Friday, 4 February 2011

Sid Meier's Civilization

The Game

Sid Meier's Civilization, released by Fantasy Flight Games in 2010, was one of the recent hot games. It is licensed from the award-winning PC game, and has many elements of the electronic version.

Each player starts the game with a small village, a tiny band of warriors and one primitive technology. From these humble beginnings you develop and grow your civilization into a huge empire. You learn new technologies, explore new territories, build new cities, raise armies, construct buildings, gather wealth, subjugate barbarians, build impressive wonders, wage war, change governments, develop culture, have great people grace your cities. And you do all these in four hours or less.

There are many aspects of the game, and I won't try to describe all. Instead I'll talk about the game from the perspective of the 4 main "currencies" in the game, and how they relate to the victory conditions. The "currencies" are Hammers (production), Trade, Coins, and Culture. Your cities collect Hammers, Trade and Culture from the 8 tiles surrounding them, which are called the city outskirts. Your scouts can collect some on behalf of them too. You use Hammers to build things - armies, scouts, units, buildings, wonders. You use Trade to develop technologies, and you can convert Trade to Hammers too at a 3:1 ratio. You use Culture to advance on the Culture Track. Each advancement gives an event card or a great person. Event cards have many different effects, and so far from what I've seen, many are defensive or can be used defensively, e.g. allowing you to kill or disrupt enemy armies. Coins are difficult to gain. Most require specific technologies, and require certain actions to be performed, or resources to be traded in. Coins are very useful. Normally whenever you spend Trade on research, you exhaust all of it. With each Coin owned, you keep one Trade.

Most of your Hammers, Trade and Culture are collected from your cities. You can construct buildings and wonders in your cities to boost these. If you gain great people, they boost these too. So Civilization is very much about building up your nation - to be bigger, stronger, richer, smarter than the others.

Top row: markers to indicate which tech level your units (infantry, archers and cavalry) are at, and also whether you already have airplanes. Second row: Scout figure and army figures. Board: The Roman civilization board. Top left is the Romans' special ability. Bottom left is the current form of government. Bottom right is the starting technology. The two dials are for Trade (outer) and Coins (inner). This board is thin card and not a hard cardboard. It's functional no I have no problem with it. Just don't be disappointed if you buy the game.

My starting city, i.e. my capital. You start with one army figure and one scout figure just outside your city. The icons on the squares indicate what can be harvested from them.

Setup for a 3-player game. 7 map tiles to be discovered. The main board on the right shows: (a) available wonders of the world that can be built, in that small section at the top, (b) buildings that can be constructed at your cities, if you have the prerequisite tech and the right terrain, in the middle, (c) unit cards that can be drawn, with each player's unit level marker, at the bottom, (d) the long culture track on the left.

Now let's look at how the currencies relate to the four victory conditions:

  1. Military - conquer an opponent's capital. You'll need Hammers to build your armies and units. You'll need Trade to research military techs to make your soldiers stronger, move faster, move across water, etc. Coins would help with your research. So you see, it's all inter-related. You need to be an all-rounder.
  2. Science - research space flight. You need Trade and Coins. Trade for the research. Coins to help you reach the expensive techs. You probably want some buildings that give extra Trade too.
  3. Economy - 15 Coins. Some specific techs allow you to gain Coins. Sometimes you can gain coins from the map too, or events or other unusual means. Mostly it's from techs. You will need to plan ahead to go for these techs. This restricts your tech choices a bit.
  4. Culture - reach the end of the Culture track. Wonders help with gaining Culture. Some map locations give Culture. Buildings too. Some techs let you trade incense for Culture. There are quite many ways. Using your cities to gain Culture means you forgo using them to raise armies, construct buildings, collect resources though, so you will probably fall behind in some areas. The event cards and great people that you gain from Culture advances may compensate for that, depending on whether you draw useful cards.

My tech pyramid. Level 2 techs must be built at the 2nd level, and must be placed above two level 1 techs. Pottery and Code of Laws are techs that allow me to collect Coins.

