Friday, November 5, 2010

Review: Sid Meier's Civilization: The Board Game

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and game play is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. Also, I've been playing Sid Meier's Civilization games since the first one came out on the Amiga. And for the record, I've updated my computer since then.


The Overview:


The box cover. Images like this are also known as nerd porn for a number of gamers. 



Pictured is what is in the box. Things that are missing from the box? Decent insert. Good way to store and sort the pieces. 



Sid Meier's Civilization: The Board Game is a civilization/empire building game in which each person starts with a single city and a weak army and scout as they try to build and develop themselves as the best civilization the world has known by winning through one of four victory conditions. Each civilization has unique abilities that differentiates them from the others and tends to give an advantage towards one (or more) of the victory conditions. The game is based off of the Sid Meier's Civilization computer games, though portions of it are abstracted enough that it does not feel like one specific version of the game.

The game is for 2-4 players and plays in about 2.5 - 4 hours. A smaller group or experienced players will probably finish most games in two and a half to three hours. However, inexperienced players or players who are prone to AP will find that the extra hour playtime is easily added to the game. Play time is also affected by the number of players.

The game set up begins with each player choosing their starting civilization and chooses a color and takes all of the components and pieces matching that color as well as a deck of 36 tech cards. Set up continues then by building the modular board. The board is build with face-down tiles creating a "fog of war" type of effect and the board is built depending on the number of players:



Board set up for two-players. 



Board set up for three-players. It may look uneven, but each starting space is two tiles from each opponent. 




Board set up for four-players. 



Each player has a starting tile associated with their civilization and each player places their capital city on one of the four center squares in the tile. Each of the 8 surrounding squares dictates the resources that are available to that city and civilization. The players also place their starting units, an Army marker and a Scout, on one of the eight "Outskirt" tiles surrounding their city.

Players each also start with 3 Unit Cards that make up their "standing forces" and may represent the units that make up their Army. The figures on the board are the Armies, showing the position of where the civilization's forces are on the map at any time. However, the cards make up the units that are in said Armies. So, you could technically have an Army with no Units, but it would likely be crushed in combat. You could also have a bunch of Units, but no standing Armies. This would mean that you cannot move out onto the map, but could use your Units to defend your cities if they are attacked.

Combat is also based upon the Unit Cards. Each player shuffles their Units and draws 3 cards, plus more cards based on number of Army figures, if you are defending a city and other factors. There are 4 types of Unit Cards, Infantry, Mounted, Artillery and Air. The attacker plays first and lays down a card. The defender can then either play a card to engage that Unit, or start a new front. If they engage the Unit, both sides do damage to the other card based on the Strength of that Unit. If a Unit takes more damage than its strength, it is destroyed. Also, each of the ground Units has an advantage of one other type and is vulnerable to one type and that Unit resolves its attack first. For example, Infantry trumps Mounted Units. If so if a 2 Strength Mounted Unit is on the field and the other player plays a 2 Strength Infantry Unit to engage it, the Infantry's two damage is resolved first and the Mounted Unit is destroyed before it can damage the Infantry Unit.

After the set up is finished, game starts and is played out through a number of turns. Each Turn is comprised of five Phases and every player plays out the phase in player order before moving onto the next. The turns are:

1. START OF TURN: The first player position moves to the left and players have an opportunity to perform a couple of tasks if able and desired.
• Building a New City: A player can convert a Scout figure into a city. A city's outskirts cannot overlap another city's outskirts and a full 8 outskirt squares must be available around the area. The Scout figure goes back into the civilization's supply and can be built again later. The new city acts in almost every way as the capital city. Each civilization can only build one additional city, until they research the Irrigation tech, then they can build a second new city. So with a maximum of 2 new cities to be placed, they are important and limited resources that need to be planned out.
• Changing Government: If a civilization researched a tech that allows access to a new form of government the last turn, they can immediately convert to it and get it's abilities and bonuses. However, if they want to change to a government form that they have previously researched, but not over the last turn, they must first convert to Anarchy for one turn and then switch later. This prevents government swapping to maximize a benefit for only one turn.

2. TRADE: Each player first gains Trade equal to the number of trade icons on the outskirts of each of their cities. Trade is a resource that is used to research Techs at the end of the turn, but it also has other uses as well (such as it is needed to advance along the higher levels of Culture as well). After this, each player can negotiate and trade. This is an open-ended negotiation where non-binding promises can be made and just about any resource can be traded, bribed or blackmailed from any other player.

