Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Civilization, first contact

Han, Chong Sean and I played a 3-player game of Civilization on 24 Jun 2009. I usually use the British spelling - civilisation, but since this is the name of a game, I shall use the American spelling. Civilization is an 1980 game and a true classic. I think it inspired the computer game series by Sid Meier, which I used to play a lot (a lot of Civ2, some Civ3, some Civ4). The game is played on a map of the eastern Mediterranean Sea, covering Italy, Greece, Turkey, Middle East, and North Africa. Players start with a single tribe. They grow their population, build cities, produce goods, trade, develop technologies, and advance their civilisations. The first player to advance his civilisation past a certain level (measured primarily by technologies and can be boosted by trade goods on hand) wins.

The components in the game are very simple. Each player has round people/money tokens (they can be used to represent either), 4 ship tokens and 9 square city tokens. Movement on the board is quite simple. Population growth is simple. Fighting is also simple and deterministic. The map is quite straight-forward. The game has quite a long action sequence every round, like in Die Macher, but individually the actions are quite simple, more so than in Die Macher because when you first learn Die Macher, it can be challenging to see the implications of your actions. In Civilization, it seems to be easier to appreciate the implications, maybe because the theme is more intuitive. When a province is overpopulated, people die of starvation. When two cultures occupy the same province which doesn't have enough resources to support them, they fight until there are few enough people remaining that the land can support. Han has player reference sheets which list down the action sequence, and I think this is very necessary to learn the game well.

My game pieces. Square pieces are cities. Surf board pieces are ships. Round pieces can represent either people/armies or money.

Movement of people, city building, fighting, building ships to travel further and settle further - these are nothing very unusual to set Civilisation apart from other games. Where the game gets interesting is the trading, the disasters, and the technological advancements. These are the core of the game.

When you own cities, you get to draw cards. For each of your (up to nine) cities, you draw a goods card from a different stack. Stacks 1 and 2 each have two different types of goods, but from Stack 3 onwards, there is only one good type, which means you'll know exactly what you are going to draw. Each good is worth some money, but the more you get of the same good type, the more they are worth when used together. It is very lucrative to monopolise a good type. So you trade with other players. When trading, you need not be exactly honest, and you need not disclose all information of what you are offering. Only certain information is mandated to be announced truthfully before a trade. What makes this interesting is the disasters. Among the goods cards are some disaster cards. Some disasters are played immediately when drawn. Some can be traded away to inflict disasters on your trading partners. That's the sneaky part. You can put out a great offer, while sneaking in a horrible disaster. On the other hand, sometimes when you are desperate to trade, you can't convince anyone to trade with you no matter how good your offer is because everyone thinks you're holding a terrible disaster card.

Trading is important because every round you can only carry over 6 cards. You have to discard the rest. You are pressured to trade because you'd be wasting cards if you don't use them efficiently.

My trade goods in the early game. If you have 1 papyrus, it's worth $2, 2 papyrus is $8, 3 papyrus is $18, etc.

The disasters in the game are devastating. Usually they affect more than the "targeted" player. Some can wipe out half your civilisation, sometimes worse. So don't get attached to your people or your cities. A civil war can make you lose half your country to your neighbour (or some joker on the opposite side of the map). Don't be so cocky when you play a disaster on your enemy, often he can "share the joy" with you. In Civilization, you really see empires rise and fall, cities get razed, washed away by flood, destroyed by volcanoes or earthquakes, people die of famines and epidemics. Then the cities get rebuilt, and population grows again.

That's a disaster card on the left. If you have a city next to a volcano, you lose that city completely (volcanic eruption). Else you pick a city to suffer an earthquake. City is destroyed and converted to population, and the number of people you have left depends on the fertility of the province. In both cases, you can choose a neighbour's city which is right next to yours (if any) to "share the joy".

Then there's the techs. This is where you need to keep your eyes on. This is the goal. Everything else is mostly the means to this end. You use trade goods and cash to buy technologies. All techs provide some form of benefit to your civilisation. The success of your civilisation is measured by the total value of your techs. You are allowed to have at most 11 techs. To win the game, you need to achieve a certain tech total, depending on which civilisation you are playing. Every round, there is this era track (not sure what the actual name is) that you advance on. It tells you whether your civilisation is in the Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age etc. At certain points on the track, you can only advance if you fulfill a certain criteria, e.g. techs of 3 different types, or total 7 techs. So it is important to plan ahead to minimise any pause in your progress.

The technology cards. There are a few different groups (different colours). Most cards give some form of discount to a group of cards or to specific cards. Most cards also give some form of benefit.

The whole board. Bottom left is the advancement table. To progress past each bold line you need to have met certain criteria. The table to its right is the census table, for recording your total population. This is just for convenience to determining turn order during movement. Also useful when you need to quickly check whether you have enough population to build a new city or cities. On the bottom right are the trade goods cards you can draw. 9 stacks, because you can have at most 9 cities. You can draw one card from one stack for each city you control.

The whole table. Chong Sean likes to use the card holder from 10 days in Europe to hold his cards. It's pretty handy indeed. The calculator (bottom right) is almost essential.