The guy living south of my city is a Great Person. He gives 1 Trade and 2 Culture.

One thing that differs from the PC game is a city can build more than one of the same building type. However there are terrain restrictions for buildings. So you need to pay attention to your terrain. They will influence which strategy you want to pursue.

The Play

I have played two games, all being 3-player games against Han and Allen.

Game 1 - Han Americans, Allen Chinese, me Romans (~3h)

I started off very well, and was quick to get my 2nd and 3rd cities established. I did will in research, and had a decent number of Coins, helped by two Level 1 techs that I had, one of which was my free starting tech. Militarily I had decent strength too, much helped by having the techs to upgrade my units. Since I was the obvious leader, Allen started to move against me. I had the Oracle wonder which helped me during battle (opponent reveals hand before battle starts), but unfortunately it was made obsolete by Allen via a tech + resource ability. Han also started to move against me. I had to go on the defense. Han's Americans could swap Trade for Hammers at a much better rate, and had been catching up in his overall infrastructure quite well. He researched Flight, which allowed his armies to move 6 spaces, and also they could ignore enemy cities and troops. He was about to attack one of my non-capital cities near his border. Then we realised that with Flight, he could bypass it and go straight for my capital. I hadn't realise that earlier and hadn't walled my capital. There was some risk for Han too though. He hadn't upgrade his infantry so they were still quite weak. After that climatic battle, my capital fell, and Han won a military victory. Allen grumbled that I shouldn't have encouraged Han to go straight for the capital. He was planning to do that on his turn.

The map is very quickly uncovered. The red circles are hostile villages which need to be conquered before you can gain their benefits. At this point I (green) had built my second city, in the map tile just above my capital.

My capital (lower) has one trading post, which gives 1 Culture and 2 Trade. My second city (upper) has two buildings.

The board is getting busy.

It was right for Allen and Han to gang up on me. If they hadn't, I would have cruised to a science victory. I was ahead of them in technology and I had the Trade output to get me the Level 5 tech. Although I had pretty decent infrastructure all-around, my military wasn't strong enough to go 1-on-2. The defensive battle slowed me down, early skirmishes further weakened my military, and since both Allen and Han were more or less on par with me in military techs, I couldn't hold them back long enough for a science victory. Not by a long stretch.

A battle between Allen and I. Having more army figures stacked together means drawing more cards during battle, which is very important.

Allen's group of 3 armies (blue) were right next to one of my cities. Han's group of 4 armies (yellow) were also approaching mine. Since Han had just discovered Flight, he could fly that army group straight into my capital, ignoring my armies and cities.

My capital fell to Han's army.

Game 2 - Han Egyptians, Allen Germans, me Russians (~2h15m)

Han had very good Trade from early on because of his starting wonder (special ability of the Egyptians), and his tech advanced very smoothly. The Egyptians ability to construct 1 building without paying Hammers was also very helpful in developing his cities. The Germans' (Allen) special abilities were all military related, and in the early game he launched an attack on me. I didn't expect it to come that early, and lost miserably. That more-or-less eliminated me from the game. From that point onwards I had no more options except go on defense. It was survival mode for me. The question was whether Allen could swiftly take my capital and win the game, or I could last long enough for Han to win a science victory.

Unfortunately for Allen, Operation Barbarossa which started 5000 years too early probably slowed both of us down too much. We were engaged in a slow, inefficient war while Han happily grew and advanced. Both Allen and I built our 3rd cities rather late, Allen partly because Han had been using armies to block map locations. The two of them did end up fighting some battles.

I was rather lost. None of the four victory conditions seemed viable to me. I was too far behind, having spent many turns committing my resources to a defensive war. I later went with a Culture focus to help with my defense. It did help, because when Han's huge armies marched towards my capital, hoping for an earlier military victory (compared to a science victory), it was the Culture event cards that helped me fight him back, eliminating quite a number of his armies.

