Millennia: Age of Verbosity [long-form review]


Mohawk Games Designer
Mar 22, 2002

This writeup has been a couple of weeks in the making. I bought Millennia on release date, despite having an overall negative impression of the demo. Why buy the game then? Well, I’m a very experienced 4X player, and it’s hard to pass up a Civ-like game, as we only rarely see them. I also have a lot of respect for the dev team. I remember Ian Fischer being awesome since the days of Heavengames, and his games at Ensemble Studios rank among my favorites, while Xemu’s credited games have an alarmingly high overlap with my list of favorites. So there was really no way I was going to pass up Millennia.

To get the obvious out of the way, everything here is my personal opinion and I will avoid comparisons with games I’m working on.

My review, so far, is based on a few intentional “fail fast” games where I played 60-100 turns focusing on different areas to get a feel for the game before abandoning, one complete game all the way to late-game victory, another game played to the late stages, a near-complete conquest game, and some looking through the game’s code and data files.

Diving in… but I’ve played this before

Despite Millennia being a new IP, the first feeling in the game is that of strong familiarity, and that’s how the demo started for me as well. This is, in many cases, a regrettable feeling I’ve had with the game - it has a blank slate to reinvent 4X mechanics and doesn’t have to copy Civ mechanics, but all too often it seems familiar. And from my experience so far, the feeling of familiarity isn’t a misleading one.

I start with a city and a couple units. My city has workers that I can reassign to different tiles, my units head out to soon encounter hostile barbarians, I pick a tech to research and start accumulating culture points. None of this is bad. But it’s a disappointing experience in what should be a completely new game. Maybe it was a conscious decision to make the game immediately familiar to Civ players, but that still disappoints me if so.

Well, no, that’s not quite the first impression. The first impression is the menus and setup options. What game setup options do we have in Millennia? Just the map script and size, with only four map scripts available. This isn’t good. The early Civ games and SMAC gave us more options to customize the map generation. Civ4 shipped with about ten map scripts if I recall and options for most of them, but Millennia’s offer is most similar to Civ3 options, just a bit simpler.

Non-map options then? Nothing. Not Barbarian level, not the density of minor nations, no rules variations, nothing. Civ4 was again a major step up in how many options it offered, but Civ2 featured options like accelerated starts and a flat world, SMAC allowed you to customize some rules that could dramatically change the game, Millennia has nothing. Game-breaking? Not at all, but strange when a game lacks features every major 4X has had for 20 years, and contributes to the feeling that one is playing a game about halfway through production, not the completed product of a four-year dev cycle.

I have no complaints about the lack of nation customization or diversity, beyond optionally picking one bonus, because that turns out to be one of the parts of Millennia that work best. Still, a selection of eighteen nations is nothing to brag about given that nations come with no difference whatsoever. Again, it’s hard not to think of Civ2 - 21 civilization where almost all had two leaders with unique images, and wonder why Millennia features fewer given its lack of leader art or any leaders at all (though the files show each nation was at least going to set a different player name like Montezuma for Aztecs at some point).

Resources exist to be consumed, and consumed they will be

Possibly the first significant difference one notices between Millennia and Civ is the improvement and economy system. This is also where I’m happy with what the game does. It uses a system very much like Public Works from Call to Power to construct improvements, and adds some production chains on top of it. This may not be really innovative (Improvement Points are pretty much exactly Public Works, and Colonization is the most Civ-like game that had chains such as Ore - Tools - Muskets) but I’m glad to see these concepts are once again fun, and mostly done well in Millennia.

I’ve always liked the Public Works system, and just like in CtP, once you start placing improvements with Improvement Points, it’s quick and painless. And then it gets interesting as you start making various chains. Start getting some logs, put a lumber-specialized town in the middle, then eventually choose whether you need more raw production or Books with a printing press, that is fun and was often what kept me playing. Though I don’t like how, in the second half of the game, my main economic problem was not having enough tiles to build on, rather than any actual resource problem.

Even this strong aspect of the game comes with some weaknesses that are due to the game’s overall undercooked nature, or due to it repeating Civ’s design. As an example of the former, a city’s current resources are only available in the city screen, while you build improvements from the main map. By the second half of the game, as import/export slots were operational and raw goods had several chains available, it was quite annoying looking at the screen, having to memorize the situation, then going back to build, rechecking, etc. As an example of inherited Civ problems, there’s the worker/tile micromanagement. You can optimize your yields by shifting workers between the different tiles constantly, and arguably Millennia encourages you to so that you e.g. don’t waste food production above 200% needs or so that you time culture powers better. Is that a terrible flaw? No, not by any means, but Millennia at times surprises with how many small flaws it inherits from Civ.

On the whole improvements/goods front, I have to say I don’t particularly like the vassal system. This is not necessarily a criticism of the game, I tend to dislike similar systems in most games that have them, but it’s perhaps more pronounced in Millennia because there’s not much to do with vassal regions. They may at first appear useless but that’s misleading, they provide good outputs if you invest into their prosperity, but vassals take away what is the most fun part of the game for me, the economic system. They develop automatically, so you don’t get the fun of managing their improvements and setting up production. Instead, you watch questionable AI choices in improvement selection and have to contend with oddities like vassals not repairing damaged improvements, which is especially punishing after conquest.

[Tech note: looking through the internals, I think vassals are technically allowed to repair improvements, but APlayer.AutoPlaceRegionImprovements() counts damaged improvements as existing, and GetBestImprovement() subsequently weighs against that if I’m reading correctly, leading the game to prefer other choices]

Explore, Expand… Slump

As is common with 4X games, Millennia’s early game has a pleasant feedback loop as you explore the surroundings and settle. Good stuff, all of that. You get to experience culture powers to build towns, and Government XP to build settlers, which is also a great first introduction to those mechanics. The towns themselves are nothing amazing but it’s a simple adjacency puzzle and a contributor to the overall region, so fine, that’s competent.

