Review: Civilization VI on the iPhone is the full experience

Enlarge / A render of Civilization VI running on the iPhone XS Max.

Starting today, October 4, Civilization VI will be available for iPhones on the Apple App Store. It was previously available on iPads but not iPhones. And of course, it has long been a staple of PC and Mac gaming.

The new port faces a daunting task—squeezing an extremely complex game onto a tiny screen—and it asks players to shell out for the trouble. While you can play a short free trial when you first download it, unlocking all the features and the ability to play longterm will ultimately cost $60 up front; that’s the same price as the desktop version. Port developer Aspyr Media is selling the game for 60 percent off from the launch today up through October 16, though.

If you’re willing to spend, you’ll get the full, real, desktop Civilization VI experience in your pocket.

If you’re not familiar with Civilization, it’s arguably the grandaddy of epic strategy games—a classic among PC gamers. In it, you’re tasked with “building an empire to stand the test of time.” You select a civilization and a leader—Queen Victoria of England or Gilgamesh of Sumeria, for example—and start with just some wandering settlers. Over hundreds of turns, you build out a sprawling civilization and advance in technology until you have numerous cities, airplanes, diplomacy, tourism, a space program, and nuclear weapons. Players can win the game either through conquest or through peaceful victories centered around science or culture, among other things.

Over the years, I have spent thousands of hours in various games in the Civilization series, and I’ve been playing the iPhone version a little bit over the past week. I’ve found it to be the full Civilization experience—something iPhone owners have wanted for a long time. There are sacrifices in presentation, particularly in the city and diplomatic views, but under the hood, this is the Civilization VI that has driven so many gamers’ binges on personal computers and the iPad.

We’ve reviewed the full game before, so this is more a miniature review or impressions roundup of the quality of the port than a full review. The game itself is excellent, as one expects from Civilization. It’s probably not the best entry in the series’ history (some say that’s Civilization II, others like me say Civilization IV). But a player with an open mind could happily lose dozens or hundreds of happy hours into its various challenges.

The interface

There have been a few attempts at Civilization-like games on the iPhone before. There was Civilization Revolution (and a sequel), which was modeled closely after the last-generation console adaptation of the series. It was a good game, and it did a good job of scaling the experience down for those platforms—but that was also the problem. There’s no reason console or mobile players shouldn’t get the full experience that desktop players do. And then there’s the cult indie hit Polytopia, which is also stripped down but elegant as can be.

But this is the first time the full experience has made it to your pocket. The iPad version released previously was quite good, and this is just a tweaked version of that release. Every part of the gameplay, except online multiplayer, made the transition. The only sacrifices are in presentation to accommodate the small screen.

Below: Images of the menus and in-game screenshots from Civilization VI running on an iPhone XS Max.

  • The main menu for Civilization VI on the iPhone XS Max.


    Samuel Axon

  • The options menu has just about every choice you’d expect from a Civilization game.


    Samuel Axon

  • Here’s where you manage additional content like DLC and mods.


    Samuel Axon

  • Achievements are here, too.


    Samuel Axon

  • This is where you create a custom game by selecting a leader and making some top-level choices. Clicking “Advanced” takes you to many more options.

  • These are the map options in the advanced game-creation panel.


    Samuel Axon

  • Some more advanced game-creation options.


    Samuel Axon

  • The main gameplay view in Civilization VI on the iPhone.


    Samuel Axon

  • Notifications have their own screen, but functionally, they’re the same as they were in the desktop version.


    Samuel Axon

  • Here’s the view you’d see when trying to place a new district or when buying tiles for your city.


    Samuel Axon

  • Tapping the production button on a city goes to this big view of options and details. You lose some of the city character here, in my opinion.


    Samuel Axon

  • You can still drill down to see more detailed information on your city, but what was a left panel before is now full screen.


    Samuel Axon

  • Special views are available, like this settler view for picking where to found new cities. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a way to enable yield persistent icons in any view.


    Samuel Axon

  • The day-night cycles are here in full force.


    Samuel Axon

  • Here’s the technology tree.


    Samuel Axon

  • And here’s the civics tree.


    Samuel Axon

  • Tapping on an option in either gives you the full rundown before you confirm it as your selection.


    Samuel Axon

  • The panel for selecting policies is largely unchanged.


    Samuel Axon

  • Here’s the government-selection view.


    Samuel Axon

  • Diplomacy is back, but the leaders don’t animate like they do on desktop.


    Samuel Axon

  • The city-states panel takes up a lot more screen real estate, but otherwise it looks the same.


    Samuel Axon

  • The same goes for the victory conditions and world-rankings panel.


    Samuel Axon

  • Sean Bean’s voiceover for new technologies is back.


    Samuel Axon

  • And the full Civilopedia is also back.


