This article was originally published on the defunct Ancient World Magazine website and is now re-published here.
In November of last year, I wrote an article with some of my thoughts on historical strategy games. Games can be a fun way to introduce people to history. Anecdotally, there are lots of players who profess to have been inspired to read more about the past after being engrossed by games like Civilization or Age of Empires.
Game developers typically don’t have an academic background in history or archaeology, and so they must rely on their own research or advisors when it comes to emulating aspects of the past. The choices they make are interesting, because they often reveal what kinds of ideas about past societies are widespread enough to be incorporated into a game.
A lot of the time, outdated ideas and concepts resurface in games: those instances should be a call to action on the part of academically-trained professionals, historians and archaeologists alike, to try and get more involved with the process of creating and designing games. Or we should really try to make our own games: that is certainly something that I am currently devoting some of my time to.
For now, though, let’s stick to critiquing and discussing historical games. The subject of the present review is Humankind, a turn-based strategy game inspired by Sid Meier’s Civilization series of games, where the player is tasked to lead their faction to greatness (i.e. victory), from the Neolithic era all the way into the contemporary era. I wrote about the game in the article I mentioned earlier, after I had dabbled in the demo that was available on Google Stadia, and concluded then that the game was not for me.
However, Humankind did linger in the back of my mind and when it was finally released on 17 August 2021, I decided I wanted to return to it and write up a more in-depth review of the game. Because even though the game has some major flaws, it is still interesting because of the choices that the developers have made. For most, it probably won’t be the “Civ-killer” that some have touted it to be, but it’s definitely worth your time if you’re interested in historical strategy games and/or the reception of the past in new media.
Roving in the Stone Age
In Civilization, you start the game by picking a leader, like Julius Caesar of the Romans or George Washington of the Americans. Not so in Humankind. Instead, you create an avatar, a figure who will represent you as you play the game. The other players in the game, either human (in an online game) or AI, are referred to as “competitors”.
When you start the game, you begin in control of a “nomadic tribe”, described as “a society of hunter-gatherers living in temporary settlements”. However, there is a problem: in the top left corner, the game specifies that we are currently in the “Neolithic Era”. One of the characteristics of the Neolithic, to put it very briefly, is the domestication of plants and animals, and the emergence of farming and settled villages.
Why then does the game start off with a “nomadic tribe” of “hunter-gatherers”? Or to swap things around: why does the game insist on starting during the “Neolithic Era” rather than, say, the Mesolithic or even earlier, the Palaeolithic. If you claim to be inspired by history, this sets the wrong tone directly at the start and I am not sure why this decision was made in the first place. It could also be easily solved by simply referring to this starting “era” as the Stone Age.
This early phase of the game is also a little weird in that it follows different rules from the rest of the game. Your “nomadic hunter-gatherers” rove from tile to tile, hunting animals and exploring “curiosities”. Hunting animals is the game’s way of introducing you to the combat mechanics. When engaging in combat, you can choose to auto-resolve, which gives you the outcome of the battle immediately. You can also manually control combat, at which point you manoeuvre your units around a small battlefield and try to defeat the opposing forces.
By exploring “food curiosities” and hunting animals, you gain Food. Gain enough Food, and another unit (set of figures) will be added to “your army”. It’s a bit of a missed opportunity that the game refers to all of your units as being part of your army, even in this early era. Anyway, explore other curiosities to gain “Influence”: if you gain enough, you can found an outpost, which you can later grow into a city. An outpost takes a few turns to get constructed, which I appreciated.
Random events will also pop up, now as well as later in the game. An early one that pops up during this starting phase of the game involves violent games. The “tribe” apparently likes these, but will you condone them? You then have an option to encourage them, outlaw them, or codify them. Each choice has one or more defined consequences.
Sometimes, an event forms part of a chain, and may lead to positive or negative results somewhere down the line. In those cases, the events that pop up usually have only one option to pick from. I like these events, but wish that there were more of them: as you play multiple games, you will start encountering the same ones again and again.
By exploring the map, hunting animals, investigating curiosities, settling outposts, and so on, you gain points that are funnelled towards fulfilling the requirements for one of three “Era Stars”. There are three types of stars: growth (related to population), knowledge (related to Science, which you get by exploring science curiosities), and hunter (related to hunting animals). You need to complete the requirements for one of these stars in order to advance from the Neolithic “Era”.
The main way in which Humankind sets itself apart from its rival, Civilization, is the concept of mixing and matching cultures as you move from one “Era” to another. Once you complete one of the “Era Stars” in the “Neolithic Era”, you can “advance” to the “Ancient Era”. It is here that you get to pick your first culture.