Culture powers, after some consideration, are one of the best design choices in Millennia. You fill up the culture meter, with having a variety of sources of culture, so you get to use them more often if you invest into culture, and the various culture powers are important yet very different, creating interesting tradeoffs. A government change, creation of a new town, a science boost, a short-term economy boost, all of these are under culture. This works very well.

The early game phase does reveal a couple aspects that are either puzzling in the “why did they do this?” sense, or create the feeling of “oh this is going to be cool… oh no, it’s not”. This Millennia Tease in particular has been a recurring experience for me, the game often introduces something that seems like it will be really good, but turns out not to be.

The high level of Barbarian aggression and numbers, especially once age 2 hits, is one such puzzling thing. This is likely intended to get players to build more military and put them more under pressure, which is fine. I like having some pressure. I enjoy Civ6 but one of my complaints is how few units you need. The problem in Millennia though is that there’s no other source of pressure, so the Barbarians seem to take on too many roles. They’re the only thing slowing you down. Worse, the Barbarians are overtuned to the point where the AI gets hurt too badly by them - on the default Adept difficulty, it doesn’t receive enough of a bonus against Barbarian units, so until you step up to Master, you’ll routinely see age 2 Barbarian bands kill AI units (and the whole pattern of how we expect 4X AIs to rely on such bonuses is a bit sad anyway). [Tech note: that’s my reading of TECHAGE1-DIFFICULTY_VALUES and the corresponding #AI_DIFFICULTY_BUFF_VS_NEUTRAL modifiers]

That is most probably just a balance issue and easily addressed. The real pang of disappointment in early expansion is when encountering Minor Nations. They’re not like the nameless Barbarian camps, they have a small border, they have a name (picked among city names of inactive nations, in a rather counter-immersive move), so surely there’s going to be some interaction? The Millennia Tease! Let me see what I can do with the minor nation! Oh… nothing. It exists to be absorbed. It doesn’t trade. It doesn’t demand things, or attack me, or offer gifts. I can conquer them to add the site as a new vassal region to my nation. Well, I can later also use Diplo XP to spawn an envoy and absorb them peacefully, which leads to the same outcome except why would I spend finite resources for this option when I can just conquer them, which costs me nothing and improves some of my units by giving them extra combat XP?

This gets us to the turn 100 slump in Millennia. It arrives earlier but does settle in quite a bit by around turn 100. I’ve conquered enough Barbarian camps to make them mostly disappear, I’ve settled the interesting available spots or conquered minor nations, I’ve explored with the weird defensively-useless but teleport-capable scout units, I’ve perhaps grabbed a region from a neighboring AI that picked a fight with me… and there’s a slump in the game as there’s no outside pressure and not that much to look forward to. I think at this point it’s the age mechanics that are supposed to keep things fun, and it’s likely the AI is intended to provide pressure, but they don’t and it doesn’t.

One Nation, Through the Ages

So far I’ve barely mentioned Ages, the headline feature of Millennia. This is because the feature, a centerpiece of the game’s advertising and its main claimed innovation, appears to me to be mostly inconsequential, with a bunch of hard to resolve implementation issues to boot.

The idea is an interesting one. You either advance to a standard age corresponding to some historical period much as in Civ, or you advance to a problematic Crisis age that poses some significant challenges, or to a Variant age that’s like a historical what-if scenario. This could lead to some great experiences in a game that offered solid design of the individual ages, together with stylistic and narrative framing for them. Unfortunately, I found that Millennia offers neither. (Disclaimer: I have not played through every age the game has though I’ve at least looked at the ones I haven’t played)

A key design decision for the Ages system is that the first nation to advance determines the Age for everyone. The decision has caused opinions to differ and I am still undecided on the merits of the design choice, but I do think the implementation does not work in any case. Design wise, a global age is interesting in itself, and also provides pressure to be the one to decide the next age. Those are advantages, on the other hand, letting the AI pick ages if ahead takes away player agency, which is generally a bad thing in design, but the implementation of the mechanic prevents me from really making a judgment.

One problem for how the ages advance is, the AI is incapable of triggering a non-default age except by accident. It may trigger the Age of Heroes through exploration, anything else non-standard seems less likely, though barbarian / rebel / warfare problems in Age 3 cause AIs to struggle enough that they lock the Age of Plague, but then lack the knowledge to actually advance to it first. As for the later ages, I’ve not seen any sign the AI aims for non-standard ages or produces them.

Another problem is that you can focus on Knowledge to decide every age if you want to… that’s supposed to be a valid strategy, but you can also avoid advancing ages when inconvenient so you can lock in a Crisis age with impunity. You can advance to a new age after researching a few techs from the current age. But you can research more if you want to. Actually you can go back and research techs from previous ages that you’d skipped, though the game (intentionally?) makes it less than obvious that you can.

So say I lock in the Age of Heresy but don’t want it. Well, I can research more techs instead of starting to advance to it. Perhaps go back and pick up techs from the earlier ages, too, while waiting for some AI to lock in the Age of Enlightenment. I can even go a step further and if I really want to avoid the age and decrease my Knowledge generation. I can stop the production of Books, or perform other actions to slow down my science. It’s silly.

Then again, the extent to which you control ages doesn’t matter much in practice because every age I’ve played is much less impactful than it seems to be at first. The Millennia Tease strikes again as reading each age’s blurb and mechanics description is cool and makes it sound like an exciting change, until you see two minutes later that it really isn’t.

