November 8, 2013

Of Finding Civilization in a Barn

A few weeks ago I was rummaging around in a family friend’s barn where they have all manner of amazing stuff stored - as befits any proper barn. Heaped in a storage stall and buried beneath all types of barn-stuff were some decaying old crates filled with ….. BOARDGAMES!

And specifically boardgames from at least 25 years or more ago. This included a number of old wargames in giant foggy plastic bags (our family friend was apparently a wargamer in the old days), a copy of the 1976 Avalon Hill edition of Acquire and … wait for it … Civilization! I mentioned that Civ in particular might be worth something, and that regardless these shouldn’t be kept in the barn where all manner of calamities (no civ pun intended) that befall barns might begat upon the treasured games as well. He looked at me sideways and said … “why don’t you just take them”.

Begrudgingly I said thanks and accepted the games, promising to get at least some of them to the table and invite him over as well. He had never played his copy of Civ, and to my surprise it was only about 30% punched out. I started drooling.

So last night, in a rare more of quiet and solitude, I poured myself a gin-and-tonic, opened the box, lovingly punched out the components, imagined myself back in the year 1981 (except I was only 1 year old at that time!), cracked open the rules and got to seeing what all the Civ fuss was about.

There is certainly an air of mystique surrounding Civilization. I get the sense that it is one of those “club” games where you are either in the club and have played it, or you haven’t and are clearly not in club. It’s touted for being epic among all epic civ games. And of course it is what spawned innumerable genre spin-offs in the board gaming and video gaming world. So I had to try and wedge myself through the clubhouse door somehow, and what better way than to do as any proper grognad would suggest and play it solo.

I endeavored to play some rounds of a 3-player game solo (yes, yes, I really to play with 6 or 7 - I hear you) to learn the basic rules and flow of the game. I should mention that I clearly imagine a day when I invite all my nerdy man-friends over to some rustic cabin in the woods on a winters day where we will play this epic game, dressed warmly in 80’s appropriate attire and drinking Yukon Jack or something worse. But until that day I was a solo-civ builder.

So I set up the game for 3 players, using Africa, Crete, and ILLOYNEA? and I played until I progressed about half-way through the Bronze age. Outside of a 30 minute setup and rules digestion, that took about 90 minutes to get there. Not bad for a solo game I thought to myself. I called it quits at that point as it was getting late and my cat was starting to jump all over the table in preparation for his nightly hauntings and irritations. So I carefully packed everything back in the box, crawled into bed, and stared at the ceiling thinking about the game for about 49 minutes.

Below is more or less my initial impressions of the game, based on this most non-epic of sessions of Civilization.

First off, I was really surprised with how simple the game is mechanically. I was expecting something far more complicated procedurally in terms of turn structure, taking actions, etc., and so overall I was pretty delighted with the rule structure. Of course, the rulebook is dense and devoid of any illustrations, but everything is quite well spelled out in the rules and I didn’t come across any major issues or uncertainties. So I suppose if you are hung up on the idea of playing Civ based on the assumption that it’s hideously complex - you can rest assure that it really isn’t very complex when you boil it down

Now, another element struck me as being a counterpoint to the relatively straightforwardness of the rules. The number crunching. Civilization was obviously spawned in an era where the average middle schoolers math skills surpass those of graduate students today, where people had to think hard and fast what with the lack of digital calculators and a reliance on the abacus. So I suppose its no surprise that in Civ one is expected to, seemingly constantly, be adding up lots of numbers.

This is most evident with having to add up the value of trade goods on a regular basis (and to a lesser extent counting up tokens for the Census each turn). The math isn’t hard by any means, but you constantly have to do it when proposed trades and when figuring out how to purchase civilization cards. I’m struggling to see how the amount of mental arithmetic involved justifies the amount of time spent adding things up over and over again. In this instance, I’d glad that the average euro-game endeavors to streamline number crunching (or get arid of it entirely) as I find it somewhat abrasive to the experience.

As we’ll see later on, I have a sneaky suspicion the game I really want to be playing is Advanced Civ. From what I gather, the trading rules are different such that you don’t have to declare the total value of your trade goods, you just name/reveal 2 of the 3 trade cards. This seems like quite an improvement to me to both reduce the amount of math upfront and reduce the amount your opponent’s need to do in order to estimate whether or not they’ve snuck a calamity in there.

The second aspect of the game that I found odd was that once you built a city, you could no longer have tokens in that region, and by consequence couldn’t move through a region with a city. Now - I can see how this situation, from a pure mechanics standpoint, adds some depth and interest, as you need to position your cities to retain movement paths between or around them and avoid building a wall around yourself. In a certain sense, this just seems to be setting up a “trap” for new players, as it is somewhat counter-intuitive from a thematic standpoint. I can see the rationale that cities, thematically, are swallowing up population, yet that population isn’t growing in the city itself.

And again - what what I’ve heard the roads technology actually provides a work around for this in Advanced Civ. So again - perhaps the game I want to be playing is Advanced Civ?

But that brings me to another point regarding Civlization cards - and that they are limited to only a few copies of each. Just because 4 other civ’s learn Pottery now my Civ can never learn it? Seems odd to me. Thematically it should be even easier to learn Pottery as more other players learn it and we exchange in trade. So again, fand or the third time, maybe I should be playing Advanced Civ where there are enough copies of each tech for everyone?

