Two steps rise, one step fall.
At launch, Sid Meier’s Civilization 6 was already packed with so many features I had to wonder where developer Firaxis would find room to meaningfully expand on. But find room it did, and Civilization 6: Rise and Fall’s additions are mostly positive changes that move the already feature-packed Civilization 6 a step or two toward a Golden Age of its own. At the same time, others have a tendency to slow down the pace more than I’d like.
A new injection of nine playable civilizations and leaders is expected, but always a good thing for variety. The aggressive Zulus and Mongolians, the trade-focused Dutch and Cree, the happiness-obsessed Scots, and techno-powered Koreans, and religious Indians (under new leader Chandragupta) put new spins on existing mechanics while the Georgians and Mapuche are tied into the new Loyalty and Governor systems and invite some potentially interesting playstyles.
My favorite improvement is the idea of eras being either Dark, Normal, Golden, or Heroic Ages (if you go directly from a Dark Age to a Golden one) depending on how many historic moments you achieve in the preceding era. It’s a great way to build on Civ 6’s idea of having a bunch of small goals and rewards to shoot for at every step of the way. Like Inspirations and Eurekas for civics and technology, Era points encourage you to change your existing priorities. In the very early game exploration becomes dramatically more important because discovering other civilizations, city-states, natural wonders, and villages are the main way to avoid immediately falling into a Dark Age. Later, lets you choose what you’ll focus on, and can add a new incentive to archeology or Inspirations. The way the colors of the map and interface become brighter and more saturated during a Golden Age and darker and muted during a Dark Age is a nice touch, too.
I could see intentionally triggering a Dark Age as a viable strategy.
However, the powers you earn aren’t so strong that a Golden Age will necessarily make a game – you see bonuses like faster-moving and cheaper builders or more potent Inspirations – and a Dark Age’s penalty to your people’s Loyalty point generation isn’t so apocalyptic that it will break you, at least not by itself. In fact, a Dark Age lets you access some powerful policy cards that also have downsides, like Robber Barons, which gives +50% gold production in cities with stock exchanges and +25% production in cities with a factory, at the cost of two Amenities in all cities. That can serve as a powerful comeback mechanic, and I could see intentionally triggering a Dark Age just to get access to these for a time, and then rebounding into a Heroic Age, as a viable strategy. I also like reviewing the timeline of my Era point achievements, complete with illustrations – that’s a cool way to commemorate your nation’s history.
The new Governors are another clever addition that allow you to further specialize a city along one of seven different paths. Liang the Surveyor starts by giving builders constructed in her city an extra charge, but can be upgraded with abilities like a 30% bonus toward constructing Districts or a unique Fishery improvement that increases food yields on coastal water hexes. Victor the Castellan, meanwhile, focuses on city defense, and Amani the Diplomat can be sent to a city-state to double your envoy count and project more loyalty. Choosing which one to upgrade when feels important. Also, being able to shuffle them around between cities (with a few turns’ delay) where they’re needed is useful, too – passing that huge district-building benefit off while one city works on a Wonder can work wonders. At the same time, you can’t lean on them too heavily because enemy spies can knock out a governor for a few turns.
The Loyalty system, though, has proved to be a downer in my experience thus far, despite sounding great on paper. In a best-case scenario you can use it to take over a neighboring nation’s cities through cultural pressure, generated primarily by high-population cities, which finally allows the pacifist global domination through just being the coolest nation around. That’s something Civ players have dreamed of since the beginning. In reality, though, it’ll work against you harder than it works for you.
Loyalty can work against you more than it works for you.
In one of my early games I had my first colony turn against me within a few turns because it was too close to another civilization, which was apparently extremely enticing. This makes the early-game land grab much more conservative by necessity, since a mistake like that is effectively game-ending. It’s not all bad, since the dinky city the AI founds on that one hex of your continent that you didn’t control will probably become yours quickly, but it definitely cramped my style of sealing off encroaching rival settlements.
Loyalty also makes a Domination victory dramatically more difficult to manage. When my burgeoning Indian empire launched a war of aggression against its Aztec neighbors, my army’s momentum was stalled out when some of my newly captured territories quickly rebelled against my large occupying force, turning into an unaffiliated free city and spawning multiple relatively high-tech units. Granted, if the real world has taught us much of anything in the past 20 years it’s that holding onto occupied territory isn’t easy and insurgencies are no joke, so I can appreciate the authenticity. However, this wrinkle just led me to raze cities to the ground, eradicate their entire civilization, and then resettle the area rather than try to hold them (unless there are some good wonders). Alternatively, you can mitigate the problem by moving in Governors, quickly purchasing Loyalty-generating buildings, and equipping certain policy cards (or play as the Zulus, who can generate a lot of Loyalty with garrisoned units), but slowing down the already lengthy and costly task of sieging cities wasn’t my favorite thing about Rise and Fall.
Emergencies are another theoretically great idea: if one civilization starts getting too powerful, the rest will gang up on them to prevent them from running away with the game. When one of these pops up, you have to option to attempt to complete the AI-determined quest within the allotted time (in my games it was always capturing a certain enemy city in 30 turns) every member of the alliance will get a bonus. Fail, and the defending civilization will get a bonus. However, Emergencies have the same problem as any other alliance in a Civilization game: the AI can’t be trusted to pull its weight, and there’s no way to coordinate an attack with your allies. That means it’s basically up to you to move troops to the targeted city and save the day – which is fair enough, because otherwise you could sit back and hope the other members of the alliance would do your dirty work for you and just collect the reward. But it’s frustrating when everyone’s shouting, “Let’s get him! Charge!” And you do, only to look behind you and see you’re the only one running into battle. I found myself opting out of these Emergencies more often than not.
The last big change, outside of some always-welcome additional wonders, tile improvements, and UI improvements to the city name bar that gives you much more information without clicking in, are the specialized Alliances. When you sign up to get extra cozy with another nation you now pick a type, such as economic or scientific, in order to get extra benefits from trade routes with that partner’s cities, and those benefits increase over time. It’s useful, definitely, but it’s the kind of complex system that requires so much micromanagement to use that it’ll likely be a tool for high-level players looking to optimize their spreadsheets as much as possible, as opposed to something that’s actually fun to play with. In fairness, both Loyalty and Alliances may grow on me over time, but in my first few games (one completed on King with a culture victory as the Dutch) they’ve left some significant room to grow on.