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Sid Meier's Civilization the board game

As a fan of the Sid Meier’s Civilization video game series (particularly, Civilization IV - which I argued on Geek Fights is the best video game ever made!), I was skeptical - but also excited - at the prospect of a Civilization board game based on my beloved game franchise. Could the feeling of building a civilization to stand the test of time and the one-more-turn addictiveness of the video game be replicated in a board game without the game itself becoming too long and boring? Well, put simply, it can! And Sid Meier’s Civilization: the Board Game is proof!

Table of Contents

Sid Meier's Civilization the board game

How the game is played, and how it is won

Map & Tiles

Unlike the previous 2002 Civilization board game, this game does not use an Earth-based map. Instead, the game comes with over a dozen, square-shaped terrain tiles, each containing a 4x4 grid of square spaces that represent the map’s various terrain. Each player starts on a face-up terrain tile and gets to settle their first city during set up of the game. The remaining tiles (the number and arrangement of which depend on how many players are in the game) remain face down. As players move their armies and scouts around the world, they can spend a movement point to reveal a face-down tile that they are adjacent to, and the orientation of the tile depends on who reveals it first.

These tiles will contain terrain types ranging from generic grasslands, to trade-generating water and deserts, to production-generating forests and mountains, or even culture-generating “natural wonders”. Each tile may also contain a resource (either iron, silk, wheat, or incense). The board game omits food from the list, focusing instead on production and trade. Cities collect production and trade from any squares that are adjacent to them. Production is used to build buildings, wonders, armies, scouts, or units in your cities, and trade can be used to purchase additional production points at a 3-to-1 exchange ratio or be used to fund scientific research. The remaining resources (iron, wheat, silk, incense, and culture) can be “harvested” by a city, and can be traded in for various rewards or traded with other players. The modular nature of the map, and the changing orientation of the individual tiles creates a great deal of replay value, as each game session is going to have a different map configuration.

Culture & Culture Victory

Each player can also accumulate culture by forgoing building or unit production in a city to instead “devote to the arts” for that turn. Gaining culture moves the player up on the “Culture Track” and gives the player access to powerful Culture Event cards and the occasional Great Person. Culture Event cards get more powerful as the game goes along and grant the player various bonuses or extra actions. For example, some cards may increase production in a city, some may destroy opponents’ buildings or units, some may let you share technologies with each other, and others can even allow you to cancel a city’s whole action! The increasing power of the cards is offset by the increased cost required to move along the Culture Track at the later stages. Great People can also be earned and are placed near your cities similar to buildings, offering permanent yield increases to that city. If you reach the end of the culture track before anybody else, you win the game’s “Culture Victory”.

Civilization board game unit cards

Figures & Military Victory

After managing cities, players may move their “figures” on the map. Figures represent armies and scouts. If you battle an enemy army, you use a random selection of unit cards from your unit deck and play them one at a time, dealing damage to each other based on the card’s strength, and using a rock-paper-scissors trump structure. Artillery beats infantry, mounted units beat artillery, and infantry beat mounted units. There are also air units, which are extremely strong, but only available late in the game. One of the interesting design elements of the game is that units and armies are separate from one another. You move the army figure on the map, but any given battle between two army figures can use any of the respective players’ units, and the same unit can participate in multiple battles in a single turn (assuming it survives and is drawn again). You can use your armies to kill enemy armies and barbarian villages, blockade tiles from other players, and even to sack and destroy enemy cities. If you capture any one other player’s capital, you immediately win the game’s “Military Victory”.

Scout figures are also very interesting pieces that have some very cool powers and are in fact infinitely more useful than they are in the computer game. They can be used to explore the map and found cities early in the game. But later in the game, they can be used to “gather” resources from terrain squares outside of your cities’ influence, making those resources available in your cities. They can also be used to blockade an opponent’s owned squares or buildings, providing the yield from that square or building to you instead, and even blocking access to their Wonder abilities! Scouts act as explorers, settlers, spies, and cowboys all at once!

Technology & Space Race Victory

At the end of each game round, each player is allowed to spend any remaining trade points that they’ve accumulated towards purchasing a new technology. Technology cards that are purchased are tiered, and arranged into a pyramid. Two level 1 technologies (and the prereq amount of trade) are required to be able to research a level 2 tech. Two level 2 techs (and a higher prereq amount of trade) are required to research a level 3 tech. And so on. But the techs have no specific prereqs, so you can research any level 2 tech if you have an available space above any two level 1 techs. If you are the first to research the level 5 technology, Space Flight, you win a “Space Race / Technology Victory”.

Gold & Economic Victory

There is also an “Economic Victory” that requires the player to stockpile 15 pieces of Gold. These Gold Pieces can be acquired by abilities granted by certain technologies, or through the possession of certain terrain squares, buildings, or Great People that generate them, and they allow you to keep overflow Trade from one turn to another after researching a technology.

These four different victory types do a great job of simulating all of the core gameplay mechanics from the Civilization video games, and offer the player a variety of optional strategies to win the game, and keep all the players competitive for a victory in most cases.

