Friday, February 8, 2013

Review: Clash of Cultures

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 am a big fan of both 4x games and civilization building games. I'm also a fan of the original 1981 "Clash of the Titans" movie, but not so much of a fan of Culture Club.


The Overview:


The box cover. My favorite bit is the one rider on the elephant pausing during battle to admire the work that has been done on the wonder to his right.


Clash of Cultures is a combination 4x/civilization/empire building game that runs somewhere between pre-Bronze Age to pre-Renaissance in the scope of technology advancements. Each player takes the role of a single settlement, each beginning equally and with no starting differences, but ultimately builds it into an empire whose strategies and objectives may differ vastly from his neighbors as there are multiple victory paths as objectives earned from a random hand of cards, research advancements, city sizes, wonders of the world built and random events each offer victory points to a civilization. The game ends after a set number of rounds, and advancements bring players up to a roughly pre-Renaissance era.

The game is for 2-4 players and plays in about 30 minutes per player. Unfamiliar players will slow this total down a bit, but with experienced players, a two-player game can run in an hour and a four-player game will finish in about 2.5 hours. The game is played out on a modular board of unexplored tiles that are flipped and revealed once they are explored, revealing land to be settled and resources available in each tile. Each player also has a player board that has 48 different advancements that can be learned, giving each civilization a wide-range of benefits and effects.

Skip to the next section, "The Theme", if you do not want to read a rules rehash.

The game is deceptively simple, but each action echoes loudly as they push each civilization along a different track and experience. The map is built according to the number of players and tiles are laid out face down to hide what is surrounding each player's start tile. Every player begins with one city and one settler as well as one Objective Card and one Action Card hidden from the other players.

Objective Cards are one of the main ways of scoring points and they can influence how a civilization will grow and what direction a player may move in if he wishes to score them. Objectives range from things such as building the first Wonder of the game, having all 4 Science advances or having at least one size 5 city. Each Objective Card also has a secondary means of scoring them at the bottom of the card which is worth the same amount of points, but generally offers a more militaristic goal, such as capturing another player's city, eliminating at least two Army units in battle against another player or having more Fortresses (city improvements) than other players. This offers an alternative to score points if the top of the card would lead you too far from your current path.

Action Cards give players extra options to perform on their turn and range from things such as gaining an advance as a free action, gaining an extra action during the turn or forcing another player from attacking you until your next turn. Similar to Objective Cards, they have an additional use which is listed on the bottom of each card and are played to affect combat. Cards can only be used like this after the Tactics advancement is learned.

At the end of each round, every player will draw an additional Objective and Action card into their hand, which can manipulate the way a civilization grows as the game unfolds.

Each player also has a player board, which tracks their advancements and the individual resources that they may collect. Food, Ore and Wood are the basic natural resources and can be gathered from tiles under the city or adjacent to it. Gold and Idea are two special resources that can be gained through other means. Idea can be spent as Food to get new advances and Gold can be spent to substitute for any other resource. Finally, Culture and Mood are two other tokens which are usually gained through advances and are used to pay for certain actions and card effects, and the movement of Culture and Mood trackers initiate player Event Cards when certain levels are reached, triggering events, for better or worse, that affect your civilization and have a chance of effecting other players as well.

The game takes place over six Rounds. Each round is broken into three Turns. And in each Turn, every player takes three Actions. A player takes his three Actions and then passes to the next player who then takes his three Actions.

There are six different Actions that a player may take. Each action can be taken in any order and multiple times on a turn.



Some of the player's available advances. 


1. Advance: A player can spend two food (or substitute any amount of it with Idea) to learn a new advance. The player marks the advance on his board. Each advance is in a category of 4 similar themed advances (such as the Spirituality category contains the advancements Myths, Rituals, Priesthood and State Religion). You must learn the first advance in a category before you can learn any of the others. However, once the first one is learned, any others in the category may be taken. If an advance has a blue border, it gives you a Culture token and if it has a yellow border, it gives you a Mood token. There are also three Government-based advancement categories, which have an additional prerequisite before you can learn them.

2. Found City: As an action, a player can remove a settler from a non-Barren space that he is in and found a city.

3. Activate City: As an action, the player can activate one of his cities. A city can only be activated once per Turn without the city reacting negatively and becoming unhappy (which affects how much a city can do). When activated, a city can do ONE of the following:
A. Build Units: A city can build any number of units up to its city size, plus one additional unit if the city's mood is "Happy". Settlers cost 2 Food each to build, Armies cost 1 Food and 1 Ore and Ships cost 2 Wood. If a city is "Unhappy" then it can only build one unit, regardless of size.
B. Collect Resources: A city can collect a number of like resources from its surrounding tiles to a maximum of its city size, plus one additional resource if the city's mood is Happy. So, for example, a size 3 city could collect 3 Wood if there were at least three forest tiles adjacent to it.
C. Increase City Size: Advancements allow city-pieces to be built and added onto cities. To increase city size, it costs 1 Food, 1 Ore and 1 Wood. Each added city-piece offers its own special benefits and abilities. An Unhappy city cannot increase its size and a city cannot grow larger than the number of other cities the player has (for example, if you only have 3 cities, then your maximum city size is 3).