Civ6’s ages feel like they have more of an impact on the game, especially with the Dramatic Ages game mode, than Millennia’s ages. The first non-standard age I experienced (back in the demo already) was the Age of Heroes. Sounds very cool! Legendary heroes that go on quests, myths, very much the kind of stuff I like. The reality? You get a Hero - who is like a Leader unit with a different name - and performing quests is just popping a different kind of goody hut that popped up, for these hero units only. The variant ages come with some different techs too, but are they actually that different? It would seem no. The Age of Heroes gives me Bathhouses via the Glory tech, for 8 sanitation points, but if I’d had the normal Age of Iron, I’d have the Aqueduct from Infrastructure for 5 sanitation. What if my Age 3 is instead the Age of Blood? I’ll have Middens then as a sanitation improvement.

I had the Age of Plague, an Age 4 crisis. Sounds cool once again! Plague doctors, beak masks, chaos, pestilence and all that. Fun, right? Unlike some ages, it at least has an effect you’re going to feel, but the gameplay isn’t much different. Spend some more IP on repairs. Get Plague Doctors and spend Exploration XP to get rid of Outbreaks. It’s really business as usual, though you’re playing with an economic penalty. Then again the age is global, so the penalty is relative, everyone else gets the same, except the AI will suffer more.

Every Variant or Crisis age I’ve played seemed really cool on paper, but the actual gameplay felt like the age would add one positive or negative gimmick, which isn’t particularly fun to engage with and inevitably helps me more, or hurts me less, than it does the AI players. And they don’t make use of any narrative potential, but more on that later.

Our Own Path

The more fun part of advancing through the ages is unlocking the different domains and national spirits. While the spirits may not be particularly innovative - they’re another take on civic trees we’ve seen many times - I would consider this to be the second clear success of the game, after the economy system.

National spirits are successful in giving me the feeling that I am defining my nation’s history and traits as I progress through the game. This is why the lack of inherent nation bonuses or unique units etc works. My nation becomes defined by the history of the traits and governments I pick, which works especially well when spirits add some lasting bonuses.

Humankind had something similar as its headline feature, you were supposed to define your nation through the ages, but the culture switching was a major miss. Millennia promised interesting ways to rewrite world history, but where it succeeds is at making you define your own nation. My Imperial Dynasty that turned into a Republic and then Fundamentalist, starting from a culture of Mound Builders and becoming a high-tech nation of Inventors and Space Agency specializations felt quite different from a Raider-fueled expansive kingdom I built in another game.

There are some details I’d like to change for sure, concerning how some unique spirit improvements become too obsolete, and I’d like some more legacy effects between governments, but for the most part, this is a system I’m happy with and I commend Millennia on this success.

The various mechanics that gradually unlock over the ages however, many of them are again subject to the Millennia Tease. We start the game only needing Food to grow our regions. Alright. Then later we also need Sanitation. Then we get other needs as well. This should be interesting, multiple needs for each region to juggle so that it keeps growing… oh wait, no, all the needs are fundamentally the same and they get averaged. If needs are met, they’re met. If they’re not met, they’re not met. It doesn’t matter which need it is. Failing to meet a region’s demand for sanitation is no different than failing to meet its demand for education. Power is a happy exception as it’s the only need with different effects if not met (brownouts/blackouts), but the others are just not as interesting, even if they may generate charges towards a crisis age.

Moving parts and loose threads

A good strategy game has well-designed mechanics that provide interesting choices. A great strategy game has individual mechanics interact with each other in interesting ways, elevating the game to the next level. Whatever you do with one interesting mechanic, it will interact with other things as well. It’s like a beautiful mechanism performing a complicated task as its components move. Millennia unfortunately rarely has this kind of interaction and instead reminded me of some poorly serialized TV shows that introduce new story threads that go nowhere.

Early on in the game, I discovered a Landmark, the Great Barrier Reef. Got a bonus. Not bad. Then some time later, I got access to Explorers and they can mount Expeditions. Cool! I bring my Explorer to the Reef and run an expedition. It becomes a multi-turn thing with several decisions written specifically for this landmark, which was a pleasant surprise in a game with so much placeholder-style writing (more on that later). I invested some amounts of various XP, completed the expedition and got a bigger reward. Alright, good stuff!

A moment later… is that it? Why is this game so averse to ongoing bonuses or long-term figurative threads? The expedition was cool but then it immediately feels like the game forgot about it. It would feel so very different if completing the expedition also gave me a small ongoing bonus from the landmark. Give me some food or culture production from it, something, doesn’t matter. It’s the ongoing nature that would matter. Civ6 understands this with how Natural Wonders provide ongoing bonuses. Here, why does Millennia miss the easy opportunity to create an ongoing effect that increases immersion of the history it’s telling?

Expeditions probably don’t lend themselves naturally to greater interaction with future mechanics, though the game does miss an easy opportunity as I describe above. Yet other mechanics are more obvious loose threads as they should be expected to interact more with the rest of the game than they actually do.

Religion is an example of a mechanic like that. You get the opportunity to found a religion, which seems to be a good move strategically because religion lets you get more culture, but interactions with other systems are highly limited. The Theologian and Crusader spirits are interesting ways to play with religion, but for the most part it’s just there. Regions have a need for Faith which is no more interesting than other needs, religion doesn’t interact (probably) with the game’s vestigial diplomacy system, not with a lot of else.

In the later ages, you unlock the space race, which much like Expeditions is a pretty fun set of mini-events. Launch a few space missions and reap rewards, culminating in a Moon landing for the most rewards. This is well done on the most immediate level but then the space race - with its separate slot in the nation UI - is striking in its non-interaction with anything else. You could give yourself a bonus in the race by some tiers of the Space Agency national spirit (those bonuses would be wasted should you do the race first), but that’s it. Winning the race doesn’t boost the Space Agency spirit’s comms satellites or anything else, it doesn’t provide ongoing bonuses, it doesn’t even reveal the map (an age 9 tech does instead). One of the possible final ages is the Age of Archangels, which is about doomsday satellite weapons, but those have nothing to do with the space race either - you trigger the age by building smart power grids in cities, not by doing anything space related.