3. CITY MANAGEMENT: Each player in turn order then performs the City Management Phase. Each city in the player's possession can take ONE action. Different cities from one civilization can take different actions, but each must perform the action on their own, meaning that the cities cannot share resources on one another's outskirts. Cities actions basically come down to doing the following: build, culture or harvest.
• Produce a Figure, Unit, Building or Wonder: A city producing can add the production icons (hammers) on each of the spaces in its outskirts. It can then build ONE thing using these hammers. Extra hammers are not stored for later round and another city cannot send unused hammers to another city. Building a figure lets the player place a new Army or Scout figure on the city outskirts. Buildings can be built as long as the player has researched the tech that allows that building to be produced. Building are placed on one of the appropriate outskirt squares and covers up the resources on that tile, replacing them with the resources on the building. Wonders can also be built, but are generally expensive, requiring many hammers to build them. However, they are powerful and give bonuses throughout the game.
• Devote to the Arts: This lets the player gain Culture from the city. A city produces one Culture token, plus any other Culture icons in its outskirts. Culture can also be spent with this action to move further up the Culture Track. Each time a player moves up the Culture Track, they gain either a Culture Card or a Great Person (depending on the space you move onto). Culture Cards all are beneficial and can be played at different phases depending on the event effects listed. A Great Peron is drawn randomly and may be placed onto a city outskirt square like buildings, replacing the square's resources with its printed resources.
• Harvest Resources: Lets the player take ONE Resource Token from the supply (if it is available) and take it into their possession, provided that one of the squares in the city outskirts has that Resource printed on it. These Resources are very limited and are often spent to activate certain abilities on tech cards. However, cornering the market on a Resource that other players need can be very useful during negotiations as well. There is also another Resource, Coins, which are added to a player's Economy track.

4. MOVEMENT: Each player then can move all of their figures on the map. Each player moves all of their figures before the next player moves theirs. Figures begin with a movement of two, but can be increased with tech cards. If a figure is on a square that is adjacent to an unexplored tile, they can spend one of their movement points to flip the tile over. The flipped tile is placed with the marker arrow adjacent to the tile it was explored from, so flipping orientation does not matter. Figures cannot move diagonally and cannot cross water (until a tech that allows it is learned). If a revealed tile has a Hut or Village icon on any of its squares, a random token of the matching type is placed on the square face down. On the back of the Hut and Village token is a Resource. If an Army figure moves onto a Hut, they take the token and the Resource listed on it. If an Army figure moves onto a Village, they must first fight the Barbarians and a combat begins. If the player wins, they take the token and receive the Resource on the back. If an Army figure moves onto another player's Scout figure, it is immediately destroyed and returned the player's supply. If an Army figure moves into another square with another player's Army or City, a battle begins. The victor of the battle gets to claim spoils from the loser, and if the losing player was defending a city, that city is destroyed as well as every building, wonder or great person in its outskirts.

5. RESEARCH: Each player can now spend Trade points to gain a new tech card, which immediately takes place. In order to build a tech card, the player has to have enough Tech points to purchase the card as well as have a legal place to build it on their "tech pyramid". Basically, when you build your techs, the level 1 tech cards go on the bottom row. Level two stagger on top of them. So you need two level 1 techs in order to place a level 2 tech on it. If you wanted a level 3 tech, you would need at least two level 2 techs to have a place to build it onto, and having two level 2 techs requires that you have at least three level 1 techs to have them on top of. When you Research a tech, you must have at least the required amount of Trade Points. However, when you purchase a tech, you must spend ALL of your Trade Points to receive it. A level 1 tech costs 6 Trade. If you have 18 Trade and purchase it, you lose all 18 Trade to get it. However, you get to keep a number of Trade Points based on your current Economy Score. If you have a 0 Economy, you lose all of your Trade, if you have a 5 Economy, you lower yourself to 5 Trade when you Research a tech. This encourages players to build lower level techs early so that they are not "wasting" extra Trade to build the lower levels of their pyramids later in the game. Techs give a number of powers and upgrades, including making units more powering in battle, letting you be able to build certain building types, increasing hand size, movement and how many of your units can be in a single square.

Play continues turn to turn until a player reaches one of the four victory conditions. Players can win by a Culture Victory, which is obtained when a player reaches the last space on the Culture Track, by a Tech Victory, which is obtained by being the first to Research the level 5 Space Flight Tech, by an Economic Victory, in which a player has collected 15 Coins, or by a Military Victory, which is achieved by conquering another player's capital city.


The Theme:

So, does Sid Meier's Civilization: The Board Game feel like Sid Meier's Civilization: the Computer Game? In a number of ways, yes. However, the micromanaging of your cities is massively scaled down and you do not have to worry about things such as population, workers and happiness (like in Through the Ages. But some of the game's charm comes from seeing how many of the elements of the CIV games from the computer ended up in the board game, but at the same time, it retains its own identity and feel.

