Settling down to Civilization VI can mean clearing your calendar. There’s no way you can get it done in a lunch-break: getting from start to finish can be longer than most of the games we get to review. Not everyone has that time, and you wonder whether the joys of Civilisation – founding a culture, optimising it, and then watching it flourish – can be distilled down to a 30-minute experience. Well, one-man-team Aleksandr Golovkin believes so, and has produced 50 Years for precisely that purpose.
It’s an incredibly simple and elegant pitch. When you’re playing Civilisation, there’s often a balance between chasing prosperity and consolidating what you have. The more you build Wonders or accelerate through discoveries, the greater the target you paint on your back. Playing Civ, over and over again, can be about mastering that balance, to the point where you’re a threat on both sides. 50 Years aims, and mostly succeeds, at capturing the joys of this balance in a 20-minute game session, and it does it by making some brave calls. Out goes exploration and other civilisations. Combat strategy is ripped out and automated. Resources are stripped down to only a few.
What you’re left with is this: you’ll start with peasants and swordsmen. Peasants generate gold, and swordsmen protect you (the epitome of the ‘flourishing vs. protection’ balance). You’ll have enough gold to buy one or the other, and then it’s time to end the day. Ending the day means that – more often than not – you’ll be the subject of an attack. This is similar to Autochess, with your troops wading in with no direction from you. If you have enough swordsmen, you survive, get more gold and buy the next lot of goodies. The next day, you might get the opportunity to construct buildings, and these can generate even more gold; drip feed you resources (particularly food, as you have a cap to the people in your city at one time), or increase the troops you have at your disposal. Minotaurs, angels, archers and paladins are all available, as long as you have their prerequisite buildings.
That’s 90% of what 50 Years has to offer. Years pass, the attacks get stronger, and you balance the need to generate money versus the need to defend. Other stuff gets mixed in along the way. Survive long enough and you’ll reach ‘milestones’ that allow you to raid an enemy base for a perk-like reward, with the titular 50 Years being your ultimate goal – get there and you win. You’ll simultaneously progress on something called ‘Beliefs’, which is as close as you’ll get to the Civ tech tree: choose from five different buff-ladders, and gain tasty perks (including Zombie Chickens, which should be your first port of call). At the start of the game you also get to choose your culture – again similar to Civilisation – and they each have transformative benefits. These are lovely, as playing one culture can feel fundamentally different from another, so it adds replayability. We still haven’t got to the end with the Celts.
As a system it works well, and you’ll find yourself playing 20-minute games over and over and over. It reminds a little of how we approach chess – you’ll play the same first few moves each time, but something will push you to change your approach: you’ll be tempted with a minotaur this time, or you’ll look to stockpile Faith (another resource in the game) to make a paladin-build. Every game shifts a little this way or that, and you will get better with each playthrough, of which there will be many. Eventually you’ll come out top of the pile.
It reminds of Frost, if you’ve played it. What 50 Years does for Civilisation, Frost did for survival games: it aimed to boil a complex genre down to a coffee break, and distilled the ‘how far do I push it?’ core into a card game. 50 Years has similar levels of success at bottling a bigger game, and made me want to keep coming back, day after day, to trek that little bit further.
But where 50 Years loses ground on Frost is its longevity and presentation. While 50 Years gives you plenty of reasons to play again – sessions are short, there’s the pull to do better this time, and there are plenty of cultures to master – it doesn’t feel varied enough to be completely satisfying. We found ourselves in patterns of play after the first few hours, mainly because 50 Years doesn’t employ randomness enough. Sure, the enemies vary a little, and rewards change a bit, but your experience with each runthrough is largely the same each time. That’s great for optimisation, as you’ll learn from the experience, but it’s not great for your joy and interest levels. At its worst, it can feel like you’re playing a spreadsheet rather than a game.
There are so many ways that the game could have rolled the dice a bit more. You only have to look at games like Slay the Spire to see how the player perks, and which ones you choose to unlock, can be utterly different each time. Sure, it plays into the hands of RNG, but 50 Years needed a little of this magic sauce to make a playthrough feel different from the last, and keep you around for weeks rather than days.
You only have to look at the screenshots to know that 50 Years is also a bit of an ugly duckling. If we’re being kind, it’s functional, reminding us a lot of indie, Kongregate-style games that we used to chew through on a lunchbreak on PC. That’s not to say 50 Years is unclear, though: the creaky art style is an aesthetic thing, and it just means a drop in immersion and production value.
The mouse cursor, ported directly over to console, is more of a deal-breaker, however. It’s slow and fiddly, and when the late-game hits and you have lots of troop options, it becomes cumbersome. Some of the buttons can get quite small, and you wish it had been optimised a little better for a controller. Still, 50 Years is deliberately simple, so you’re not diving into menu after menu with your tiny mouse cursor.
For a budget £4.19, though, it might make everything moot. 50 Years is one of those games that can sit in your library, ready to be turned on for a cheeky 20 minutes. If your Rocket League mates aren’t quite ready for a match, pop on 50 Years and you’ll get a sweet, sweet hit of intricate optimisation.
It may be ugly, it may be a clear PC port, but 50 Years on Xbox can be a budget-priced addiction machine if you let it. It somehow manages to cram the joys of Civilisation into a twenty-minute game, and then has the gall to make it more-ish. We’ll take a prettier and slightly more varied version for the sequel, but for now 50 Years is well worth settling on.