In a couple other instances, I found no mechanic where I’d expect one. In the mid-game, I built a couple oceangoing ships and also put an Explorer onto a boat. Maybe there will be something to find in the ocean, on the islands? Well, no. If you’re in the Age of Discovery, there’s a mix of real and fantastical explorations, which is fine, but otherwise exploring is just weird. I found a couple of islands with barbarian camps. Dispatched them easily with my superior weapons, and… nothing. Well, I got a bonus event that’s the same as in the early ages, which is pretty much no reward by now. No scaling bonus, let alone a separate bonus for a later-age barbarian conquest. Just my musketeers questioning the life choices that led to them fighting hyper-aggressive bronze-age men on a forgotten two-tile island in the middle of the ocean.

Or the time when I built a submarine. It’s a submarine, surely it can do something special! Is it invisible until attack? Doesn’t seem to be. Is it able to pass under ice? Ah, no. Can it go into foreign borders without declaring war? No. Well, transport troops then? That’s a negative. The sub just has a defensive bonus when acting alone but isn’t otherwise special.

War. War never changes

I was stuck for a bit here, trying to figure out what to write about warfare in the game. So I’ll just go with this as a summary - it’s unremarkable enough that I’m having a hard time coming up with any interesting thoughts.

The combat system is a simple one and most reminiscent of Call to Power. Limited-size unit stacks, autoresolve with some rules on unit types. I like the stacks, I’ve always felt good about CtP’s combat system and while I also like 1UPT, it requires larger maps, so limited stacks are the right decision for a game like Millennia.

I have no idea why they then added randomness into the combat resolution algorithm. Was deterministic combat ever considered, I’d be curious to know? In any case, the combat system itself is a solid 3.6 - not great, not terrible. That’s especially fine since it’s an intentional design choice. The developers have said the combat is pretty simple, it is so in actuality, and clearly most design effort went elsewhere.

Nothing wrong with any of that, but combat was a contributor to my feeling of having played this before already. My actual gameplay experience with warfare was fine but nothing too exciting. As is typical for Civ games, Millennia also rewards going on the offensive early. The early military spirits are powerful (Raiders in particular is clearly dominant) and you will find great success if you conquer the minor nations and at least something from your neighbors. Why? All the same reasons this works in Civ. I’ve really, really played this before.

Millennia’s attempt to balance an overabundance of skull-bashing expansion is via Chaos. Every conquest adds some Chaos, and eventually you get a negative Chaos event once you fill up the meter. I wouldn’t call it bad but the system does appear heavy handed. A skillfully designed 4X might do something more subtle instead, which we don’t see here - but Chaos works. To an extent.

The Chaos event deck is one of the least balanced in the game. Some Chaos events are bad things you really want to avoid, others are a minor nuisance, and a few can even benefit you! I had the “Barbarian Resurgence” a few times, spawning Barbarians in every region on the map. Well, that’s pretty good for me just because the AIs will inevitably be hurt more by it. Some Chaos events just mean you need to repair an improvement or deal with a short-term food penalty that won’t affect much.

Despite my best efforts, I can’t resist mentioning the utterly perplexing combat screen which every review has remarked upon. It definitely cost the game a few percentage points in average review scores. The sight of low-fidelity unit models performing animations that seem right out of the late 80s is something to behold. And seeing ships fire cannonballs out of their nose is funny in a whole different way. I’m very forgiving of graphics in strategy games but the combat screen is really remarkable in all the wrong ways.

A couple other notes on warfare.

It’s not surprising that air combat totally breaks the balance - Civ has had the problem, too. What’s surprising is that Millennia found a new way to break things with air units, as bombers do massive damage to ships and you don’t get anti-air ships. Or Carriers. So invading another continent in the late game requires some ships / transports to be sacrificed while you unload others. This is bizarre. As is the fact that Carriers actually appear in the game files (Age 7) but aren’t enabled.

Nukes don’t exist because that’s relegated to a DLC in a move that’s disappointing if not entirely surprising. On the upside, unlocking some special units from Innovation is fun.

Did I ever tell you what the definition of insanity is?

Time to talk about diplomacy and the issues related to it. As for diplomacy itself, there’s hardly much to say. It exists. You can declare hostilities so you can attack in neutral territory, and then 3 turns later you can take another diplo action to declare war. You absolutely cannot go to war immediately. You may have machine guns and tanks to their crossbows and swords, but your armies will never cross the magically warded borders until you wait for the turn timer. You can fight a Lovecraftian cultist, alien invaders, build underwater cities or have Gilgamesh lead your armies, but you cannot declare war and invade immediately.

There’s not much other than declaring war to diplomacy. You can expend some effort to open an embassy and sign a treaty getting you knowledge, culture or wealth. That’s very basic but workable.

What’s less workable is the opaque black box governing diplomacy, and the constant string of inane AI requests. What do our relations consist of? What does this particular nation want? Why is it doing whatever it’s doing? Totally opaque. There are apparently several AI personalities with brief descriptions and I’m sure they do work differently under the hood, but not much of that is visible.

Instead I see the AI repeating the same thing all over. And again. And again. And if it gets something, it will change its mind. Ottomans want open borders. No, I don’t want that, I don’t want to let them put an annoying Outpost somewhere (any other benefits to open borders? Who knows - not well explained). No, I don’t want that two turns later either. And not after.

The AI is also fond of declaring hostilities with you but doing nothing whatsoever about it. In my longer games, I’d only actually be aware of my relations with one or two other nations I was actively involved with, with the others, I would forget what state we were in. If hostilities were declared, they probably couldn’t attack or reach me anyway.

