Thursday, 15 May 2014

revisiting a classic - Francis Tresham's Civilization

My one-epic-game-per-month scheme is going well. For May, I picked the 34-year-old Civilization, and managed to put together a 5P game. I have played 3P and 4P games, about 5 years ago, so this time I wanted to try a different player count. I didn't dare to go too high though, since the game is long. I had expected our 5P game to last about 5 hours, but we ended up playing for 7 hours! And that's excluding rules explanation. However I was very immersed in the game and it didn't feel that long to me at all.

I bought my copy from eBay quite a few years ago, soon after my initial plays. It's the Gibson Games version and not the Avalon Hill one, so it's much cheaper. My copy is quite old. The game box, game board and rule book are all yellowing.

My four fellow players who stayed up with me until 4:30am - Kareem, Jeff, Damien and Ivan.

I was the only one who had played the game before, so I let the others pick their starting locations first. The starting locations determines the nations played. The progress conditions and winning conditions differ by nation, taking into account how favourable the starting locations are.

I sat at the northern edge of the board, so my photos are all upside down. To make things easier I will describe the game using left and right as opposed to east and west. Kareem (red) picked the left edge. He was Babylon. Jeff (black) picked the upper left corner - Egypt. Damien (blue) picked the right edge - Africa (I guess that's Carthage). Ivan (orange) picked the lower right corner of the light orange area. He was Thrace. The pink area was not in play. Ivan (orange) and Damien (blue) couldn't reach each other yet by sea until one of them discovered astronomy, which is required to sail the open seas. So both of them had only one front to worry about in the early game.

After the rest had picked their spots, I still had three possible choices - the bottom edge, the lower left corner or a small Greek island at the middle of the board. Kareem said the bottom edge was a tough nation to play. The tiny island in the middle seemed rather tough to play too. So I decided to take the lower left corner - Assyria. It was very near Kareem's starting location so he considered me a major threat. I didn't intend to fight so early. I just wanted to migrate towards the Lebanon and western Turkey area (as I had done now in this photo) where there were fertile lands and a good number of city sites. Kareem and I had some border skirmishes. I tried to stay away from him so that we didn't both get dragged down in an early war. The others had not come into contact with one another yet, so no fighting for food yet.

In the top right corner you can see the progress chart. This is basically a race track. The objective of the game is to reach the end of the track. The chart is divided into 5 eras. By default your nation advances one step every round, but you need to meet a certain criteria before you enter a new era. Near the end, you need to have achieved a certain level of technology and wealth for each step. Different nations enter the next era at different points on the chart. In this photo you can see we are all on the last spot of the first era, because to enter the second era we need to have two cities (square markers). Everyone has one city except me (green Assyria).

At this point we had all expanded and were touching one another (no no not that way). Everyone had two or more cities except for Damien (blue Africa), so he was the only one still stuck in the first era on the progress chart. Jeff (black Egypt) and Damien (blue Africa) was now battling it out at their border. I (green Assyria) was not in a comfortable place - I bordered all three of Kareem (red Babylon), Jeff (black Egypt) and Ivan (orange Thrace).

This was when the first major disaster struck - Jeff (black Egypt) drew the Civil War disaster card. He was now in progress flipping over some units (round tokens) and cities (square tokens) to mark the part of his nation which would secede. Notice the flipped over tokens at the top left. Some of these would be picked by himself, and some others would be picked by another player he nominated. He would then have to pick which half of his nation to continue to govern. The other half would go to the nominee. Damien (blue Africa) was weakest at this point, and was made the beneficiary.

The Greek area didn't have much fertile land, but had many city sites, so Ivan (orange Thrace) was able to build many cities. I (green Assyria) sent some colonists there to grab some of the islands too.

Those surfboards are ships.

Here you can see the aftermath of the first civil war. Damien's nation (blue Africa) had greatly expanded towards Jeff's area (black Egypt). Jeff was now struggling to push Damien back. Kareem (red Babylon) and I (green Assyria) had a nervous coexistence at the bottom left. Units can share the same territory as long as the total number does not exceed the capacity of the territory. People will only fight if there is not enough food.

On the progress chart in the background, you can see that now most of us are in the third era, the prerequisite being having technologies of three types. There are four types in the game - Arts, Civics, Crafts and Sciences.

We had a few more civil wars. Kareem (red Babylon) was next to get hit. He bordered Jeff (black Egypt) and I (green Assyria), and he didn't want to give a chunk of his empire to anyone who was an immediate threat, so he could only pick between Damien (blue Africa) and Ivan (orange Thrace). Eventually he chose Damien, and that's why you see blue had suddenly sprung up in the lower left, at the opposite end from its starting location. This was a headache for me (green Assyria), because now I had fronts with all four opponents!

Ivan (orange Thrace) suffered a civil war too, and gave away half his nation to Kareem (red Babylon). So the previously diminished Babylonians were now riding high again. The Babylonians had astronomy, and later sent a naval task force across the Mediterranean to launch an amphibious assault against blue Africa.

On the progress chart, Jeff (black Egypt), Kareem (red Babylon) and I (green Assyria) were stuck at the end of the third era, because we didn't have 7 technologies yet. Ivan (orange Thrace) did his trading well and was first to buy his 7th technology. He held on to commodities until he had many to cash in at one go, making them worth much more. So although in some rounds he didn't buy any tech, in some others he could afford to buy two techs at the same time.

