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In 1981, Avalon Hill released a board game called Civilization. In it, each player took control of an ancient civilization and guided it through history, researching technologies, building cities, and making war. In 1991, Microprose released a videogame called Sid Meier's Civilization, which had much the same premise and seemed to borrow a number of gameplay elements from the boardgame. (More details about this can be found in the Civilization node.) This videogame spawned two (or perhaps three, depending on what you count) sequels, simply named Civilization II and III.

In 2002, Eagle Games released Sid Meier's Civilization: The Board Game, a board game based on the latest iteration of the computer game.

Naturally, the game is vastly simplified from the computer game, though a suprising number of concepts from it are translated into this board game version. Players still build cities, settlers, and military units; they still explore the map; they still research technologies; they still develop their cities, whether by causing them to grow in size or building improvements in them; and they still collect and trade resources. All four of the so-called "four Xes" of empire-building games are preserved: expansion, exploration, exploitation, and extermination.

The greatest simplification from the computer games is the reduction of the various resources like food, shields, and commerce into one resource: money. Cities produce money every turn, and players buy things with it. Cities grow by buying the upgrade, units are produced by buying them, technologies are researched by paying their cost, and so forth.

The biggest gripe with the game I have is with the pieces, and my complaints are two-fold. First, every player shares the same color of military units. While each player has their own color of plastic pieces for their cities and settlers, the only way to signify which player a given army belongs to is to use one of the helpfully provided flagbearer units each player also has. This can make certain situations difficult to keep track of, like when two players each have an army inside of a territory at the same time (in such a situation, a battle will not occur if both players agree not to fight; thus, two players can defend against a third). The second gripe I have is with the quality of the pieces. The vast majority of them are just fine, but a few have some pretty fragile bits, like the settler's walking stick, and the spearman's spear.

The game is divided into four eras, like the computer game: ancient, medieval, industrial, and modern. As players discover new technologies, old units gain upgrades, and new, better units become unlocked. There are five basic types of military units: three basic land units, fleets, and aircraft (which don't get unlocked until the modern era). The three basic land units are infantry, cavalry, and artillery, which are arranged (in the battle system) in a rock, paper, scissors sort of way, which adds an interesting twist to both strategy (if a player has a lot of a certain type, you'll want to build units of the type that has an advantage against it) and tactics (if you're fighting a battle, you'll want to keep track of what the other guy's unit balance is, and choose your own units accordingly).

A player's cities are kept track of by special city cards. Each city a player has gets a card, which keeps track of how much that city produces and what size it is (since cities can be up to size 4, this works out nicely for a four-sided card; each edge of the card signifies a different size of city).

The game comes with a number of tokens, which signify different types of territories. One is placed, face-down, at random, on each territory when starting the game. Some tokens denote resources, which give cities bonuses to production. Some give immediate bonuses to players when discovered, like a free technology or free money. Some do bad things, like limiting the maximum size of a city built in that spot, or unleashing a plague that kills units. (The size of the plague increases as the game progresses; if, somehow, an undiscovered plague token lasts until the modern era, it can potentially wipe out an area the size of Asia when discovered. In the ancient era, when it's most likely to be discovered, it only affects the territory it's found in.) Some simply do nothing.

The game uses an ingenious system for player turns. One annoying thing about other games of this sort is that player turns can take a long time. (Axis & Allies is a good example.) So, instead of having each player play their entire turn all at once, each player takes their turn during each phase. So first is the purchase phase, where each player buys things in turn. Then is the movement phase, when each player moves and battles in turn. Third is the trade phase, where each player trades resources, money or anything else (including cities, units, and technologies) with the other players. And last is the production phase, where each player adds up the amount of money they get for that turn and collects. Then this cycle is repeated again, except that the person who goes first in each phase changes to the next person on the left; in this way, no one gets a serious advantage by going either first or last in every turn. This also means that each player has a much shorter wait during times they get to do nothing.