At some point, after Egypt actually attacked me, I kicked them hard right in the canopic jar, took a couple regions, and after the war was concluded, they soon became big fans of me. I’d regularly get popups about gifts from Egypt but I could never find anywhere in the UI to show me what I was actually getting. Was I getting money? Something else? Was it just a message? I could never figure it out.

Another war I fought was against Russia on another continent because I wanted to test modern warfare with a cross-ocean invasion. Again, I had a decisive victory, took three regions from them, we agreed to end the war. A few turns later, they declare hostilities again. Why? Already forget that I just demolished them? Or just to give me another popup to look at because the fifteenth offer of open borders in a row wasn’t enough? The AI’s diplomatic actions, whatever the internal logic actually is, appear less than sane.

Speaking of diplomatic oddities, if a region rebels (or is taken by rebels), you for some reason don’t end up at war with the revolutionary breakaway, and have to wait before you can declare war. I’m pretty sure that’s unintentional however because it would be too strange a choice.

Oh, and the late-game Ideology / Faction system didn’t do anything for diplomacy either, instead turning out to be a major case of the Millennia Tease. It sounded pretty awesome but ended up giving a couple rewards for filling a new bar to the right thresholds, not interacting with much of anything and especially not with diplomacy, the natural place for ideologies and factions to meet.

From this repetitive, annoying diplomacy I can finally come to another major complaint I have. The game is utterly devoid of character, and nothing exemplifies it better than the foreign nations. Each opponent in the game is just a small flag. Their diplomatic messages are popups with one of a few canned sentences, not even unique to a nation, though the code tells me their greetings are per AI personality type.

I understand very well why nations aren’t represented by specific leaders here, and that’s a good choice. But opponents have never had this little personality. There’s not an art image, not a unique line, not a sound chime… nothing. Perhaps an envoy image would have been nice, Millennia does have paintings that look very good. We don’t get anything. Civ1 had audio anthems for every civ! It feels a bit unfair to bring SMAC into the comparison, as it’s a masterpiece few games can even approach, but that’s how you can have memorable personalities with pretty much no graphics.

Getting repetitive messages from identical nations distinguished by just a flag is already bad, but Millennia’s lack of personality extends to other areas. The game has a decent amount of events but many have such bland or fragmentary writing that I initially (in the demo) suspected those may be stub strings. “A man in royal dress wanders through a field” isn’t a story. It’s fine to be brief, the game doesn’t need RPG-style descriptions. But this example - which is a complete event in the game - reads like the start of a bigger text, or a note about what to write.

Infopedia blurbs or tech descriptions are for the most part sterile. There’s no particular style to the writing, you get dictionary-like texts such as “An expanded court for resolving disputes” (yes, that’s a courthouse), and this especially hurts with the non-standard ages where the storytelling potential is great. There are, as with many things in Millennia, some much better instances that stand out, like Harold Snookerman’s rambling notes in the Age of Visitors (must have been Xemu?) but for the most part, the game doesn’t take the opportunities its own setting provides.

There are examples in the genre to learn from, too. Endless Space 2 is one such game where the writing is very solid, it’s probably better than the actual gameplay parts. Stellaris definitely has narrative strengths and its own style. Millennia avoids doing anything I’d characterize as character, flair, or style. I realize this is a highly subjective complaint and I cannot express it in greater detail (while I could talk at length about any specific mechanic issue I have), but that’s nonetheless how the game left me feeling.

All of this has happened before, all of this will happen again

When I was thinking to myself that Millennia misses on the narrative strengths of some relatively recent games like ES2, I realized that the game as a whole feels like it’s coming from another time. It’s like Millennia missed most of what happened in the 4X genre since Civ5 was released. From new design ideas to narrative approaches to UI design.

In my victorious game that I played to conclusion, the actual conclusion was another experience that left me confused as to why we have what we have. I got the Age of Departure, where the game tells me I’ll have to build a colony ship. Exciting! Then Millennia Tease strikes again and I discover the actual mechanics. I place a new improvement on the map and then I have to accumulate 5000 points in a new bar, the Colony progress bar. My cities can convert production to Colony progress at a rate of 10:1. While doing that, I also… no, wait, there’s nothing else.

At that point I had my cities set up to produce ca 300 production per turn, as that lets me build stuff in 1-2 turns, so that would be 30 Colony progress per turn per city. Well, between my cities I had something around 130 progress per turn, and I shuffled reorganized them for more production, and also kept getting additional progress through Innovation and a repeatable tech, so I didn’t have to do this forever, but still, the final victory race was just putting all my units on Guard and hitting End Turn repeatedly. With the game taking time between turns now, not near-instant as earlier.

Late game tedium is a classic 4X problem, though admittedly a very hard one to deal with. Victory conditions such as the space race have always suffered from this. In theory, it may sometimes produce a fun, close race if you’re closely matched with an AI. In practice, that only happens rarely by accident, you’re far ahead by this point so any endgame where you need to click “End Turn” twenty times to get the victory is just boring. Civ1 had this problem. Civ4 had this problem. Civ6 has this problem, though it’s mitigated to some degree. Here, again, Millennia fails to distinguish itself and instead reimplements the same familiar problem of Civ games. Only worse in some ways because all you do in the Age of Departure is set all cities to Colony ship progress, and also put all research/culture towards it, so there’s absolutely nothing to do in the age.

