I rarely choose a board game based on game mechanics. In my recent board game bestiary, I sorted games roughly by gameplay mechanics, but in reality, I’m not a fan of any particular mechanic. As with video games, I tend to choose board games by theme and immersion. So you won’t find many abstract games in my collection, nor will you find games that excel as “pure” examples of mechanics.
Instead, I tend to gravitate towards themes. My game collection is littered with dungeon space exploration, cyberbunk, dark fantasy and today’s topic, civilization building. Some of them are area control; others use worker placement. Still others are a mishmash of various mechanics. But it’s the theme of the game that initially attracts me.
So let’s talk about civilization building, shall we?
What’s in a Phrase?
I’m defining civilization building somewhat narrowly: games that use the rise and fall of human civilizations as overarching themes. That leaves out a game like Eclipse, which you could argue is a civ building game, just set in space. To me, though, games set in space are a different animal altogether.
Civ building wasn’t always a favorite theme for me when it came to board gaming, though. Maybe the vast amount of time I spent playing the various versions of Sid Meier’s Civilization on the PC sufficiently scratched that itch. Maybe it was because I always had allergic reactions to the grandfathers of that genre, Avalon Hill’s Civilization and Advanced Civilization.
As the popularity of board games ramped up, interesting games using civilization building as core themes emerged that I found attractive. I can’t possibly mention all of them, but I’ll touch on five today; four I’ve played extensively, one I just acquired. Let’s start simple and small, then ramp up the complexity.
7 Wonders is a simple game that’s not easy to grasp the first time you play it. Each player – up to seven players total -- has a playmat that represents his or her civilization, each with unique abilities.
Like many civ-style games, 7 Wonders divides up history into ages, in this case three of them. Each age is represented by a separate card deck.
All the ages are highly abstract, but seem to collective represent ancient history; there are no references to modernity.
Each player is dealt seven cards from Age I at the game’s start. Each age consists of six turns. You choose a card to play and put it face down in front of you. Playing cards is paid by resources, but some cards require no resource. After all players have chosen, all players reveal their choices simultaneously. Then, the cards are passed to the left. In the last round, the last card you don’t choose is discarded.
That’s the simple part. Cards represent structures you build, which generate resources, victory points, military strength scientific advancements or commerce.
You’ll need to build resource generating structures, but you can also buy resources from adjacent (and only adjacent) players. After each age, military victories are calculated and point tokens allocated for defeat or victory. There are no resource-generating structures in the third age. Instead, there are guilds, which generate varying numbers of victory points depending on conditions in the current game – what you have, what other players have or some combination.
The hardest part for new players to grasp is the resource model. If you build a structure that generates one stone, you get one stone to use each turn. However, so do adjacent players, if they choose to pay. So that one stone generating card actually supplies one to three stone, depending on whether adjacent players need it. But if someone buys that stone, you still have access to exactly one stone. Need more than one stone? Build more structures to generate it.
Want to deny another player a card you think they want? Build a Wonder. A Wonder is just a card slid face down under the wonder marker on the playmat. While you need to build then in order, left to right, building them is strictly optional.
The key thing to remember with 7 Wonders is that there are many paths to victory.
7 Wonders is a great game to either start or end a long board gaming day.
Since the initial release, two expansions have also shipped. The second one, Cities, adds the least complexity, since it only adds cards to each age, albeit with some ability to screw with your neighbors by either opting out of wars or sticking people with negative points. The first expansion, leaders, adds an element of strategic predictability, but also adds a new starting phase to the game. But you still need to think on your feet and be willing to change strategies if your chosen path to victory isn’t working out.
7 Wonders is a great game to either start or end a long board gaming day. It plays very quickly – less than an hour if some new players are present. But I’ve played seven player games with experienced players that took only half-an-hour. Still, it can be a meaty game, and the choices can get hard at times. But 7 Wonders is a great starter game, supports up to 7 players, which if fairly rare, and doesn’t take too long.
Innovation can also be played in a half hour, even with four players. But I’ve found games tend to take longer, because of all the chaos and ability to screw with other players. It’s also not an easy game to grasp the first time, mostly due to some obtuse jargon used on the cards.
One key concept, splaying, is simply layering cards on top of others, so that they’re only partially exposed. The game also talks about “melding”, which simply means to play a card. However, when you play… er, meld, a card, it means you have to stack them on top of cards of similar color. You don’t get to splay by default. Got that? These layered cards reveal resources (crowns, leaves, light bulbs, etc.).
Innovation consists of ten small decks representing ages. The rules say build the stacks into a circle around the scoring cards, but that’s only for visual appeal. The circle has no gameplay element. You can just as easily organize them into rows.
Cards often have multiple effects; some are mandatory, others optional. Read each card very carefully as you play them. The way the cards interact can create powerful combinations, but also can result in a lot of chaos, as other players can riff off your cards, or force you to cover up useful cards. Innovation is extremely interactive. But it’s also a very cool, quick and portable game.
I often throw it into my suitcase when I’m traveling, and try to suck other people into a game. But teaching Innovation involves patience and a willingness to restart games often as new players learn the concepts. Be aware, though, that this can be a very random and chaotic game, so may not be everyone’s cup of tea. As an example of how chaotic this game can be, I present you with the AI card, from Age 10.
Note the second condition: if the Robotics and Software cards are on top of any player’s stack, the player with the lowest current score automagically wins. I once won a game with this card, and thought the rest of the players were going to punch me in the face. But it was a terrifically satisfying moment nevertheless.
At its heart, Olympos is an area control game. You need to move your tribes across the map and hold regions in order to collect resources.