4. Move Units: As an action, a player can move up to three groups of units one space each. Ships have special movement rules which are simple and intuitive once they are played. The Navigation advance increases the movement possibilities of ships.

5. Civil Improvement: As an action, a player can spend Mood tokens equal to the size of one of his cities to improve the happiness of that city. If a city is Unhappy, it becomes Neutral. And if it is Neutral, it becomes Happy.

6. Cultural Influence: As an action, one of the player's cities tries to influence a nearby city culturally. The range for this action is equal to the size of the city (so a size 4 city could affect an enemy city 4 spaces away). The player rolls a die and on a 5 or a 6, the influence attempt succeeds and the target enemy city must remove one of its city pieces and it is replaced by the influencing player's piece (for example, replacing the enemy player's Temple and placing your Temple there instead). This does not affect the target city in any way other than end-game scoring as you get 1 VP for each city piece on the board. It is one of the few ways that you can "swing" point scores. Culture tokens can be spent to increase the range or the roll of this action.



Objective Cards have two ways of scoring, the second one being militaristic.


After three Turns, players then enter the Status Phase, which consists of 5 stages.
1. Each player can score any completed Objectives at this time. Once scored, it does not matter if you later lose the requirement.
2. Each player receives a free advance.
3. Each player draws 1 new Objective Card and 1 new Action Card to add to his hand.
4. Each player may raze 1 of their size 1 cities if they wish.
5. The new First Player is determined. Each player adds their Culture and Happiness Levels and whoever has the highest total decides who will be the Starting Player.

After six rounds, point scores are totaled and a winner is determined.

Combat is simple and basic. When one player's armies moves into a space with another player's armies, combat is resolved. Each player has the option to play one Action Card in combat for its battle effect. And then each player rolls a number of dice equal to the number of Armies he has in the combat and then adds the result. That sum is then divided by 5 and rounded down. That total is the number of hits dealt to the opponent's forces. One hit kills one unit. This is resolved in a similar manner for navies and naval battles.


The Theme:

Clash of Cultures is a difficult game to gauge how well it translates its theme. Unlike games like Sid Meier's Civilization: The Board Game, each player does not start with a unique civilization. Themes of these games are often judged based on how much Egypt or Russia plays to that nation's stereotypical real world strengths. And games like Twilight Imperium 3 push players in a certain direction of play based upon what their individual races abilities suggest. There the theme ends up really being in how the asymmetrical nationalities or races play and ultimately balance in a full game.

Clash of Cultures ends up being more of a sandbox civilization builder. Everyone starts on equal footing with no player having any strengths or weaknesses or preset strategy laid out before they take their very first action. And, unlike Through the Ages, there is no need to curse if someone takes the Architecture card before you, denying you the ability to grab it yourself. I could, if I wanted, mirror my opponent's actions exactly and only be forced to deviate when it comes to terrain differences as tiles are explored. Wonders offer the only unique aspect of the game as once one is built, it cannot be built by another players.

This is not a bad thing at all, however. Being a longtime Civ player on the computer (I had Sid Meier's original Civilization on my Amiga), there was initially a strange feeling in being a generic civilization. I was so used to playing Germany and instantly knowing that I am geared for a military game or playing the Xxcha Kingdom and knowing I'll be taking a diplomatic route. It made my first game feel strange and almost lacking. However, upon a replay, you understand that there is more depth there and that it is actually quite liberating not to be pigeon-holed into a long-term strategy and instead be able to adapt to circumstances of my surrounding area, card draws and opponent actions.

So, in that case, Clash of Cultures succeeds very well at the theme of being a sandbox civilization game. The fact that the tech "tree" allows you to jump around and pick up stray techs without needing to fulfill long requirements also feels a little strange at first. But in the end, the theme of your civilization is what you make it.


Learning the Game:


Four-player game. 


The downside of having such a wide-opened sandbox build is that your early games can feel overwhelming in options. That isn't to say that the game is difficult to learn. It isn't at all. The most complicated portions of the game are probably naval movement and tile exploration rules. Both are actually simple, but are best understood in practice rather than description. So an experienced player helping explain these as the game develops is very helpful.

But if there is one advantage to games that start you with a unique civilization is that it is easy to tell new players how to start by telling them "You are good at techs. You'll probably want to build a lot of techs and focus on research." In Clash of Cultures there are stronger opening games and most players tend to focus on developing a handful of these. But really, there isn't that initial nudge to push someone in any direction and some players might feel overwhelmed.