Speaking of these late-game tedium issues and repeated Civ problems, there’s the more general one of snowballing as the game progresses, truly a cursed problem of 4X. Millennia sort of offers you an early out via the Age of Conquest, but you have to get your military power up in Age 4 specifically for that. If you balloon during Age 5 or later, there’s no early out. But fine, say you do focus on early military and so you do end Age 4 with >150% of the next rival’s power, and you trigger the Age of Conquest. I tried that in one game. Well, being at 150% of another nation’s power means I can easily crush them under ordinary circumstances, but here the Age of Conquest makes it even easier because of extra bonuses. But then the game still makes me conquer several rivals, which is pure tedium.

Millennia is a 2024 game. Civ5 is by now an old game, Civ4 is retro. We’ll most likely be playing Civ7 within a year. Millennia, not being burdened by the Civ title, is under no obligation to keep any of the mandatory Civ aspects but rather had a blank slate. All too often, it walked down the familiar paths of Civ - sometimes ending up caught in the same traps - rather than setting a new course.

This too shall pass

Finally, I have to briefly note how the game has a lot of small issues and balance problems. No point in dwelling on these, some are inevitable even under the best of circumstances (balance can only be done well via iteration), and some amount of bugs is likewise inevitable. Millennia does have more of these small issues than I’d ordinarily expect - UI not dirtying after some actions, unbalanced entities, etc - but I’m inclined to be quite forgiving here especially given the indie-scale studio size. That’s mostly fine and most of those small issues can be addressed over time.

Some of them though give a pretty sloppy impression of the game. In my long game as Sweden, I saw three Swedish towns spelled incorrectly. For a game published by a Swedish publisher, that is an eyebrow raising moment.

More disappointingly, there are many indications that the game is set up for the classic “game mechanics as DLC” approach Paradox-published games usually have. The atomic age and nukes are an already announced DLC. Meanwhile the game ships in a state that is not feature-complete for a first release. There’s no network multiplayer, there’s no support for loading a mod, there’s no hotkey rebinding, etc. Very importantly, this is not in the slightest a criticism of the C Prompt studio - I know how those decisions are made and understand the prioritization choices C Prompt has to make given the resources available, but the unmistakable traits of being Paradox-published are here.

Every citizen’s final duty

All good things come to an end. So do overly verbose ramblings by gaming nerds, such as this writeup.

Millennia is a game I am trying my best to like. I have been critical of a lot, but Millennia is a genuine strategy game, and I can’t shake the feeling that there’s quite a good 4X in there, underneath the inane open borders requests, whack-a-mole plague doctors and the tangle of loose threads the game drops all over. There’s something in there that makes me want to fire up another game and try again, to look into unofficial modding (will Carriers work if I enable them or are they missing code support?), to follow the game’s development. It made me feel enough to want to write one of my long-form rants masquerading as an article. Millennia isn’t one of the strategy games that I want to permanently shelve after a few hours.

The economic system is fun. And the way your nation’s traits build up over time has been a major pleasant surprise, as Millennia provides one of the best “develop your nation” feelings I’ve seen. It’s just that the problems and minor annoyances (how many times do I have to press “continue move”?) crowd out the fun and at times make the game a chore to play.

I’m looking forward to seeing where the game and the modding community goes, if anywhere. For all its faults, Millennia deserves more than to be dumped into the recycling tanks.
Very well said, old friend. Had to come out of hibernation to offer my support of your copious and thoughtful review.

I like the idea of having variant ages with quirky alternate units and buildings to play around with, but it sounds like it was implemented in the most uninteresting way possible. Imagine if Civ6 let you have a variant age every time you got a Golden Age or something. Quirky steampunk and Jules Verne stuff in the Industrial Age, building all of Da Vinci's fantastical inventions in the Renaissance, legendary heroes and myths in the "Age of Heroes," etc.

For the time being, I think I will just leave Millennia to gather dust in the Steam store. Somebody poke me in a couple of years once all the DLC are out and there's a gold edition on sale. Scratch that, I'll be too busy playing Civ7 and Old World.
Hello there! Thank you for your detailed long-form review of the game, I read through it myself and also shared it with Ian.

On the Swedish town names there, I have looked through the list and found the ones that were wrong, they have now been corrected and will be in Update 2 as Update 1 is in Public Beta and will be released on the 22nd.
Hello there! Thank you for your detailed long-form review of the game, I read through it myself and also shared it with Ian.

On the Swedish town names there, I have looked through the list and found the ones that were wrong, they have now been corrected and will be in Update 2 as Update 1 is in Public Beta and will be released on the 22nd.

Tackar, antar att själv kommer du inte från Borås, Härnösand eller Gävle ;)

And thanks. I'll now pretend that this was all part of a long con where making Ian read a giant essay is my revenge for him slowly teasing us fans with RTS3 info a couple ages ago. I'll possibly update this with some more brief (yeah right) notes in the future as I explore more. Since you're here, I also have a few notes on technical issues and bugs that would be of little interest to the public, but I'd be happy to share with Xemu / his team if there's any interest from the studio side, so please feel free to get us in touch about that.
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Tackar, antar att själv kommer du inte från Borås, Härnösand eller Gävle ;)

And thanks. I'll now pretend that this was all part of a long con where making Ian read a giant essay is my revenge for him slowly teasing us fans with RTS3 info a couple ages ago. I'll possibly update this with some more brief (yeah right) notes in the future as I explore more. Since you're here, I also have a few notes on technical issues and bugs that would be of little interest to the public, but I'd be happy to share with Xemu / his team if there's any interest from the studio side, so please feel free to get us in touch about that.

Any notes about technical issues and bugs would of course be very welcome. I will start a private conversation with you and we can take it from there!
This is bizarre. As is the fact that Carriers actually appear in the game files (Age 7) but aren’t enabled.
Very enjoyable and relatable review! Where can an amateur find these game files, and are edits possible? I’m guessing carriers wouldn’t work but I bet endgame could be made more interesting.