Pacing

Game rounds are divided into multiple phases, with each player taking a turn in order before that phase of the round is completed. This helps to keep all the players engaged on a more consistent basis, and prevents players from having to wait too long while other players take their turns. Some phases also take place simultaneously (like trade and research) in order to speed things up. However, City Management and movement can still take a long time for a single player to complete (especially if battles take place), so there is still a bit of waiting. This can be irritating, especially if you are eager to get to the next phase or round to execute an exciting action. But in the end, I was actually surprised that there ended up being much less waiting around than I thought there would be.

Overall game balance

Civilization board game - Russia Civ sheet

The game comes packaged with six (6) playable civilizations. Each one has their own unique special abilities and characteristics, all of which are very powerful, and makes chosing which civilization to play as very difficult. The game represents America, China, Egypt, Germany, Rome, and Russia as the playable civilizations. Each civilization comes with their own nifty civilization reference sheet that lists their special abilities and includes a nice two-tiered dial that tracks your current trade points and number of Gold coins. The game designers did a good job of balancing most of the civilizations’ special abilities so that each one can synergize well with multiple victory strategies. That way, you do not feel like you are shoe-horned into playing with one particular style if you get stuck with a specific civilization. The abilities are not perfect, however, since I have found that Germany’s special ability is a bit too focused on military (they get two free units at the start of the game, and can gain a free unit and resource any time they research a tech that unlocks a new unit). Egypt’s ability to build any unlocked building in one of their cities for FREE every turn also seems a bit overpowered, especially considering that there are only a finite number of each type of building available in the game, and once they are all built, no one can build any more unless existing ones are destroyed. Oh, and Egypt starts the game with a free ancient wonder, too! Russia’s ability to sacrifice a figure to steal a technology from another player’s city each turn also makes a Space Race Victory a cake-walk for Russia unless the other players actively prevent Russia from using this ability.

The Space Race Victory also seems to be a bit too easy compared to the other victory types, especially considering that researching new technologies is so integral to every part of the game!

The rule book that comes with the game is a bit incomplete. For example, it says that as soon as a victory is achieved, the game is over. However, this leads to a great deal of confusion, especially with the Space Race victory, since research happens simultaneously for all players. So what happens if two people research Space Flight on the same turn? The rule book that comes packaged with the game does not answer this, but fortunately there is an updated version of the rule book and an official FAQ that answers many questions about the rules. It provides an alternative rule in which the current turn is played out if a player achieves a victory condition other than military, and a scoring system is used to decide the winner.

There are a few other questions that my group has had which the rule book and FAQ do not explicitly answer. The rule book is usually clear enough that you can infer the rule by very carefully reading it, but some can still be open to debate.

Cheating is legal!

… Well, sort of. The rules include a mechanic called “non-binding promises”, which is an element of the trade step of each turn. At this time, players can trade resources, culture points, culture event cards, and trade points with each other. Players can also exchange “non-binding promises” which are agreements falling outside of the game’s actual mechanics, and which cannot be enforced by the game itself. Thus, players are not obligated to follow through on these agreements if they don’t want to. These sorts of agreements can range from “I’ll give you culture each turn as long as you don’t attack me” to “I’ll give you all my trade points if you buy me a beer”, and anything in between. It can be an enjoyable mechanic to just have fun with!

Nitpicking

I do have a few nagging, nitpicky complaints with this game. For starters, I don’t like all the cardboard pieces. Almost every piece in the game is a cardboard cutout. The only plastic pieces are the army and scout figures. I understand that this makes it easier to print the yields of buildings and upgrading the building by flipping the cardboard piece over. But we couldn’t even get any plastic buildings? Not even for wonders?

The game also has a fairly long set up and tear down time. Its not Axis and Allies bad. But it’ll take a good 15 to 30 minutes to set up based on how well organized the pieces are.

Civilization board game components

Building and unit upgrades can be easily exploited. If you know you’re going to upgrade a building or unit soon, you can buy a bunch of the cheaper versions, then research the tech and get the upgrades for free. Upgrading units individually would be hard because they are cards, but the buildings need to be flipped. So why can’t there be a cost to upgrade them? Even if the game lets you upgrade multiple buildings with a single action. I guess we can house rule it.

Also, Great People being random can really mess with a person’s strategy. If you get the Great Person early, then you can base your strategy around which Great Person you get. But if you are working for a specific Great Person, you have no control over which ones you get, which makes it very hard to rely on them for your grand strategy.

Finally, it is reasonable that the shape of the board and the amount of resources available are dependant on how many players are in the game. But why don't the number of buildings or units available to buy scale with the number of players? Regardless of whether there are 2 players (capable of building a total of 6 cities) or 4 players (capable of building a total of 12 cities), you always have the same number of each type of building available at the start of the game! This means that 4 player games require much more of a rush to get the valuable buildings before anybody else, or you have to use your armies to destroy cities in order to get them back.

Conclusion

As I said, the complaints I have are few, and they are mostly minor, nagging complaints rather than game-breaking flaws. The apparent imbalance in victory conditions and some of the civilization’s special abilities seem to be more a result of the play-styles of our particular groups rather than inherent design flaws. The game is very different from its computer counter-parts, but none of that holds it back, and in fact, it actually might even be a better game than the Civilization V computer game! This is a game that Sid Meier should be proud to have his name on, and if Fantasy Flight releases any expansions for it, you bet that I’ll be picking them up!

Buy Civilization: The Board Game from Amazon.com

Civilization board game in session

UPDATE 08/12/2012: A review of the Fame and Fortune Expansion is available!

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