There is quite a bit to unpack here. The notion of different “Eras” is in itself problematic. Periodization is always done after the fact and is, by its very nature, artificial. When, exactly, does, for example, the “Ancient Era” start? When does it finish? What criteria do you use? How does one distinguish the Bronze Age from the Iron Age, or Late Antiquity from the Early Medieval period? In essence, these are all constructs, done for our own convenience. Plus, the periodization used here is strictly Eurocentric.
Humankind, like Civilization, treats “Eras” as immutable. In these games, history always follows the exact same path. A leads to B leads to C and so on. There are major differences from one “Era” to the next; there is no place here for subtlety. And it is here, as I noted last year, that the game falls apart for me. Again.
As you move into the “Ancient Era”, you get to pick one of a number of different “Cultures”. Each “Culture” in the game has a particular “Affinity”: Expansionist, Scientist, Aesthete, Builder, Militarist, and so on. The different “Cultures” for this “Era” include the Egyptians, the Nubians, the Harappans, and the Mycenaeans, among others.
Let’s take the Mycenaeans as an example. Their affinity is “Militarist”. A bit of rather silly flavour text reads as follows: “Illustrious warriors have the whole earth as their tomb.” Owen Rees recognized it as something from Pericles’ funeral oration (Thuc. 2.43.3). But that only baffles me more: what does Thucydides have to do with the ancient Mycenaeans? Anyway, they also have a unique district, which you build on a tile adjacent to a city. Of course, their unique district is “Cyclopean fortress”, and it gives bonuses to fortifications and adjacent units.
Their Legacy Trait is, for some reason, “brutal upbringing”: units are 20% cheaper and get +25 Experience Points when they are first created. Legacy Traits are traits that stick around all through the game. As you play and move into subsequent “Eras”, you will pick another “Culture”, which grants you benefits in the short term (for that Era) and also gives you another Legacy Trait that sticks around until the end of the game.
As may be obvious from the Mycenaean example, the developers lean hard into stereotypes. But this kind of essentialism does more harm than good. In the case of the Mycenaeans, it reinforces the idea that they were somehow more militaristic than other ancient peoples, which is simply untrue. I wrote more about that particular issue here.
Other “Cultures” don’t fare much better. The Nubians are considered “Merchants” and their existence revolves around gold. The Egyptians are “Builders”, the Assyrians are “Expanionists”, and so on. There is also the problem, as usual with these kinds of games, that any variety within a “Culture” is completely ignored. Egypt is always united, there is only one type of Assyrians, and so on.
It could be argued that this is simply the nature of the beast. Civilization also revels in caricature: you pick a faction (“civilization”) and then a leader, and off you pop. In Humankind, you pick a different Culture during each Era. At least, this is what the game encourages you to do: you also have the option to “transcend” your chosen Culture, which means that you get some bonuses (including a score multiplier) and keep playing as whatever Culture you chose last.
For me, mixing and matching different “Cultures” as you move from one Era to the next doesn’t make any sense. At no point do the “Egyptians” consciously decide to turn into the “Greeks” as they move from one neatly delineated period to the next. It feels wrong in so many different ways. It irks me in a way that simply playing as “Julius Caesar of the Romans” in Civilization doesn’t.
And this is a major problem, because mixing and matching “Cultures” is at the very core of Humankind. I didn’t like this aspect of the game back when I originally tried out the demo, and I still don’t like it playing the full game today. It seems to me that there are different, better ways of doing this. For example, why focus on “Cultures” at all? Why not have a player’s culture develop more naturally?
There is also the problem that two players cannot pick the same Culture. This, too, doesn’t seem to make any sense from a historical point of view (even if I understand why you can’t from a game design perspective). Take ancient Greece as an example. There were a multitude of cities, each of which identified in some way as “Greek” (whatever that means), yet they also had their own quirks and were, importantly, independent from each other. Humankind follows Civilization in making each “Culture” imperialistic, a single entity that can only exist by itself.
And then there’s the problem that despite all of their different traits and the beautiful artwork that accompanies them, none of these “Cultures” succeed in giving players an identity of their own. The avatars are usually generic people dressed in more or less “Era”-appropriate garb that all spout more or less the same generic lines when you try to engage with them diplomatically.
Whatever the problems Civilization has, those factions at least have a character of their own: if I encounter Montezuma or Gandhi in a game of Civ, I know exactly what to expect. Not so with Humankind, and that is to the detriment of the game as a whole. What we are left with, then, is a culture-swapping system that is entirely ahistorical and also doesn’t add meaningfully to fleshing out the different players.
