Game Night Verdicts #18 – Civilization (1980)

In a break from my (still on-going) Spiel recap, I want to talk about a game I actually played post-Spiel. But it was only 2 days after, so if you believe in rounding errors, it’s practically part of Spiel. 

Civilization – As far as board games go, this is a pretty unique one that was arguably hugely influential in creating a gaming genre (the 4X game) as well as being a (significantly debated) inspiration for the computer game series of the same name. I am quite fond of the two previous games to carry the name Civilization. Both Kevin Wilson’s massive table hog from 2010, as well as the super-sleek and somewhat underappreciated modernisation by James Kniffen. They are both unique board game attempts to capture the essence of the computer games (part IV and VI, I believe). I can’t say how well they succeed in that, but I do know I quite enjoy playing them. This now is the original piece, the Ur-Civ game, if you will. This is Francis Tresham’s Civilization.

And, boy, it’s heinous.

The past sure looks more colorful than in the movies

Now you might want to argue that’s a sign of its age, of production standards of the time. But I don’t really buy it. It reads to me as a clear function-over-aesthetic attitude towards the game. It’s not supposed to be pretty, it’s supposed to be useful. Stark contrasts help you distinguish areas of the map. Strong black lines help in giving you a clear idea of who is spreading where at a quick glance. While I admire the eye for functionality, I also believe that art design should make you want to look at a game board. It’s just another tool at your disposal to help create a great experience. Why not use it?

But I digress, while the art style is definitely the first thing to jump out at you (and possibly scare you away), there’s also the playing time, that will definitely make this game almost impossible to get to the table. With a full complement of 7 players (HAH!), you should expect around 7-9 hours of playtime. There seems to be this common and widespread belief that in the halcyon days before the internet, people had so much more free time and so few ways to fill that time with, that strategy games could last about as long as giving birth to your firstborn. That only with the coming of the Eurogame could strategy gaming be made to fit into the time constraints of the modern gamer. This is of course nonsense. There was never enough time for games. People who were really passionate about it, found the time to play. It was true then, and it is true now. The main reason why gaming seems to continuously grow as a hobby, is because it takes far less passion and lifestyle choices to sit down to play a good game, then it did in the 1980s. No 6 additional players, no full-day commitment.

So that’s two pretty big strikes against the game. Not only does it not look like anything, it also takes ages to play. It’s safe to assume that designer, publisher, playtester and pretty much anyone involved with the production of this game must have realised that they were about to put a game on the market that took too long and looked awful. You’d never invest time or money in such an enterprise unless you were convinced, to the point of near zealotry, that playing the game would smooth things over for all involved.

To be fair, it almost manages to do that.

The game’s design is elegant. Its rules are easily explained and the way that early turns play out gives you an in-game tutorial as you play, serving as both an introduction to the game, as well as a refresher. Which is obviously necessary, because chances are you won’t actually play this game more than twice a year. So what makes this game still have a loyal following almost 40 years after its original release?

Civilization does something that a lot of so-called epic games lose sight of too quickly. (And it’s something that arguably plagues the 2010 and the 2017 version as well). Civilization has incredible forward momentum. You are literally never standing still. Even when you’re falling behind in comparison to other players, each turn feels like a myriad of new options opening up to you. Part of it, is the automated multiplication of your tokens on the board. You don’t have to activate them or spend an action on them. Once your tokens are on the board, they will automatically increase in number early in each round. Right away, you can start expanding into adjacent territories and claim them as your own. Even the oft-derided approach of turtling in these games is easily dealt with, by capping the amount of tokens that can exist in any area. It’s an incredibly simple solution to push players into engaging each other. Sooner or later the endless expansion will be met by another player’s tokens already occupying the area you’re looking to move into. At first that’s fine, you can all coexist as long as you don’t exceed the capacity limit for a region. But when you do, war breaks out and you each decimate your tokens one by one, until you are under capacity again.

This is where the game really starts to stumble. Mechanically, this is fine for the most part. It’s elegant and easily grasped. It doesn’t get bogged down with silly little details like types of units, relative strength or even generic randomizers to drag out what is a generally inessential interaction. It’s the unspoken assumption that is expressed in these mechanics that makes it all a little icky. Basically, war between civilization breaks out when they have to share a region that doesn’t have enough food for them. That’s the logic of the rules here, even if it feels like a pretty naive and classist reading of history. I understand that this might seem like overthinking things, but if there was some acknowledgement of this quite deliberate misreading of human history for the sake of playability, I’d feel less uncomfortable about it.

drunk uncle snl
Bobby Moynihan’s accurate depiction of Civilization

That is because it feels like a very deliberate decision to call this type of player engagement war. There already is a way to purposefully and intentionally decimate a rival’s population, i.e. go to war with them: you trade them calamities. These cards look like regular trade cards, but when you are given those in a trade they trigger at the end of the current turn and really weaken your position on the board and in the game. The fact that population loss due to overpopulation is called war, while directly harming others is part of trade… paints a weirdly xenophobic picture of history to say the least.

