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Posted on May 4, 2011 in Boardgames

Sid Meier’s Civilization – Board Game Review

By Christopher Beck

Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game.  Boardgame Review.  Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games. Developer: Kevin Wilson. $59.95

Passed Inspection: Epic gameplay that stays faithful to its PC heritage. Streamlined for more pleasant and better flowing experience and includes varied strategy for victory and random maps for a unique game every play.

Failed Basic: Maximum of four players make Civilization unsuitable for large groups. Abstracted, Rock-Paper-Scissors card-based warfare will not appeal to some. The game is lengthy, at 4-5 hours, and has a moderate learning curve.

In both the video and table top gaming history, Sid Meier’s Civilization series has become such an integral and influential part of history that it almost merits an entry within its own tech tree. Numerous clones have been tried, with varying success, to copy the original’s winning formula and even the official series has five entries on the PC, several entries on consoles and handheld systems, and one previous board game by Eagle Games. Now Civilization returns to the table top with Fantasy Flight Games new re-imagining of the series, somewhat unimaginatively named, Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game (hereafter SMC). Don’t let the mundane (albeit clear in its pedigree) name fool you, however, SMC takes the tested concepts of the Civilization PC games, adapts them in novel ways to a physical game board, and produces something that is both familiar and innovative, in addition to being an epically fun experience.

…for fans of epic strategy board gaming or the Civilization series, Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game represents a new golden age.

In essence, SMC is a relatively faithful porting of the Civilization series (with the exception of the radically different Civilization V) into board game rules. Players vie for control, economically, technologically, culturally, and militarily of a grid-like board that is constructed by randomly placing map tiles next to pre-determined tiles for each Civilization. Unlike other “world conquest” games (including Eagle Games’ previous iteration of Civilization) this setup means that the world is different with nearly every game. What makes this choice of a random, tile-constructed map even more interesting is that these tiles remain face-down until they are explored, providing a “fog of war” effect that is often difficult to achieve in board games (but accurately modeled from the PC series). These tiles contain a variety of different terrain types (in squares, not hexes), which confer differing amounts of the game’s three main resources – culture, trade, and production. In addition, some squares contain hostile barbarian tribes to fight, peaceful “huts” to explore, or market goods (such as silk, gold, iron, etc.) to gather.

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What makes the grid-like, tile-based map design so successful are the way in which cities and development is modeled. Each player has a capital city tile, and two city tiles, that can be placed during the game by spending a “scout” unit (which looks like a Conestoga wagon). Placement of these city-tiles is a crucial part of the game’s strategy. First, the tile covers the square it is placed upon, meaning that the city derives none of the three resources from its own tile. Further, cities only gather the resources of the eight squares directly surrounding them. Placing a city on the coast may generate a load of trade for a civilization, but will most likely deny the city access to production. So founding a city requires a good amount of thought, considering that you only get two additional cities to found past your initial capital city.

Another brilliant aspect of SMC’s map is that different tile types determine what types of improvements cities will be able to build. Improvements are also modeled, like cities, as cardboard tiles, and are placed upon the map when they are built. However, granaries and libraries must be built on grasslands, harbors on water, and workshops on mountains (certain tiles, like barracks, may be built anywhere). When placed, improvements fit over top of the map tile, replacing the resources available with those on the improvement tile. The question becomes then, do you put a granary down on that grassland tile (which produces no resources) to generate a trade and a production point, or do you place a library down to gain two culture points? These decisions, reminiscent of those seen typically in Euro games, make the game very strategic and require a good amount of planning and forethought. Of course, SMC wouldn’t be a Civilization game without Wonders, and these are also included as tile improvements. Requiring a huge amount of production points to build, Wonders often replace a map square’s resources with simple a culture point but offer some sort of excellent civilization-wide power, such as a reduction in tech cost or forcing your opponent to play with his or her military battle cards face-up.

So what does one do with all of these resources generated and, perhaps more importantly, how does one keep track of all these myriad resources? The designers at Fantasy Flight have really set this up in a very innovative way that keeps the game streamlined by abstracting a lot of the “book-keeping” (which plagued the previous Eagle Games version). Each civilization comes with a “race card” that has the civilization’s special powers, bonuses, and starting government listed. In addition, each card has a neat two-tiered dial for keeping track of trade points and gold coins. Trade, which is generated automatically by counting the total number of all trade symbols adjacent to each city, can be collected from turn to turn and kept. The trade dial also has large “era” Roman numerals printed on it to indicate what level of tech can be bought with that amount of trade. Thus, if your civilization exceeds Roman numeral I, it can spend all of its trade points to grab a first-level tech card (like pottery). In addition to paying for tech, trade can also be “cashed in” to boost a city’s production.

