Humankind review: a heavyweight alternative to Civilization

Except for when I have to review strategy games, I’m in love with them. There are so many complex systems, moving parts, and possible play experiences that summarising how good they are can be a real brain-buster. In the face of adversity, humanity has proven to be more resilient than most. In part, this is because I’ve played it so much that there’s even more to summarise. As soon as Amplitude announced its big boy 4X, we all knew its success would be defined by how it compared to Civilization.

So, there you have it. No need to go on and on: Can Humankind match the prowess of Civ?

Yes. I think so, as well. If you’re looking for a fun, fair, and useful way to compare two games, I can’t think of anything worse than a long list of oblique feature comparisons, which culminates in an uninformative “better or worse” verdict.

Whenever I open up Steam, my brain immediately begins to scurry towards the possibility of playing Humankind like a tray of nails sliding towards a cartoon magnet. Civ games have always held a certain allure for me, and this is no exception. In my opinion, Humankind is the best 4X game out there, and it deserves to be regarded as the best in the genre at this time.

While previewing Humankind previously, I discussed how the mix-and-match civilization-building system left it open to the emergence of bonus combos that were too powerful not to use, severely restricting the effective breadth of pathways through time. Having played a few more games, I have a more positive outlook. Since it’s difficult to discern how the bonuses are being offset, it gives the impression that cheating is the only option available.

With the Zhou in the Ancient slot and spamming Confucian schools near mountains, my research rate skyrocketed by 10,000% in a few turns of a recent game I was playing. It appeared to be ridiculous. However, this left me with the choice of either rushing an era advance before the optimum point or continuing through the ancient era with a large number of expensive research districts doing nothing. It turned out that moderation would have been a better strategy for me than min-maxing.

An earlier combination of Phoenician and Carthaginian cities along the coast resulted in an army of hyper-harbors that allowed me to force-feed my citizens four tonnes of herring a day, causing my population to skyrocket and making me sickeningly wealthy. In the end, my population smashed into a hard ceiling quickly because I hadn’t yet built up the infrastructure or technology necessary to keep that population happy. It seemed like a no-brainer at the time, but going all-in on the harbors was so bad that I ended up losing the lead to an AI in the final stages of the game.

Economic bonuses, despite their apparent irresistibility, are still the most straightforward route to financial success. Since land development is almost always more efficient than military action and diplomacy, I tend to put in the bare minimum effort in most games.

Humankind Game
Humankind Game

Because both diplomacy and combat are excellent in their own right, it’s a real shame. Battles in which the map is used as an arena for armies to engage in a turn-based duel are excellent, deep fun. When it comes to auto-resolving them, I’m usually waiting for something exciting to finish construction and I simply don’t have the time or energy to manually resolve them. Because of all the money I’ve made from my tile improvements, I’ve been able to pay off neighboring empires whenever they’ve attacked me.

Because of this, I’ve found that my desire to pick civs has decreased as a result of my focus on the strength of reliable bonuses, such as research, food, money, and production. For some reason, I haven’t tried many of the civs in either the Renaissance or the Renaissance II periods because their advantages lie in areas of the game that are less… Winny to me. I’m hesitant to criticize too harshly because I don’t know how much time I’ll have to play and experiment with this.

A military-focused game or two might have given me an idea of the relative strengths of various approaches, but that doesn’t have to be the case, and it’s probably the greatest strength of humanity. Changing civilizations at the end of an era gives you the ability to completely alter the workings of your empire. You can turn a money-making machine into an international powerhouse or research giant in a matter of smart turns, while still retaining some of its financial acumens. The ability to make such a complete 180-degree turn at the right time is a crucial one, and it requires a great deal of thoughtful deliberation.

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This on-the-fly redefinition of your entire gameplan, and the fact that it’s a necessity rather than an option, is a masterstroke. The more I play, the more fundamentally brilliant a mechanic I realize it is, and on this front at least, I don’t feel like a dick in saying Humankind blows Civ out of the water. Every Civilization game comes to the table with a set of innovations on its predecessor’s ruleset, but I can’t think of development in that series that was half so neatly transformational as this. So, you know: good on yers, Amplitude.

Humankind isn’t perfect, even discounting my personal feelings about the relative efficacy and fun potential of different playstyles. There were a lot of small but weird bugs in the review build: notifications informing me that the Olmecs had advanced to the Ancient Era no less than five times; the narrator expressing his shock at my building five, fifteen, and then thirty farming quarters on consecutive turns, when I had done no such thing; a boat panicking when set to auto-explore.

Beyond that, my only real gripe with Humankind is that I’m not entirely certain what it is. If you want a 4X game that isn’t just another Civ-like clone, this is the one. In the process of curving around Big Sid’s baby, it’s taken on an odd shape. The best way to describe it is that a lot is going on. This can be a very rewarding strategic move at times. At other times, it can feel like you’re drowning in data.

With its hexes and multipliers abstracting the core theme of humanity, Humankind can feel more like a puzzle game than an expansion than a 4X, especially in the latter stages of the game. Humankind isn’t a total disaster if the only things I can think of to complain about are the fact that it makes me think too much and the fact that I need to play more. Make some harbors, and tell the Olmecs I’m here to greet them. That is if they ever manage to break out of their Ancient Era time loop and invent the art of writing.

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