Millennia review: Civilization meets Anno in a messy revolution

C Prompt Games delivers a most refreshing take on Civilization
C Prompt Games / Paradox Interactive

They say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions and the citizens of Regensburg, the capital of Germany in this particular campaign of Millennia, must surely have come to agree. To be more specific, it was my intentions that sent them to hell – a tale of ruler and ruled as old as time. News from a far-away country arrived that it had entered the Age of Plague and for better or worse the first nation to advance to the next age in this game locks it in for everyone else. So, plague arrived in Germany, infecting parts of the population and making tiles unworkable, which disrupted the supply of food and goods. Minimally, at first. Plus, we’ve got some Plague Doctors to combat infections and clear them away by investing some Exploration XP, which as a wise ruler I naturally had banked up.

In retrospect, though, I was too confident. The Age of Plague, one of the exciting Variant Ages in Millennia – an alt-history scenario that can be triggered instead of the “regular” historical age – is a marathon, not a sprint. My people died for my misjudgment. I rooted out infections as soon they popped up, burning through my Exploration XP without the means to properly refill it at the same speed – until I was out. That’s when the plague spread and got worse, not just disrupting work on tiles but killing off parts of the population. I should have been more patient and only cleaned up larger infection spots to conserve resources instead of trying to save everyone. I know that now.

Unfortunately, this insight came too late for the citizens of Regensburg, who died in droves. A budding metropolis with over a dozen population was ground back down to one – one single worker remained. It would take centuries for my capital to regain its population. They call the Age of Plague a Variant Age, but this is one of the most poignant portrayals of the Black Death’s long-term effects on medieval Europe I’ve ever seen in a video game.

Millennia screenshot showing the Age of Plague.
The Age of Plague is bad news for everyone. The screen itself looks sort of unfinished to me with the rudimentary bullet points. / C Prompt Games / Paradox Interactive

There is nothing quite like figuring out a brand-new strategy game – that sense of discovery and wonder as you dive ever deeper into its mechanics and find fresh ways to use them, as you face unintended consequences and ever more threatening challenges. Millennia, a turn-based 4X strategy game developed by C Prompt Games and Paradox, practically drowns you in all of that, overwhelming you with its fantastic ideas and fresh interpretations of a well-tread genre – but in a good way. It's the kind of feeling you should have if an entire civilization’s fate is in your hands, whether you’re trying to simultaneously manage a plague and a war, send out mighty heroes on legendary quests, or fight off an alien invasion. In Millennia, you could never interact with any other civilization and still would have your hands full managing your empire.

Starting up a campaign of Millennia, you’ll immediately be familiar with what’s going on, yet note a few key differences to genre staples like Sid Meier’s Civilization. While you pick a country to lead – Germany, Rome, China, and all the usual suspects – these nations are blank sheets of paper, their cultures and histories yet to be written by you. You can pick one unique bonus from a list of things to start off with, but that’s it. You won’t find that Rome can build legionaries or has special aqueducts. It could have – if you play a certain way. But so could Germany. Or China.

Somewhat similar to Humankind, Millennia lets you build your own nation over the course of a game, shaped by the decisions you make and conditions you face. At certain points, you can change your government system and unlock National Spirits, both of which are ways to specialize your country. On a mechanical level, they’re skill trees you advance through as you gain XP. As alluded to above, there are several types – such as Exploration XP or Military XP – and, naturally, certain National Spirits require a specific type of XP to fuel it. The neat part is that earning each type of XP necessitates a certain play style – you want Military XP? You’ve got an incentive to fight a lot. Exploration XP? Focus on scouting and striking out to the seas. It’s a pretty simple, yet elegant system to shape national identities and empower different play styles, making each of them viable and fun.

One early Exploration-based National Spirit allows you to send out hunters and work tiles outside of your territory to send resources back home and boost your growth, all the while boosting your stationary hunting camps and revealing elephants as a resource on the map. What I want to get across is that these skill trees aren’t just redistributing some income numbers – they very much change how you play.

Paradox fans should not be worried: Your beloved incremental numerical gains have their place, too. Later, you’ll unlock the Social Fabric system, a sort of RPG-style stat sheet. As you invest XP into it, you'll get general bonuses like reduced upkeep, cheaper tech, and so on.

Overall, I find this combination of interlocking systems much more engaging than the one from Humankind, which always ends up mashing your nation into something generic you can’t really identify with – in Millennia, National Spirits, Social Fabric, and governments all tell your story.

