Monday, November 29, 2010

Doug Cooley's Civilization: The Out Of The Box Impression

Civilization. What a history this particular franchise has.

Originally a board game. Then an expansion or three. Then a computer game. Then another computer game. Then another. Then a board game based on the computer game. Then another computer game. Then *another* computer game. Then another board game based on the computer game based on the board game but not the crappy board game and also presumably not the crappy computer gamer, although there were some who liked that particular computer game and to be fair I guess a few who found the board game playable although the *first* board game could go on for a bit. Sort of like this sentence.

Wow. Suck on *that*, Settlers.

My first introduction to Civilization was the classic board game, the one that got picked up by Avalon Hill in the early 80's and was a smash hit. I was just finishing my sophomore year in college and was at my folks place in Wilsonville for the summer. Just like before, it was a long way from anything (although arguable further - the closest pizza and video stores were a 15 minute drive away), and even further from my college friends. My parents were touring Europe, my girlfriend was in Grant's Pass, and those who know what Grant's Pass is like know that there's really no point in going there if you don't have to, and in any event she was *bat*-sh*t crazy. Her coat used to come out of the closet and chase her. Really. And she was a little freaked whenever she saw, y'know, the junk.

My point is that I didn't have a lot to do other than rehearse with the band I was in and play this game I'd just bought, Civilization. I set it up on the living room floor, picked a number of civs to play, faked my way through the trading phase, and must have played something like 20 games in the six weeks before my parents got back. A little sad, but I loved playing that game. Amazingly, I've only played part of a game with actual live opponents, and then George was one of the civs right next to mine so you never knew what he was going to do, and it usually ended up being taking out the person pointing out who was winning, which seemed to always be me. That boy has some trust issues. ;-)

When I was in grad school ten years later, Sid Meier's Civilization, the PC adaptation of the board game (but oh so *much* more) came out in a Mac version. I am not lying when I say that this game, coupled with the ability to play it on an early Powerbook, was very nearly responsible for me not graduating, certainly responsible for me taking longer than planned. That and realizing you had to be *bat*-sh*t crazy to be a composer, so I settled for choir directing instead. Not that you don't have to be *bat*-sh*t crazy to do *that*.

I'm sure I had a point here somewhere. Oh, there it is.

I should also mention that my nephew, Bill, loved this game as much as I did. He lived with us on a few occasions, and there were a lot of nights that we'd come home from a performance or rehearsal and he'd be in the computer room playing while his girlfriend (not crazy, and amazingly now his wife of 15 years) was asleep in front of the TV. It was extremely addictive, and still is.

As version after version of the PC game would come out, I'd buy it but I never felt the game had the same relative elegance of the first iteration. Oh sure, figuring out how to work your Einsteins and Elvii was a bit of a trick, and the game was complex, but it was just right for someone like me. Making the tech tree the size of a Sequoia only hurt the game, and then the support for the Mac version just seemed to dry up. Civ IV *never* worked right on the Mac. I just started playing Civ V, and so far it feels a bit better, although the whole "race to the Monarchy" seems to be buried within a Culture system that I haven't quite got a grip on.

But I'm not here to talk about the computer game, at least other than in the sense that the one other time someone tried to create a version of the computer game for a board system it was done by the worst possible people - Eagle Games. It had none of the charm of the PC game - no gradual discovery, a lot of clumsy systems apparently put there to make the people who played the computer version happy but that didn't really help it feel like the computer version, and the usual Eagle "advanced" rules that should have been called "Rules That Seemed Like Maybe They Would Add Something But We Have No Idea Because We Never Tested Them More Than Once". Seriously, Eagle did this with *every* game they ever put out prior to going under (and then being bought by FRED).

Really, it was a terrible, terrible game.

To be honest, I didn't have much hope for the new game from Fantasy Flight. That changed when I started seeing pictures of the board, which looks remarkably like the first PC game in a lot of ways. Top down grid based movement, waves lapping on the shores, a randomized map that I'd be very surprised if we ended up with it looking the same no matter *how* many times you play the game.

So I got a copy. I'm weak. And I love me some discovery games.

Turns out there's quite a bit to like. I got in a couple of turns just to see how it all worked, and while there are some marked differences with the board game, the feel is all there. And some of the leaders are, ahem, pretty. Hot.

Here's a quick rundown of the sequence of play and how it maps to the computer version. I'll use the original two versions just because I'm most familiar with them, although I do have some clue about later versions. As a framework, I will introduce the board game's sequence of play, which is not too long.

Unlike my blog posts.

