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A Diatribe about VCs - And Why Religious Victory Shows us the Light


Jul 14, 2021
BEFORE STARTING: Sorry for the novel. You should know up-front this is about a 5 1/2 page Word document. If you want to read it, put away some time, or do it in chunks.


The 5 VCs of Civilization VI make for an extremely flawed setup. While every VC is perfectly viable in a single-player context, they, like the game elements you exploit to achieve them, don’t interact much in a meaningful way. This is a problem, as if player’s goals do not interact and conflict, players will not be compelled to do so either, even if the AI was made capable. That said, I think I get what Firaxis was going for, and prior to the game’s release would even have encouraged it. Ultimately I still think there’s some validity in the multiple victory setup of Civilization VI, and to realize those positives I would point to one victory type as the standout example: Religious Victory. I know, I know, RV is monotonous, cheesy, and many have argued that it should straight up not exist. I’m not going to argue against these things here, but I will point out how it should serve as a model for Victory Conditions Firaxis designs in the future, regardless of its own flaws. First though, I’m gonna lay some groundwork: What do I think this potential is? How did we get the state of VCs we have? Only then will I discuss what I think the path forward is.

Why have (Multiple) VCs?

Beyond providing an endpoint to the game, what should a VC hope to accomplish? I would assert that they should promote and direct interaction with the game mechanics, interaction between players, add tension to the end of the game, and reward players who’ve performed well to that point by being a race in which they have a notable lead. These broad goals are much easier to achieve through a single, broad victory condition, so why have more than one? Divergent VCs, to my understanding, have been designed to create multiple distinct, and mostly mutually exclusive, metrics of "success" for Civilization, both to add game-to-game variety (meaning: pursuing the different conditions should feel like a different experience), but also to increase the number of players who are "succeeding" in any given game. As we all know, 4x games are very snowbally; not only is a player that is winning simply closer to victory, but they also have more resources to leverage in bringing them to victory faster. This creates three problems that having multiple VCs can theoretically solve:

1.Falling behind in a 4x game feel very bad, as if you are informally out of the game. Sure you could enlist the help of other players to gang up on a runaway, but have you ever gotten the AI to do that with you? And that usually just opens things up for #2 and 3 anyway. Having multiple metrics for success means that even if you are behind by one metric, you may be ahead in another, giving you some feeling of momentum or potential. Not only is this situation possible, but it's likely, as having multiple VCs encourages you to focus on one to the neglect of others, which are therefore left for others to succeed in. In a game like EU4, an example of a "win by score" game, it's easy to track who is winning, and by extension who's not, at any time, creating a very simple hierarchy.

2. In a game with only one wincon, all strategies must, by necessity, be judged by their efficiency at achieving it. Consequently alternative "strats" feel like a simply suboptimal version of the optimal strategy, this drives people towards similar strategies, but thus....

3. Empires are built in a very similar way, with some simply being "better" than others. This diminishes the emotional connection you should feel with YOUR empire, as in all likelihood it is simply a worse version of another empire on the map.

Not only can the multi-victory setup help engage players throughout the game, but it also could (in theory) make the endgame more dynamic, trying to compare exactly when a science vs. religion, vs. culture victory will proc is much more complicated than predicting who's going to build the ship the fastest. Furthermore, civs having their strengths in different areas lends itself to a wider variety of ways that civs can interact in the late game, so a player can be made to pay attention to more than, "can I be invaded/nuked rn?" It can also lend more nuance to Civ design, as more objectives worth pursing means a wider range of bonuses that are worth assigning. With all these positives, what could go wrong?

Civ V: Things went Wrong

So, this is supposed to be about Civ VI, but I feel like we have to cover V briefly to understand what problems VI was trying to solve. Civ V also had a multiple victory setup....but only in theory. While the mechanics all existed for cultural and diplomatic victories that were distinct from science victories, in practice science was so powerful in Civ V that in most cases Culture was Science Victory Hard Mode, and Diplo was Science Victory for the Lazy. Alternate strategies could be used to achieve these wincons (Futurism cheese, SS cheese, Small Piety, Single-player Venice, Swedish Great People Farms, ect), but they were far less reliable than science strats, most promoted quite narrow gameplay in their own right, and it still rarely felt like the intent of these VCs was realized. You'll note however I left out one wincon:

The Nation of Domination

Domination constituted the other common strategy that could be pursued in CiV, being perhaps a little harder on Deity but actually more consistent because the AI could not disrupt you. Like science you can use the better yields and resources you've gained via this effective strategy to pursue a Diplo or Culture win if you want. It was also very easy to transition from either Science to Dom or Dom to Science if you'd pursued either successfully by late game, so in a sense these could be viewed not as parallel finishing lines in a race, but simply distinct paths to power.

