A strong expansion that turns disaster into opportunity.

Gathering Storm is Civilization VI’s second – and probably final – expansion, and it cements this iteration’s place in history with a new round of interesting systems that we’ve never seen before in a Civ game. Things like natural disasters and diplomatic Grievances give us plenty to consider during all eras, and Firaxis backs up a dump truck’s worth of leaders and other content atop this already fully-loaded 4X strategy game.

Between Gathering Storm and the previous expansion, Rise and Fall, the list of available leaders has grown to a gigantic cast of 45 – or 46, if you count Eleanor of Aquitaine’s ability to lead either the English or the French and grant them her loyalty-sapping ability as two. (That edges out Civ V’s final count of 43, if you’re keeping track.) All that narration must’ve taken Sean Bean ages, and playing a full campaign as each of them would be an epic undertaking.

Most of the new civs and leaders are more than versatile and appealing: Suleiman of the Ottomans gets a unique governor, Matthias Corvinus of Hungary can turn city-states’ armies into powerful weapons, Dido of the Phoenicians can move her capital city almost at will, and Kristina of the Swedes automatically themes her Great Works. A couple are probably a little too specialized to be practical unless you’re playing a very specific scenario: Canada’s Wilfrid Laurier, for instance, is great if you happen to start at the north or south of the map, but his ability to build farms on tundra means he’s out of his element in the tropics. Mansa Musa of Mali is up a similar creek if he has no desert tiles in cities from which to send his traders for extra gold, and Pachacuti of the Inca without mountain tiles to mine for production is like a fish out of water.

For my first full game, I played (on King difficulty) as Kupe of the Maori, who starts on the ocean with sailing technology unlocked – which is great except that you have to spend a few turns looking for dry land, which can set you behind the pack. The Maori are also incapable of permanently harvesting resources and can’t recruit great writers, which are significant limitations. However, they get major production bonuses to unimproved forests and rainforests, and to fishing boats, which can make their developed territory look very different from any other civilization’s. It was a refreshingly distinctive set of priorities.

Disasters bring an important element of the real world to Civ VI.

Gathering Storm’s titular feature, though, is its natural disasters. These are a great, never-before-seen (unless you count Civ IV’s random events) addition that, with the exception of generally less-destructive storms and droughts, are telegraphed clearly enough that they rarely feel like they’re coming out of left field to go full Pompeii on you. At the same time, they’re significant enough events that areas of the map that would’ve been previously effectively locked down and on autopilot can now spontaneously become problems that require thinking about solutions for again. Floods and volcanic eruptions only take place on riverbanks and next to giant volcanos, obviously, so you know what you’re getting into when you build a city there. And even when disasters do strike and leave a swath of your land’s improvements in ruins, the residual effect is increased fertility, which can help you recover quickly even if some of your population is wiped out. On top of that, mid-game technologies allow you to mitigate floods with dams, giving you fertility benefits with none of the damaging drawbacks.

I love having disasters in play, because not only do they add to gameplay variety but they bring an important element of the real world to Civ VI that’s been conspicuously missing all this time. But if you don’t care for that element of randomness in your 4X strategy, disasters can be turned off (or cranked up) using a slider on the game configuration screen.

The new Climate Change system is related to disasters in that it uses an increase in storms and floods as part of its major consequences for burning too much coal and oil to power your cities’ factories, forcing you to weigh the short-term benefit of maximizing productivity against the long-term cost. But the real game-changing element – and something entirely new to Civilization as a series – is that as temperatures rise, your world’s ice caps start melting and sea levels rise, causing entire coastal tiles to go the way of Atlantis. Again, this isn’t something that will happen suddenly and take you off guard in an unfair way, because at the very start of a game you can see the which tiles will flood in which order and there’s a new climate info screen that clearly breaks down exactly what’s happening. Of course, like a lot of things in Civilization, it’s a little odd and anachronistic to be playing as a tribal nation with club-wielding warriors and yet have precise awareness of which tiles will almost inevitably flood a few thousand years later. (It’s also a little weird that flooded tiles appear as pillaged and in flames until they become completely submerged, which doesn’t quite match up with what’s happening.)

Losing at least some tiles to rising sea levels will be all but unavoidable.

High-level players may figure out a way to win without bearing the brunt of Climate Change, but for most, I expect losing at least some tiles will be all but unavoidable. The only real defense against it is to tech up quickly enough to unlock sea wall city improvements that protect floodable land before it’s gone, and be able to repeatedly build the carbon recapture project to reduce your emissions until you can switch to solar and wind upgrades. So it’s fortunate that losing a few tiles from your coastal cities is not as catastrophic as I’d expected – again, you know which tiles are going to flood at each of the three stages of sea level rise, so you’re probably not going to build districts or wonders on them unless you have pollution well in hand. All in all, this new system definitely gives you more tricky problems to think about and solve during the Industrial, Modern, and Atomic eras.

