Realms Beyond PBEM17: The Winning Hand

The previous pages of this report chronicled the progress of The Black Sword's Cree civilization through the first 100 turns of the game. We saw how the Cree's unique trade routes and Mekewap tile improvements allowed TBS to accelerate the development of his cities with far more food and production than any of his competitors. Up to this point in time, the strength of the Cree hadn't been immediately obvious because Civ6 doesn't provide a Demographics screen as in previous Civilization games, making it difficult to evaluate each empire in these metrics. Civ6 instead displays everyone's science rate and culture rate and military strength, and in these categories TheArchduke's Russia had been running neck-and-neck with TBS ever since they made contact with one another. In fact, with Russian cossacks about to appear on the scene, it was the Russian military that had the other players most on edge. TBS was doing a fine job of concealing his true strength and letting everyone focus on a different opponent.

The first sign that things were beginning to tip in the Cree's favor took place on the next turn, as the Classical era ended and the Medieval era began on Turn 101. This allowed those who had qualified for a Golden Age to choose a new dedication from the same list as the Classical era:

I had to put together this composite image from the Australia thread (with the civ now being played by Chevalier Mal Fet) since TBS didn't include a screenshot for the Cree. Five civs qualified for a Golden Age in the Medieval era: the Cree, Russia, Australia, Rome, and Nubia, with Greece and the Khmer getting stuck with a Normal Age. The same four dedications were present from the previous era (there are some different ones as the game advances further) and Chevalier's Australia chose to use Pen, Brush, and Voice as the best option for general development. TheArchduke naturally opted to continue with Monumentality so that he could keep using his enormous faith income for settler and builder purchases. However, TBS and Cornflakes both chose Free Inquiry for their Golden Age dedications, which caused the adjacency bonuses for Commercial and Harbor districts to provide beakers as well as gold. They had both built extensive Harbor districts using the +30% production from the Veterancy policy, and just as the adjacency bonus for Campus districts can be doubled with the Natural Philosophy policy, the adjacency bonus for Harbors can be doubled with the otherwise rarely-used Naval Infrastructure policy. This does indeed provide doubled beakers as well as doubled gold while the Free Inquiry dedication is in effect.

The net result was an explosion of science for Rome and the Cree. Since Cornflakes lacked Campus districts across his territory this only caught him up to the rest of the pack, but for TBS who had already been tied for the science lead, well...

The Black Sword:
You can see my science jumped by over 30 beakers/turn due to the golden age and an envoy in Hattusa. I also spent my gold reserves, and a fleet is ready to sail. Pike and Shots will be an expensive 200g to upgrade from spearmen. So I'll get out a round of 4-5 of them, then research Military Tradition and switch to Pikes to get a better hammer/gold balance.

On the previous turn, Russia and the Cree had been effectively tied at 120 beakers/turn. Now TBS had opened up a significant lead of 40 beakers/turn thanks to enacting the Free Inquiry dedication, putting him well ahead of everyone else in the game. Australia was the next-closest in research rate after Russia and couldn't muster more than half of the Cree science output. TBS wrote on several occasions that he had been emphasizing production and culture over science throughout the early game because he felt that they were more important in Civ6's initial development phase. Now he was beginning to focus on science in earnest and the other players were having difficulty catching up.

Militarily, TBS cashed in his treasury for a trio of frigate upgrades and began sailing north towards the Russian city of Radio, the former city state of Cardiff. TheArchduke had been building city walls and training ships for defense, but because he had been researching towards cossacks at the bottom of the tech tree, he lacked his own frigates to respond. TBS was also doing his best to line up Kaiser's Greece as an ally using one of the new alliance options added in the expansions:

There are five different types of alliances in the Civ6 expansions, and while most of them are largely Single Player nonsense, the Military Alliance has the potential to be quite significant. If the two civs in a military alliance are both at war with the same opponent, they gain +5 strength against those enemy units - equal to every single unit being boosted by a Great General! We haven't had enough of our Gathering Storm MP games make it deep enough into the civics tree to see this come up often, but it looks like it could be highly impactful in terms of working together against a runaway player. Now this screenshot was taken with Chevalier's Australia because Kaiser's Greece hadn't advanced to Civil Service yet to unlock alliances. If Kaiser could make it there, TBS had the potential to sign an alliance with him which would grant both players the combat bonus against Russia. TBS would even get fully shared visibility from the alliance since that's another rarely used Cree unique civilization benefit.