Probably where I most relate to what you wrote is that the game is only fun when you feel external pressure, and ages don’t provide pressure or excitement on their own, outside of what they give to compete with the AI or make that more challenging (e.g., when the AI is ahead on tech and pushes you to research a new unit instead of upgrades to economy).

I do also wish the condition for interesting military victory ages wasn’t “already be absolutely winning”. If instead it was “conquer five regions”, you could imagine this triggering during a still competitive game. Also, an interesting game mode would be if in single player games, the next age was always dictated by player actions before the AI leader began researching the next age. (Hmm, maybe im just double clicking on the wrong icon on my desktop).
The wise choice: buy the game after a few dlc:s have been released and enjoy.

The emotional choice: buy the game now for support and making sure those dlc:s are coming out.

A bit tricky! But great review, I can feel a few of the observations already and how they would impact my gaming experience.
Thanks for the effort in writing this review, I concur. The game has much potential and it would be a shame if it were shelved because of those lacking things like diplomacy.
Where can an amateur find these game files, and are edits possible?

Millennia is a Unity game so the data files and such are packed into a Unity asset bundle, and several tools exist to extract/view those. People who have modded games before should find the XML files fairly intuitive.

Editing is possible to some degree but it's definitely non-trivial to update an existing bundle if you don't know what you're doing, so I expect we won't see mods before the game adds some support on its end.
I'll conclude with a short game report to illustrate some gameplay issues I encountered and tack on a few suggestions.

I started another game, with the plan to expand aggressively and get lots of vassals that I'd profit from instead of integrating. On my continent, I started with Spain, Brazil and Zulus. After attacking some barbarians, I took Raiders in Age 2 and started expanding. The three AI nations would variously declare hostilities, threaten me, go to war with one another, ask for a truce, then declare hostilities again. It was a strong case of that AI diplo behavior I complained about. Zulus, down in the south, declare hostilities? Fine. I declare war, take a city and then they offer a truce, which I accept because I want to first finish off Spain in the north? Alright. But then just a couple turns later the Zulus declare hostilities again. Make your mind up!

Raiders are that special flavor of unbalanced where they're so broken it's fun, if not very replayable, to stomp everyone with them. So on turn 70, in age 3, I conquered the three nations on my continent and set out to focus on economy and culture. I was running Kingdom and boosting the prosperity of my vassals with those powers + merchants, getting up to quite a strong economy. Notably, Age 3 should have been Blood - I had killed around 25 units out of the 6 required in Age 2, but I thought I'd intentionally avoid Blood and so I did by researching all the Age 2 techs and going back to nab Scouting from Age 1, letting an AI lock in Age of Iron for 3 first.

For Age 4, we hit an AI-triggered Plague as I was playing with only two integrated regions and couldn't trigger Monuments so I let them have Plague. Fine. I spent that age working on the economy, getting my religion up, running culture powers (went Theologians for crazy culture) and all that, and of course cleaning up the plague outbreaks. This time I looked deeper into plague outbreaks and how they work (using game fines mostly - the game doesn't convey much of this explicitly) and what I saw there gives me some cautious optimism the age could be improved a lot. There's a good amount of detail to how outbreaks work, they get worse over time (though OUTBREAK_2 and OUTBREAK_3 have the same unrest and regional efficiency, possibly unintended?), they spread more if you're using trade, there's an actual game system there. The problem is of course that none of this really comes into play because the actual experience is, you see an outbreak tile, you click on it and remove the outbreak (or click a Plague Doctor) but there's definitely potential.

So after the plague, it was Age 5, I went Feudal Monarchy for the vassal boosts and during this age, all aspects of my empire pretty much exploded. My 300-Prosperity vassals got economically great and were building improvements at a good pace, I ended up integrating a fourth and final region, and I was running Expeditions as this map had tons of landmarks. I built some ships and went to clear out the tiny Barbarian islands, as well as finally dealing with a couple Barbarian camps I had behind landmarks - there's a bit of an annoying issue in that landmarks are impasable, which allows barb camps to hide behind them. The tile north of Frozen Wastes (where the improvement is now) used to be a barb camp so both tiles north of the landmark were essentially an isolated island though part of my starting continent.


Here I wanted to trigger Alchemy and did so, grabbing the Mercenaries spirit. I was not really trying to wrap things up yet, I could have invaded the other continent and won but I wanted to build up a bit more and get alchemical things, which I really like from the aesthetic / narrative point of view though unfortunately the actual gameplay again involves a considerable amount of tiresome micromanagement to gather Arcana. With a bit of building, I thought I'd put my armies and mercenary powers to use, attacking someone on the other continent. I was far more powerful, in part due to a strong build myself, but also I think the AI nations took a beating from the plague. Anyhow, sometime during the Alchemy age I started invading. Of the four AIs on the other continent, two were allied so I went for them, while being friendly with the other two.

Nothing remarkable about the warfare, and I was wrapping up my conquest of the two just around the time Age 7, Revolutions, was to kick in. And then it struck me as really odd that the game doesn't provide me with an early out, even though Victory Ages are a good idea in principle. Still, it was weird here. Age 4 being Plague locked me out of Conquest in age 5, and then my decision to trigger Alchemy for Age 6 locked me out of Harmony (which I could have probably won thanks to warfare being an effective "religious conversion" mechanism), which led to this pretty strange situaton as I entered the Age of Revolution. I enter it and, checking the requirements for Age 8, I see this:


So there's a possible Victory Age 8, and I have nearly three times the requirement to trigger it... but of course I can't do so yet because we have a whole age ahead of us. Well, okay. The Age of Revolution then was a strange one as I rushed through getting four techs, without much caring which ones, then pick the Age of Generals. As soon as the age advance was complete, the victory screen popped up as by this point I also easily met the power requirement to win. It was a bit weird that the concluding victory race for me was "get through this age".