Millennia screenshot showing cities under the effects of the plague.
Poor Regensburg is getting ravaged by the plague and I'm all out of Exploration XP. / C Prompt Games / Paradox Interactive

Even a simple mechanic like expansion has a real twist to it – you can’t build settlers in your towns. Instead, you spawn them by investing Government XP, thus leading to an interesting decision between expanding and focusing inwards by improving your regime. Plopping down cities won’t immediately give you full control over them either. They begin as AI-controlled vassals, which slowly grow and pay part of their yields to you as income. You can invest Culture later, assuming direct control over them, or simply have them continue as your subjects and help them grow through stationing merchants there. This mechanic provides a fascinating spin on the tall vs. wide play style in the genre – you can play wide and expand a lot, putting everything under your personal oversight, or take a government specializing in the empowerment and exploitation of vassals and play tall, keeping just a small number of cities under your direct control, which grow fat from the income of their subjects. 

You can also use Pioneers to build Outposts, which gobble up some territory around themselves and allow you to send exploited resources back to a linked city. These can be specialized later, becoming Castles or Colonies and featuring unique improvements – again, this can feed into the tall or wide play styles depending on how you want to use the mechanic.

Diving into another defining feature of Millennia, we come to production chains – on top of the big innovations described above, C Prompt Games put an entire city-builder-esque economy chain into this title. In Civilization, you build farms or mines to gain extra food or production from a tile, right? That principle doesn’t change in Millennia. However, you gain something on top – you get goods, such as wheat. Wheat provides four food for your city. Build a mill improvement on a tile and this wheat will be consumed by the mill to produce flour, which provides six food. Build an oven on another tile and this flour will be consumed to make bread, which provides eight food – and consider that each link in this chain produces two units of their respective resource.

Millennia screenshot showing two early cities.
These cities are placed too close to each other. Millennia needs you to rethink your approach from Civilization, as cities need a lot more space to bloom. / C Prompt Games / Paradox Interactive

A full chain like this provides 16 food for a city with three workers and three tiles. Building only farms, you’d need four workers and four tiles to reach the same amount – in short, building up resource chains increases the efficiency of your cities. It can also make outdated resources relevant later in the game. Take a hunting camp, which provides meat. You can later build the kitchen improvement, which can create delicacies from this, providing food as well as luxury. What’s more, you can build a domestic trade network to spread those goods out – have a city that specializes in mining and doesn’t have access to a good food source? Divert some bread from a farming town to feed it. In return, send tools manufactured from the mine-furnace-smithy production chain back to increase the farming town’s production.

In Millennia, you’ll never get to the point where you want to automate your workers to improve your tiles for you – first, because there are no workers. You build up tiles using improvement points, a resource generated by buildings, governments, and so on. And second, because all tiles are incredibly valuable. Building up these production chains takes a lot of space, so under no circumstances do you want to waste it. It gets you to go back and re-evaluate your towns again and again, checking what you can do better. And if that sounds overwhelming – let your vassals handle it and concentrate your own efforts on just a few cities.

Naturally, growing populations will have all sorts of needs to fulfill, which pop up the bigger a city gets (another hallmark mechanic of city-builders) – things like food, housing, sanitation, faith, luxury, education, and information. Satisfying these generates growth and happiness, failing to do so breeds stagnation and rebellion. Having high unrest or razing towns on your borders will create chaos, which can lead to negative events. On the flipside, you can invest in your country’s future and generate innovation, which will lead to positive events that can generate permanent yield boosts on certain buildings, unlock new unit types, or world wonders.

Harkening back to the start of this review, I must address the Age system as well. Aside from the historical eras like the Age of Iron or the Age of Enlightenment and so on, Millennia features what it calls Variant Ages. These provide fun and interesting twists to history, which can completely turn a game on its head, and can be unlocked by anyone upon fulfilling the certain conditions. Because the first country reaching the next Age locks in what it’ll be for everyone, this is another point of tension with your rivals. If you want a specific era, better race towards it. Conversely, if you checked the boxes for an Age you don’t want, better drag out your progress and let another nation take the technological lead, as it may have set its sights on another one.

Some of these epochs are downright wacky – there is the Age of Aether, for example, in which mankind discovers a fantastical energy source that enables the industrial revolution to happen right after the Renaissance. You’ll have farms and factories run by automatons, working planes and tanks based on the designs of Da Vinci, and a completely different experience than in the corresponding regular Age. Some of these are more fun than others for sure, but they’re all a breath of fresh air when they come around.