Now, those grievances aside, it isn’t all bad. There are some aspects of the design I thought were unique and interesting.

The flow of tokens between on-board population, the stock, and the treasury is an interesting dynamic. You need to retain enough population tokens to support your cities, but enough tokens in the stock to pay taxes. Although I wonder whether this starts to breakdown because you can quickly spend down your treasury when buying civ cards if you think you need more in the stock for future expansions. It’s also pretty easy to pile up population and kill it off due to region population limits - which seems like it sort of undermines the intent a little.

I like how population growth/movement and city expansion works. You definitely need to carefully plan out your population movement to set yourself up to collapse tokens into a city. And while I didn’t get into the fighting much, I can see immediately how little border skirmishes and harassments can unravel your carefully laid plans. And suddenly, without enough population to form a city other regions are stuck with overcrowding resulting in big die offs. The growth and migration of people and creation/destruction of cities does help tell a sweeping story of your people’s rise and fall over the ages. It’s pretty cool.

And in theory, I like how the trading aspect works out in the game. I know many people point to the trade mechanics as being something uniquely part of the “Civ” experience and that few other games have replicated it in a convincing or worthwhile manner. Of course, trading with oneself as I was required to do didn’t quite capture the excitement and intrigue that would otherwise be provided. So I can’t comment on it much more than that.

For decades (yes really, decades) people have been trying to capture the essence of Civilization in a distilled and “lite” game version. To go back to my initial premise, I’m surprised in someways that both the need for a “lite” version is so pervasive, while at the same time I’m astounded that it hasn’t already been done. Or, maybe it has, but it’s just been scattered across a dozen or more different games?

My current favorite civ-ish game is Antike. And I was constantly reminded of that game while working through my Civ solo test. Antike has some of the same feeling of growth, zero-sum conflict/war, resource flows, positioning importance, etc. yet doesn’t get bogged down as much in the details. Frankly, I like the tech advancement system in Antike quite a bit more, although it is REALLY small tech tree, if you can even call it that. The first player to advance a given tech gets a VP card, but subsequently the tech becomes cheaper for everyone else to research. Logically that makes sense.

Of course, the downside of Antike in relation to Civ is the rondall. As nice as the rondall is for streamlining play and keeping the pace of play briske,it does create a somewhat artificial feeling to the game where you have to “game” the rondall to your advantage as a priority over real on-the-board situations. Civ is much more a simulation in this respect, as each turn sees you go through the whole set of phases, of growth, of upkeep, of war, of advancement, etc. Granted, as a more abstracted game Antike might instead be saying, you are doing all of that, and the Rondall actions represent the strategic focus or emphasis of your empire at a point in time. And in this respect it IS quite thematic - afterall, an empire can only do so much with the time at hand.

I had also owned Tempus previously, but only managed a few solo tests. This is mostly because I purchased Antike around the same time and would always chose to play that over Tempus. I wasn’t around for the “Roasting of Tempus” but it struck me a reasonably well conceived game. In essence, the game was Action Point allowance but broken up to taking one action at a time, so the pace still moved quickly (like Tempus) yet there was more flexibility in how your planned your actions. Tempus in many ways mirrored Civ even more, with the creation of cities and all.

What also stood out to me was the idea behind the tech tree in Tempus. For those recoiling at the mention of the game, here’s a reminder: At the end of each turn, whoever scored the most in the current round (the scoring criteria changed) would advance up the tech tree, and everyone else would advance up to one place behind. Thematically, this makes sense. One culture/Civ is going to make an advancement, but that advancement is fleeting and the other cultures/Civ’s will quickly learn it as well. Hence, the need to capitalize on a technological advantage was a narrow window in time.


Ultimately, Tempus flopped because it wasn’t what people expected, which is too bad considering its a pretty interesting game in concept. But what probably put the final nail in the coffin was that despite the interesting ideas it was just a tad too abstract - particularly when it came down to the scoring. Surprisingly, it shares Civ’s victory condition of “first one to the end of the AST wins” kind of idea - yet the progression along that track was far too abstract and seemingly arbitrary. Why do I need to suddenly have population in the woods? Why now in the mountains? Etc. Didn’t make a lot of sense when you stand back and look at it. And the automatic catch up mechanic, however thematically justified, exacerbated the problem in the final turn of the game, when someone seemingly wins arbitrarily or as consequence of “gaming the system” rather than consistently playing the best.

On a different note, I’m guessing one issue that drives the playtime up in Civ is that in order to advance along the AST you need to hit certain milestones (number of cities, or trade value, or advancements, etc.). And when the fighting starts there’s a big incentive to keep your opponent’s from hitting those milestones. There’s a negative feedback element at work, where the incentive to win encourages activities that prevents the game from ending. Antike solved this rather elegantly with the VP cards. Where hitting certain milestones awards you a VP card that can never be taken away. Even if someone later smashes your cities and temples to smithereens, the fact that you built them in the first place establishes a legacy of your Civ’s impact, embodied in the VP card you hold in your hand.

Despite all this rambling, I still see the day where I’m camped out in a cabin, playing Civ into the wee hours of the morning with an unscrupulous gang of ruffians. No doubt big boasts and bold moves of stupidity will fill the air. And I will ask myself whether it will be worth it. But I already know the answer.

And now it's your turn. Have you played Civ? What are your impressions? Do you feel any of Civ's successors have been ... successful? Join the conversation, the lines are open!

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