Saturday, 2 March 2013

Clash of Cultures

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

Clash of Cultures is designed by the designer of Merchants and Marauders, a game that I quite like. Merchants and Marauders has a similar feel to the computer game Sid Meier's Pirates. Clash of Cultures has the same theme as the computer game Sid Meier's Civilization. Is this a conspiracy or what?

Clash of Cultures has most of the elements you'd expect in a civ game - exploration, establishing new cities, learning new technologies, constructing buildings in cities, managing population mood, raising armies, warfare, and wonders of the world. You start with a humble village, you explore the surrounding landscape to scout for new city locations, you collect and spend resources to construct buildings, armies and ships, and to learn new technologies. The four main ways of scoring points are controlling cities or parts of cities, learning techs, constructing wonders and completing objective cards. When you build cities and buildings, each piece is worth 1VP (victory point). You can attempt to spread your culture to cities belonging to other players, and if you are successful, you change one of the city pieces (i.e. a building) to your colour. This city piece scores for you at game end, although it belongs to your opponent (who controls the city), unless your opponent is able to convert it back to his own culture (colour). Techs and wonders both give benefits. The latter require many resources, but score more - 5VP. Techs score half a VP. Objective cards are drawn at the start of the game and at the end of every round. Each card scores 2VP if you fulfill the objective on it. Objectives vary greatly, e.g. killing a certain number of armies in the same battle, being the first to construct a wonder, having researched a specific number of complete sets of techs, and having the most ports. An objective card contains two objectives, a peaceful one and a militaristic one, and you can use either one to score the card. In this Clash of Cultures is similar to Through the Ages. There are many ways you can play, and eventually all your achievements in these different aspects are translated to VP's and compared against others.

The standard game lasts a fixed 6 rounds x 3 turns, and you get to execute 3 actions every turn. The is a variety of actions to pick from, and every action is valuable, especially in the late game, when you really want to make every action count. One important concept in the game is the number of cities and how it affects your civilisation. The number of cities you have limit the size of each of your cities. Only when you have more than one city can you build additional buildings in your cities other than the city centre which is always the first building of any city. Your city size in turn determines the efficiency of the city. A bigger city collects more resources from its surrounding spaces at one go, and can also raise more armies at one go. However a bigger city is also harder to please - if you want to elevate the mood of a big city from angry to neutral or from neutral to happy, you need to spend more happiness tokens. So it's better to make your city happy when it's still tiny, and then let it grow. Happy parents make happy children.

Games pieces in the game. In the middle are the five city pieces - a city centre surrounded by four buildings - temple, academy, fortress and harbour. Behind the city pieces are the army unit and the settler, and in front the ship.

The tech aspect is done in a slightly different way from other civ games. There are 12 groups of 4 techs each, making 48. There are few dependencies when you want to discover a tech - (1) if it is the first tech you research within a group, you must research the topmost tech, and (2) if you want to start one of the government groups, you need to have researched one specific prerequisite. Some techs give a culture token, and culture is needed for using some powerful special abilities cards, and for building wonders. Some techs give a happiness token, and these are used to improve the mood of your cities. When researching, you not only need to consider the benefits of the tech and how it will complement your strategy and objective cards, you also need to consider the culture and happiness tokens. Some techs make other techs free. This is a "soft" way of implementing a tech tree or tech prerequisite. This is yet another aspect to consider when you research.

The player board containing the tech "tree". The track at the top is used to mark your culture and happiness levels, and your resource count. My happiness level is 3 now, and I have two food. You put a cube on techs you have learned. Some of the square holes have a blue or yellow order. These techs increase your culture or happiness levels respectively, and you also gain a culture or happiness token. The three government tech groups in the bottom right are mutually exclusive. You can only own techs from one of these groups.