Paths to Power

The strongest part of Civ V's VC design, despite its inherent imbalance, was how the pursuit of any win condition led to tangible positives for your civilization. Science and domination were the most obvious examples of this, and the most powerful; simply by doing what you need to do to win you collected more resources and more powerful options to exert your will on the game. However, culture's capacity to ideology flip people should not be underestimated. While it was virtually unusable against Deity AI (they got too much free happiness), it could slow a player down immensely, and made cultural defense genuinely important. Ideological Pressure's ties to the core mechanics of CiV (happiness, growth, military) made Tourism and Culture relevant beyond closing the game, so it wasn't just wasted yields for people who didn't want to play that way. The fact that you got a positive Tourism bonus for shared ideology, helped propel the Tourism player along as they slowed others down. Culture's weakness was that its practicable bonuses came so late, and it required so much investment, that it was wasn't worthwhile on a practical level.

DiploV was much better in this regard however, because controlling World Congress and later the UN was huge for getting important Culture bonuses, extra Great People Generation, not letting a tourism leader propose World Ideology, and stopping the AI from killing your luxes. You could get positives for engaging in it, and negatives for ignoring it, and it gave players specializing in that area of the game practicable power as a reward for pursuing their wincon effectively. The worst part of WC was how imbalanced the proposals were, but as a VC the weakest thing about Diplo was the UN founding was based on tech pace. You needed to focus science to quickly win diplo anyway, and then you had to wait for the vote....at which point how different are you playing from a science game? Furthermore in singleplayer controlling the WC often required so little investment that most players got 3/4s of the way to a DV in their SVs anyway.

However, both of these VCs failed to provide distinct gameplay experiences because their benefits could not outweigh the power of traditional science and domination strategies, , while it was harder to achieve them if not excelling in the areas that Science and Domination were best at advancing you in.

Having two viable wincons might sound better than one, but it doesn't substantially address any of the three problems I talked about earlier. To yield the benefits outlined above, it is required that a wider variety of playstyles matter. Furthermore, this dual-win situation presented a pretty glaring imbalance. Science was an isolationist wincon, and dom was interventionist, so only one could substantially slow down the other. The only way that Science could stop a Dom player was by using advanced units to resist them militarily, this would not only slow down their own win substantially, but given the power a Dom player needs to accumulate to become a genuine threat, often demand a significant tech advantage. Perhaps the more effective tools that Science players had were culture and diplomacy, which could really cripple a dom economy. Not only did this further the two-victory situation, but it also made the two "playstyles" even more similar, as the dom player could just as easily pursue high tourism and WC control on the side. A fair conclusion to draw from all this might be that CiV's mechanics were too centralized and interconnected to benefit from having multiple VCs as outlined here.

While I suspect that this is the basis from which Firaxis worked when developing Civ VI based on the state of the game, I think this conclusion is incorrect. Civilization V’s VCs were imbalanced not because its mechanics were particularly interconnected (they weren’t massively so), but rather because every resource and method of acquiring resources in the game was locked behind your Science output. Science scaled with population, and therefore the greatest way to maximize any resource was to maximize pops, either by growing them or taking them. Simply by decoupling the output of Science buildings from Population, and adding the culture tree, I would argue that Firaxis had already went most of the way in solving this particular imbalance from Civilization V.

Victories in Civ VI

Nevertheless Firaxis tackled over centralization further by disconnecting the different VCs from each other as much as possible, so that they are as qualitatively distinct and difficult to compare as possible. Therefore they have as few obvious advantages over each other as possible. Furthermore, it seems Firaxis tried their best to minimize the practicable advantages one might gather throughout the game for pursuing your victory condition, so that no VC would be advantaged over the others in this way. Building advanced stuff is limited by massively scaling production costs, wars favor defenders far more heavily than in CiV, and the other two CiV VCs offer basically nothing to help you throughout the game. Domination still snowballs, and tech still gets access to strong military units early, but even these advantages have been dampened, and Culture and (eye twitches in barely contained rage)….Diplo get basically nothing for all their efforts until the win screen. While they have some level of interaction with other players (Culture wants to lower culture of other Culture leader, Diplo wants to buy up Favor) it is pretty shallow and honestly feels less like a unique playstyle, so much as playing a separate game altogether. Culture’s a pretty fun game, but it could be much more so if wasn’t so sectioned off, and Diplo…… I have to resist going into a massive rant about every time it comes up.

Give Praise to RV!