Climate Change is driven mostly by the burning of fossil fuels coal and oil for power, and in Gathering Storm those resources – along with horses, iron, niter, aluminum, and uranium – are now consumable resources that are harvested on a per-turn basis and can be stockpiled and traded just like cash. It’s a far more intuitive and slightly more realistic system than what we had before, and it means that even if you suddenly lose access to your only source of niter in a surprise attack (assuming you had a reserve built up) you can still produce some musket men to counter-attack before you completely run out.

Diplomacy is the other major system that’s been meaningfully improved, and while it’s not a total ground-up rebuild some might hope for (just wait for Civ VII) it adds some satisfying mechanics with a couple of new abstract currencies. The main example is the Grievances system, which replaces warmongering and finally puts a number on just how angry someone is over transgressions like breaking promises to not spy or found cities too near their territory. The fact that you can rack up a list of Grievances against your rivals and then cash those in to declare a justified war with lessened diplomatic penalties finally makes it feel like the rest of the world is holding that jerk Gandhi responsible for his shenanigans. The AI may still be as prone to erratic behavior as ever, but at least now there’s a sense of accountability for it.

Then there’s the newly redesigned Diplomatic Victory, which starts out extremely promising: there’s now a currency – Diplomatic Favor – that represents the goodwill earned by simply doing another civilization a solid and can be traded in place of goods or cash. It’s generated largely by maintaining control of city-states, which makes maintaining Suzerain status and completing their quest objectives even more desirable, or by keeping promises to your neighbors.

After the start of the Medieval Era, Diplomatic Favor can be spent to influence major events at meetings of the new World Congress, where it can be used to effectively purchase the outcome of a vote in an auction. If, say, you wanted to discourage the burning of oil (one of a very few means you have to prevent other civs from polluting) you could dump points into a resolution to make building oil power plants prohibitively expensive. Or, at an emergency session, you could vote to organize the entire world to declare war against a civilization who conquered one of your pet city-states and then compete to be the one to liberate it for a reward. (The AI still isn’t excellent at prioritizing these missions, but I’ve seen it make at least a half-hearted effort.)

The Diplomatic Victory condition will probably take longer than any other means of winning.

The problem is that as useful as Diplomatic Favor is, the opportunities to spend it on the actual win condition are rare. Unless you win every single opportunity to gain Diplomatic Points, the Diplomatic Victory condition will probably take longer than any other means of winning.

You need 10 points to win, and those points can be earned almost exclusively through the World Congress, which convenes only once every 30 turns after the Medieval Age begins. You can only earn two at a time, outside of rare occasions where you can earn an extra point by completing other objectives, but this occurred only once during my entire playthrough. That means you’re committed to 120 turns after the first meeting – again, assuming you win every vote. I missed out on the first two points, which meant my game went on 30 peaceful, lethargic late-game turns longer than it should’ve – which is a slog of a way to end any round of Civilization. During this time I was sitting on a pile of Diplomatic Favor roughly four times as large as the combined total of all the other civilizations, but I couldn’t trade it with them because that would just give them the means to potentially outbid me for the next points.

I very nearly lost to a rival’s Science Victory while I waited, but at least I used the time to try out the return of the Giant Death Robot, which is now an amazingly powerful and scary mech at the top of the tech tree that is balanced only by its insatiable hunger for uranium.

And of course, there are tons of new features and improvements that range from being able to build new improvements like canals (including the Panama Canal wonder) that let ships pass over land and tunnels that let units pass through mountains, ski resorts and water parks (effectively entertainment districts built on water tiles), a new set of futuristic governments with extra policy slots, plenty of new units, new wonders and natural wonders, and so many new interfface odds and ends that I’ll have to leave it to the wikis to list them all.

Outside of the typical randomly generated map are a pair of new scenarios based around WWI and The Black Death. And, on the multiplayer front, an exciting new asynchronous Play By Cloud option where Steam will pop and let you know when a turn is ready for you after your opponents cycle through and play on their own time. (I still think a Civ VI saved game takes too long to load up, even on an SSD, to play a single turn and then quit a few hundred times, but I appreciate the option.)

The Verdict

Civilization VI: Gathering Storm is a bursting-at-the-seams expansion that leaves few systems without substantial improvement and new content. Its new civs and leaders are distinctive and its natural disasters are meaningful without feeling as cruel and unfair as their real-life counterparts, though they are sometimes a tad too predictable. A new emphasis on tradable resources, both tangible goods and abstract favors, is a welcome change that brings a sense of accountability to the notoriously erratic AI rivals. This is likely where Civ VI’s expansions end, which is logical because it’s hard to imagine how Firaxis could cram much more into its frame.

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