However, the actual game itself is very easy to learn and the rules are presented exceedingly well. The rules even have bullet points after each pertinent rule to direct the reader's attention to relevant advances to consider how they affect the rules they just read. Learning the game is easy, but understanding the scope of what is out there and what you can do with your opening sandbox isn't as much and inexperienced players can often fall behind the initial curve of more experienced players.

Fortunately the game isn't very unforgiving, so learning players will not necessarily be hindered by waves of barbarians and frustrated by overwhelming setbacks. Instead, they just won't score as well as the experienced players in their first games (and might not know when to knock their neighbor on their ass for getting too far ahead).


The Components:


Game in progress showing tiles, figures and pieces in action.



Player board showing available advances as well as advancements already known and tracking resources at the top.




Tokens in the game.




Event cards in the game.




Close up of the sculpts. 



There really is limited artwork throughout the game. This isn't necessarily a negative, but it just lends less to a slightly less robust and flavorful play experience. Instead, I marvel at the efficiency of the design instead of the art of it. The player boards have all of the tech, as well as enough of a summary of each that there is no reason to reach for the rulebook to understand them. Cards are well laid out with everything clear and open that you would be required to know about them available at a glance.

The art on the tiles themselves is perfectly efficient, if just a little bland. But even so, in the end, once cities and armies are out on the board, the world you make still ends up being pleasing to look at.

The mini sculpts are pretty, although they are made of a softer plastic which causes easy bending and a number of them had flash around them. I like the way that cities grow with a clever circular design.

The only issues I have with the components of the game are minor, but notable.

First of all, the sculpts for the ships are annoying. The sails pop out easily. This is easily rectified with a bead of glue with each sail. However, you know that you won't admit it out loud, but deep down inside of the depths of your gaming OCD, you know you don't want to glue your pieces. The instructions don't specifically tell you to glue them. And what if you want to trade the game some day. Do you have to make a note about how you "modified" your game pieces? And will people be unwilling to trade with you thereafter? And since you've then modified your game, do you need to put an asterisk by all of your games played stats from here on in? If Christian Marcussen has any kind of soul whatsoever, he will add in the official FAQ that players should glue their sails onto their ships to reduce the number of gamer aneurisms.

Second, the wonders are little cardboard standees. Yes, I'm glad that I didn't have to pay an addition $10 for the game to get a little plastic Pyramid or get to lay down Agricola style lengths of fence to represent my Great Wall, however, that would have been really neat. The standees are perfectly functional. However, I wonder if there is a subconscious psychological effect of the cardboard and maybe our group would build wonders more often if we could get pretty little pieces next to our cities. But then again, I suppose having a grand plastic Great Statue towering over my city like the Colossus of old might just look pretty enough that it would make my opponents more likely to attack that city. So there's give and take with the cardboard wonders.


Playing the Game:


Wonders are cardboard counters. 


As I stated, the game is very easy to learn. The sandbox start can feel overwhelming, but once the mechanics are understood from your first play, you start to see how certain advances compliment certain strategies and you begin to see different directions to build from. And, for us, it meant a desire to play again and try something new.

Other than with players who suffer from analysis paralysis, player turns actually move relatively quickly and smoothly and downtime isn't fully felt.

One of the issues with a games like Sid Meier's Civilization: The Board Game is that it ultimately a race. Players race to complete their civilization's preset victory path. If another player seems to be pushing ahead too much, then the only way to stop him is through military. However, by building up a military to stop the player, you are slowing your engine and allowing the other players an advantage as their engines continue to produce. So if you are going to stop another player, it is best to build a large military and go all out and try to conquer their military, otherwise you are giving the game to the other players. This creates a disjointed tension in the game as people sometimes will argue over who will stop the runaway leader as it is often the non-involved players who will win.

However in Clash of Cultures the race is taken out of it. The game plays to the end and Victory Points are assessed. There is still a military aspect of the game, but I've found that the design of the game allows for a more robust strategy. Objective Cards have a way to score them, but each has an alternative "military" means to score them. This actually encourages every player to have a bit of military. If I draw an Objective Card later in the game that scores if I have more Temples than any other player and my opponent has five temples out to my none, I don't have to completely alter my strategy midway through. Instead, I can try to use my armies to complete the secondary objective.

The other thing that discourages the game from becoming a mindless military smack down is that it is generally pretty easy to see armies coming. Roads and other advances can allow a surprise move here or there, but once you see something coming, it is usually fairly easy to defend against it because combat it relatively predictable. This isn't a bad thing either.