I really love Through the Ages and it seems like this game is the opposite bookend to that game to try to create a true experience of the CIV computer games. In TtA, territory, cities and geography are painted with a very abstract brush and you focus on the micromanaging of your civilization. In Civ the board game, territory, cities and geography are the basis of the game, with ideas such as city management being painted with a broader brush.

However, the game does feel like you are building an empire. It's not the quintessential Sid Meier's computer game experience by any stretch of the imagination, but the spirit of it is strong in this game. I would say that if you are a fan of the first couple of CIV computer games, where detailed managing your cities was necessary to advance, then Through the Ages is probably your best bet. However, if you are a fan of the more recent CIV computer games where you are able just plop down a city and the computer act as auto-mayor and build and manages resources without looking back at them as you focus more on the uber-game, then Sid Meier's Civilization: The Board Game is probably the better choice for you.


Learning the Game:

The game's rules are presented in a full color, 32 page rule booklet with large sections set up for examples and many illustrations and pictures to help guide the player through. The game may seem daunting for the first play, but at its core, it really is deceptively simple. Having the computer game background helps with some of the concepts of the game, but ultimately, the game is different enough that it is not overly useful, nor necessary (unlike TtA, where the concept of discontent workers really works best if explaining that idea to someone who has played the Civ games before).

The rules are well put together, with only a couple of odd little places to find stuff if you are looking up rules on the fly. I will suggest this to any new players: look at the little reference card, not the big reference cards or the manual, to see what you start with as far as Units and Figures and starting movement and hand limits. It's much harder to actually find these things in the rulebook.


The Components:


The Army figures, Scout figures and starting tokens for one of the colors.



Close up of the Roman player board and Trade and Economy dials. 




Wound markers, Coin tokens and Culture tokens. The wee bits of the game. 




Two-player game in progress. Yes, it is a table hog.




Closer view of the board of a two-player game in progress. 




Two player game in progress. Yellow player's POV. 



The components are, for the most part, typical Fantasy Flight Games quality, which is to say, excellent in both quality and artwork. The tiles are a good, thick cardboard and the cards are all of FFG's usual stock and coating. Artwork in the game is excellent and everything comes together as one very pretty package.

One of the things that I noticed that I thought was odd at first was the fact that there are 6 different Civilizations that you can choose to start from, but only 4 different colors to choose from. You would think that Fantasy Flight would have no problem giving you extra plastic and making dedicated colors and units for each civilization, especially since Russia begins with an extra Army figure (currently represented by a white figure so that it can be used with any color choice). However, then I realized the reason why this was done: expansion civilizations. Instead of packaging each new civilization with a new color and producing more plastic for it, you can minimize the production costs with new expansions this way.

Finally, my only complaint with the components comes from the player boards, which have thick cardboard dials on them (FFG loves them some dials). This would be an excellent mechanic and it really is convenient. However, the base of these boards are not thick cardboard, but instead heavy weight paper (like most standard reference sheets). This causes them to be very prone to bending or folding in the box, especially because the insert is not at all useful (it is the standard FFG's insert). It just seems like a very odd choice, especially since the dials are thick cardboard and may be a bit tight in trying to turn at first.


Playing the Game:

Game play is surprisingly easy to learn. Combat is probably the trickiest part of the game to get used to, but it isn't that bad. In teaching the game, I play out a couple of turns of combat with players, using the cards and showing how the fronts and trumping work in practice.

Now, the game has four different Victory Conditions and different civilizations with different abilities. It seems surprisingly balanced despite all of these varying elements. However, some civilizations are more apt to prosper at certain victory conditions than others. For example, Russia can steal techs, which makes them an excellent candidate for the tech victory, but their starting government gives them a penalty to Culture gained, so they are much less likely to win that way.

In my experience, it seems as if the end game comes quick. I was surprised at how soon we were each massive production machines with each of us moving in our own direction towards a victory. Sometimes, however, you may see that a player is close to a victory, but is too much a of juggernaut to stop. But, for the most part, it is fairly apparent which path each player is trying to win along and can be countered early in the game.

Another thing to note: This game is a table hog. Even beyond the map size and everything else, once every player starts to build their Tech Pyramids, you'll find that table space becomes a premium. It significantly increases the footprint for even two-players, but you'll really have to make sure you have enough table room for four players.

