Firaxis gave a first glimpse of the new expansion for Civilization VI, with some radical new mechanics and concepts as well as some looked-for changes to existing gameplay and a whole new era into which to take the leading strategy game.
Civilization VI: Gathering Storm is the second expansion for the latest version of the genre-defining game, and it's bringing some major changes to the title, all of which are interesting, and several of which that should clearly improve Civilization VI as it stands at the moment.
In the words of Lead Designer Ed Beach, who was on hand for the first presentation of Gathering Storm: "We had the idea that we wanted the world around you to become more of the game than it ever had before."
And on that count, his development team certainly look set to deliver. The most striking single change is the introduction of random natural events. Rivers can flood, volcanoes can erupt, there are four different types of storm that can strike, as well as droughts. All of these events can cause damage to city districts, improvements, and walls but can also damage military units and even kill civilians such as workers or religious units.
But as the Lord Ed Beach taketh away, he also giveth. The aftermath of these events - which are depicted in the same cinematic way as completed wonders and natural wonders - can also improve the yields of hexes, mimicking real-life upsides such as the fertility of volcanic ash or the agricultural benefits of flood lands.
The four different storm types, incidentally, come from different biome types on the map. And guess what? Russia is the only one that benefits from them directly - a blizzard storm type can damage invading enemy units, whilst Russian defenders take no damage. An attack by Frederick Barbarossa could get properly Barbarossa'd, so to speak. There are also dust storms, tornadoes and hurricanes.
Another word of environmental warning - those of us sneaky players who currently use the Magnus-as-governor trick of chopping down forests to gain production for important wonders could now face flooding due to deforestation. Curses.
The random events are not entirely random. The game keeps track of what has happened where and doesn't repeat them in the same area with too much regularity through "equalization" - and there are visual cues on the map which give some idea of the likelihood of such events in a given hex. In addition, a new option in the set-up menu gives five degrees of frequency for them.
The hazardous environment theme is in some ways similar to the global warming and pollution mechanics we've seen in previous Civilization titles - however, it's safe to say Gathering Storm takes this to another level of complexity.
For instance, flood barriers are in the later game, and a dam district is available too, useful for harvesting the raw power of these rivers that are still so favourable to settle along, even if a little more dangerous than before.
And also in the later game, as Beach put it: "Why have one form of renewable energy, when you can have five." We're certain one of these is wind power, one solar, and another is geothermal - which utilises a new terrain feature, the geothermal fissure.
Another major change comes in the area of Strategic Resources such as Iron or Coal. These are entirely revamped. All the units in Gathering Storm are built with exact amounts of strategic resources, accumulated over turns. You will also need the resources to maintain some of them. Your tanks will need oil to be fueled, for example. And cities will need resources for some types of power. The use of certain strategic resources does also lead to climate change as the game progress.
The single change in Gathering Storm that will find favour with most veteran players is the re-working of diplomacy, which brings back the much-loved diplomatic victory into Civilization as well as the World Congress.
The World Congress meets once every 30 turns, yet a Special Session is called in the event of an Emergency. Emergencies seemed a rather one-dimensional mechanic in the last expansion, Rise & Fall. You only got involved in them if it was easily favourable to your Civ, and you were only ever on the offending end of one if you were powerful enough to resist intervention.
Tying them in with the World Congress seems like a good idea. None of us have played the new mechanics, so we simply can't tell. However, we do know environmental emergencies have been added, which is an interesting twist on the idea - you can help with relief to an afflicted Civ.
A brand new currency system in the form of Diplomatic Favor has also been thrown into the mix. This is earned throughout the game by actions such as alliances, suzerain status over city states, keeping promises, successful involvement in emergencies and, in especially good news for the unscrupulous, it can be straight up traded with other Civs.
Build up enough Diplomatic Favor and you can outright block motions in the World Congress that are unfavourable to you, and you also can vote both for and against motions.
In other diplomatic developments, the World Fair is coming to Civilization VI, along with the World Games, and climate accords. A diplomatic victory will be through a voting system in the World Congress, a familiar concept to Civ veterans, except this time each round of voting gives you points towards a final victory.
Other points briefly mentioned in the announcement stream - but ones that could have a major effect on gameplay - were a reworking of governor bonus abilities, a replacement of the largely irrelevant Warmongering system with a new Grievances system which reflects both aggression and fair retaliation, and also changes to the leader Agenda system - a system which has always seemed terribly binary to most players.
We're also getting an entirely new future era after the modern one. This will take the game on to around 2050 and hopefully address some of the issues around pacing that keen players of Civ VI feel all too often. This era will feature "randomised future tech trees" where you don't know what you might get next after researching a specific tech. Most interesting of all, we've been promised a new tier of three future governments. What they might be is anyone's guess - we're thinking environment-centric, tech-centric and kill-everyone-centric. They will come with future civics too.
Another Civilization series favourite is back too - the build queue. Tied in with the district system and the reworked resource system, we are promised a master build queue for all your cities. Hopefully with the kind of city data too which is very useful in the later game. In addition, Gathering Storm will see a Climate button added to the top left control row of the screen, which provides data on, well, the current global climate.
A couple of interesting map changes are also being introduced. Continents - always pretty random so far in Civ VI - will be marked according to tectonic plate behaviour. Think mountain ranges and the like.
And there's names. Lots of them. We are all going to become trivia kings. Rivers will have names. Deserts, mountain ranges, National Parks, volcanoes - all can be named by the player from a real-world geographical database and then displayed on the map. Or they're named appropriately by the AI if they get to them first. Beach boasted of a database of "many hundreds" of names for each of the geographical features. This is a luxury feature, but one we like and that will add to immersion.
As for new Civs and leaders, the team weren't saying much. Fair enough, the launch is still some months off. We know England is getting a revamp, with a "Workshop of the World" ability. We also know China is getting some kind of coastal boost and we believe a rework for Indonesia too. But more than that they did not say. However, it's certain from the trailer a Maori-type civ is going to be introduced, though which specific cultural group we can't tell yet. All together, we're expecting nine new leaders from eight new civilizations.
Oh, and in a nod to Reddit's meme power - we're going to get a Canal District in Gathering Storm. Isthmus fans have triumphed and a city on a single tile with a body of water on each side will get a graphical depiction of a navigable channel running through it. We're also getting mountain tunnels and ... railroads. We're not sure how railroads will work yet.
Overall, it does feel like the kind of direction we'd like Civilization VI to head in. Adding some major new mechanics while addressing some of our own major irritants such as pacing, the warmonger mechanic and leader agendas does sound good. And by tradition, Civ games only get a couple of major expansions. Here's hoping this one makes Civ VI all the game it could be.