From the confines of the PC to the freedom of tablets, you have come far.
It’s been a year of big surprises on small devices. I was already impressed when Bethesda showed us that you could put something as graphically intensive as the new Doom on the diminutive Nintendo Switch, but Aspyr has accomplished something almost as commendable with its wonderful iPad port of Sid Meier’s Civilization VI that makes it worth reconsidering the idea that phone and tablet games shouldn’t cost as much as PC and console counterparts.
It’s a bigger deal than it may sound like. Card games like Hearthstone and Elder Scrolls Legends have made successful leaps from the PC to the iPad, but for the most part iPad ports consist of old games like Baldur’s Gate II or relatively simple ones like Limbo or FTL: Faster Than Light. Lately we’ve also seen ports of some of IGN’s top-rated PC and console games including The Witness and Inside, but Civilization VI represents something far more mechanically complex than any of them.
Aspyr’s port gives other developers something to (ahem) aspire to. It’s very close to the PC game in look and feel, but designed smartly enough that it’s easy to believe it was always meant for a tablet. This is Civilization VI in (almost) its full glory, so to get an idea of why that’s so exciting you should read our original review of the PC version, which still holds up well a little over a year later.
Suffice it to say that Civilization is the quintessential turn-based “4X” strategy series – a genre that involves “Exploring, Expanding, Exploiting, and Exterminating,” traditionally through military victory. Never, though, has a Civilization game come packed with so many features at launch as Civilization VI, to the point where it’s a little intimidating if you’re brand-new to the series. You can still brute-force your way to victory with the military, but you can also guide your people from the ancient period to the Space Age by starting and spreading a popular religion. Alternatively, if you want a greater challenge, you can found a culture everyone wants to be a part of. Beyond that, you have to worry about little details like traders, envoys, “Great People,” and building monuments like the Oracle at Delphi. It’s complex, but it’s also extremely fun and addictive when you’re in the grips of a sprawling international rivalry between multiple nations.
This is just about as good of a mobile port as we could ask for.
From a feature viewpoint, this is just about as good of a mobile port as we could ask for. But first, here’s the bad news: there’s no online multiplayer mode – it’s LAN or Hot Seat only. Some of the graphical “fluff” is also missing. likely a concession for performance: you’ll only get static images for the faction leaders rather than animated models, and there aren’t as many visible phases of construction when new buildings are built. In addition, the low-detail strategic view is missing, which isn’t that much of a loss even though I sometimes found it made certain features easier to see on a crowded map.
Yet otherwise every feature of the base PC version is here and accounted for, minus all of the DLC except the Aztec Empire (which first saw life as a pre-order bonus on PC, but here comes included standard). You can have up to 10 different auto-save files, and you can save and load games at your leisure, allowing for the same type of “save-scumming” your way to victory that you see on the PC. The interface elements are a little larger than they are on the PC to allow for easy touching, but everything is in its right place. You can even technically use mods, although it requires some tricky use of iTunes File Sharing with third-party apps like PhoneView.
You can pinch the map to zoom out, much as you would in Google Maps.
It plays largely the same way, too, with intuitive touchscreen substitutions for mouse commands such as pressing and holding an icon when you want a tooltip. You can pinch the map to zoom out, much as you would in Google Maps (or Apple Maps, I suppose). Heck, you can even play with a Bluetooth keyboard if you wish, but I found that a little awkward in the absence of a real mouse. Most of the time I played with my Apple Pencil, as it helped me better pinpoint specific tiles and units better than my fingers when the map got crowded in the late game. But even without that expensive accessory, controls are comfortable to use.
I did notice that Civilization VI wasn’t taking full advantage of my first-generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro’s 2732×2048 resolution. Based on captured video, it appears to run at 1440p instead. It also felt designed with smaller, 10.5-inch tablets in mind, as many interface elements looked much fuzzier than expected, even to the point of making some very small text tough to read. (I’ve since read that that fuzziness extends to the 10.5-inch iPad Pro, but I wasn’t able to test that myself.) Retina support can apparently be switched on with the PhoneView app, resulting in a much crisper presentation worthy of the iPad Pro, but it probably should have been included as an interface option for players who don’t want to go through that trouble and don’t mind the inevitable frame rate hit.
But even by default, my framerates sometimes suffered a bit as the screen grew crowded toward the end game. Enemy turns sometimes dragged on a bit toward the end as well (that happens on PC as well), but never so long as to annoy me to the point of exasperation. Unsurprisingly, it’s also a battery drainer, as the overly huge battery life icon in the upper right constantly reminded me. All the same, I once got a straight four-hour play session out of it.
Of course, all of this power-hungry gameplay and graphical beauty is demanding. As Aspyr warns in the App Store listing, the Civ VI iPad port only works properly on the iPad Pros, the 2017 iPad, and the iPad Air 2, so you’re out of luck if you own an iPad mini or an older iPad in general. Oddly, though, it’s still possible to download it if you own another iPad, so I highly recommend playing through the tutorial before committing to the full price.
As this is a near-fully featured port, that also means you should expect to pay the full-dollared price of $60. That’s a bit insane for an iPad game, given that the App Store has driven the cost of pretty much everything down to next to nothing. On the other hand, we’ve never really seen a game like Civilization VI on the iPad before: this is a single-player, offline, microtransaction-free game with which you could easily spend hundreds of hours, and its scale and polish are all but unheard of on this platform. Also, it’s currently on sale on the App Store for 50 percent off until January 4, and there’s even a free trial that lets you play through 60 turns with the Chinese Empire. That’s more than enough time to decide if this is something you want to invest in. And, judging from clues on the title screen, the newly initiated Apple crowd should be able to join into the upcoming Rise & Fall expansion not long after it comes out on PC in February.
As for me, I’m glad that I picked it up, and I’m glad that I can carry it around. Playing Civilization VI on the iPad Pro feels strangely liberating as I’m not confined to playing it while hunched over my desktop keyboard for hours at a time. Instead, I can pace around and carry it with me, issuing orders as though I was one of Civilization’s kings in his war room, or curl up on the couch in a position much more comfortable for being sucked into multi-hour sessions. I’m not sure if something like this counts as an advancement of our civilization, but it’s certainly an advancement for the enjoyment of one of the finest strategy series of all time.