Amplitude Studios have been making 4X games for a while, and with Endless Legend the studio wandered awfully close into Civilization‘s territory. Having had the chance to finally play Humankind, Amplitude is trying to do more than simply recreating Civ — although the differences aren’t making themselves fully clear just yet.
I had the chance to play through the opening section of Humankind in an embargoed preview a few weeks ago. The game pans out over six eras, with the gameplay preview allowing press and influencers to trial the Ancient era. This era is almost identical to the opening of a Civilization game: you start with a tribe of settlers, and upon founding your first city, you’ll be able to evolve from the Neolithic era into the Ancient era.
It’s here that Humankind starts to diverge from the traditional Civ, 4X formula. Normally, the process of picking your faction would be done before the game begins. In Humankind, you pick a culture with the transition of each era. Each culture has its own Legacy Trait, which carries on across eras, temporary bonuses for that era, and a culture-specific unit and improvement, much like Civ.
Traditionally you’ll get ten cultures to pick from, but for the demo I was limited to four. I ended up rolling with the Harappans, a culture that got two extra food and production from river tiles, as well as an extension to canal networks that added one extra farmer slot and extra food. Good early-game stuff for juicing your population, basically. Bit like Australia in Civ 6.
Every tile around you has benefits and attributes, and it’s all familiar to Civ fans: some have better food, some tiles are better for production, some have scientific benefits, some have special resources. Your city produces a certain number of these every turn, as well as money for the overall kitty.
After founding your first city, you’ll start advancing down the tech tree. Horseback Riding is Domestication; City Defense takes the place of Masonry. It’s very straightforward.
So, you might ask: where does Humankind actually differ from Civilization? Civ is already a great game — why play something new that emulates the raw gameplay so closely?
Firstly, the main difference is in how you win. Like a board game — Tapestry in particular comes to mind — your culture gains a certain amount of victory points over the course of every era. As you complete certain feats, you’ll get extra victory points. This is the sole determinant for picking the winner at the end of the game. It’s not a space race, or a race to expand your culture or religion.
The idea, as Amplitude explained to press and content creators beforehand, is that the winner is the person who builds the most famous culture by the end of the game. And the first way to do that is through deeds, which are era-specific objectives that players can complete.
Everyone has a list of deeds, and they can only be completed once. If you’re the first to build a wonder, or a holy site, or to discover Mount Everest, you get a specific amount of points for the discovery.
Each era also has a certain amount of “era stars”. These are achievements all players can reach over the course of an era, like accumulating a certain amount of gold, scientific advancements, winning a certain amount of battles, building a certain amount of units, and so on. Different cultures will advance faster depending on their natural strengths, but it means you can still pick up victory points (or “Fame”) in other areas, too.
Importantly, era stars are what lets you advance to the next era. You don’t have to accumulate all of them before advancing, but there are good reasons for rushing through. While players can select from one of ten cultures from each era, whoever advances first gets the first pick, removing that culture from play for everyone else. As cultures apply important bonuses that last for the entirety of the game, it offers an interesting strategical choice that could mix up the mid and late-game phases nicely.
The game’s billed as a grand strategy affair, although I found it easier to compare Humankind to 4X board games than grand strategy titles like Europa Universalis or Stellaris. Expanding in the opening era is very straightforward: you take a unit, find the hex where you want to establish a city, and off you go.
You don’t need specialist units to grow your tribe, and the individual management of cities is structurally very different to Civ. Rather than a city whose borders grows as they grow in population, your city can build structures and improvements anywhere within your country’s borders. This means you can access special resources and can build much “taller” cities in Humankind than you would in, say, Civilization 6.
Another way of growing your borders is through outposts, which can then connect to a city. Outposts can be upgraded to cities later, so you can get your main city powering up first, if you want to really maximise its available surface area. The risk here is that you’ll have very wide, very open borders, making your nation’s resources and borders more vulnerable.
The AI wasn’t really capable of exploiting much in our preview build, however, and the work-in-progress build didn’t feature alliances, revolutions, religion, diplomacy, influencing other cultures and trading mechanics. It makes sense, then, why Humankind has been bumped into 2021. It’s taken Civilization decades to get most of its mechanics right, and even then not all of them work that well (like the diplomacy and AI).
The Civics system and random encounters will be familiar to anyone who played Endless Space or Endless Legend. The UI’s immediately familiar, too, with a very clean, minimalist approach that doesn’t shove too many buttons or numbers in your face.
There was a basic introduction to combat as well. Combat takes place within a fixed set of tiles around your units’ current location, which again is similar to how things worked in Endless Legend. Moving a unit into an enemy’s hex begins a deployment phase, where you can relocate your units in a certain radius.
The defenders have to survive and defend a “flag” over the course of three turns, which is basically just a mechanic to stop the defending armies from trying to repeatedly escape. Otherwise, it’s just an elongated version of how combat rolls in most 4X games: Each unit has its own defensive and offensive strengths, amplified or weakened by the defensive attributes of the tile hex they’re standing on.
Humankind has its own system for affinities and ideologies, most of which are impacted by your choices in the random encounters and events that appear from time to time. And some of these are just good/bad luck scenarios. One that happened to me was a flood rushing upon Harappa. Did I want to leave it to fate? Or I could pay 60 gold or 120 gold to mitigate some of the risks, depending on my bank balance. Another event let me decide whether to allow my capital’s tradition of street musicians to flourish throughout the empire. It effectively meant I could spend 60 gold to trigger a 10-turn boost in productivity for the capital, which is a nice gameplay choice to have.
There’s other structural tweaks Civ fans will be keen to know, too. You have a cap on the amount of armies, as each army has to be supported by a general. That cap expands over time, and individual armies can consist of four units, which older Civ fans will appreciate. You also can’t just set a city to go all-out on production or gold for a few turns, either. You’ll have to build improvements to expand the number of food/science/production/gold slots that citizens can occupy, but the expanded range of what a city can access should mean that individual cities won’t have to specialise too much.
What I’m most excited about for Humankind, though, is the parts that couldn’t be shown. Civilization‘s greatest problem is that everything builds to a crescendo in the mid-game, after which point your plans succeed and you snowball to a victory that takes another 100 to 150 turns to complete. By focusing on feats rather than a religious, scientific or military conquest, Humankind offers the promise of a 4X that can still be competitive and dramatic in the final turns.
But it’s hard to see how that works without more of those systems being playable. For now, my experience with Humankind panned out like most of my early games of Civ, but with fewer menus. The changes to border expansion and random encounters are fun, and it’s great to see some of those Endless Legend ideas being re-developed and expanded upon here. Amplitude kept talking up how Humankind was the game they’ve always wanted to make — and when more of that game is properly playable, I’ll be keen to see it.
Humankind is due out on PC sometime in 2021.