Combat uses dice, but it mitigates luck. You roll one die for each unit and add the results. This sum is divided by five and rounded down. That is the number of hits you inflict. Each hit destroys one unit. The beauty of this system is that if I needed a 5 to hit and were to attack with 4 armies and roll four 4's, I would get no hits and be very annoyed at my dice, however, using this system, I would get a total of 16 and divide that by 5 and get 3 hits and I would be very happy. Sure, dice can still roll terrible and it would have an impact. But what ends up happening is that larger armies tend to win fights, as they should. Also, bringing more armies is important because every unit contributes. I don't need to scorn the unit that rolls a two because it "missed". Instead, that 2 might just push my total over to get me another hit.

So with secondary military Objectives available to all and combat being predictable, it turns out that most people have a reason to build at least a nominal military. As a result, its less likely that someone will be caught completely undefended... just maybe out of position.

Also, another factor is that while city pieces on the board at the end of the game scores you points, if you scored an Objective it remains out and scored. So if I scored my Objective of having six cities, it doesn't matter (for the purposes of that card) if my opponents later show up and sacks a couple of my cities, I don't lose the points if I already scored it.

Military strategies are still there, but they are not completely dominant, which is good.


Scalability:

The game plays from 2-4 players. However, it plays best with 3 or 4. Two player games are still fun, however, I've found that they tend have much less interaction. With only two players, if each player takes a strategy of building up, they may never encounter one another or interact at all. Conversely, if one player takes a full military strategy, there is no "other player buffer" and it forces the game to become an arms race. There are games that fall into the middle with moderate interaction, but with only two players, you are more likely to experience the extremes.

However, the nice part of two player games is finishing them in an hour.

Ultimately I think the sweet spot is three players. This isn't because of downtime (which isn't that bad in four-player games), but rather because everyone is equidistant from one another in a three-player game. Four player games end up with player "pairs" being close neighbors with the others on the opposite side of the map. This can sometimes cause some issues where you may be lucky by having a passive neighbor or having to adjust to a conquesting neighbor. The four-player maps have slow mountain movement hexes to limit quick neighbor interactions, but I am still surprised that there wasn't an attempt to build with a little more distance between all players.


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. She's actually a fan of civilization building games and was a big fan of Sid Meier's Civilization: The Board Game. I think, however, that she has a bit of a preference for Clash of Cultures now. The fact that the game is streamlined and doesn't feel as mathy or brain-burning as SMC:tBG gives it a lot of appeal. There is something to be said for the flash of color and appeal of the prettiness of SMC:tBG, but in the end, I think that the smooth and elegant mechanics ends up being a more appealing game experience for her. The other thing that pushes this game in her favor is that it is easily played with just two-players with less wonky and ultimately unbalancing issues than SMC:tBG as a two-player game, so we can play it together over an evening without eating up our entire night.


The Pros:

*Sandbox civilization creation.
*Multiple paths for victory allows repeated play with completely different strategies.
*Simple combat system is intuitive and doesn't overwhelm the game.
*Avoids the race to a preset end game win condition.
*Simple game mechanics that offer complex decisions.
*Great, organized, well-laid out and clear rulebook.
*Very efficient design for all game elements.
*Randomness in game is mitigated (you can prepare and protect yourself from certain events triggering and dice are totaled to determine hits, reducing effect of poor rolls).
*Short play time for the depth of game.


The Cons:

*Non-unique civilizations can be intimidating at first as there is no guidance in any victory direction (other than Objective cards).
*Efficient design, but it could be "prettied" up a bit with artwork and better sculpts.
*Two-player games can be a little wonky on amount of interaction.
*Four-player set up has pairs of players a little close, setting up advantages or disadvantages based solely on your neighbor.
*No five or six player support. Unfortunately an expansion adding these will most likely be included with extra bloat to justify the expansion.
*Game offers an official variant to allow players to avoid drawing Event cards instead of forcing players to suck it up and realize that sometimes things will happen in a game, or even life, that will be unplanned and we should each best prepare to mitigate for unforeseen circumstances. As a result, the game is inadvertently enabling a culture of dice-fearing spreadsheet builders who cannot pick up a penny they find on the street because it would mess up their exact calculations of how they planned on spending the money in their wallet who will eventually become bubble-gamers and will break down if someone takes a card they needed and "ruins their entire strategy".


Overall:

Clash of Cultures is a wonderful civilization building 4x game. Unlike games with unique races or leaders, CoC offers a real sandbox building style that may be intimidating to new players, but experienced players will find that it is actually very refreshing at not being handheld and lead along a singular path to victory. The game is simple in mechanics, but very complex in depth and weight of decisions. This game has replaced Sid Meier's Civilization: The Board Game as the go to medium weight civilization building game, beating it in both length of time and depth and openness of play without feeling unwieldy or bloated with unnecessary rules or math. It doesn't quite compare with Through the Ages because TtA's abstractions and playstyle feels like a completely different type of game. However CoC will find its way to the table much more often because of the quick playtime. Clash of Cultures truly is a genius, streamlined civilization building game that feels complete and full with a shorter playtime.


9/10

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