Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game

Image by Surya
Fantasy Flight has been on a roll in 2010. Early in the year they released my new favorite game, Runewars. That alone would be impressive but they didn’t stop there. More recently they’ve come out with Space Hulk: Death Angel (a very fun cooperative game I plan on covering as part of my cooperative series soon), Battles of Westeros (interesting take on the Battlelore system), Dungeonquest (crazy dungeon romp) and Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game (referred to as Civilization from here on). I love civilization building games so there was no way I could pass up giving Fantasy Flight’s take on the genre a go.

Kevin Wilson was the designer behind this new version of Civilization and I admit that had me a bit hesitant going in. Kevin has done some fantastic work at Fantasy Flight, most notably Descent: Journeys in the Dark. My only concern was that his designs are often fairly – if not overly – complex and I was hoping this could be the Civilization game our group could play in an evening. While it shares the same name, it has nothing to do with the Eagle Games published title. This is an all-new take based on the classic Civilization PC series, clearly drawing heavily from Civilization IV and Civilization Revolution.

While am I a big fan of the series (particularity Civ Rev and Civ V), I’m not going to do any sort of comparison. Suffice it to say that I’m extremely impressed at how well Kevin managed to take concepts from the video games and turn them into cardboard form. Here’s what really makes the game:

Image by henk.rolleman

+ Multiple Paths to Victory – Civilization games are known for allowing the player many different ways to win the game. Culture, science, military and economics are all valid choices in the game, each with their own unique victory conditions. Sometimes paths may intersect but each requires players to plan their path and execute better than their opponents. It really is a race game with the player that most effectively executes their strategy while keeping their opponents at bay coming out on top. While I have certainly not played exhaustively at this point I am comfortable saying that all the victory conditions seem well-balanced and fun to boot.

+ Technology Pyramid – Researching technologies has always been a big part of the computer games and we’ve seen this concept in board game form before. Certain technologies lead to others and players need to decide which path to follow. It’s a classic formula but certainly restricts players, forcing them down predetermined paths.

Kevin tossed this idea out the window and instead introduced the technology pyramid. Level one technologies form the base; each level two technology requires two level one technologies to support it and so on. This is a fantastic system as it still requires some degree of required early technology research but gives players the freedom to pursue whatever paths they wish. Yes, it can lead to humorous situations where you learn how to fly airplanes and later come back to figure out how to make pottery but I’m perfectly happy to make that trade-off for the freedom this system allows. It’s an extremely elegant design and really is the keystone to the game.

Image by haarrrgh
+ Modular Terrain – I love games with modular terrain and Civilization doesn’t disappoint. The map is made up of four-by-four tiles that are revealed as players explore. There’s a variety of terrain that provides different resources and you’ll encounter friendly and hostile barbarians. Terrain is important and the land around your starting area will certainly impact your overall strategy but has never felt too limiting or imbalanced.

+ Unique Civilization Abilities – Each civilization (six come with the game) has a special ability or two and start with different learned techs. It’s very clear that some civilizations are certainly geared more towards certain victory conditions. For example, the Germans are a good military force while the Russians can have easy access to technology. At the same time I think each can succeed in at least two different paths if not more; sometimes those bonuses are just as important in helping you towards another goal. I’m not entirely convinced they are all balanced, but they never really were in the computer games either. I’ve seen all civilizations do well and that’s really all that matters.

As you can tell, I’ve really been enjoying the game. I was afraid it may end up overly complex but Kevin designed a very clean, intuitive game packed with lots of fun and great replay value. There are a just a couple of things that keep it from taking the throne away from Runewars as my favorite game, though:

~ Game Length – While not as epic in length as Twilight Imperium 3, Civilization can push the ability to get a game in an evening. It’s not impossible, mind you, but the game length seems to be highly variable. There’s the obvious learning time for new players but even with a group that knows the game well I’ve found that some games simply end up at more critical decision points than others. Three players seems to be the sweet spot for balance and game length, clocking in around a little over an hour per player. Time per player actually seems to go up when adding a fourth, simply because there’s more difficult decisions to make and often more deal making as well.

Image by henk.rolleman

– Combat System – While I’m listing this as a downside to the game, let me first say that I think the core combat system is actually quite good. There are three different types of military units that battle in a rock-paper-scissor style system. It works well and does a nice job of reflecting modern computer strategy games. My only complaint is how your armies are tied to your units on the board. Military is represented in two ways: by plastic figures on the map showing where you have presence and by a deck of cards representing your military forces. When you battle you draw from your deck of forces and do combat. It’s a nice simplification from having lots of different units running around the map but it has the unfortunate side effect that a battle on one side of the map can diminish your military strength on the other side of the map as they both pull from your same pool of military units. Retreating is not possible so you are forced to play each battle out to its bloody conclusion. There’s also no way to voluntarily remove figures from the map so your army figures can actually become a serious liability if someone is heading for your cities. Ultimately this means you need to decide very early if you will be playing offensively or defensively. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that but things get ugly if you find yourself having to change tactics mid-game.

When all is said and done, though, Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game really nails what I want out of a civilization-style game. I’d highly recommend it to anyone interested in civilization style games or someone interested in a solid direct conflict game playable in a few hours. You really feel like you are building your civilization from the ground up, exploring new lands, making deals with and fighting against your neighbors. I’m really amazed at how well Kevin Wilson managed to take the complexity of the video game series and turn it into a board game while really keeping the spirit of the series. I think they’ve already confirmed an expansion is in the works and I’m hopeful that maybe they will address the issues I have with the combat system.

I even enjoy it so much that I put together a player aid to conserve some table space and help players better plan their strategies. Check it out over at BoardGameGeek!