Available On: Steam PC, Stadia
Played On: Steam PC
Humankind is a 4X historical strategy game, a specific genre that few game companies dare tread thanks to the ever-present behemoth of Sid Meier’s Civilization series. Despite some flaws, Humankind feels both different and familiar to 4X fans in all the right ways, providing an excellent alterative approach to turn-based strategy throughout history.
Through the Ages
If you haven’t played a Civ game before, Humankind’s gameplay is a bit daunting, and doesn’t do a great job explaining some of its systems. As a turn-based strategy game, my fledgling empire begins as a neolithic people of nomads, lacking the means and technology to even found a city. I spend my first several crucial turns exploring the randomly generated map, finding curiosities and defeating animals to earn influence, research, and money. Eventually I can plop down my first outpost, which can then become my first city, and officially advance to the Ancient age.
One of Humankind’s most unique features is that real-world cultures are chosen when advancing through each age. Ten cultures are available in each of the six eras, each providing their own unique traits, districts, and units — and the traits will stick with me as I progress through future ages. Cultures also come in seven different affinities, including Agrarian (food focused), Builder, Expansionist, and Militarist.
Customizing your unique empire through different historical cultures is an awesome concept that provides a lot of flexibility in playstyles. For example, when fighting back against an aggressive neighbor during the Medieval era, I was enjoying my powerful Mongol Hordes. When I advanced to Early Modern, I chose the Spanish to take advantage of their combat bonus in foreign territory. After the war ended, I chose the Italians in the Industrial age to help improve stability and influence in my war-weary cities.
On the other hand, since we’re swapping entire cultures ever so often, each player loses their singular identity. Unlike Civ, I’m not trading with Ghandi of India or battling with Montezuma of the Aztecs. Instead I’m facing off against a random AI avatar who had chosen the Poles, then the Zulu. It also doesn’t help that AI leaders are custom built with their own AI settings, not randomly generated on the fly, which would at least create a bit more excitement and unpredictably in future matches.
In order to win a game of Humankind, which can easily last around ten hours, I need to acquire the most fame by the end of the game. Fame is an overall score awarded for accomplishing goals throughout each era, such as defeating military units, expanding my territory, and researching technology. Goals are always the same, but requirements and fame bonuses change as the eras progress, and cultures aligned to certain affinities will earn more Fame in those categories. I’ve found that beyond the initial starter difficulty, the AI is pretty darn good at acquiring Fame throughout each era, making every game competitive and engaging — though certain culture combinations seem wildly unbalanced.
Running an empire can be overwhelming, but Humankind keeps things running smoothly thanks to the relatively low number of cities most players can control. Borrowing from Amplitude’s earlier 4X game Endless Legend, the world is divided up into similar-size territories, with each city or outpost laying claim to a full territory. Outposts can be attached to cities to expand a city’s territory, at the cost of stability (happiness). Even by the end of the game, most players are only going to have half a dozen cities, yet still have satisfyingly large areas to build up districts, wonders, and infrastructure.
Like Civ 6, districts are built on individual tiles in order to exploit resources, but there’s even more synergy in Humankind, as districts exploit surrounding tiles as well their own. However, each district lowers stability, requiring a careful balancing act to avoid expanding too quickly.
Combat is also a bit step up from the Civilization series, and another takeaway from Endless Legend. When hostile armies clash, the action switches to a tactical battlefield using the surrounding terrain, which is far more topographical and meaningful than in Civilization. Players take turns moving units and targeting enemies for several rounds. Reinforcements can be brought in if the battle lasts multiple turns, and siege weapons can be built during prolonged city sieges.
It’s not a deep, tactical wargame like the Age of Wonders series, yet it’s still very satisfying and rewarding to defeat a more powerful army using smart tactics and terrain advantages.
Humankind does have its flaws, however. Religion is somewhat useful early on to unlock tenants, then becomes mostly worthless by midgame. Wonders aren’t terribly exciting (though I do like claiming them as a solution to other player stealing a nearly finished wonder), and there’s an odd disconnect between era advancement not at all tied to technology. It’s not uncommon to reach the Contemporary era and still utilize knights and early gunpowder soldiers.
The biggest problem are the balance between cultures. Some are clearly more powerful in their era than others, such as the food-doubling Harappan in the Ancient era, and the ridiculously huge science boost from the Swedes in the Contemporary era, on top of the brokenly powerful abilities from Builder and Science cultures. Certain culture combos can lead to runaway leaders, as each empire ascends to the next era at their own pace, quickly grabbing the best cultures.
Humankind has been rated E10+ with Mild Violence, Language, and Alcohol References. Tiny enemy units clash on the battlefield, stabbing, and shooting. Bodies fall, but there’s no blood. The biggest barrier to entry is that 4X games demand a lot of planning, time, and strategy. Even with all its additional expansions, Civilization 6 does a better job introducing the genre for newcomers.
As a long-time fan and veteran of Civilization, Humankind is the first 4X historical strategy game to capture my attention without having Sid Meier’s name attached. The evolving cultures are unique and incredibly replayable. Combat is tactically satisfying without slowing things down, and city management feels like a proper evolution to the districts introduced in Civilization 6.
Most of Humankind’s flaws can be shorn up with patches and expansions — even the Civ series is often disappointingly bare on release, growing stronger and more satisfying with years of content. I hope Humankind receives similar post-launch treatment, allowing it to makes its lasting mark upon gaming history.