So, what is that I think Religious Victory gets so right? Well for starters, it is what I would call a “natural victory condition.” This means that the game provides you with victory for excelling at a task that is already desirable within the game’s mechanics. You’re not trying to make a yield that does nothing and is loosely connected to another yield, which creates a third yield that must accumulate higher than another yield which is tangentially derived from another player's second yield. You’re not collecting an abstraction to collect another abstraction that's apparently not an abstraction because you vote on it (seriously, how did Diplomatic Victory seem like an acceptable idea to anyone). No, you’re spreading a religion, something which the game already encourages you to do through scaling beliefs, and modifiers to opinion and tourism. If you’re playing a religion game, you win by making your religion dominant. You can not like that, but it makes mechanical sense. Science and Domination both basically have this quality as well, each with their own slightly more specific portion tacked on at the end than “do this well.” A VC being “natural” is important beyond game feel or simple player comprehension, it also creates game balance and diversity. The fact that a RV player can get some science, or culture, or military strength from playing their game well, means they can better defend against somebody else winning the game. This might just be the most important takeaway for Firaxis going forward, as if VCs aren’t natural, then you’re fundamentally not playing against other players or AI, just alongside them in an asymmetrical race. It’s worse still when some VCs are natural and some are not, as that makes some VCs strictly better than others, as they are more flexible and able to impact the game state. Of course, this will always be somewhat the case, but it should be minimized, which means not designing VCs that do nothing but win without any security.

Another key quality of Religion Victory, and something it only shares with Dom and Culture, is that it is "mutually exclusive." What do I mean, "only one player can win any game of civ?" (Actually, not sure if this is a case, has anybody ever tried tying a Score or Diplo Victory?) Well, what I mean is that somebody else pursuing the same Victory well is bad for your game. If you’re in a Science race, you might feel the need to change paths if you’re losing or feel the other player prepping for war, but fundamentally their research doesn't hurt your research. If you’re playing Diplo, somebody having slightly more Diplo points than you can actually be a good thing, as you can rely on the AI voting them to lose VPs instead of you. But if you’re playing Culture and somebody else is too, your threshold is higher. If two players are doing Dom, both will have massive military obstacles to trudge through. If two players are doing Religion, then there are two forces on the map with high faith income dedicating it to conversion. In these mutually exclusive Victory types, the goal is not to hit an arbitrary end-point before anyone else, but to dominate everyone on the board in one particular way, and so if somebody has specialized in the same area as you, you have to find a solution. This forces interaction with the map, creates situations where improvisation is desirable, and complicates diplomacy in the mid and later stages of the game. More than just mutually exclusive with other players of the same Victory Condition, Religion and Dom are unique in that they are mutually exclusive with players not pursuing your Victory Condition. With Dom this is obvious, and far more impactful: a Dom player wants to take your cities, you want to keep your cities. However, it’s present with Religion as well, because Religion is not a mechanic that players pursue simply for the VC, they may have set up their Empire to take big advantage of those beliefs you just wiped. Even if a player didn’t Found, they might still materially prefer their current Religion to yours, especially if yours just generates more Faith. By winning the game, you are disadvantaging other players, and this drives natural conflict. Much of what I’ve said to this point is theoretical in Single Player, it demands opposition that remotely knows what it’s doing, but this last point actually applies to the game as it stands. Even if I doubt the AI does any cost-benefit regarding their Religion vs. your Religion, the AI doesn’t like you converting them if they’ve founded, and it can make them hate you. Compared to many other things in the game the grievances are actually quite intensive, as they proc per spread regardless of if you promise or not, so you can rack up a negative reputation very quickly. Granted, if you get late enough most AI still can’t muster up an intimidating army, but that’s a separate problem, the point is that RV is a “peaceful” VC that actually drives conflict. It even does so in a way that that you can diegetically justify, it’s great, and not something any other VC can boast.

You might be wondering at this point why the much more balanced Domination Victory shouldn’t be the model going forward. Well, the first is that Dom’s easy to balance this way, conquering in the context of a 4X means taking board material, which is always going to be good. My next point however, is that RV is just the opposite. Part of the reason that RV is so cheesy, is that it involves creating an extremely one-dimensional empire and basically playing a mini-game. This is the opposite of “natural” you might say, but it’s also critically important within a Single-Player context. Since it requires such massive investment in one yield, a player pursuing RV is constantly vulnerable. They are relentlessly annoying many civs, and likely behind on most metrics. If the AI were competent….well you’d never win this way because of Condemn Heretic, but pretending that bizarre mechanic doesn’t exist (seriously, why create a whole second combat layer and then give players a veto for it?), a RV player would be under constant threat, and have to balance leveraging their most abundant resource (faith) to either win the game or simply stay in it. This is ideally how all peaceful victory conditions should work, using their advantage in particular resources, to get enough of the other resources they need to stay in the game, while still putting themselves in a position to win.

