standing gripes I (and a great number of long-time players) have with the Civ series is that it has a habit of nudging the player toward a Conquest victory, claiming the win with overwhelming military force in the great strategy game tradition. With Conquest victories being so straightforward in the base game, it made the many other win conditions present in Civ VI feel like much harder work.
Rise and Fall does its level best to reframe the Conquest victory as merely another option at your disposal rather than the best or most efficient one. This very much pushes the other win conditions like Science or Religion into the spotlight, reminding the player that their Civ can not only survive into the end game but also flourish and proliferate when taking a non-violent approach.
As a result of this step back from all out militarisation, Rise and Fall feels much more open-ended and less like a Doomsday Clock simulator. Helping this along is the new mechanic of earning and maintaining citizen loyalty. Loyalty is connected to both your Civ’s overall culture and any given satellite city’s distance from your capital. Presiding over a cultureless horde with an empire that spans the entire map is bad for business — they will mutiny and you will lose those cities to your enemy, who will welcome them with open arms. This is something other Civ games have done before, but not quite to this degree. Your people want to feel like they’re part of something greater, part of your burgeoning empire. A big part of your job is to assure them, through word and deed, that they are.
To help you with this are Governors, another new mechanic, a line up of named units that provide particular boons and perks once assigned to one of your cities. Governors are a good way to keep loyalty in your cities at an even simmer, but they too are a resource to be managed — you are only able to recruit a very limited number of governors in each game and they each have five possible upgrades you can make to them to boost their influence over a given city. Its up to you to decide how you want to deploy them — pull big results with a single, fully upgraded governor from one larger, established city or send a number of low level governors to the farthest flung reaches of your empire to help keep the colonies in line.
Its not perfect — a sizeable chunk of your total score is still linked to how far you’ve expanded and the amount of hexes on the map you control — but it’s a significant step in the right direction and it allows the game to be more than a death march across the map, subjugating all in your path. It allows for a layer of realism as relates to actual human history. Sprawling empires struggle to maintain cohesion. Cities on the ragged edges of your influence are the weak link, unhappy with the distance between them and the center of the empire and eager to revolt at the drop of a hat. Pay attention to your outposts — they’ll be a thorn in your side if you don’t. Garrison your military units in your cities instead of having them out and about, pillaging trade routes and menacing the AI. Your citizens will respond with loyalty and overall happiness.
Its not just your cities that are impacted by these changes though — the AI will have to contend with your newfound sense of culture, leading to a wave of spy units destabilising their governments and leaving them open to either joining you voluntarily or with their guard down for an swift and decisive military strike. It means you can now take your opponent’s cities away from them without ever having to go to war. Cities that are under no empirical leadership will spawn higher level barbarian units and should be conquered with great urgency.
This is exactly what I want from my Civ games — the ability to focus on constructing a Civ that functions as a single entity, gaining territory through being an attractive proposition rather than a looming, clenched military fist. It’s immensely satisfying to pull off a religion victory and take it all from the AI with faith alone.
But the game’s not content to stop there — each era now has a set of internal goals and milestones to achieve. Points accrued here will mean the next era for your Civ will be a Dark Age, Normal Age or Golden Age. These Ages are governed by, you guessed it, loyalty. If you don’t hit your milestones and keep things on an even or above-average keel, you’ll find your citizen’s loyalty beginning to ebb and you’ll be greatly weakened. You can accrue era points through military “persuasion” if you want but I found it much easier to build wonders, forge scientific discoveries or drill down on religion.
Speaking of aggressive, lets talk about the AI. Enemy Civ AI has been updated in Rise and Fall so that they don’t make as many strange decisions or fly into a war-mongering rage at the drop of a hat as often (it does still happen and you should punish them for their hubris when they do). No longer are they trying to goad you into war on the regular. Rather they are now, more often than not, content to retreat into their own borders and focus on their own problems. It means they behave more like actual people. They make mistakes, they become frustrated but neither are they looking for a fight if they can avoid it.
Don’t get me wrong, they’re still prone to the odd moment of total, bumbling idiocy — getting on the horn to deride me for being broke when I’ve got more money than I know what to do with or, in those moments where they do send in military units, not taking proper care to ensure their survival. Some leaders, like Cleopatra, remain thoroughly bizarre in their thinking, a hold-over from the old military meta. She loves it when I build a massive army and hates it when I don’t build one, which is ridiculous. What leader in their right mind actually wants the neighbouring civ to actively build an army that could wipe them in a heartbeat?
Thankfully, your options for diplomatically solving the kinds of conflicts that emerge more naturally — squabbles over territory or resources — are greatly expanded. Being able to settle your grudges diplomatically allows for a greater sense of community — a feeling that you can trust the AI not to throw all your careful negotiating out the window all because you ticked some invisible box that drives them into an instant, irreparable rage. The race for military might has given way to a sense of genuine co-operativism and the game is all the better for it.
However, should you find yourself up against a Cleopatra, a foe that absolutely cannot be appeased, then you can leverage another of Rise and Fall‘s new mechanics, Emergencies. This allows you to team up with other nations to pressure unruly civs into settling down, and sharing the spoils in the event of a win. From a practical standpoint, it allows players who’ve survived into the late game to pump the brakes on any civ that might have been getting a bit far ahead of them, tangling them up in diplomatic red tape long enough to get back on top.
Rise and Fall is an open admission from Firaxis that Civ is at its best when the player has a wealth of options at their disposal, even if they’re difficult ones. Rise and Fall brings Civilization VI closer to what it should have been at launch — an example of what humanity would look like with you in charge, an application of your own personal stamp upon the world.
Score: 9.0 out of 10
Highlights: Civ is back; Less focus on combat, more on other win conditions
Lowlights: Enemy AI still has the capacity to be utterly bonkers at times
Developer: Firaxis Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Platforms: Windows PC, Mac OS, SteamOS
Review conducted on Windows 10 PC with a retail code provided by the publisher.