Thursday, July 17, 2008

As I walk along the valley of death... (Civilization)

So, Shemp is back.

He asked that we play Civilization (the new Sid Meier version, not the game from the 80s). The last time we played it was October of 2004... but of course it took three entire evenings so I suppose it's not a huge surprise we haven't played it more often.

We setup, crossed our fingers that the starting setup wouldn't leave us with the barren world the of last game, and got going. I specifically avoided North America in order to make the game different from the last one. Remembering Luch's mantra "What the @#$@! do I care, I'm in Asia", the Easylanders set up camp there with both my units. Lucky for me, no one else did. There was:

The Bharmerons in Africa
The Shempezuelans in Australia and Europe.
The Luch in North America
The Kozurians in South America

I had a vast array of exploration tokens available to me... things were looking good.

Well, it didn't last. The first token I discovered was a plague, destroying a scout and a soldier. I then managed to explore approximately 15 tiles and only find four resources. Still, my initial draw of Reading/ Writing along with a series of similarly intellectual advancements earned me 3 wonders and a seminal discovery. I was falling behind Luch's money machine (and Kozure wasn't far behind), but things were okay. Shemp, who was having a similarly difficult time finding resources, took advantage of a weakness in Bharmer's territories and took over a key region (or two?) which wound up having a significant impact on his standing in the game.

We entered the medieval age and got about half way through before we had to stop for the day. On my last turn, I explored one of the two remaining tokens and found yet another plague. The rules state that the effect of the tile grows with each passing era, so in the medieval age it kills all units in the original region AND all surrounding regions. Sadly for me, that was where all my units were (save two soldiers and a man-at-arms). Ouch.

When we tallied the points to see how we were doing, I came out significantly ahead on the strength of my wonders, cities and the seminal discovery. With virtually no units left on the board, I expect that to change soon. My saving grace may well be that there is very little compelling reason to come take what's left of my civ, since there was never very much there!

Anyway, Sid Meier's Civilization wasn't one of my favorite games before, and it still isn't. The designers have, in my opinion, been extremely clever about reducing an almost impossibly complex video game into a boardgame. The number of components, while large by boardgame standards, is quite modest considering how much theme is captured. In fact, the growth of civilizations, the technology tree, the little improvements and new choices that pop up as different advancements are discovered and (most surprisingly), the ebb and flow of the importance of things, is all present and the system essentially works.

Even though we're only half-way through our 2nd game, we've still managed to log approximately 12 hours... Part of my problems with the game are that despite attempts at simplification, there is still too much going on. Thankfully, our group is pretty decent about avoiding ridiculous amounts of analysis paralysis, but purchasing decisions/ movement decisions/ technology choice decisions/ trading phase/ etc, leads to a lot of down time. In our four hours of play, I essentially flipped 15 tokens and purchased some units and cards. To be fair, others had a lot more going on so they were more actively trading and maneuvering than I was. Luckily, the experience of going through several ages with infant civilizations is engrossing enough that the time mostly feels like it passes quickly. Also, familiarity with the cards and rules should eliminate much of the downtime and complexity (this session felt much more fluid than our last game, for example... even though the last game was four years ago!). Therefore, although I wish something could have been done to make it better, it's not bad. Considering what it's trying to accomplish, rules elegance and little downtime are pretty hard goals to achieve.

Without a doubt, the biggest problem is the random setup. The difficulty here, though, is that it's a pretty serious dealbreaker. I understand why the designer wanted a discovery aspect. I actually like what it does for the game. But seriously, I think just about anyone could have designed a better balance of starting tiles. As much as it's a bummer to find a patch of desert instead of an oil field, or to find an ancient civilization and get run out by a barbarian, it's okay to have these types of events if they are relatively infrequent... or if drawing them blind isn't a requirement of the game. Problem is, if our two sessions are anything to go by there are a lot of bad tiles and the result of an 8 hour game is largely determined by their initial placement. The plague tile rule that wipes out adjacent regions is absolutely ridiculous for obvious reasons. There HAD to be a better way to handle this. Reading on BGG, it appears that most people who continue to play the game have decided to lay the tiles out face up at the start of the game. I think I'd probably prefer this variant, though it's kind of a shame that the exploration aspect would be lost.

For anyone reading out there, it's worth mentioning that my opinion is not really shared by the group. Most of them really like the game, I think.

Anyway, playing this type of long civilization game has it's appeal. There is a depth of interaction, of integration of theme, of STORY, which can come out of such a game which is simply lost in most short games (RPGs do this better, but who has time for those anymore?!!!). Even though I'm griping, I'm glad we're playing it again.

Let's see if the Easylanders can pull themselves out of this predicament...


  1. Anonymous12:13 PM

    I think I share your sentiment that it's not that great of a game. It's okay, and it mostly works, but I can't help but feel like it's missing something that would make it more compelling. I was expecting more complexity in terms of finding, managing, and exploiting resources, as well as attaining advancements. Flipping a tile and buying upgrade cards just seems way too simple. I also don't like the fact that once you've discovered all of the resources, that's it. All you can do now is buy more upgrade cards. It all feels like a somewhat pointless exercise and I wonder how another 4-6 hours of more of the same is really going to be engaging.

    As I discovered at the end of the night, there's going to be more military activity now, so I guess that shakes things up a bit, but I'm not a big fan of wargames, so I don't think that will really endear the game to me any more.

    It feels like the game needs to be more complex, but also more condensed - I don't see why it needs to take so long. I don't feel like I'm building a civilization, I feel like I'm collecting sets of cards. But the game is far from over, so maybe my opinion will change after another session.


  2. I have an option to remove some of the problem of resource placement.

    In future games, we separate out the resources from the various event-type encounters (barbarians, plague, treasure, lost civilization, desert, mountain, jungle, technology, fertile).

    We set aside the "events" and place resources as usual.

    Every time a new area is discovered, you flip the resource token, but you also draw from a pool of counters with the event chips plus a number of the "no resource/black dot" markers, mix to be determined by group consensus on how often random events should occur.

    So, for example, if there are something in the order of 27 or so random event chits, you include approximately 27-54 blank/no encounter chips. Every time an encounter is drawn, it's removed from the pool. Initially, your chances of pulling a random event is about 1 in 2 or 1 in 3, but those odds reduce over time.

    In this proposal, you never have a land area with no resources, but occasionally you can have an extra fertile area or an area that can't grow past a certain size (1, 2 or 3).

    Regarding the devastating effects of plague, perhaps a percentage of units can be destroyed?

  3. Kozure,

    Not sure about your proposal. If every region has a resource, the total amount in play may become too high. I think the simplest way to solve the issue, if we are to maintain the exploration aspect, is to remove the plagues altogether and then ensure that the mix of "bad" tiles is no more than 1/4 (or something). I would also like to see all event tiles be worth *something*... like the money one or the idea one. The ancient civ is fine if it come with a level 1 city for the player that discovered it, and the jungles/ deserts could similarly have some minor advantage to offset the missing resource.