Since Han, Chong Sean and I played a 3-player game, we only used a small section of the board. Han had originally intended to arrange a 5-player game, but 2 other players couldn't make it. 5-players would probably have been more interesting, but certainly would have taken much longer. Even with 3 players it took us 4.5 hours, including rules explanation. With 5 players, we probably would have had to split the game into two sessions over two days. The 3-player game is actually quite interesting, but I am sure more players will be more fun. There'll be more permutations in the trading aspect, which I think is a very important part of the game.

Han started at the eastern side of the map (eastern Turkey), Chong Sean the west (Italy), and I the north (Hungary?). I moved southwards and eventually settled in roughly Greece. Chong Sean took Italy and most of the Balkans. Han controlled Turkey. There were some skirmishes, but none of us spent much effort in warfare. The focus was mostly on techs. When the disasters start turning up, it really made me go "Whoa!". The first disaster wiped out about half my cities. It was a revelation to me how big an impact disasters have.

I did poorly in trading and buying techs, falling behind Han and Chong Sean. I realised that I should have tried to acculumate more goods of the same type, in order to make them more valuable, to be able to buy more expensive techs. I should have kept more goods from turn to turn, instead of trying to use them up every turn. Due to my people being rather backward, I was twice unable to progress on the era chart. Not good. I was never able to catch up. Han missed an advance only once, and Chong Sean never missed one. Chong Sean won the game.

Early in the game. My civilisation (blue) started from the northern edge. Chong Sean's red civilisation started in Italy. The numbers on the provinces indicate the maximum population that can be supported. Excess population will die of starvation.

With 3 players, we only play the pink and orange regions. My civilisation gradually migrated southwards to Greece.

Getting more crowded.

Han and Chong Sean.

I had just suffered a bad disaster and got half my civilisation wiped out. Note that it's wrong to have people (round) tokens stacked on top of city (square) tokens. City sites are not accessible by people, unless they are coming to conquer or to defend the city. We played this wrong in this game.

The provinces with the darker patches are flood risk areas (e.g. where Cairo is and where Venice is). They will be hit if the flood disaster occurs.

I quite like the game, despite how long it is. When we first started playing, the actions seemed rather simple and we wondered why this game is always famed for being a long game. Then when we had more goods, and started trading and buying techs, we realised how these activities can take up so much time. Trading is going to be even slower with more players. When buying techs, you really need a calculator to help determine which ones you can afford. Everyone should be equipped with a calculater. You also need it to make sure your total tech value can satisfy the winning condition of your civilisation.

We played quite a number of rules wrong. In the early game Chong Sean kept complaining that he had too much population and they kept dying because the land could not support them. Then we realised he had been giving birth to too many babies, more than the rules allowed. This was corrected during the game. Another important rule that we played wrong was that a province with a city is considered fully occupied and can no longer support any other people / armies. We have been moving people into provinces with cities rather freely. We also played the civil war disaster wrong. It is actually worse than what we thought it is.

One game that Civilization reminds me of is Roll Through the Ages, which is inspired by Civilization. The goods collection mechanism is similar, and the techs too. I think Matt Leacock (designer of Roll Through the Ages) is quite successful in creating a simplified version of Civilization. In contrast, I actually find Civilization quite different from Through the Ages, another long civilisation building game. Civilization has fewer mechanisms and fewer facets. Through the Ages is richer and has many more aspects, despite not having a map. However Through the Ages plays faster. I wouldn't mind owning both. They are suitable for different numbers of players. Through the Ages for 2 - 4 (may be too long for 4), Civilization for 3 - 7 (my not-very-educated guess is best with 4 - 6). If this game ever gets republished, I will most likely buy it.

I wonder what Advanced Civilization is like. I actually quite like Civilization as it is, and it is already quite long.


Cecrow said...

I've played several times in the past, and you must have played a different edition. We had multiple goods for every number, all the way up to gold and ivory for 9. Also, there was no limit on the number of techs we could own; we were welcome to as many as we could figure out how to pay for. Your description of the pieces threw me off: our cities were round, our people/money were the squares. Advanced Civilization is an enormous improvement on the game since it adds sufficient technologies to allow multiple paths to victory (i.e. not everyone's civ holds the same set at the end), and once you've played with it you'll never want to play without it. Also, you haven't seen "crowded" until you've played the rule correctly about not placing units on city spaces. Do you build your city on that 4-spot, or must you have to leave it alone so you can support your others (but then, where to build your next city)? It makes board space very, very tight.

Cecrow said...

I should add also, this game plays a key role from a historical context in game design. Many, many designers have tried to pin down the elusive "faster Civilization" forumla since this game came out, since it pushes all the right buttons except for length. Examples: Through the Ages, Antike, Vinci, etc.

Hiew Chok Sien said...

The version we played is published by Gibson Games. So this is not the Avalon Hill version, and it is not compatible with Adv Civ. I quite enjoyed this version, even without Adv Civ. Quite amazing.

Andy said...

If you guys are ever in London you should join us for a game. We love civ and try to play regularly. One of my professors introduced it to us. We have the Avalon Hill version but i love the look of your's.


Hiew Chok Sien said...

The Avalon Hill version is a much more valuable version, because it is compatible with Advanced Civilization. I have not tried Adv Civ before, and am quite happy with Civ as it is. After playing these two games described in my blog, I bought a copy of Civ from eBay UK. Not the Avalon Hill version either though.