Production is done similar to trade, but does not require keeping track as it cannot be “banked” from turn to turn. Production, then, is simply a designation of the “purchasing power” of a city – if you have 5 production in a city, it can then build a granary, for instance. What makes this system successful is that cities represent “actions” during SMC’s city management phase. For each city the player has, he or she can do one of three things – produce a figure, unit, building, or wonder; gain culture “coins” to spend based on the culture resources available to a city; or harvest a good in the city’s radius (i.e. mine iron). So a player’s actions are limited to one per city, per turn. Like with building placement, this limit forces players to think ahead, if they want to gain culture then they have to sacrifice producing a building or unit for that turn. These are tough decisions, and they make the game challenging and interesting. By keeping the number of actions low, the game also progresses a bit more quickly and there is not as much downtime between players.

Like the computerized version of Civilization, all of these buildings, units, and resources are focused toward achieving one goal – world domination. And like the computerized version, SMC provides four different ways to achieve this goal – cultural victory, which is gain by progressing a culture track; technology victory gained by building a tech “pyramid” and buying the space victory tech card; economic victory achieved by gathering 15 gold coins via tech actions or from goods; and military victory, which comes as the result of taking only one other player’s capital. These four paths to victory are all relatively balanced, if not by ease of achievement but by the risks and benefits of devoting one’s civilization to that particular path. What this means is, the military victory, which only requires the conquest of one capital, may seem like the easiest path to obtain, however it is also the riskiest path. Building up a strong military will certainly catch the attention of the other players, and advancing toward a rival’s capital will absolutely force all other players into a defacto alliance to prevent that military victory. On the other hand, economic and technological victories are difficult to prevent (typically tech and coins cannot be lost once gained) but they take a long time and directed work to reach. Cultural victory is the most difficult to get, requiring “wasting” a city’s action devoting itself to the arts, but each rank up the culture track provides cultural event cards (very powerful one-time use action cards) or great person improvement tiles that can be placed next to cities for more resources. All in all, the victory conditions seemed very balanced and significantly difficult to obtain. In another stroke of great design, each of the game’s six civilizations has particular strengths that make certain paths more attractive than other ones (for example, the Germans get a special power for their military, while the Egyptians build Wonders and generate culture quickly). While these don’t exactly pigeon-hole a civilization down a path, players will be more successful if they play to their side’s strengths (and perhaps be disappointed if they get a civilization that is geared toward a path they do not prefer). To solve this issue, it has been suggested that players be allowed to pick their civilization (via some form of draft) rather than get randomly assigned one as stated in the rules.

Lastly, a word about war and military. In SMC, unlike other world domination games, warfare has been largely abstracted. Rather than having a multitude of plastic figures for different types of units and gigantic battles hinging on lucky rolls, SMC has only a small number of generic “army” figures and utilizes a card-based battle system that employs a rock-paper-scissors (and dynamite) system of infantry-cavalry-archers (and airplanes). The game models “logistics” by separating the number of military cards owned by a civilization from those available in battle. While a player may have 10 military cards, they might only be able to use four of those (randomly drawn) during a battle unless they attack concurrently with two plastic army figures (on the board) or up their military abilities via tech. Upgrades to units are granted with certain techs, and modeled by simply turning the square-shaped unit cards to the proper side, granting them a more powerful attack number. Battle is a fast-paced affair, and relatively dynamic and fun, but grognards expecting awesome military campaigns, detailed combat tables, or the thrill of random dice rolls will not be happy with this design. It does lower downtime, but is not perhaps as heart pumping as Twilight Imperium’s huge and varied space battles or even lowly Risk’s feast or famine dice (although the SMC battles are more predictable and easier to plan because of this).

In conclusion, for fans of epic strategy board gaming or the Civilization series, Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game represents a new golden age. With a lot of what made previous 4X board games cumbersome and full of player downtime trimmed off and streamlined, SMC gives the epic feel of the PC game within an afternoon of play. While SMC only allows for a maximum of four players, it scales well for any number of players from two to four (with different sized maps). If the grog inside of you can be satisfied with highly abstracted warfare, then SMC is a natural choice for epic-level gaming that can be completed in a modest 3-4 hours.

Solitaire Suitability: 0
Due to a heavy reliance on secret information, particularly in military and cultural event cards, SMC is completely unsuitable for solo play.

About the Author

Christopher Beck is a PhD candidate in Medieval History, studying Mediterranean seafaring, trade, and civic governance. Beck is a long time board and video gamer since the days the Atari was new and is an avid fan of role-playing, grand strategy, science fiction and most anything Lovecraft. His boardgame collection now takes up its own room, much to his wife’s chagrin. Favorite boardgame publishers include Fantasy Flight, Flying Frog Productions, and the now long-lost Avalon Hill. His current project is reading the Necronomicon in Latin.

1 Comment

  1. Actually, this game is suitable for solo play. There are several solo variants posted online in various places including bgg. I happen to play it solo all the time, and it works quite well.

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