Assorted suggestions:

  • The rule that a Variant/Crisis age must be followed by a Standard age messes with Victory Ages. Maybe allow Victory Ages regardless of the preceding age, enabling Plague -> Conquest or Alchemy -> Harmony?
  • Let me do something with the special age units after the age is over, like Plague Doctors. Let me upgrade them into something, or else retire them for XP. It just doesn't feel right to have a unit sitting around that's guaranteed to be useless.
  • I again liked developing my nation's history but do miss something lasting from governments. I would like it if using Peaceful Revolution to change government gave me some kind of card for the government I'm leaving - a minor domain power, a trade good, just something that would increase the feeling of history.
  • Make Barbarian units slowly disappear from maybe Age 5 on, so they'd become limited to camps and a unit or two per camp. It's not very fun that, once I have an ocean-going navy, I find those untouched camps that fill their islands with units, and the coasts are swarming with barbarian canoes. They're no match for later age units, which is as it should be, but clearing out this number of newly discovered barbarians is tedious.
  • Not sure how well this would work in practice, but I would try a rule where letting any of a city's Needs drop below some threshold generates unrest. I can let any Need drop to quite low if I don't mind losing some pop growth, as the Needs get averaged. This might be a two birds with one stone situation. Needs/Unrest seems like a reasonable interaction, and would create more interesting decisions as I have to look at each individual need and not go "oh fine you're not getting any sanitation". And of course it makes thematic sense - even if people are well fed and have houses, they're not likely to take cesspools in stride.
I’d be curious to hear if you found any resistance on the other continent. In what was probably my last game of Millenia for a year, I found that the AI “tactics” change dramatically between early and mid/late game. In early game it seems every army attacks any army it can, but after that I found they weren’t even attacking my invading armies even when they had comparable strength armies rated medium vs medium damage, and superior numbers of them.

I’ve been reminded how important and engaging it is for the AI to be able to focus fire on player units so that the player is always taking losses unless fighting at overwhelming advantage, and until Millenia does two things I cannot imagine that happening:

1) Optimize its army configuration every turn to make sure it is creating armies it’s willing to fight with (I’ve seen civilian units parked with armies, especially plague doctors, but also recon balloons become a major liability for them). Especially as a few units get damaged, this seems to become debilitating for the AI.

2) Checking if it has any opportunities to route an army or cause casualties using multiple of its own armies. Currently the calculation of whether or not to attack seems to be made only on a 1-1 basis looking at damage ratios (since the AI passes up chances to focus fire entire armies). Maybe targeting need to be more deterministic for this to work, since I could imagine they don’t want it to feel like the AI is abusing the “undo botton”.

The armies work great for the scale of the map, but poorly as a crutch for programming the AI, as humankind showed.

Also, to separate this from analysis of Millenia, but I just have to add that Old World is in an amazing state now! I hadn’t played for a year or so, and the new difficulty and AI advantage settings allow dialing in the exact game I want. The AI moves aggressively when at war, while retaining its clever retreat logic and its tactics just feel so intentionally implemented, including to take advantage of things like routing. I was surprised when a neutral AI declared war on the same same nation I was fighting, and actually unleashed its army on the first turn of declaring war… it was an epic loss for me when they made peace and the full force of my advanced target got focused on me. The ambitions, orders, and role play also make it tolerable to me to lose wars and cities, since every new leader feels like they are starting with their own unique challenge of working within their legacy, and I can pull my workers back and play taller as long as I don’t lose my strongest cities. I’m starting to scratch the surface of diplomacy this time around and liking what I am finding there too.
I didn't in this case encounter any resistance on the second continent, but that was anyway mostly a product of the economy. When I started fighting there, my power rating was over twice that of my opponents, which was likely due to me being well ahead economically and having a larger army. This is a pretty usual state of affairs for a 4X, you get to a point where your economy is better than the AI's, and from there on it gets easy.

I don't really want to go into AI discussions much, but I think the best chance to observe the warfare behavior of Millennia's AI is in the early game on the higher difficulty levels. There the AI will hate you and will fight early, so you will see how it fights with its early superior armies. You're right for the most part that the AI doesn't seem to focus down enemy stacks, which is a very powerful move in this game. In a fight between two stacks, there's usually no fatal damage unless one stack is way superior. So the strongest approach is, you attack a stack once, dealing good damage and routing some units, then you attack the same stack again with another, which gets you kills. Use Reinforcements on your own weak stacks to prevent them from facing a lethal counter. The AI doesn't seem to do these coordinated attacks, so you'll be able to wear down their forces. I also had one game where I saw what you describe with recon balloons, the AI went well overboard with them.

When they attack your cities, there's also some behavior that feels quite familiar from Civ6. A stack will not take a walled/defended city in one go. So the AI attacks, does damage but then gets scared that its stack is now at lower health and withdraws, and perhaps comes back later. This sort of behavior on the offense reminds me of Civ6, with the AI launching attacks it doesn't fully commit to, and not doing a full retreat either.

I disagree however that stacked armies are worse for the AI inherently and I don't think we should rely on Humankind for examples. Armies do make some things better. The biggest problem the Civ5 and Civ6 AIs encounter is probably dealing with traffic jams - both games have 1UPT with fairly cramped maps, so just getting the units from here to there can be hard. Millennia's maps feel comparable in size, just a bit more spacious, but the AI has no issues with movement that I've seen because the stacks help a lot.
I disagree however that stacked armies are worse for the AI inherently and I don't think we should rely on Humankind for examples.
Oh of course, was just making a comparison that both games seem to have AI routines for creating armies (eg leader-line-ranged-mobile) and other routines for moving/attacking that view these whole armies as its pieces, without anything to work around the extra tactical difficulty of working with armies and the units within them.
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