There was a World Congress meeting on the next turn where TBS was able to get an anti-Russia resolution passed through a lucky coincidence:

The Black Sword:
The World Congress was a close run thing. Me and Kaiser weren't co-ordinated, he voted to buff anti-cavs, while I voted to nerf Cossacks. I'm not sure if I made a mistake here or not. If we both vote the same way we always beat Archduke. If our vote is split and Kaiser is on nerfing cossacks then Archduke outvotes me and he gets a buff. On the other hand if Kaiser votes to buff anti-cavs while the vote is split, which he did, he still has a 50-50 to beat Archduke. So maybe I should have realised that and voted with him?

My thinking was that if you nerf cossacks you get +5 strength in every fight with them, while buffing anti-cav only helps in the anti-cav fights. So I thought that was slightly better for us and therefore we'd both vote that way, and as long as we vote the same way we win. In any case, we were bailed out by the coinflip. Interesting that Cornflakes was voting for me over Russia too. I thought my science rate would make me look scarier right now. On the other hand, he didn't put any extra votes into it, so he probably didn't really care either way and tried to weaken a potential Russian surge vs Greece.

Australia got themselves a nice free trade route out of the 2nd resolution. I think I like this World Congress idea. It seems like a nice catchup mechanic and allows smaller civs to work together vs stronger ones without something drastic like war. Previously the only tool they had in this sense was a trade embargo. It also allows you to play around the outcome (eg. diversifying your army) and once every 30 turns isn't going to dominate the game.

This another one of the new features added in the expansions and I tend to think it's pretty pointless. This was a rare case of a World Congress holding a vote of real importance: adding or subtracting 5 strength from a certain type of combat unit. TheArchduke tried to get +5 strength on light cavalry units (i.e. cossacks) while TBS tried to lower the strength of those units. It ended up being a tied vote and Kaiser's Greece won the coinflip by getting +5 strength on anti cavalry units like pikemen. Most of the time the World Congress votes are on irrelevant stuff and the save file has to travel to every player for the vote before the next actual turn can begin, largely serving to waste everyone's time. If there were more impactful votes like this one, I might feel differently about the mechanic.

After a couple turns of travel time, the Cree frigates reached Russian waters and the long-awaited conflict finally began:

The Black Sword:
War! Took down Radio's walls in the first wave. Probably going to leave it alive so I can pillage the mines before taking it. I hope I can hold Radio whilst burning Spice Melange and his small fleet. Then I probably send 1 Caravel around his North to make sure he doesn't try to rebuild a Navy and evaluate coastal cities I can strike later. Got two spears ready to be upgraded to pike and shots for each choke point. Will build a few more. I'll have a hull in each body of water. Feeling relatively secure vs incoming Cossacks.

If I can pillage these things I can cripple Rome, and get ~200 gold in the bargain too. With the chokepoints on our land border I don't see much of an issue with retaliation. Based on the yields of his fishing nets he doesn't have the tech for Caravels, let alone Frigates. I've found a route through the southern ice to send ships. I'm squeaking out a Quadrireme in Truthwatcher while my niter recovers. Then I can upgrade it to focus more resources in the area. Might try to do that again.

Australia is a bit harder to deal with. I can't just pillage their coastline because the production boost will probably just help them. Still, you can see his Military Power is only 200 and his low city count means low production. I'll need to organise a larger land force but it should be possible. Initiate dogpile on self?

TheArchduke had no chance to defend Radio against the Cree navy. TBS had used a Great Admiral charge to turn one of the frigates into a fleet, and together with the actual Great Admiral itself, that unit was firing at 70 ranged strength. Arguably it would have been better not even trying to defend this spot to concentrate Russian resources on a more powerful cossack attack instead of a doomed defense. The nearby city of Skybreaker had Victor as a governor for additional strength and city walls about to complete. It was far from secure but reasonably well defended against a potential counterattack.