But this brings up what is arguably the joyful heart of the game, and the part that draws everyone’s attention: trading. Again, the design work here is startlingly elegant. You trade cards in sets of three. You gain as many cards (in ascending value) as you have cities on the board. So the more solidified your presence on the board, the more cards you get into your hand and the easier it is for you to trade with others. Admittedly, the rules on how and what you are allowed to talk about during these trades shows the games’ age. Calculating how many points you’re offering without giving away exactly what you’re trading is really only relevant to highly competitive players. Much like in Catan, it’s the social interaction, the light banter and the back and forth, that keeps the game alive for a wide range of people. The deeper layers of strategy and high-level play are still there to be mined for those who care. But what could have easily been a very dry exercise in maximizing efficiency on your turn, and plotting out best opening/mid-game/late-game moves… comes alive, through the simple joy of actually having to engage other players. (It’s a lesson that Antike sadly failed to learn.) Which makes it somewhat disappointing that the game poisons that one bit of congeniality, by passing on calamity cards to other players. This seems the one big misstep in the design. In that trading makes the game more social, but the threat of a calamity hitting you discourages you from trading freely. I’m not even sure it’s necessary to keep tension and competition up, as the last clever bit of the game’s design actually does a decent job of it.

Gibson edition, picture by Scott Henshaw

I am talking, of course, about the advancement tracks and the milestones each civilization has to reach within a certain number of turns before stalling. I’m a big fan of structuring a game by way of objectives. It’s one of the reasons I love TI4, and while Civilization doesn’t go for detailed variety in its objectives (they are the same for all), it effectively sets everybody up with their own personal timer in the early, mid- and late game. First you need to build 2 cities, then you need to own 5 colors of technology and then it’s a race for points. But since you need to hit those goals at different times, depending on which civilization you’re playing, you end up focusing on slightly different things compared to the other players. It’s a small thing, really, but it just goes to show how a smart design decision can fundamentally alter the dynamic between players, and by extension the experience of the game. Failing to meet your goal in the turns allocated for it feels like a much bigger disappointment than being overtaken by another player. It motivates you to play so much smarter, so much more efficient than simply wanting to beat the other guy does. More game designs should recognise that completing objectives is a far more effective motivation for players than merely besting their opponents.

But it’s this track that also includes a rule that arguably pushes the game’s length into regions usually reserved for fixed sleeping schedules and amount of time to wait before calling the number you got from the person you really, really, really, really, really like. Your civilization advances over time, and once it hits certain thresholds it enters a new era. But it can also regress within those eras. So not only does not hitting your goal in time, stop you from advancing. If you fail to support two cities, for whatever reason, your civilization moves back on the advancement track. While this is a rule that makes sense within the game’s topic and setting, it also means that careless play or unlucky card draws make the game last longer. And that’s just a bad decision no matter how you look at it. I’m all for games that won’t let you calculate exactly how much time you have left, or games that end the moment a player hits the ending/winning condition. But there’s a reason why “sit out a turn” or “nothing happens” effects are so disliked. They stretch out a game without contributing anything meaningful to the experience. Moving back on the advancement track doesn’t really change anything in how I play, it just means “my” game will take longer. As a way to raise the stakes, it’s too vague to react to. At most it will just make you play more conservatively (which is a death knell for any game). At best, it can be used as a late game tactic to keep somebody else from winning. And as I mentioned before, winning over somebody else really isn’t the universal motivator that drives all gaming impulses. Modern game designs would do well to abandon certain false idols of the past.

In one of the episodes of the presumed lost season of the Educated Guesswork podcast, I’ve talked about how I’m torn when it comes to civilization-themed games. In that they always have a imperialist attitude about them, most often expressed in their need to let a military path to victory dominate the entire game. (Once a player pushes for military, the arms race is inevitably on.) I didn’t quite see that in our game. There may be something akin to a military or at least confrontational approach to winning the game, but our group didn’t seem particularly invested in pursuing it.

But there are a lot of strange messages at the heart of this game. Wars erupt because people run out of living space. (I believe there’s a German word for that.) Trading with other cultures is beneficial, unless those trades are used to sneak diseases or political unrest into your country to decimate your population. Yet on the other hand, the player interaction itself, the changing board state and this continuous push towards progress (!) are so enjoyable as to become addictive. Civilization feels like a game that is just a small handful of fixes away from being an epic game experience set in ancient times, that you don’t need to spend 2000+ words justifying your enjoyment of.

German edition, picture by Werner Bär

Because I do enjoy it, I just wish it wasn’t so heinous.

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