However, that only delayed the inevitable. Han soon went on to win a science victory. Neither Allen nor I could stop him. In hindsight, Allen and I probably should have ganged up on Han, because he had the best start in the game.

In our second game, Allen played the Germans, and he had a military Great Person who gave him +4 strength. Bad bad bad news for me (his target).

I had built a lot of harbours. That white army piece on the right is a unique piece used only by the Russians. They can have 7 instead of 6 armies on the board.

The Thoughts

I like a format that Wan often uses - a list of key thoughts about a game, as opposed to trying to describe the whole game, or even some of the mechanisms. I'll try to use that here.


  • The tech pyramid is the core of the game. It actually defines your civilisation and your strategy more so (I think) than your civilisation's unique traits. No matter which victory you go for, you have to try to keep up in tech, and you have to customise your tech pyramid to help your cause. Science victory is often a good back-up plan if your original objective becomes hard to achieve.
  • Terrain is an important consideration, and is also a limitation, to what you can do with your cities.
  • Battles mostly favour the attacker. This encourages attacks and reduces turtling.

The Good

  • I'm impressed with how so many aspects of a civilisation game, and of the PC game, is compressed into such a relatively short playing time. Yet there is still a lot of flavour.
  • It's fun because there are so many things to do. Usually there's more that you want to do than you are allowed to.
  • Lots of freedom to customise your civilisation, via the techs that you choose to research.
  • The battle system is a little abstract, but I think it's good and appropriate. Many people complain about it.
  • I like how warfare does not bog down the game. Number of armies is limited. Towards late game army movement is high, making it easy to quickly cross the map. Military remains relevant throughout, and yet is kept clean, and not tedious. You can't ignore military. There may not be many battles, but the preparation and anticipation leading up to each of them can be very exciting. Sometimes there may not even be a battle. Armies can be just deterrents. Military is always relevant.

Unit cards. Colour-coded for different troops types. You maintain one deck of unit cards. Whenever a battle starts, you draw some cards from the deck, and use them to fight. After the battle, survivors return to the deck.

The Bad

  • The Culture aspect is a bit isolated. If you go for a Culture victory, you will need to focus on that early and start work on that early. It would likely be too slow if you decide to switch to it halfway through the game. The Culture aspect of the game is not very integrated to other parts of the game. Having some Culture just gives some event cards and great people, which seem to be nice-to-haves rather than essential things. In our games, we didn't spend much effort on Culture, and soon it became no longer a feasible option for victory.
  • To a certain extent, the economic (Coin) victory is also like this. You probably need to start working on it early. However, at least having Coins contribute greatly to a science victory, and indirectly to a military victory too. So you'd feel the effort spent on Coins is worthwhile. With Culture, if you have spent a lot of effort on it, and halfway through you are forced to stop pursuing it, you will likely feel your effort has been wasted and find that you are behind in other aspects of the game.

Overall, I enjoy the game a lot.

Han suggested that when I blog about this I compare it with other civ games. Compared to Francis Tresham's Civilization (1980) (FTC), Sid Meier's Civilization (SMC) has more things to do and more different aspects. Both games have the tech tree as the core of the game though, and in FTC probably more so. One thing that SMC doesn't have is the dramatic rise and fall of civilisations, which in FTC is brought about by the disasters. FTC has more trading / negotiations too.

Unlike Through the Ages (TTA), I probably wouldn't play SMC with my wife. My wife doesn't like war. In TTA, military is still important even if we normally avoid aggressions and wars, because there are still event cards and colonies that require you to have good military. In SMC, you really do need to use your military to at least threaten, and more likely to attack. If you are not prepared to do these, then a big chunk of the game is neutered. Military discussion and my-wife-suitability aside, I think I still like TTA more. I feel there is slightly more rise-and-fall in TTA, whereas SMC is a quick sprint. SMC builds towards a climax. TTA tells a story.

There is also Eagle Games' SMC (EGSMC), published in 2002, with the exact same name. I have not played EGSMC for a very long time and I don't remember much about it. I can only surely say it's longer and less fun.