Meanwhile, TBS was already planning another naval attack against Cornflakes' Rome in the south. Cornflakes lacked the techs for both caravels and frigates which made him a bit of a sitting duck at sea, and the pillaging/razing of Roman Harbor districts would strike a serious blow to the nation's research rate since Cornflakes was heavily leveraging the Free Inquiry Golden Age dedication. Speaking of science, look at the beaker rate at the top of the screen for TBS as compared with everyone else. He had just hit the 200 beakers/turn rate with Russia in second place at a very distant 126 beakers/turn. Two more cities had even been planted down here in the south in recent turns, Talenel (under the "Guilds" part of the interface) and Jezrien. The Cree were continuing to get stronger even as their biggest rivals were in the process of being hamstrung.

Turn 105 proved to be a major turn as Kaiser's Greece reached Civil Service and a naval battle commenced with Russia:

The Black Sword:
Kaiser hit Civil Service! That's +5 strength for both of us against Russia, and we also share vision. He has a lot of units! But Cossacks show up any turn now. Hoplites will get 25 + 10 (anti-cav) + 10 (unique unit bonus) + 5 (alliance) + 5 (Congress) = 55 vs a 67 Cossack. Assume flanking/support cancels out, maybe with fortification and terrian modifiers he can hold them off. If he makes it to Pikes that is another 6 strength. My biggest worry is that Russia can just play defense after losing the two cities to me while he rolls over Greece. Maybe I should see if I can send anything to support.

This is the setup over by Radio, I'm getting some of that juicy war econ going. I don't think I'll do enough pillaging to be worth the +50% policy card so I just take the 200g now. You can also see Archduke placed a lavra southwest of Radio over a mine - denying me another potential pillage. I send a horse in to pillage the last mine before I take the city. I'll also probably get to pillage the mines south of Spice Melange once I strip its walls.

For this turn I want to start taking down his fleet. My frigates should be able to one-shot his Quads while I'll need two strikes to finish a galley. I attack first with a Caravel and finish with a Frigate instead of vice-versa so that I don't end turn in range of city.

My Admiral Zheng He is rather pleased with himself and gives me some era points. Also, I picked our 3 Zoo locations to cover my empire in case the game goes that long, placed two discounted to lock in the cost. Amenities are pretty good late game when you are multiplying high yield cities, so I think they'll probably be decent investments.

Kaiser was hopelessly outdated when it came to technology, still fielding an army of mostly horsemen and hoplites against TheArchduke's cossacks. Still he did have an awful lot of those units, and between the World Congress granting extra strength to anti cavalry units along with the military alliance signed with TBS, he would have at least a chance to hold his position. The war at sea, on the other hand, was a total slaughter as Russian galleys and quadriremes were sunk to the bottom of the ocean. Civ6 can be a brutal game when it comes to these kind of power disparities, especially in naval combat where there's no terrain obstacles to hinder an attack. The Russian navy was crippled and a path opened for an attack on Spice Melange. Radio was still standing only because TBS was holding off on the city capture to allow his units to pillage tiles for additional gold. Between the massive science edge opening up for TBS and the complete dominance of the Cree at sea, TheArchduke failed to see any chance of winning the game and conceded defeat in his spoiler thread:

Happy to declare TBS a winner. Science is at 200!, mine at 120, rest of the bunch is irrelevant in science. The issue is that the situation is not winnable I am afraid. There is a frigate in the lake and as he seems more then able to tech away I think this is a done deal. Impressive play by TBS, I must say.

As correctly predicted. I am loosing this for lack of a significant fleet. Thanks to GA [Great Admiral] and a frigate fleet, TBS ships are untouchable. I loose 2 cities and then TBS techs away, probably it will take another 10 turns for everyone else to see the writing I knew was coming quite some time ago. Anyway, good game, TBS, I hope some kind lurker asks everyone else if they want to continue. P.S.: Kaiser dowed me [declared war] and looks angry at me with horses not entering my borders.

I concede to TBS. I am already in analysis mode what I did wrong and what I did right this game.