    Samuel Axon

And let’s talk about screen size. I tried the game on an iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max, and iPhone 7. It ran fine on all three, but there’s a lot of information to present, and the bigger the screen, the better the experience. I found Civ6 quite comfortable to play on the XS Max and a little tight but manageable on the XS. On the iPhone 7, it felt cramped enough that I was frequently tapping the wrong buttons because they were so tiny. But the game was absolutely playable regardless. And Aspyr has done a good job with the layout, for the most part.

As expected, you hold your finger on the screen and drag around to move your view. You pinch to zoom in and out. Tapping the minimap makes it fullscreen, then you can tap anywhere on that larger map to go straight there. UI elements are scattered along the edges, and many are collapsable to allow you to make the best of your relatively small viewport. Panels that once were simply side panels or small pop-up windows, like announcements of technological breakthroughs, now occupy much of or all of the screen. (Don’t worry, Sean Bean’s voice is back.)

Only two interface compromises truly irked me. The first is that you move units by tapping their move command button, then tapping on a space. The problem is that moving units across the entire map is a challenge, because once you’re in that move mode, it’s impossible to use your finger to drag the view around. I tried using the map instead, but tapping to a new location on the map confused the game even more.

You have two options: you can select a unit, drag to a location on the map, then tap the move button and tap where to go, or you can move in small increments within your field of view. Neither feels all that natural to me. It’s totally possible to do everything you’d do otherwise this way, so it’s not a problem for gameplay. But the result is just less elegant than it was on the desktop.

The second irritant is that the city view is mostly broken up into several fullscreen menu panels. You no longer tap into a city and get a lovely close-up view in the same way that you used to. That takes away a bit of the charm, though again, this change has no gameplay ramifications.

Other than that, though, it’s all there, and it all works.

Other thoughts

Every game mode, civilization, and scenario from the base game returns, but as far as I could tell in my pre-release build, there was no way to access the content from the Rise and Fall expansion. The port also supports two local multiplayer modes—hot seat, and local. Local is like a LAN party over WiFi with other iOS devices. Hot seat lets you pass the iPhone back and forth with your friends. Both are great.

Unfortunately, there is no online multiplayer—that’s probably the biggest cut compared to the Windows desktop version.

As far as I could tell, the music and sound effects all returned from the desktop version, with one big exception: the leaders don’t animate in this version. That’s too bad, because the leader animations on desktop are great.

The game helpfully includes a battery meter in the top-right, and that’s welcome, because it can be a real battery drain, especially on older iPhones. Civ6 is very computationally expensive in the late game. And to that point, the between-turn wait times can be very long an iPhone 7, especially in the late game on larger maps—such that there’s even a warning about it when you try to select huge map sizes in the iPhone port. And as you progress, the battery hit gets harder, and this game can really suck up the battery on older iPhones.

I found that Civ6 was playable for solid, multi-hour chunks on the brand-new XS Max, but my iPhone 7 couldn’t really handle a true Civilization-style binge session without being plugged in.

A surprisingly good port

Yes, that small screen means concessions, but the fact that every major gameplay feature and element except online multiplayer is here is something fans of the series have been wanting on mobile for a long time, and it’s great to see.

If you have a device that supports it and you’re a Civilization fan, it’s worth grabbing for your next long flight or for your daily rail commute. Here are the supported devices, according to Aspyr’s press release about the launch:

Civilization VI requires iOS 11 on an iPhone 7 or 7 Plus, iPhone 8 or 8 Plus, iPhone X, iPad Air 2, iPad 2017, or any iPad Pro. Please note, Civilization VI on iPad includes the base game only and does not include expansion content.

Even though it’s not quite the series’ best, Civilization VI is a great game, and it’s easily one of the deepest strategy games on iOS right now. It’s just too bad about the price; I can’t think of any other mobile game that costs $60 up front. Sure, you could spend that much easily on microtransactions in free-to-play titles like Clash of Clans or Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes, but even the priciest premium games I’ve seen (like some full-fledged JRPGs by Square-Enix) cap out at roughly $15 or $20.

But if the gameplay is the same, maybe $60 is reasonable to ask for. And you don’t have to put up with any microtransactions, apart from DLC content. There are no compromises in gameplay here, so there’s no compromise on price. That price is tough to swallow when most of the games you buy on mobile are $1.99, but those games aren’t Civilization, are they?

The good

  • This is the full desktop Civilization experience on your mobile device, with no compromises that really matter.
  • On that note, this is a really good game.
  • For the most part, the interface translates surprisingly well to the latest iPhones.
  • Both local multiplayer modes are lots of fun.

The bad

  • Playing on iPhones smaller than the iPhone X or XS definitely involves some squinting and very precise tiny-button pushing.
  • Battery-life drain can get bad in the AI-computation-intensive late game, and many older iPhone batteries aren’t up to the task of marathon sessions.
  • There’s no online multiplayer.
  • The Rise and Fall expansion is not included.

The ugly

  • Not many iPhone games cost $60 up front.