There are action cards gained every round, which give you one-time special abilities. Similar to objective cards, there are two ways to use them - peaceful and militaristic. This gives you flexibility. There are also event cards, which you draw and execute when you collect your 3rd, 5th and 7th culture token or happiness token. Some event cards only affect the active player, some affect everyone. Some are good, some bad. You can prepare yourself for some events, e.g. researching the appropriate disaster prevention techs. You have some control over the timing of events, by deciding when you gain your 3rd / 5th / 7th token.

Objective cards on the left, action cards on the right. These cards have two halves and you can pick which half to use.

Movement and battles are simple. There is only one land army type and one ship type. Terrain does affect movement and the ability to enter battle, so terrain can protect your cities, at least until the invader learns the road technology. Battle resolution is both sides roll as many dice as they have units, and the results divided by 5 (round down) is the number of hits scored against the opponent. Ships can travel quickly and can carry armies, and can be very powerful if the randomly generated map has many seas and rivers.

The Play

I did a four-player game with Allen, Kareem and Ivan. Only Kareem had played before, once. When I play Sid Meier's Civilization the computer game, I tend to play peacefully. This was how I played this game of Clash of Cultures too. I tended to go for the peaceful achievement part of my objective cards. It turned out to be not so easy to coordinate my development to complete my objectives. Some of them required me to be first to do such-and-such, or to have the most of such-and-such, and in a four-player game, these were harder to achieve. The other thing I tried to do was to tech up. I went for those techs which made other techs free, and then went for those free techs. Yeah, I'm a cheapskate. In the early game I did need to prioritise which techs to go for, because I wanted techs that are useful, but later on I just researched because it was free (not counting the action cost) and each tech was worth half a VP.

Allen was the expansionist, and probed far into Ivan's area. He also built a city near the centre of the board and near Ivan's quadrant. Needless to say, he and Ivan ended up in an arms race. There were more barbarian activities in the border area between Allen and Ivan, so even before the two of them started fighting, the barbarians already kept them "entertained". Fighting barbarians is not all bad. You can conquer their settlements and make them your cities. You earn money for defeating them. You can also use such battles to score objective cards. Even I took the opportunity to attack some barbarians. Allen was the big warmonger, and near game end even managed to conquer one of Ivan's cities. He had planned to proceed to capture Ivan's undefended capital which contained two wonders, but forgot that an army could not move again after battle. Those two wonders would have been a 10VP swing!

The back of the terrain tiles, i.e. the unexplored side, is fog. Allen was blue, starting in the lower left corner, Ivan yellow upper left, Kareem red upper right, me green lower right. This was still early in the game. Both Ivan and I have spent our settlers to build our second cities. The black pieces are the barbarians. There was one barbarian camp right next to Ivan's second city.

Kareem went all out culture club. As he explored outwards from his starting city, he found it to be on a peninsula. His civilization was protected by narrow seas and chokepoints. No one took the trouble to build ships to threaten his dominion. Although he didn't build many armies to attack others, his culture attacks were just as powerful. When threatened with military invasion, at least you can build your own armies and fortresses to defend yourself. But when your enemy flings poems and songs at you, there is little you can do. Every successful cultural attack is a 2VP swing, 1VP more for Kareem and 1VP less for the victim. The other benefit of culture attacks is your victim cannot immediately use the "infected" city to counter-attack your city. He needs to use another one of his own cities to fully "heal" that "infected" city first. The pen is mightier than the sword indeed! Military conquests are a bigger gamble. If successful, you capture a whole city instantly, as opposed to one building at a time in the case of cultural attacks. If you fail, you may find yourself the target of another civilisation because you are suddenly much weaker militarily.

At the border between Allen (blue) and Ivan (yellow), they both have cities with fortresses. More barbarian encampments have sprung up. Kareem (red) found his starting domain to be a peninsula.

I (green) was eying the small barbarian camp near the centre of the board. Kareem (red) has a small undefended city right next to it. Risky!

One of Allen's (blue) buildings has been culturally influenced by Kareem (red).

Clash of Cultures is a game with many facets. Despite a few rules mistakes, overall I found it quite intuitive and easy to understand. It is partly because I have played quite a few civ style games before, but I believe it is also because of the clean game design.