I have played this game several times, both with fans of the computer game and people who have never even heard of it. As with any big board game (and I mean big: the board measures 36" by 46") of this sort, it is not recommended for the impatient or the especially young. The rules are not particularly difficult, particularly if you and the people you play with have played either the computer game or other board games on this level of complexity (which I would put on a level with Axis & Allies). The rule book does have both "standard" and "advanced" rules, but the standard rules are so mind-numbingly simple that they almost don't bear mentioning. One downside is that games last terribly long, to the point where if you aren't prepared to dedicate an entire table to this game for a period of days, you should maybe think about something shorter.

The outcome of this game is very randomly dependent on initial conditions that you cannot effectively choose. Furthermore, some of the mechanics make no sense and exacerbate the instability of the game. These pretty well undermine the advantages derived from having a good turn flow system.

What is the prime example of this? Resources are randomly distributed, are hidden, and never change. Villages built on regions with no special resource produce nothing at all, nada. These poor regions include not only the specially inclement regions such as mountain and jungle, but also the ordinary plains tiles, and what's left over after an event tile has gone off. So, it is quite possible to be blessed with several resource tiles, or be stuck with none at all, even in a region as large as South America... in that case you will be subsisting on the 10 gold per turn minimum for quite some time! This is true to the extent that the supposedly amazing 'free technology' event is, though not as bad as the plague, often a major letdown.

What makes this even worse is the existence of the Monopoly: if you can collect 3 of any one resource, no matter what it is, you get 20 gold per turn. 4 of the resource, make that 40 gold. And if you can somehow get all 5 of the resource that are printed, it's 80 gold. This is senseless on three levels.

First off, it doesn't matter what it is. For example, in the 21st century or even most of the 20th, any nation which controlled all of the world's horses, or even grapes, or cinnamon, would not derive from that wealth anything approaching, say, the GNP of America east of the Mississippi (which they would, in the game).

Second, even assuming the resource is highly necessary, though, it's all backward. The benefit of getting a monopoly is that you can charge high prices when reselling the good; not in having a lot of something for yourself. To be more specific, suppose that you have the only access to oil. You are charging monopoly prices. Then someone discovers more oil. In real life, your prices have to drop due to competition. Even if you form a cartel (like OPEC), the prices will not be higher than they were when the supply was lower. In the game, this behavior is reversed. If they discover more, your monopoly income is unaffected (and they gain virtually nothing), unless they trade the extra resource to you (for half the change in profit, perhaps), in which case the total revenue is greatly increased.

But that absurdity isn't the problem. Great games are frequently built on more absurd mechanics (see Avalon Hill's take on Civilization for an excellent example). But when the absurd game mechanics do not promote fun play, that's not good.

And so we come to the third way the monopoly rules are senseless. Suppose someone gets a 3-resource monopoly in the first few turns (which does happen, entirely randomly, not at all due to skill). If a player does that, their production will rival that of the rest of the world, and even the teamwork of all other players may fail to stop the collossus. This is exacerbated if you are playing with fewer than 6 players, as each player will have more room to expand (increasing the likelihood of one or two players getting monopolies, or for one player getting a 4-resource monopoly). Especially with the advanced rules, which make trade very difficult, you may not be able to arrange compensating monopolies through trade for a long time.

There are many other weirdities and poor design choices. None of them are nearly as crippling as the back-assward monopoly system, but the cumulative screwiness adds up into an unappealing whole.

Poor design choices that are conceptually weird:

  • If you discover Masonry (an entry-level tech), you get the Hanging Gardens for free. The effect of the Hanging Gardens is to give you two settlers for free. Note that 2 settlers are 5 gold more expensive than Masonry itself! And to make it worse, Masonry is within the starting budget. So, whoever goes first gets 5 points (2 for the tech, 3 for the wonder) and 5 free gold.
  • You start with two spearmen, but until the discovery of bronze working, cannot build more. I have been told that in the second edition, certain techs are handed out at the beginning, so this is not a problem.
  • The ability to build boats requires mathematics. Given that Oceania was populated by Homo Erectus, I'm tempted to call that dependence flaky. In any case, it really stalls the game.*
  • When you trade, you don't trade just the resource, you trade the whole production of the city sitting on the resource. In fact, you lend the city card to the other player. Also, since orientation of the card indicates the size of city, and the players are probably going to rotate the card while passing it, and there's nothing saying which city is which... you can see how this would get very messy!