I’ve not run out of good things to say about Millennia, but that shouldn’t completely blot out the game’s obvious weak point – its presentation. It’s not a beautiful game in terms of visuals and user interface. Practical, yes. That simplified city overview Millennia has to show which tiles are being worked on? That’s peak practical design and I love it, but it won’t win a beauty contest. Its janky battle animations, which pop in on an annoying separate screen, look like they’re from the early 2000s. I get what this screen is trying to do – it’s trying to visualize the rock-paper-scissor combat mechanics, allowing players to understand how fights are resolved and which types of units do well against which. That doesn’t make me not skip them 99% of the time, though, and an auto-skip setting for these windows would be much appreciated. Some of the math for damage modifiers and so on doesn’t add up either, leaving you confused why a battle went the way it did despite the visuals.

Millennia screenshot showing a city overview.
It's not exactly pretty, but this screen delivers all you need to know about a city's worker distribution and resource production. / C Prompt Games / Paradox Interactive

Some of the art assets look like placeholders, hastily thrown together for a work-in-progress test, which is especially apparent in the screens informing you about a new era having arrived.

Millennia screenshot showing an overview of the Iron Age.
This screen looks like it's been left with placeholder art. / C Prompt Games / Paradox Interactive

While I don’t love the UI, it’s relatively customizable, which is a big plus, and features nested tooltips, though the latter aren’t used to their full potential. Performance, too, can get a bit questionable on big maps in the late game – there’s some chugging even on my beefy PC when there’s a lot of stuff going on, which sometimes upgrades itself to massive chugging.

Another weakness is the limited number of map types – just continents, islands, inland seas, and pangaea are available, and aside from three sizes there are no other options. On the plus side, you can share map seeds, which is always nice to see. There are also no speed options, like we usually have them in games like this.

On the gameplay side, not everything is perfect either. Diplomacy, for one, is hit and miss. The fact that you have to send envoys to establish contact with other nations and enable advanced diplomatic options is really cool, as is being able to import their trade goods if you’ve agreed to a trade agreement – the fact that you’ll be automatically drawn into the wars of your allies without being asked first is not. When two of your allies declare war on each other, you’ll just randomly be thrown on to one side. You have no agency in this. That feels extremely bad and barebones – I just never agree to alliances to solve the problem.

Little barbarian canoes, for some reason, can cross oceans. That means that they can attack your utility boats, which are out fishing, from ocean tiles while you still don’t have any ships that can move onto these. They can just camp there and you can’t do anything about it. Such little oversights seem all the more baffling when you consider how well thought out the rest of the game is, and there are a few more of these to be found, adding little bits of frustration to the whole experience.

Millennia has some messy edges and if you don’t look beyond the surface, put off by its less than alluring presentation, it may be easy to shrug it off as yet another hopeless contender in the turn-based 4X strategy genre. That would be a grave mistake. Anyone with interest in this type of game owes it to themselves to check out Millennia, whether now or down the line – revolutions tend to be messy. They don’t have to be beautiful to initiate change. This title is such a breath of mechanical fresh air that it’s bound to leave its mark. If only it could have been given some more time in the oven.

Score: 7/10

Version tested: PC.


Published
Marco Wutz

MARCO WUTZ

Marco Wutz is a writer from Parkstetten, Germany. He has a degree in Ancient History and a particular love for real-time and turn-based strategy games like StarCraft, Age of Empires, Total War, Age of Wonders, Crusader Kings, and Civilization as well as a soft spot for Genshin Impact and Honkai: Star Rail. He began covering StarCraft 2 as a writer in 2011 for the largest German community around the game and hosted a live tournament on a stage at gamescom 2014 before he went on to work for Bonjwa, one of the country's biggest Twitch channels. He branched out to write in English in 2015 by joining tl.net, the global center of the StarCraft scene run by Team Liquid, which was nominated as the Best Coverage Website of the Year at the Esports Industry Awards in 2017. He worked as a translator on The Crusader Stands Watch, a biography in memory of Dennis "INTERNETHULK" Hawelka, and provided live coverage of many StarCraft 2 events on the social channels of tl.net as well as DreamHack, the world's largest gaming festival. From there, he transitioned into writing about the games industry in general after his graduation, joining GLHF, a content agency specializing in video games coverage for media partners across the globe, in 2021. He has also written for NGL.ONE, kicker, ComputerBild, USA Today's ForTheWin, The Sun, Men's Journal, and Parade. Email: marco.wutz@glhf.gg