Start The Turn Already! - The first thing you notice is that in the PC game, you do things on a unit-by-unit basis. In the board game, you do things on a process-by-process basis. That's good, because it keeps everyone involved. I don't get the sense there's a huge amount of downtime in this game. We start by converting scouts (which are a combination of Scouts and Settlers from the computer game) into cities. In the board game, you start with your capital city in a square already built for your specific empire, and you only get two more cities, so pick where they can go carefully.

This is a good time to discuss cities and empires. Cities control the eight squares surrounding them, and they don't gradually expand into other territory like they do in the later PC versions. Actually, I like this. There are a few conditions for where you can place a city (not next to goodie huts, villages, or unknown terrain, and no overlap with existing cities), but there won't be a huge land grab to try to stake out your borders before doing a little in-fill. In fact, you want your cities close so that you get the benefit of defending them. In practice, since a tile in the board game is sixteen squares, you'll see one city per tile, so space is never an issue like it can be in the PC game if you have a couple of empires crowding you on an island. I should note that you don't place your final city until you have the Irrigation tech, which is no longer part of the computer game.

As for empires, there are six. Yeah, that seems little cheap to me too, but I figure this just gives more opportunity for expansions. The starter empires are America, Germany, Russia, China, Egypt, and Rome. Each has a special starting tech, some special starting benefit, and an ongoing special mutant power. I really can't say if one is better than the others, although clearly each empire is going to be better suited to meeting one of the four victory conditions. Yeah. Four different ways to win. My head hurts already.

The other thing you can do during the "Start of turn" phase (Really? That's the best you can do? How about "Civics" phase?) is to change your government. In the PC game, this needed to happen at the right time seeing as your civ would be in Anarchy for a few turns (lots of unhappy people and no income, really a bad idea if relations with your closest sabre-rattling neighbor weren't going well). In this game, if you get a tech that allows you to go to a different government type, you can do it for free in the following "Start of Turn" phase, or spend a turn in Anarchy if you wait.

So, this turn will go quickly, although exactly where you place your cities is obviously a fairly important decision, as is shifting your government type. Just like the PC game!

So I'll Give You Meat For Your Wood - Or Spice for your Iron. Whatever. This phase actually refers to Trade in two forms, the game mechanism and the act of trading stuff, a la Settlers. First you count up your Trade icons in the outskirts of your cities, a good reason to get those cities on the board as quickly as possible. Then you also can count any trade icons on spaces your Scouts are on (this allows these units to be useful later on, sort of like Workers, after you've built both extra cities). You add this value to your Trade total, which is a wheel on your Empire sheet. Trade is useful for a few things, but you need to use it carefully to keep up as you'll see later.

Then everyone gets to barter. There are lots of things to barter in this game - Trade points, Culture tokens, Resources, Culture cards, and of course you can promise that you'll do something at some point in the future (non-binding!). Unlike Settlers, I can see this being in heavy use throughout the game, even with people you are actively fighting. I should mention that there is no "War" mechanism in the game, so no specific state you enter because you ran over another army.

Somewhere Out On That Horizon, Out Beyond The Neon Sky - Next up is the City Management Phase, but really it should be the Let's Go Shopping! phase. You can do one of three things here per city- produce something, harvest a resource, or generate culture points. Note that you can do a different action with each city. We'll take each one in turn.

Producing something means a Figure, a Unit, a Building, or a Wonder. A Figure means an Army or a Scout. Armies are closest to Units in the computer game, except in this case they are fairly malleable conceptually. In fact, as you'll see there's a very good chance you won't know exactly what will be in your Army at any given time, and you may end up having the exact same units for your army in multiple battles spread out across the board. This is a huge difference from the computer version. You are limited to six armies and two scouts on the board at any given time. Every turn you decide to produce, you count up the production icons in your outskirts or that Scouts are on, and you don't get to save any. Production, as in the computer version, is done by *city*, unlike Trade.

Units are even stranger. As you produce tech, you get incrementally better units in the four categories of Infantry, Ranged, Mounted, and Air (which you clearly don't get until late in the game). The types have a Rock-Paper-Scissors relationship in that Infantry gets first shot at Mounted, who get first shot at Ranged, who get first shot at Infantry. Units are represented by cards that have one epoch's type per side of the card. Interestingly, the values from card to card vary to some degree - 1 to 3 for the first epoch, bumping up by one per epoch. When you fight, you *randomly* draw a number of cards and play them with varying levels of carnage ensuing, then after all is done you count up your values and whoever has the higher value wins. More on this later, but you need to understand that having a ton of unit cards is not a recipe for success, while having and retaining *good* units is, but it's a crapshoot and I suspect the weakest part of the game.