This prompted a lurker intervention asking if the players wanted the game to be called as a victory for TBS. Chevalier disagreed with an excellent post in the Australia spoiler thread:

Chevalier Mal Fet:
What? Concede? Why would I? I think players are usually far too quick to offer concession. It seems like they're willing to surrender just because someone has higher yields than them. But those yields have to be translated into concrete gains in a competent fashion before they count as a win. Someone having higher science than you doesn't mean you give up, all is hopeless, especially if your civ hasnt hit its power spike yet. I've conceded twice, in PBEM8 and PBEM13. In PBEM8, I conceded because my offensive into Cree lands was stalled, Archduke owned half the map, would be on my borders soon, and to add insult to injury a city-state razed one of my cities (that was, incidentally, when I learned city-states could raze cities). In PBEM13, I concede to TBS despite my empire being mostly intact, because I had lost total control of the seas and had no meaningful way to expand beyond Russia. Don't know what the other players were doing - Alhambram and Alhazard.

Here, I see no reason why the game is over. TBS has high science, yes. But he only just got that high science a few turns ago. He hasn't hit key war-winning techs yet, and hasn't even really won his war. He can hit two Russian cities, sure, but Archduke has like 17 of those. He has Cossacks that can strike from the fog, pick off Cree units more or less at will, and then walk into the undefended cities once all of TBS's armies are dead. TBS also has to deal with Cornflakes' Rome, which as far as I know is intact. Kaiser declared war on Russia, so maybe that was discouraging, but again, Cossacks should be able to defend. For my part, I'm behind, but I have chances - slim chances, but not zero - to slip back into the game.

It seems totally absurd to concede now. How is the game in any way decided? Outside of the single Khmer city that's been flipping back and forth, I don't know of a single city that's even changed hands! (I might have missed a war on the other continent, of course, but, hell, I can see the scores). We're going to call it 'coz TBS has high science? What nonsense! Now, all that said, I am a replacement player, here to keep the game going, nothing more. I have terrible playing windows and it's a huge pain the butt to play. Thus, all the above is my personal opinion only. I think no one should concede to TBS. But if the "real" players aren't having fun and want to call it, then let them do so. My own opinion, I think, should be totally irrelevant here. I'm just a seatwarmer, in the end.

I agree with Chevalier that this was a premature ending to the game. Only a single city had changed hands thus far and we hadn't even seen the Russian cossacks make their appearance yet. TBS should have needed to demonstrate that he had an unstoppable edge by running over someone else or teching to an unbeatable unit that no one else could match. With that said though... it was only a matter of time until TBS reached that point and I don't think anyone could have stopped him. If Civ6 had a Demographics screen and everyone else could have seen how far ahead he was in food and production as well as in science the concessions might have arrived even sooner. As I wrote in the PBEM17 forum after the game, the Cree cities were larger across the board than the other empires, and they were working almost entirely improved tiles, and they had the super-powered Cree trade routes on hand. The net result was a civ that could do anything that it wanted: field a powerful navy that no one could match, mass-upgrade into pike/shot units to counter cossacks, churn out districts galore while also settling more cities than anyone else, etc. The gold/turn income advantage alone that the Cree had was ridiculous and it was snowballing this game in a huge way. TheArchduke was right: this game was completely over and it wasn't close. TBS could have walked over anyone else with ease. He was winning decisively when the game ended on Turn 105 and in another 20 turns the margin of advantage would have been disgusting. This was a tour de force of brilliant economic management that fans of Civ6 MP should be studying to see how they can improve - and that's exactly why I went to the trouble of typing up this big report! (This game was also killed off by its horrifically slow turn pace; I suspect that it would have continued if the players were managing more than two turns per week.)

So after dozens and dozens of turns of every major player focusing on the threat from Russian cossacks, the game ended up being called before the cossacks ever appeared. Talk about a subversion of Chekhov's Gun! And did I really get you to read through five pages of city building and economic micromanagement just to have the whole thing finish up with two turn's worth of conflict? Uh yeah, sorry about that - hopefully it still proved to be entertaining. That was the whole point of this report though: diving into the details of TBS's game to figure out how he was able to make the Cree so strong. The Civilization games are fundamentally strategy games at heart, not tactical battle games, and the true path to victory lies in the sinews of war moreso than brilliant battlefield maneuvering. TBS won this game with determined builder micro and pursuit of key strategic goals, not a flashy flanking attack with a Great General.