Finally however, there is one last major positive to Religious Victory in Civilization VI, one that is basically irrelevant Civilization VI, but could be profoundly important for the series going forward: Its pace. Religious Victory is designed to be fast. Granted, Civ VI at a high level is simply played really fast, but RV is the only case in which it feels intentional. The way that pressure works relative to population size, and the dramatic falloff in new faith sources after Temples and the Religious Buildings, all point to RV being supposed to be done quickly: The player’s task gets harder over time, but their tools do not grow proportionally. This might seem bad relative to the beginning of my post, as a RV player might be “informally out of the game” before the game is over, even if they lead their own condition. However, if opposition were competent, this would be a secondary check on speedrunning a win-con, and if sufficiently successful during their window, the early-victory player might still be able to sneak a win when stopping other condition becomes high priority. As it stands in Civ (and really 4X games in general), military is the primary check on narrow, insular strategies, however Religion’s capacity to proc so early into the game provides a look into another, softer sort of check. After all, Religion does not cost you your cities, nor does it snowball into a player who is otherwise dominant, it's something that could be let go for a while. It could end the game, but it’s not an immediate existential threat, so whether or not to stop it is an interesting decision for a while. Furthermore, it’s a problem to which the only solution is not war. A victory designed to proc early like Religious Victory could provide more complex tension and diplomacy in the future of this series, and it’s something I’d like to see Firaxis try their hand at.

Of course, realizing any of this in a single-player context is dependent on the AI not being completely passive, so maybe the buck stops there. Maybe Firaxis has become disenfranchised with the whole VCs concept and goes in a different direction. Maybe we even get a series VCs and mechanics which are more isolated from each other and they really lean completely into asymmetrical gameplay. But I think the multi-VC setup of these games still has potential we haven’t seen yet, and its glimmer can barely be seen in almost the least likely place. (The least likely is Diplo because MAN that is terrible).

EDIT: Grammar
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What a pleasant surprise to see a defense of the religion mechanics! I will start with Religious Victory as you put forth many great points to illustrate its success. You demonstrate a coherence to RV in the pursuit of a concrete yield incentivized by other mechanics with a distinct experience associated with its victory path. For example, a player can choose to leverage beliefs into other yields and stay competitive across the board or simply halt progress after Reformed Church or even Theology and fully commit to faith with corresponding vulnerability. The mutually exclusive or potentially zero-sum nature of RV also generates conflict in two ways as you point out: first, by limiting victory to a single player, and second by displacing otherwise beneficial player beliefs. This second case is especially notable under fast strategies where the winning beliefs land you with mosques and Reliquaries rather than Choral Music/Work Ethic. Furthermore, you note that stacking grievances quickly render fast RV-seekers international pariahs. These points link well with further up in your post in showing how a victory condition can/should interact with game mechanics and drive natural tension/conflict.

You also make a good point about the early window favoring RV. This further emphasizes the grievance issue when one spreads religion earlier than diplomatic favor can reliably accrue, depriving other civilizations of the ability to demand assurances. As I have yet to see a vanilla game where passive spread makes a substantive contribution to RV, the limited scaling of faith over time pressures the player to optimize faith as early as feasible (as you discuss) pushing them into conflict with others, even if it is unclear how early religious spread will impact the end-game. Having played later RVs as well, I can say mid-game AI present a real grind in terms of population and faith output, pushing the sweet spot of RV to some earlier point. Whether multiplayer (where RVs presumably should not be possible) or single-player, no one likes to have their own beliefs displaced or to worry about another player spamming waves of missionaries and apostles.

While RV carries some hard micro no matter how early it is pursued, it demonstrates coherence, friction, and immediacy that I would definitely like to see more generally among VCs. One idea I had a while back would be VCs and civilization/leader abilities tied to eras. As such, power spikes would allow a specific leader/civilization to conquer the world in the Ancient while RV would peak in the Medieval before declining in feasibility. This could be tied to victory points, but that would bring us back to a single condition... Something else that has occurred to be is that VCs provide a type of context to closing out the game. Especially with the chaotic and directionless end-game in Civ VI, VCs suggest a kind of narrative conclusion and even purpose in recasting the whole game under whichever VC brings it to an end. If one conquers the world early on, this can make a lot of sense, but often a late VC can feel somewhat arbitrary or unsatisfactory. Anyhow, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts!
Really like your analysis Sir Novelty! Its a tricky one with the VCs. The more there are (and as a fanbase we ofter request more) the greater the risk of unpleasantly asymmetrical play.

i’m in favor of 3 VCs that bring together elements of what has come before and introduce new ones. For immersion, it would make sense if the game was won:

1. peacefully (diplo, culture, eco conscious, spiritual enlightenment)
2. Aggressively (Dom and conquer, elements of diplo, religious conversion)
3. At the moment of a sinificant achievement for mankind ( a la scientific or monopolies overkill).

that way, elements of religious play for instance could feature in more than 1 VC
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