Civilization: A first look at the board game

Civilization-02We take a look at the 2010 revision of Civilization: The Board Game,
and not to be confused with the 2002 edition of Civilization: The boardgame.  It is an experience about decision making and consequences.  Published by Fantasy Flight Games, it is based on Sid Meier’s Civilization long history of video games.

What is it about?
If you’re not familiar with the series of video games or many of its imitators, Civilization is about growing your society through city management.   You’ll tackle important topics such as infrastructure, technology, economy, trade, culture, and military.  You must make the decisions necessary to become the dominant civilization of the world before others.

Is it a role playing game?
Perhaps no where else will you read this.  But yes, this is an RPG or role playing game.  Instead of a character having metered traits, it will be your civilization.  There are dials, coins, and modifiers.  Your traits are known as trade, gold, movement, and technology.  Traits affect other traits in possibly confusing symbiotic relationship.

Is it easy to learn?
If Arkham Horror ranked a “10” on a 1 to 10 scale, this would be a “6”.  You need to read the rulebook thoroughly once, better twice before beginning your first play.  Mistakes are easy to make.  However, there is a rhythm to the game that almost makes it too mechanical.

Does it meet your civ-building expectations?
Abstractly, yes.  You need to play the game to its conclusion before passing judgement.  The game was designed to be completed in two or three hours – an eternity for some.   The game is not about micro-management, and it may disappoint many.  You don’t worry about your people’s happiness.  Buildings are not exciting, and only a means to readjust modifiers.   Civilization building is a path to victory not enlightenment.

Can I read more about game mechanics?
First, let’s discuss the map.  It’s made of tiles.  Unlike the 2002 predecessor,  the map is scalable getting larger with the number of leaders.  There is a  “fog of war” and anticipation of adventure.  Tiles offer different landscapes including ancient huts and villages to exploit.

The most important attribute is “trade”.  It doesn’t quite mean anything you think.  It’s an abstract “crop” that you harvest each turn.   Trade can be thought as your gross domestic product, an import and export of goods and ideas that can be leveraged into new technologies or production.

You can’t build without “production”.  Your city and buildings have limited capacities to build new structures, wonders, and units.  To boost your manufacturing abilities, you’ll need key buildings.

Enough already, what about culture?
I find culture in civ-games very abstract.  How do you depict benefits of being a more enlightened society?  Video games results in military or city conversion and expansion of influence.  Here, the game depicts culture as a wild card.  (Almost literally)   There is a counter that upticks to the end of the meter, whereas  you win a cultural victory.  It takes harvesting culture points through wonders, important people, education, religion, and most importantly – patience.  During your evolution, you’ll be granted powers to exploit fellow players.  Because that’s what advanced societies do, make other less advanced miserable!

Military is a big part of the game, isn’t it?
It can be if you want, but it doesn’t have to.  It fact, like the PC games I remember, the game nearly dissuades you from conflict between civilizations.  To begin, military units are necessary to exploit random, yet important resources, held by barbaric huts and villages.  Against your opponents, it acts as a necessary deterrent.

A few words about their combat system?
Be prepared to see a system that is unintuitive.  You manage armies but not units.  Units; infantry, artillery, mounted, and air are everywhere and nowhere.   You have a figure that represents where an army is politically.  The formation of military strength is done instantly.  The logistics sending troops to a location is automated.  Only the size of your army is determined by your policies.  In sacrificing for simplicity, there are no fleets.

Furthermore, the combat system is a little odd.  It would bother me more if military conflict was a major theme of the game, but its not.  Again, another hint the game doesn’t really want you to combat unless there no other diplomatic means.

Can you get back to talk about other mechanics?
As we touched upon trade, production, and military, another mechanic is economy.  Gold coins represent the wealth of a society.  In abstract ways it accelerates technological advances.  Collect enough and you win an economic victory.

The final path to victory is technology.  Like the computer games, you want to achieve space flight.  To get there you must build a pyramid of tech.  Choosing technologies is really the most fun part of the game.  It opens up to abilities, buildings, and powers that may fund your political strategy.

Get to it!  Is the game “fun”?
It’s most fun for the cerebral.  I say that because it is a session of repeated mechanical steps.  Most of the game is made up of tiny, political moves.  Only in the end do we understand how decisions come with consequences.

In an initial test session, pitting the United States versus China, the U.S. leaped far ahead in culture.   However, China invested heavier in military and intimidated the United States from exploring too deeply.  China’s special advantages gave them benefits exploring huts and villages.   Cultural persuasion disrupted U.S. policies while the Chinese grew epic trade financing quick technological advances.  Their military advanced on under-financed American military unable to keep up.  Destroying their armies and eventually a city, nothing stopped China from winning with Space Flight.  This wasn’t an excerpt copied from the news or a prediction of the future, but only a game.

Now do you see how playing Civilization: The Board Game can be fun?


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