After this game finished, I tested the Cree in some Single Player starts to see if I could replicate TBS's gameplan. I found that the Cree were highly dependent on their starting position; when they lacked nearby camp/pasture resources at the first two cities for their trade routes, they were much less powerful and seemed fairly pedestrian. Sending a pastureless 1 food / 1 production trade route doesn't do much to snowball the early game. They were also much weaker on maps that lacked the "Abundant" resource setting which the PBEM17 map clearly used. Fewer resources meant fewer places where mekewaps could be placed and a less explosive start for new cities. The Cree are therefore situationally dependent and also have a high skill cap to be used well. I suspect that if a random member of our Civ6 community had been dumped into this start they wouldn't have performed to anywhere near the same extent. It was a very impressive showing from TBS to wring out the maximum value from his civ pick.

I'm leaving space here for any participants in the game who might want to offer additional closing thoughts. Here were my impressions on Russia after acting as TheArchduke's dedicated lurker for the game:

TheArchduke is a great player and it was a lot of fun to pitch ideas his way along with williams482, the other dedicated lurker in the game thread. Russia remains a powerful civilization in Gathering Storm and I thought that TheArchduke did a good job of leveraging the power of religion in this game. I'd glad that we managed to talk TheArchduke out of running Holy Site projects in the early game since it doesn't appear that they were needed, that was the biggest early disagreement that we had during the game. Russia was in a strong position from a developmental standpoint throughout the game and it became clear early on that only the Cree under TBS and Australia under Alhambram posed any threat to win the game. The other four civs were essentially nonentities and I'm not sure how or why they all fell so far behind. I think there was some kind of war on the other continent (?) TheArchduke kept expecting Cornflakes to be stronger and I'm genuinely wondering what happened there since Rome tends to be super strong in the early game.

I envisioned the long term strategy for Russia as one that leveraged religion and cossacks into a mass conquest starting around Turn 110. The plan would be to hit the bottom part of the tech tree with a hard beeline unlocking cossacks, and then use faith purchases and gold upgrades to hit a neighbor with roughly 8-10 cossacks at a time when the overpowered units would be essentially impossible to stop. The big weakness of this approach is that cossacks are at the bottom of the tech tree, and beelining them would inevitably mean not researching the top portion of the tech tree where the naval units are located. This was another big disagreement between the game as I envisioned it and the game as TheArchduke envisioned it; he always wanted to push for more port cities and more emphasis on naval units. My thinking was that all of Russia's best cities were located inland and the starting continent was huge enough that navies could largely be ignored. It doesn't matter if the coastal former city state gets burned down if a dozen cossacks are running over everyone else's territory! But TheArchduke disagreed and kept pumping resources into trying to fight at sea which diverted gold and production away from the cossacks plan. This wasn't necessarily a mistake either - TheArchduke is completely correct that naval power is hugely important in Civ6 - but Russia could only follow one of these strategies effectively, and chasing after both of them simultaneously was a bad idea. My advice probably made the situation worse to be honest, and I'm sorry about that. Would it have been better to ignore a cossacks push and try to get to frigates first? I personally don't think so, since Russia had few port cities and all of the best tiles were inland anyway, but I could be wrong. Who knows?

TheArchduke has a lot of excellent ideas, and a good sense of cutting through minor details to see right to the heart of what's important. I thought that the decision to faith-purchase Hypatia at the last minute was a smart choice, and TheArchduke has an uncanny ability to sense when someone's thinking about getting aggressive and produce military units ahead of time to be ready to respond. On the other hand, TheArchduke sometimes would ignore long-standing plans to jump to a snap decision on the spur of the moment, and that didn't always work out too well. I still get the sense that TheArchduke gets impatient with peaceful building and wants to proceed to the tactical side of the gameplay just a little too much. There were times when units were trained needlessly, gold/turn income wasn't handled great in this game, and it was hard to get TheArchduke to stick with long term plans (like needing the Grandmaster's Chapel to faith-purchase units). An ideal cossack attack needed planning 20-25 turns ahead of time to ensure that there was thousands of faith and gold waiting for upgrades and unit purchases the moment that Military Science tech arrived, and that wasn't something that Russia was able to stick to in this game. Again, part of that was due to the pressure being put on by TBS and Kaiser, but some of it was also due to a lack of patience with a long term plan. Overall though, this was a lot of fun and TheArchduke is a great player to work with.