The main resources, which are used to buy civilization advances, are wood, gold, stone and clay. There are also two secondary resources: stars, which are used to build wonders, and Zeus symbols, which is extremely scarce, but can affect what happens when the Olympos cards come out. The Favor of the Gods is very fickle, and you can either be rewarded or screwed, depending on how many Zeus symbols you’re showing.
The coolest thing about this game is that the number one resource is actually time. Each turn, you get one action. Each action takes varying number of time points. Actions include movement, acquiring advances or combat. Combat is very simple: you always win, but the number of time points to achieve victory depends on whether you’re weaker or stronger than your opponent. You advance your token along the time track to pay for actions.
The key to scoring lots of points is to be efficient about how you use time points. As with most civ-building games, there are multiple paths to victory. One way is to build advancements. There are a limited number of advancements. While you can build them in any order, the more substantial ones require more resources to build, so you’ll not likely build them until later in the game.
For example, one advancement allows you to move across any number of land spaces for one time point. Since movement costs one point per space, that’s a pretty substantial gain in movement efficiency.
The most expensive set of advances tend to give you varying numbers of victory points, depending on what you own. The star resource lets you buy Wonders, which are just purely victory points.
Moving along the time track has its own set of worries, though. Every now and then, you activate an Olympos cards. Some cards are positive, for players that have acquired the most Zeus symbols. Others are negative, for players with the fewest Zeus symbols.
Each Olympos game plays out a little differently. That’s partly due to which Olympos cards come out. But one of the key game changers is what happens when player order is revealed. Player order is randomly chosen, and you might think the last player would be at a disadvantage. But said last player gets to determine a set number of provinces which are unavailable to the game. In other words, the last player determines board layout. That player can create choke points, make Atlantis (the areas bordered in yellow, which are worth more points at the end) smaller, or make star tokens hard to come by.
Overall, Olympos is a taut gaming experience which rewards careful choice and good strategic planning. It’s not that long a game; experienced players can wrap up a four player game in 60 – 90 minutes.
The Monster: Sid Meier's Civilization: The Board Game
Fantasy Flight’s Sid Meier’s Civilization, the Board Game, is a sprawling mess of a game. Civilization tries to replicate the PC game experience in a board game. Like many Fantasy Flight titles, there are huge numbers of cardboard counters, cards and other components.
Fog of war is represented by gradually revealing square tiles, which are initially laid out face down at random. And, like all versions of the computer game prior to Civilization 5, they are indeed square. (The board game came out before the PC Civ 5.)
I’ve played this game about a half-dozen times, and probably won’t ever play it again. As with any board game translation of a complex computer game, designer Kevin Wilson had to abstract quite a few concepts. There are fewer buildings to build, for example – there are only eight total buildings, though some have a second, advanced version.
As with anything that emulates Sid Meier’s Civilization, you explore the map and move settlers out to found cities. The mechanic works as you’d probably expect, but movement is slow across bigger, four-player maps.
My real problem with the game, however, is combat. There are plastic military units, including scouts and settlers. But actual combat happens on a secondary board by setting up square cards with different facings. It’s tedious, often frustrating and breaks any immersion I may have had in the game.
I’ve played with people who love this game, and if you love big, sprawling maps that reveal themselves slowly, and are willing to live with the bizarre combat abstraction, you may like it. Be aware, though, that a typical four player game will take anywhere from three to seven hours.
I have a copy of the one expansion, Fame and Fortune, but it’s still in the shrink wrap. But I don’t know if I’ll ever crack it open.
I'm an Optimist: Clash of Cultures
I’m going to wrap this up by touching briefly on the latest hotness in civ building games, Clash of Cultures. Clash of Cultures is designed by Christian Marcussen, who designed the excellent Merchants and Marauders. So I have some hope that Clash of Cultures might do for the big, epic civilization building game that Merchants and Marauders did for the epic swashbuckling genre.
A warning: I’ve read through the rules, but not actually played this yet. But it looks so cool and shiny…
Clash of Cultures looks like a streamlined attempt to emulate the Civilization PC game. It’s big and complex, but after reading the rules, seems a little more streamlined. For one thing, the player mat gives you a good bird’s eye view of how far your civilization has come.
The game uses tiles, each consisting of four hexes, to represent the landscape and fog of war.
As you build your cities, you can add buildings to them, but there are only four beyond the basic city. However, they’re represented by plastic miniatures that actually fit around the city, giving you a bird’s eye view of how your city is developing.
Combat happens on the board, when opposing units encounter each other. You roll dice, with modifiers depending on civ advances and cards you may hold. It all seems pretty simple and streamlined.
One neat feature is how culture works. Cultural influence is a kind of combat between cities. If you win, you get to swap in a building of your color in place of your opponent’s building. Since buildings represent victory points, you’ve just gained a VP at the expense of one of your opponent’s VPs. However, that owner still gets the benefit of the building; you just reap the reward of owning the building at the end game. You can target your own cities for cultural influence if an opponent has taken over one of your buildings.
Clash of Cultures looks to be a long game, but seems like it won’t be as long a slog as Sid Meier’s Civilization: the Board Game. I’m looking forward to getting this one to the table soon.
Go Build Your Civilization!
Dozens of games use civilization building as a theme; I’ve only touched on a few, and there are many I’ve never played, including Through the Ages, Vinci, Empires: Age of Discover, Endeavor, Roll Through the Ages, Mare Nostrum and more. While most tend towards the complex and long, games like 7 Wonders, Roll Through the Ages and Innovation can be learned and played fairly quickly.
Civilization building games are, for me, one of the most satisfying game themes, if the underlying game is good. Most, however, take some patience to learn, and you have to be willing to lose if you’re going to win someday. But then, that’s true with most board games.