I made this reference sheet. This side is for the techs. The other side is for the disasters. The spaces on the right are for summing up your tech values. This will save a lot of punching away at a calculator. I have bought seven techs now, and they are worth a total of 690VP.

Kareem (red Babylon) was hit by quite a number of civil wars, and he screamed RANDOMMMMM. I tried to console him that disasters were very normal. I see the disasters as a balancing mechanism. Whoever suffers one gets to bring others down with him or gets to pick a beneficiary in the case of a civil war. So naturally players will try to hurt a leading player, or help a trailing one. Some disaster cards are secret and are inflicted upon an opponent by trading the card to him. Players will usually try to trade such disasters to the leading players. I see disasters as a good thing, because they create the dramatic rise and fall of empires in the game. But then after Kareem suffered his third civil war, I don't think I sounded very convincing to him when I described the merits of disasters.

I was lucky to not have had any civil wars. Three out of five of us were hit at least once. However I did suffer from famines very frequently. Players can reduce the impact of famines by discovering pottery and holding grain cards in their hands. Jeff (black Egypt) and Ivan (orange Thrace) did this. By stockpiling grain, they increased the frequency of famines. The famine card was in the grain card stack, so grain cards being held back meant we cycled through the now thinner grain card stack more quickly, and thus also drew the famine card more frequently. This is a very clever design. I hate hate hate the famines, but I must say this is quite a nifty mechanism.

Every city needs to be supported by two units. Whenever you are short of units, you need to convert unsupported cities to units. So it is important to have access to fertile land (well, it's either that or access to a lot of barren land) in order to support a decent population, which in turn supports a large number of cities, which then allows you to produce more goods, which can be traded and then cashed in to buy techs.

In one particular round Kareem (red Babylon) was hit by both a civil war and civil disorder. In a civil war you'd lose part of your nation. When there is civil disorder, if you have more than four cities, you convert the fifth city and onwards back to units, losing those cities. After Kareem's civil war ended, he had lost so many cities that he didn't even have more than four cities to qualify for civil disorder. Hey, there's always a bright side.

In one of Kareem's later civil wars, his nation was already quite diminished so he didn't have much to secede. That was how I (green Assyria) got this tiny island city on the right from him.

This was when we ended the game. At this point, Kareem (red Babylon) had suffered so many civil wars that he had given the rest of his original Babylonian empire at the left edge of the board to Damien (blue Africa). Damien had a poor start, but later became one of the most powerful empires. At this point, Ivan (orange Thrace) was poised to win the game. He had achieved the score required to advance all the way to the end of the progress track. Kareem (red Babylon) and I (green Assyria) were on par with him on the progress track, but our winning requirements were higher due to our better start locations. We needed to buy one more tech this round to reach the winning requirement, else we would not be able to progress. Unfortunately we couldn't put together enough decent deals to afford that one last tech. So we declared Ivan the winner.

One thing that amazes me about Civilization is how minimalistic it is. Compared to more recent civ games like Through the Ages, Fantasy Flight Games' Sid Meier's Civilization and Clash of Cultures, it has no different types of soldiers, no forms of government, no buildings within cities, no wonders of the world, no multiple ways to win / score points and no great leaders. It has significantly fewer techs. The only thing it has more than the others are disasters. It sounds like a game for people who like to take punishment. However, despite the simplicity, it does not lack in strategy. You have to plan ahead very carefully. You have to be shrewd in negotiations. There will be chaos, but amid the chaos you will realise that your civilisation can still march ahead steadily. Losing people and cities is not as bad as it seems. It is your culture and your civilisation that matters. Wealth and territories come and go, but no one can take away your knowledge. That is what Civilization is about.

Maybe next time a 7-player game?


V Barrett said...

What a great post and detailed too look like you had fun

Damien (BGG ID: dtroy_de_rapcore) said...

i want to link your player aid

Great post Hiew! Again, thank you so much for inviting me. I'm honoured to game with one of the local gaming celeb :p

Honestly, playing this game is one of my best gaming highlights for this year. It's probably my longest given game ever, and the fact that I get to play one of the classic game ever created, it's really an honour.

I was surprised at how easy the game was, and reading the rulebook was such a breeze (GMT, old and classic rulebooks tend to scare me away).

The fact that we did almost everything simultaneously baffled me a little on why it took us 7 hours to get it done. I think you and the rest assisted and guided everyone at the table for a smoother gameplay. Some suggested we set a 5-minutes limit during trading but I honestly didn't think we exceed that limit.

I love love love the calamities, I mean how they're executed. The interaction it brings is just cool. Of course, how it actually happened is debatable and plain weird. Civil War is one in questioned.

The game is very simple to play (I'm so surprised), and the gameplay is very smooth. I just love how simple the execution is, yet it is known as one of the best Civ game out there.

I've just posted my completed PnP in the monthly PnP geeklist on BGG. It seems that you haven't posted your player aids yet. I've linked your blog on the geeklist.

Thanks again!

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Hi Damien! Glad you had fun. I still haven't got around to posting my player aid to BGG. I will get around to it eventually.

Duncan Christakos said...

This game sounds amazing:)