Alhambram also provided some additional thoughts from the Australian perspective:

I did play till turn 100, afterwards I resigned mainly due slow turn pace and I lost interest to keep playing. Thanks Chevalier again for taking over from me! Initally I was suprised to see concession message and shared Chevalier's opinion that game ended prematurely. But after reading TBS's thread and Sullla pointing out his production output in his cities, I realized that game likely would be go on for roughly 20 turns before everyone submitted their defeat. My top three cities has strong production output, equal of Cree's best cities, but my remaining cities got poor production due being new or founded at desert next Uluru (Newcastle), having 10-15 production at best while TBS's newly founded cities spitted out +25 production two dozen turns after founding. In short term that would make difference already, I complete lack navy aside some outdated galleys at same moment that TBS fielded a frigate fleet. In such cases UI of civilization is poor, not only causing problems in some areas for example not telling that Mekewap couldn't built upon flood tiles. It also don't show graphs unless victory is achieved. Therefore I (and Chevalier) didn't have sight upon production output of TBS's cities, that might cause us to think differently about concession at that moment.

Sullla basically already pointed out in his report everything what I did wrong. I fell in classic pitfall of happily building beautiful districts after other, sometimes added with wonders. I did complete Ancrestal Hall after turn 65 and till turn 100 I used Ancrestal Hall to produce a magical number of one settler... Endless war between Pindicator and Suboptimal played a part in my goodfeeling to go with skeleton army and builder paradise. I practiced too much with single player and in this multiplayer I went in single player mode too much. In single player you get away with few cities due weak AI and there isn't a need to have many cities to win. As you look back my previous games, you might notice same pattern: I am not really good at expanding. Take example of PBEM 2: at moment that I did found 5th city of my own, Woden already founded his 11th (!!!) city. In that PBEM I was able to undercut this by capturing three city states and pecking off some cities from TheArchduke when oledavy and I invaded TheArchduke same time. In PBEM 16 I simply rushed very early with Hungarian powered levied units and put end of PBEM before it hits serious expansion phase. Civilization is a 4X game, I do bungle exploration sometimes, not good at expanding, doing well at exploit and sometimes good at exterminate.

If you ask me what TBS is really good at, I read reports of his civ 4 and civ 6 and came to this conclusion: TBS isn't only good at building. He isn't only good at warfare either. Main reason why TBS is good, is becasue he is one of players at Realms Beyond who understand and master 4X better than anyone. Cree of all possible civ 6 choices fits 4X idea the best, early economic powers to allow player snowball at right terrains quickly. It is almost made for players as TBS who excels at 4X. Its UU is underwhelming and TBS simply made the best of it. But how TBS handled other economic powers and benfitted it in PBEM 17, I have to argee that it is best game I ever saw of civ 6 PBEM's. I did say in my preview of opponents in my thread that TBS might make Cree work, but I didn't expect to his extent! I tip my hat off for truly strong game from TBS. About civilization 6 in overall, it is fun to play in multiplayer against opponents of Realms Beyond but both poor AI, UI or silly game designs often make it painful to play.

And we'll conclude with some final brief words from TBS himself:

The Black Sword:
Thanks for the writeup Sullla, and everyone else for the nice comments! I enjoyed the read, even if I did already know the material.

I'm not sure how much I have to add for a summation. I really enjoyed the game, so I was happy putting in time trying to find ways to improve things. Civ6 still feels very new to me, with a lot of unexplored areas, which contributed to that enjoyment. Maybe there are players in other communities who have disected it as much as we have civ4 but I haven't seen them. I think I did a pretty good job (and apparently you guys agree!) but there were still some opportunities for improvement where I didn't know the mechanics or didn't have the experience to figure it out in time. And there were also cases were there were radically different lines of play which seemed just as strong to me. And I'm sure there are opportunities that I missed altogether. So I think the economic side of civ6 has a lot going for it and it's certainly been improved since launch.

The biggest negative (even worse than the lacking documentation/UI!) is that the war-diplomacy system seems designed for SP play (which doesn't interest me). Combat is fun but it feels really hard to profit from attacking other players IMO.

Thanks as always for reading along about games that I didn't even take part in.