Buildings are essentially "mods" to your outskirt squares, as are Wonders. You have limits on where they can be placed based on type, and some types of buildings you can't build if another "starred" unique building is in your outskirts, where it replaces the iconography. You can remove buildings to put other buildings in their place as the game goes on, and in fact each building has a "senior" version waiting for you to get the tech that allows it, just like in the PC version. Almost every tech in this game allows you to build these buildings, but in the end the game effect is strictly on the iconography, whereas the tech itself gives you various exceptions and abilities. Got that? Tech gives abilities, Buildings give icons.

I didn't really get to Wonders (they are discouraged in your first game), but they look very similar to buildings.

And that's production. The thing tying it all together is that it's done by city, so you can build one per city, and you use Production icons which are not persistent throughout the game. If you're not feeling like being a busy beaver, there are two other choices: Culture and Resources.

Culture in the original game was, at best, a very vague concept. As the PC versions have come out, it's become a major subsystem in it's own right, but in the board version it's almost unrecognizable. If you decide to devote a city to the arts, you get one Culture point for the city and one per Culture icon in the outskirts or with a Scout. Note that you only get *one* point per icon, so you can't use that Scout's icon for every city! You may use these points to purchase an advance up the Culture track, which gets more expensive as the game goes on. Early on, you only spend culture, later you have to also spend trade and (IIRC) coinage.

Every time you advance up the track, you get either a Culture Card or a Great Person, depending on the space you advance into. Cards change as you move up the track to the next Epoch, but Great Persons are always from the same pool. GPs are also just like buildings - you place them in your outskirts. Culture cards you can save to use when the card says, but you have a hand limit (two cards in the early game) and you have to dump down any time you get over the limit. Like voting, you are encouraged to commit Culture early and often.

By the way, if you get up to 17 Culture spaces, you win. The Chinese in particular seem like they are good candidates for a Culture victory.

The last thing is Resources. These were very passive in the first computer versions, now they are fairly complex. In the board game, they are currency you use to enable use of a tech in many cases. There are only four types on the game board (silk, incense (!?), iron, and wheat), although you can get spies and uranium from goodie huts or villages. If you take a resource for a city, you only get one for that city, and it has to be in the outskirts. Just like the later computer games, having resources nearby is important, and later on the only way to get these is to trade for them once the board has been explored and the villages and goodie huts have been taken.

A lot of choices, but this is really the meat of the game. Typically this is done in player order, but shouldn't take *too* long as by now everyone should know what they plan to buy and the choices, especially early on, are fairly limited by your tech tree.

You Have To Go There To Get Back - Everybody polonaise! In player order, everyone can move their figures on the board. Movement is orthagonal and everyone moves the same amount, starting with two squares at a time. Water is verboten early, but like most things in Civ tech will improve your movement ability and where you can go. No MPs based on terrain, this should be fairly straightforward except that there's this little idea of combat. This is also where you can find goodie huts with your armies (scouts can't enter the spaces, and you can't build cities next to undiscovered huts or villages).

Combat is, as I've said, a little nuts, but I can see where the designers were going. You get a random hand of cards, usually three unless you are defending a city or have multiple armies in the same space, chosen randomly from your supply. Players place them down one at a time along a "front". You don't have to put a unit across from another unit, you can always just extend the front if you choose. If a unit gets put across from another unit, they inflict damage on each other immediately based on their combat value. If the damage exceeds or meets the combat value, the unit is out. If your unit type "wins" the RPS setup, it fires first, otherwise damage happens simultaneously. Once all cards are played and any final combat occurs, you count up the total value of each card, add in any bonuses for city defense or tech, and the high value wins and the other side loses that army (*not* the units unless their damage was high enough), and the winner also gets some spoils depending upon what was involved in the battle.

Pro Tip: If you lose your capital city, the victor wins the game. That's the second way to win. This is a rather elegant way of avoiding having people kicked out of the game with nothing else to do, if you ask me.

If you move an army into a village, one of your opponent draws random unit cards for each type and uses those. That makes village-clearing a risky business early in the game unless you have some sort of bonus.

I can see some really interesting elements of combat in this system wherein when you buy crap units you have to figure out ways to get them out of your hand while keeping the good units. Since you don't get to pick units, that's a bit of a problem. However, you very definitely want to have at least six cards in hand if you are defending a city, and multiple armies if you're going to attack one. Like in the more recent iterations of the PC game, taking a city is non-trivial early in the game.

At the same time, I can see this as being a little too random for some tastes. Draw three good units early? Awesome. Having to fight people just to burn out those crap units would be, I suppose, a bit of an ordeal. However, like many great games I suspect that we'll all just have to figure out how best to work within the system as we learn the game, so I'm reserving final judgement until I've got a few games under my belt.