Let’s talk about victory conditions and how you can win a game of Humankind. This is an interesting topic, at least to me, because the idea of “winning” a game that is inspired by history is inherently problematic. How does one “win” at history? In the real world, has any particular nation, people, or culture “won”? If you try to answer that question honestly, you’ll see how problematic the concept is.
Of course, this is inherent to the very concept of a competitive game. And I am fine with that if the time scale is relatively short. It works in a combat-focused game like Age of Empires, since the main way to win is to wipe out all your opponents and you can play an entire match to completion in an hour. With Civilization and Humankind, you’ll be playing for many hours, across a vast span of time, from the Stone Age to the modern era, and the competitive element sort of gets in the way there.
In order to be a game, there need to be rules that determine who has won, even if it simply means reaching the end of a particular narrative. Otherwise, you end up with grand strategy simulations like Crusader Kings or Europa Universalis, where there are no victory conditions as such, and the joy is seeing how the simulation unfolds based on the decisions you make. Maybe that’s a valid solution: don’t make a game with victory conditions, but a simulation instead. But then we essentially solve the problem by moving the goalposts, i.e. we don’t solve the problem itself.
Perhaps the solution is to remove the competitive, head-to-head gameplay. Maybe something more akin to, say, King of Dragon Pass, is the solution. King of Dragon Pass is essentially a menu-driven game with a focus on narrative rather than conquest. It is also, first and foremost, a single-player game. The focus in that game is also not on a map; there is a map in the game, but you have to specifically go there to look at it, and your goal is not to paint it mostly in your own colour (i.e. to conquer it).
Anyway, within the context of a game that is inspired by history, it’s always a little weird: how do you “win” a game where each player is building up their own faction? The original Civilization (1991) was, essentially, a war game: the main way to win was by conquering your rivals. Alternatively, you could also build a spaceship and be the first to set off to Alpha Centauri, achieving a “scientific” victory by winning the “space race”. If time ran out, the player with the highest score won (a “survival” victory).
Civilization has received five sequels to date. The sequels generally built on the foundation of the original game, adding more victory conditions (economic, diplomatic, etc.), but the basic elements of the game haven’t changed: you still explore the map, expand your territory, exploit the resources that are found in the landscape, and, if necessary, exterminate your rivals. It’s a 4X game for a reason (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate).
If all that sounds imperialistic, that’s because it is. Civilization even embraces the concept of “barbarians” – wild people who live in camps and who cannot be tamed, only destroyed. There are also “goody huts”, which confer bonuses on the player- or AI-controlled unit that first enters the tile that it is on. After giving the player a reward, the “goody hut” disappears from the map forever, as if native peoples are merely there to be used up by imperialist powers that happen to move across their land.
Humankind had a chance to improve on the Civilization formula here, but ultimately doesn’t. Humankind is just as imperialistic a game as Civilization is. The main difference is that the map is broken up into separate, entirely artificial territories – an element borrowed from Amplitude’s earlier, science-fiction/fantasy 4X game, Endless Legend. Each territory may contain only a single city that will exploit the surrounding landscape.
As in Civilization, a game of Humankind can end in a variety of different ways. Each game only lasts a maximum of 300 turns (at normal speed); if you reach turn 300, the game ends. Similarly, the game ends if a player completes a mission to Mars (the Humankind equivalent to the Civilization race to Alpha Centauri), if a player completes the technology tree, earns all the Era Stars in the contemporary era, and so on.
However, ending the game is not the same as winning it. Humankind here hones in on the very gamey concept of score, referred to as “fame”. At the end of the game, the player with the most “fame” wins the game. This opens up a number of possibilities: for example, if you are far ahead with regards to fame, it may be advantageous to end the game early by completing the mission to Mars.
This is the default way to win Humankind. There are some other options available that you can set at the start of the game. One is a simple time victory, where the game only ends when time has run out or if the world has been rendered unfit for human life (e.g. through excessive pollution). Another is a space race victory, where the game ends if you send a mission to Mars. “Last Human Standing” is essentially a deathmatch: you win by exterminating or vassalizing all your rivals. The time limit (300 turns) remains in place regardless of which game mode you select.
Other aspects of the game
Humankind ditches the tedious busywork of Civilization’s workers. Workers have been an issue in the Civilization series for a while. Civilization VI kept them, but simplified them by giving them a limited number of uses. Civilization: Revolution, originally designed for consoles and later ported to mobile phones, ripped them out entirely and, like Humankind, was all the better for it.
