Wednesday, November 16, 2005

So you want to play Civilization ...

The recent "One Hundred Best Games Ever ..." rankings, another survey of a bunch of guys (in fairness, this time there are at least 3 women amongst the 60+ voters) to find their top games, reminded me of one of the current great theory/practice disconnects, that of Francis Tresham's classic Civilization. While often rated as a great game in these surveys, and while it is in most everyone's Hall of Fame, I never see it actually on the table anymore. And when I say "never", I don't mean "rarely", I mean that apart from the one game every four or so years I manage to get in, I never see people playing it. While it's certainly true that Civilization has been squeezed in recent years by games like Tigris & Euphrates and Puerto Rico, and its legacy has been confused by Advanced Civilization – a game to which it is at best only marginally similar – Civilization is still a classic game that deserves to get some play. And folks who have joined our hobby in the last ten or fifteen years may have missed out on classic Civilization entirely, and might enjoy giving it a try; despite the game's length, it's certainly possible to actually appreciate it more now in the post-euro age than it was back in 1981.

So ...

First, let's dispel a couple of myths:

- Myth #1: You need 7 people. Mr. Tresham has made significant effort to make sure the game scales fairly well. Anywhere from 4 to 7 is good. Heck, I've played with 3, and that worked out OK, although it wouldn't be my first choice. I think the sweet spot is probably at 6 players personally, but 5 is very good too. 7 is probably a little too tight, actually, and with 4 you lose some competition for Civilization cards, which is unfortunate; but none of this is a major problem.

- Myth #2: Civilization takes forever. Yeah, Civilization is a long game, but many peoples' memories are influenced by the fact that the playing time issue was greatly exacerbated by Advanced Civilization, which could take a grueling 8-12 hours, or even more, to play. Civilization can be comfortably played by 5 reasonable people in 5 hours, similar to what it takes to play Die Macher or Revolution. You might even be able to do a 4-player game in a weeknight if you move along. It's long, but it's not nuts.

- Myth #3: Advanced Civilization is better for newbies. Setting aside for a moment the divisive question as to whether Advanced Civilization is better than the classic in any respect, there is no particular reason that Advanced Civilization would be preferable for new players. Civilization is a clean game, so a player familiar with euros can be up and running within 15 minutes, given a passable teacher (if that teacher is going to be you, be sure to solo a game through the Bronze age to get a feel for it. That shouldn't take too long). Both games can be unforgiving, but Civilization is mechanically much easier to grasp, and is certainly much friendlier to fans of euros than the rather chrome-laden Advanced version. Advanced Civilization is also substantially heavier on overt whack-the-leader type conflict, again something euro fans tend to shy away from.

So, let's say you've found a copy of Civilization (perhaps the Descartes or Gibsons Games edition), and you want to play. Here are a few things to bear in mind:

- The #1 thing to remember is to avoid the Free Parking syndrome. Play the game straight out of the box; this is a great game from a master designer, and while some of the variants may help in some circumstances (and I'm going to recommend a couple very minor ones in a moment), the expansions and major house rules are iffy at best, and the best bet is to play the game as it was designed. Specifically, the expansion trade cards (timber, wine, oil, silver, etc.) are unhelpful unless you have 7 players, and can be detrimental at smaller numbers because they tend to have an arbitrary random effect on the game. Absolutely, positively do not use the Advanced Civ trade cards with Civilization (the high-valued cards, Spice through Gold, are hugely more valuable in that game). The Western Extension Map is nice for variety but adds little. Its main advantage is that with certain numbers of players you can exclude Egypt and Babylon from the game, which leads us to ...

- Egypt and Babylon are for the experienced players. These nations are tough despite their geographical advantages, due to their need to build 2 cities when they have only 16 tokens. If you have experienced players mixed in a game with new players, the experienced players should be given these two nations. If you are the new player, absolutely don't take any guff from the veterans on this point. If everyone at the table is new, try this minor house rule for your first game or two: when building cities on flood plains, Egypt and Babylon require only 5 instead of 6 tokens. Africa isn't exactly a walk in the park either, and as a new player it should be treated with skepticism when picking nations. The Western nations, with their easier AST progressions, are definitely easier to play. Are the nations unbalanced? In the end, I think that while they are to some degree, with players who've played even just once or twice and know what to watch for the imbalances are generally outweighed by the inherent randomness and competitiveness of the game, and the token limits prevent nations from taking and holding more territory than they can use. Plus, with this sort of game, it's very likely that someone at the table will simply enjoy the challenge of playing a somewhat tougher (and very different) nation like Egypt, Africa, or Crete. But for first-time players, you can get into a hole early in Egypt, which is not much fun.

- Civil War. What to say about this calamity, that is probably Civilization's only real design glitch in my opinion? Civil War is tough, one of the harshest calamities in the game, and yet one that starts showing up early and is hard to mitigate until late. If you aren't careful and end up getting hit hard by the first Civil War – especially if you are Egypt or Babylon – it's going to be very tough to come back and be competitive, let alone win. Later Civil Wars are nasty but part of the game, as you get a rotating effect as the last person to get hammered tends to benefit from the next one (and some tradable calamities, like Epidemic, can be worse). Certainly, everyone should be clear on the risks of ramping up to four cities. You might want to consider another minor house rule for your first game or two that the very first time a Civil War comes up, it is discarded without effect.

Remember that this, along with Francis Tresham's 1829, was essentially the first "big" eurogame. It's a direct ancestor in style to currently popular high-end euros like Power Grid, Age of Steam, Goa, Die Macher, and Puerto Rico. Unlike the Avalon Hill-style games that were then in the vogue – games that tended to make some attempt at simulating something – Civilization is a themed game. That is to say, some stuff in the game may not necessarily make immediate intuitive sense in terms of simulation, but it's in there because the game requires it. Strictly from a systems perspective, this is where Advanced Civilization went awry – it added a bunch of stuff for various reasons of "simulation", but wrecked the finely-tuned underlying mechanisms. This is not to denigrate the theme of Civilization, which is excellent and better than most current euros – but I think it's important to the enjoyment of the game to realize that in many ways this game was way ahead of its time, and is not cut from the same cloth as other Avalon Hill games of that era.

Most of the big, long, multi-player games Avalon Hill put out in the 80s and 90s are really hard to enjoy today with so many good shorter games available, but Civilization, along with Dune, 1830, and Titan (bearing in mind Titan's issue with player elimination) are definitely exceptions. None of them are going to be staples of the gaming diet anymore, but they're all fun to drag out on occasion, and they give you a more substantial game experience that euros can't provide. Of these games, Civilization is probably the most robust: it's of not-unreasonable, predictable length, and has complexity comparable to higher-end euros. It's a lot less punishing of differences in player skill than Titan or 1830. It's got a nice empire-building theme. Its lack of the overt combat of Dune and Titan, and the fact that single mistakes won't wipe you out like they can in 1830, makes it a lot more generally accessible. It's not a top-10 game anymore, but it's definitely a classic.

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