Is That An iPhone In Your Pocket, Or Are You Just Glad To See Me? - Yeah, some jokes are good enough to use repeatedly. The last phase is the Tech phase, where you may choose to burn your remaining Trade to buy a tech card. I have to say, this is the most elegant solution I've seen to creating an easy-to-use tech tree in a board game. You can buy as many Level 1 techs as you like, lining them up next to each other. You can buy a higher level tech if there are two below an open space, placing the higher level in that space. Thusly, you need two Level 1 techs to buy and place a Level 2 tech. The end result looks like bricks in a wall. If you go for the Tech Victory, meaning you buy the Level 5 tech of spaceflight, you'll need a total of 15 techs (5 at Lvl 1, 4 at 2, 3 at 3, 2 at 4, and 1 at 5). There are no prerequisites, no discounts, no craziness.

What you *do* need is Trade, and you'll burn it all when you're done. On your Trade wheel, you'll see little icons every so often around the wheel. If your Trade is at that tech level (6 for Level 1, 12 for Level 2, etc) you can use all of your remaining trade for any tech at that level, assuming it will fit in your tree. You don't lose Trade from turn to turn, so that lets you build it up over time. Techs typically give you the ability to build certain buildings as well as a resource-triggered special ability. Some give you "gratis" abilities (such as improving your movement rate), and some upgrade your units, which happens immediately. Note that higher level units cost more in production, so it's better to get an army going and then let them upgrade as the game goes on.

If you manage to have any coins (again, based on tech abilities), you get to preserve one Trade point for each coin. While there are coin markers that are placed on techs (mostly because they top out after a bit), you also track them on your inner wheel on your empire sheet, so it's easy to remember how much Trade to save. Thus, if you have six coins, you are guaranteed to get one level 1 tech per turn for free. Oh, and if you get enough coins, you win.

That's about it.

There are a lot of changes from the PC version, which is good and proper as long as it's all done right. I think the military system certainly errs on the side of light bookkeeping, which is very good, and you don't clutter the board with a wide range of different unit types and factors. While the wargamer in me kind of wishes this were the case, it would no doubt add a huge amount of time to game play.

In fact, the game seems to mostly compress the Civ experience down to a manageable amount of time. You'll have the board explored in a few turns, the huts off in a few more, be placing level 2 techs in 5 turns or less, and be up to your max cities in around ten turns. As the game progresses, I get the sense that things move along pretty quickly, and some victory conditions will result in wins that will come out of nowhere (coins, for example).

Even with all of the differences from the PC version (and, really, there's almost nothing about any of the PC games that feels even a little like the original Civilization other than that you buy techs that give you special abilities), I think this is about as good a system as you could expect that won't require an all nighter to finish this off. There's no "person who builds out furthest wins" issue, although there will be times when the tiles that show up are less favorable than others, and no "whoever gets a battleship first wins" syndrome like in the PC game. Governments are still there, but part of the tech tree (unlike the PC game, which now has them in a Culture Tech Tree).

The meat of the game remains in city management and what you choose to build when. There's no waiting for units or buildings to build, you just do it because you have enough production. The combat system is very simple (if rather poorly explained in the rules, especially considering that it's nothing like the PC game's system), and while it seems a little random on the surface, it's still very difficult to take down another player's city if that player has made adequate preparations such as producing walls and getting enough units to defend it effectively, even if they're crap. I'm not saying it's a great system, but it is about as clean as you're going to get in this type of game, and frankly it's a pretty clever idea. I just hope it works.

Even the ability to win using a variety of criteria (coins, culture, tech, or stompage) means that you'll have to track a lot of things that your opponents are doing and think out a turn or four so that you can prevent them from winning. On the other hand, you're going to need to decide on a strategy *early* if you want to win this game. Starting with, say, a view to a Culture victory that changes over to an Economic victory is probably going to result in someone else getting a Military victory.

The game takes up to four people, as few as two, and claims to play in 2-4 hours. I think with experienced players, even just one or two games under your belt, this is very doable, perhaps as few as 2 if everyone plays briskly in a four-player game. The biggest time sink will be selecting techs, and everyone does this simultaneously (you play them face down, so people know your tech level but not the tech), so even it's not bad so long as one player doesn't take all day.

All in all, I'm impressed and looking forward to a real game. I don't know that it will be Tuesday evening fare for more than, say, 3, but it does look like fun for Sunriver and weekends and cons.

At this extremely early stage, I recommend this if you loved the first iteration of the PC game, less so if you though that the micromanagement of Civ 3 was da bomb. Or maybe it was 4. I can't keep track...


Greg W said...

I'm really looking forward to playing it. :) The FAQ is available btw.

mudrash said...

I picked this up too. Christmas break is coming up soon...I will shoot you an email and maybe we can schedule something!

Ben H.