Thursday, January 27, 2011

The long and the short of civilization building (Sid Meier's Civilization, Ra: The dice game x2, 7 Wonders x2)

I'll be wrapping up two week's worth of session reports into one post again this week. If anybody reads this, sorry!


Last week we finally got the new Fantasy Flight Sid Meier's Civilization to the table. This game has just about nothing in common with the Eagle games version of the same name, but according to Kozure it has a very tight relationship to the videogame. In fact, as I was going over he rules with him, he was predicting what I was going to say based on his experience with the computer version, so it seems like the relationship is definitely there.

This game has all the usual trappings of civilization games: a tech tree, trading, politics, various paths to victory, combat... and game length. Compared to the Eagle version, the playtime is a very reasonable 1 to 1.5 hours per player. For a typical game night, it's right at the top end of doable.

The game board consists of several large square tiles that are arranged in a rectangle or triangle pattern (based on # of players) and revealed as the terrain is explored. Each player draws a political power from amongst the 6 available ones (Rome, America, China, Russia, Egypt and the Germans). Players really only have two kinds of units: Scouts and Armies. Scouts are used to found cities, and armies fight wars. The map is littered with symbols representing trade opportunities, natural resources and labour pools. When a player has a city, all the surrounding spaces are considered the city's outskirts and all things produced by those squares are available to the player who controls it. As the game progresses, wonders, buildings and great people will be placed in the city's outskirts and replace what they used to produce with the symbols on the token in question. All these resources are used to try to achieve one of 4 distinct victory conditions: Cultural, Financial, Military or Scientific.

Overall, the game quite impressed me in our initial playing. Many games of this type owe their game length to the time required to fiddle with purchasing military units, upgrading, trading or navigating the tech tree. In this version of the game, much of this fat is trimmed and the resulting gameplay is surprisingly efficient. The tech tree is very well done: a level 2 tech can only be placed on two level 1 techs. It's literally a pyramid. Simple, and works well. Resource gathering, building constructions, military advancements, wonders, styles of government and wealth are all dealt with in a manner that works, feels thematic yet requires very little overhead. Quite an achievement.

Still, it's not perfect. Chief amongst my complaints would be the combat system. Each token on the board represents an army, but the actual units are represented by cards and when a battle occurs a mini card game sub-system kicks in which didn't really click for me in our fist game. You draw a random set from your deck (why am I sending out random troops again?) and then play a series of rounds of establishing "fronts" and resolving combat "rock/ paper/ scissors" style. I can't say it doesn't work, but it's fiddly and introduces unnecessary downtime in a game that otherwise avoids most of these traps. Also, the culture victory condition involves dedicating your city to the arts and advancing your token along the culture track. Along the way, cards are drawn that give the player the ability to take some "take that" style actions on other players. I don't know, but it felt a little tacked on and random to me. "Take that" actions are rarely satisfying and can punish the receiving player arbitrarily (a similar problem I have with the church effects in Warrior Knights). I'm hoping that when we play again we will see more negotiating and hopefully these attacks will work better in the context of deal making and threats.

Lastly, the streamlining did come at a cost. Although the different factions are present, and different ages are represented by their technologies and wonders I couldn't help but notice that the progression from one era to another felt muted and diffuse. Modern day americans going against the egyptians, researching an ancient technology late in the game to make room for an additional modern one doesn't make sense and somewhat disrupts the thematic continuity/ atmosphere. It's not a big deal, but there it is.

Otherwise, a very solid addition to the civ building genre. Probably my favorite to date for it's combination of playability, play time and overall strategy and fun.

In this session I was the Americans, Kozure was the Russians and Shemp was the romans. I expanded like everyone else, but quickly saw that the Russians would overpower me so I concentrated on a cultural victory. Along the way, I watched as the germans and russians pulled away militarily and scientifically. Somewhere, I realized that I wouldn't get there in time but saw that an economic victory was attainable. I was one turn away from winning when Kozure took advantage of his steam technology to send a large force to destroy Shemp's capital (for a military victory). Just before the battle took place, Shemp declared a financial victory. In fact, it was a little anticlimactic because he only realized he could win that way as he was scrambling to find a way to fend off the incoming russian threat. He realized he could simply spend trade to add a coin to an existing tech and win the game.

Still, it was very close. I assume that such "accidental" realizations of victory will diminish with subsequent plays!

Ra: The Dice Game

I missed the first game since I arrived late (stupid work!), but participated in the second. It's a fun game, but not the equal of it's parent. Another difference: I do well at RA. I suck at RA: The Dice Game, if this session is any indication.

7 Wonders

We played this twice. This was our first try with more than 3 players (with Bharmer around, we were four). Early impressions continue to hold... this is a great, quick, engaging and clever game. 30 minutes with 4 players, lots going on, very fun. With 4, it's already noticeable that the free upgrades are harder to come by (of course, as Shemp pointed out that may also be because we are getting better at blocking). This week we saw a science win and public building win. There is no question that science is strong and needs to be watched, but clearly other strategies are viable as well. I bet that with time the winner will be the player who manages to eek out the most points in many categories that will win, due to other players blocking the obvious strategies.

Also, this was our first playing with the "B" sides. Not a huge difference, though since the wonders are less consistent in their VP allowances you need to play to their strengths or else you can fall behind (in the second game I lost badly despite having built the three stages of the Hanging Gardens. Only the first stage was worth VPs, with the other two allowing me to play the 7th card in a round and giving me a bonus science symbol. Alas, I was denied most science cards and didn't capitalize on the ones I did get). Typical scores are quite close. Lots of fun.

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