On paper, the diplomacy system in Humankind seems like an improvement over their previous games and possibly also the Civilization series. There are “Grievances” that you help you in making a rival do what you want them to do, and declaring war is something that you need to give considerable thought to, and should not simply declare willy-nilly. But the system also seems very dry, driven by numbers alone; more flavour can make the diplomacy more lively. As it is, it seems like a good basis for further development, but little more.
Humankind is not the first foray into the 4X genre for Amplitude Studios. Their first game was the space-bound Endless Space, followed a little later by the planetary strategy game Endless Legend. The latter was science-fantasy with great faction design, and introduced the concept of city districts – an idea that was also incorporated into Civilization VI. Endless Space 2 saw the studio return to space, but I never got around to playing it much.
A lot of the ideas from Endless Legend naturally made their way into Humankind, including the city districts, but there are also plenty of differences. Humankind features a linear “tech tree” à la the Civilization games, for example. This is again a problem, because it suggests that history is linear, with no room for dead ends or alternatives. There are better ways to handle the idea of technological advances, and indeed Amplitude themselves (!) have come up with alternatives, like the tech “rings” in Endless Legend.
Humankind also ditches the quest-driven storylines from Endless Legend in favour of a system that pops up events that force you to choose between different options that help shape your faction. This, too, seems like a missed opportunity to me. I briefly mentioned King of Dragon Pass before, which is all about narrative and the choices you make during particular events. It seems to me that Humankind should have leaned into this aspect more, but alas, it was not to be.
One aspect that I do really like – perhaps even love? – about Humankind is its “Civics” system. Every once in a while, you will have to make a binary choice, which has an effect on how your faction develops. For example, a question will pop up after capturing a city: “What attitude should we have to outsider cultures?” You can then pick to be either isolationist or to embrace other cultures. Picking an option costs Influence, so you will eventually enter a situation where you have to prioritize which choices to make.
These choices will generate a particular bonus and they will move one of four ideological axes to one end or the other. The four ideological axes are: progress versus tradition (society), liberty versus authority (government), world versus homeland (geopolitics), and collectivism versus individualism (economy). Narrative events may also have an effect on these ideological axes, with choices pushing an axis in one direction or the other.
It is this system that I think perhaps should have been the focus of Humankind. Rather than having players mix and match different “Cultures”, they could have expanded on this system instead to have a player make meaningful decisions about the kind of faction that they wanted to have. I can easily see another developer taking this core concept and exploring further, adding a kind of roleplaying element to the game.
Finally, some remarks on the user interface. On the whole, the UI in Humankind is more streamlined than in their previous games, and certainly much more friendly to new players. It’s easier to find what you’re looking for now. However, it is definitely not perfect: contrast is often low (e.g. red text on a dark grey background) and fonts tend to be small, with no option to enlarge them.
As far as accessibility is concerned, the interface seems to still need some work. However, I am not expecting major revisions given this is essentially another iteration on what Amplitude has done in their previous strategy games.
In short, Humankind is an interesting, but deeply flawed turn-based strategy game. It has some interesting ideas, takes a lot from Amplitude Studios’ earlier games, and provides enough of a twist on the Civilization series of games to stand on its own. It also helps that it looks really great, with good art design throughout.
Do I recommend Humankind? It’s a difficult question to answer. I don’t regret playing it, but mostly I played it as an object of study. I liked picking apart the different systems, figuring out what decisions Amplitude Studios made and why they may have made them. I love the “Civics” system. I enjoyed writing this article.
There are some minor aspects of the game that I haven’t touched upon at all, and mostly that’s because I didn’t care about them. The weirdly jokey narrator is one of them. I don’t think he works, and I don’t understand the tone that the developers are trying to go for by including him. He actively detracts from the game.
In my earlier discussion of Humankind, I also touched upon the myriad historical inaccuracies of the game. For a game that is said to be inspired by history, it is certainly disheartening to come across all kinds of small mistakes that could have been easily avoided. Again, as I have written before, I think most historians and archaeologists are very approachable, and you can always ask us for advice. Many of us can be found on Twitter, for example, so we’re not exactly hard to reach.
Will I stick with the game? I do find myself thinking about it often. Humankind seems to me a response to Civilization, but not the “correct” response, if I may be so bold. It changes some elements for the worse, like the idea of swapping cultures, which remains utterly nonsensical to me. It also fully embraces some aspects that should have been abandoned long ago, like the entirely linear tech tree, as well as the notion of moving from one clearly-defined “Era” to the next.
Still, if any of the foregoing sounds even remotely interesting, I think you can figure out for yourself if you’re ready to take the plunge. Unlike many games, Humankind does have a demo available on its Steam page (at the time of writing this), so you can check it out for yourself and decide whether or not you want to buy the full game.