Also, combat is a little abstract and when you are in a battle, you randomly draw Unit cards into your hand from your stack. However, this means that you will have no idea what Units are actually in an Army at any time, which is a little odd and definitely abstract. Despite this, combat works, but it is a weaker (though interesting) element to the game. I'm not really disappointed that once again FFG has decided to resolve combat with cards instead of dice though. Unlike their last several games, this one actually seems to make more sense that way (despite the abstraction). Seriously though, I really think that FFG's trend to go diceless in their games and instead use decks of cards to resolve things is less of a design decision and more of a marketing decision since they started to sell their own odd-sized card sleeves.

Two subtle things, however, really stand out in this game for me:

First, I really like that the Trade Phase allows open negotiations and just about anything is tradable or negotiable. Games really should not be afraid of having these kinds of elements in them. Sure, meta-gaming and king-making is possible and can ruin the experience, but if you have these types of players in your core gaming group, you should really try to ditch them. Real negotiations with few limits creates some very interesting moments in a game.

Second, I understand a reluctance for player elimination, but usually don't like it when a game goes out of its way to keep it out of their mechanics, even when it seems natural. There is no real player elimination in this game, as conquering just ONE opponent's capital wins the game by a Military Victory for the player. However, in this game, it creates alliances. If I see a player with a lot of Units and Armies moving towards a weak opponent, I'm going to step in to try to defend that player so that he does not win. I can either move my Armies to try to cut them off or defend their capital, or trade Resources, Trade and cards to the player to let them bolster their own defenses. Uneasy, forced alliances really adds to the open negotiations in the Trade Phase.


Scalability:

The game plays from 2 to 4 players and it is fully playable with no changes to the rules for any of those numbers. However, with two players, negotiation is a little less common since you are obvious and direct opponents. With all games like this, more players equals more interaction with equals more better.

With 3 or 4 players, the "gang up on the leader" mechanic isn't as prevalent as it may seem, since there are multiple ways to Victory. Also, three players seems to be the most set up for interaction and competition. Not counting the start tile for each civilization, there are 3 unexplored tiles per player in both the 2 and 4 player games. In the 3 player game, there are only 2.3 unexplored tiles per player, making for less room to build your other cities on and more competition for locations and resources. Also, on the three player set up, even though each of the civilizations are 2 tiles away from the others, by the fact that figures cannot move diagonally, one of the starting locations is a bit more isolated from the others, but it shouldn't be a big issue or advantage in the game ultimately.


Does the Wife Like It?:

The most important category. I play games without her, but she's an integral part of my core gaming group and my most frequent game partner. The more she likes a game, the more likely I'll see it in our rotation (without having to first build up my gaming capital by playing a bunch of games she prefers first). That being said, my wife has never really gotten into the Civ computer games, but she does really like Through the Ages, so I wasn't sure where she would fall on this one.

It turns out, however, that she did enjoy it. She's also brutally savvy and vicious as an opponent. The play time will probably mean it won't see heavy rotation in our weekday night gaming sessions, but I'm sure that it'll find its way into two-player plays as well as with our core gaming groups.


The Pros:

*A game that captures the spirit and heart of the CIV computer games, even if it doesn't translate all of the micromanaging mechanics of the games.
*Surprising ease of play that is very intuitive to learn.
*Multiple victory paths and open negotiation.
*No player elimination that actually creates a new depth to the game.
*A lot of interesting ideas in the game (such as Tech Pyramids and Units vs. Armies)
*Beautiful components that are fully functional.
*Set up for easy expansions, which could easily be small box, cheaper price-point add ons.
*Variable set up creates a lot of replayability.
*Graphics are much better than my old Amiga version of the game.


The Cons:

*Even a two-player game becomes a table hog once you start building your tech pyramids.
*Thick cardboard dials on player boards that are not actually boards, but heavy paper.
*Combat is a little abstract; I may move my Army in to attack, but I have no idea what Units are in it until I randomly draw them.
*Little leeway in being able to change strategies in mid-game and remain competitive--most of the time, you are locked in your Victory Path.
*Two player game lacks real negotiation opportunities, even if it is still fully playable and enjoyable.
*Portions of the micromanaging may seem too light for some players for a 3 hour civilization building game.
*Unlike in the computer game, if I don't like my starting set up, other people are now around to see me reset it again.
*No Alpha Centauri game to play after this one ends with a Space Race victory.


Overall:

Sid Meier's Civilization: The Board Game captures the spirit of the Civilization computer games, even if it is a little light in some parts. The game should not be considered competition to deep, in-depth civilization building games, as the game is much shorts and lighter than many of that kind. However, it is a fully-accessible and fun game that can be played in three hours. Deep micromanagers will not have that itch satisfied by this game, but those who like map exploration and city building portions of empire building games will find that this game will charm them with a fun experience.


8.5/10

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