At game end, Kareem outscored all of us. Don't mess with the culture club! I came a close second, just 1VP behind. Allen switched to focus on science in the late game, because he had some science objectives. He caught up very quickly. Ivan's territorial expansion had been constrained by Allen's advances, but he was the only player to be able to build two wonders, which was no easy feat.

Late game. Those unhappy small cities near the centre are ex-barbarian camps. They are unhappy (red unhappy face marker) because they have been conquered. In the background you can see some of Ivan's (yellow) cities have been the victims of Kareem's (red) cultural conversion.

That red X near the upper left corner of the board is not the location of a buried treasure. It is a depleted tile, i.e. no city can harvest resources from it. Resource depletion is one of the events in the game.

The game took about 3.5hours. That was longer than a game of War of the Ring (collector's edition) which was played at another table nearby. Three of us were new to the game. I am sure things will move much quicker the next time we play. There is much text to digest and strategies to think through (especially in terms of picking techs to research) in your first game.

The Thoughts

Clash of Cultures is a clean and smooth civ game, that is still rich and rewarding. There are many aspects to it, but the rules are intuitive and not complex. The game should not be hard to learn, especially if you are already familiar with civ games. I like how open it is. You have much freedom to pursue a strategy you like, and you can mix and match focus areas for your civilisation, e.g. scientific and militaristic, or populous and cultural. The objective cards and action cards do steer your gameplay, and indirectly restricts your freedom, because you do want to make the most out of them. However they always have two options - peaceful or militaristic. There is randomness in the map setup, in events and in the objective and action cards drawn, but there are ways to mitigate risks. Being the first one to reach an unexplored tile usually lets you orient the tile to benefit you more. You can choose to research disaster-averting techs to reduce risk. You control your own timing of collecting culture and happiness tokens, so you can at least control when you draw event cards.

There are no specific rules for diplomacy, and trading rules are very simple. It is all up to the players to manage the politics among themselves.

The city pieces.

I have read a number of interesting comparisons with Sid Meier's Civilization: The Boardgame (SMC) and Through the Ages (TTA). My personal preference is TTA, COC, SMC. I feel COC is less restrictive than SMC, because in SMC the civ you pick and the winning condition you decide on very much restrict how you play (if you want to win). It is hard to switch strategy halfway, and the game feels like a sprint towards your selected victory condition. There is not much chance to change direction in mid-stride. The civilisations in COC feel rather generic - you are not the Romans or the Chinese or the Aztecs. The nature of your civilisation is mostly defined by the objective cards and action cards, because they steer how you play. I don't mind it that much though. Comparing COC with TTA, TTA doesn't have any map, and thus it has no spatial element. However in TTA I feel more strongly a sense of progressing through different eras. Great leaders rise and fade away. An industrial powerhouse in an early era can fall behind if it doesn't keep up with the times. New technologies and new government forms obsolete old ones. TTA not having the spatial element makes me like it more than COC. The spatial element in a civ game forces it to become more tactical. You focus on specific battles instead of a macro-level war or the overall pushing of your borders. I prefer the more abstracted nature of warfare in TTA because I feel like I don't need to micromanage. Not to say that there is anything particularly wrong with the combat system in COC or SMC. I like the combat system in COC better than SMC though, because the SMC system is a little convoluted.

The granddaddy of civ games is Francis Tresham's Civilization (CIV). However TTA, SMC and COC are all more similar to the SMC computer game than to CIV. I find it difficult to compare the grandchildren with the grandfather. To me it feels like CIV is in a category of its own. CIV has a spatial element, but it has that sweep of history feel, because the events cause much destruction. Revolts split nations, volcanoes and floods destroy cities. Compared to its descendants, CIV is quite spartan. Not many nation-specific abilities, no leaders, no wonders. Civilisations are defined by starting location and the tech progress and winning requirement. I have played fewer games of CIV than TTA and SMC, but there's just something special about CIV. Its descendants cannot replace it.

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