Poor design choices that are not really weird:

  • The 1-gold coin looks just like the 5 gold coin; the 10 gold coin looks just like the 20 gold coin; the 50 gold coin looks just like the 100 gold coin.
  • All of the army pieces are the same color, with ownership indicated via flagbearers. They could have gone the Axis and Allies route, and made (fewer) army pieces in each color, suggesting usage of chips to indicate quantity.
  • One of the players' colors, gray, is close to the grayish brown color of the army pieces.
  • Though this was changed in an erratum, the original rules made city improvements belong to only one era (Ancient, Medieval, Gunpowder/Industrial, Modern), and when that era ended, the improvement evaporated. Some improvements could only be bought at the end of an era... what was the point? Even with the erratum, some improvements have a much shorter shelf life than the ROI period.
  • Building the UN almost gaurantees that you immediately win. Therefore, no one wants to buy the last tech required for Communism, because then they will have too little money to actually buy Communism itself (which gives you the UN).

Things that are just weird:

  • Settlers moving in the wilderness (say, from a mountain to the jungle and on into a desert, or any combination of the above) are twice as fast as cavalry on a forced march between friendly cities on a flat plain. Tanks are no faster either.
  • Improvements do only one thing (earn money), so a granary is the same thing as a library or aqueduct -- they all give you a 'gear'. A courthouse is the same as a castle or a hospital -- they all give you a 'happy face'. Gears are much better than happy faces once you have big cities.
  • It takes the same amount of effort to make a village happy as it does to make a city happy. But that's OK, because all happiness does is increase production by 2 (before productivity multipliers, blah blah).
  • As soon as anyone discovers a technology, everyone gains access to it. But they have to pay licensing fees! Except for the free upgrades within era. So, like, biplanes can get a free upgrade to stealth jets if someone else does the research for you.
  • There is only one sea unit for each era. So, when your Battleships automatically upgrade to Aircraft Carriers (for free, of course), there is absolutely no difference to combat, except against really old ships like frigates, which you can wipe the floor with already anyway.
  • Aside from building the UN, the one thing you can do that gives you the most points is to discover Theology.
  • Though most secret tiles are kept hidden until built on, mountains, jungles, and deserts immediately become public information.
  • The map is really distorted. Like, to the extent that with a boat in the Mediterranean, it is easier to get to America than Britain. Heck, you can't even walk to Norway from Russia.
  • A region of Siberia is named 'Sibirskoye', apparently in a misguided attempt to seem authentically local. But 'Sibirskoye' is an adjective, not a name, so anyone who knows Russian finds it jarring. Imagine a map naming the British Isles 'British' instead of 'Britain'. I imagine there are similar issues elsewhere on the map.

Basically, in order to play this game, you need a bushelful of house rules. Fortunately, many such sets have been posted on multiplayer game discussion web sites. Once I have playtested my set, I may include them here...

*DejaMorgana says: The limitation on boat building may not be particularly realistic, but it helps balance the game against people randomly sending boats out across the oceans and creating mega-empires early in the game. I haven't played the board game, but I imagine they put that rule in for the same reason they limited ocean travel in the ancient era of the Civ computer games.

In reality, you're correct in saying that Oceania was settled by humans in very primitive boats - but they spread out one island at a time, almost randomly, and very rarely maintained any cohesive political or cultural system spanning more than a couple of islands. There is no way to simulate that in the game except by limiting sea travel as they did. You could pretend that the people of your civilization really do have boats crossing the seas in ancient times - but nobody ever hears back from them, so they have for all practical purposes dropped off the map. This is probably pretty close to what ancient islanders actually felt.

That works for Homo Erectus, but, say, the Odyssey is set (and was even written!) well before the flourishing of mathematics in Greece. I don't think sea travel should be a starting tech, but it should not be as far up the tech tree as it is. Really, it's almost all the way to the middle ages.

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