Will the real Civilization please stand up?

, | Games

When someone says “Civilization” to a bunch of gamers, chances are that you’ll soon hear about a guy named Sid Meier, and phalanxes versus battleships, and the space race, and how the Mongols are so annoying. And certainly how many hundreds of games you all played, and how epic they were.

Mention it to gamers who started playing ten years earlier, and you’ll likely hear about a game from Avalon Hill by some guy named Francis Tresham, and calamities, and trade cards, and how the Cretans were so annoying. And how hard it was to find enough people willing to sit down and play a game that was pretty much guaranteed to last 12 hours. And there was no way anyone had played it hundreds of times. But it sure felt like it.

After the jump, a new kind of old civilization.

For the entire decade of the 1980s, the name Civilization was solely a fascinating exercise in multiplayer boardgaming from the mind of the abovementioned Francis Tresham, a legendary British game designer who is responsible for two of the most influential boardgame designs of all time. His game 1829 (and its sequel, the better-known-in-the-US title, 1830) essentially invented the tile-and-stock-market genre of railroad games. The 18xx genre, as it is called, is quite robust, and many conventions have 18xx tournaments devoted to this marvelous creation. Sid Meier’s Railroad Tycoon was supposedly significantly influenced by this game, which makes it very appropriate that the boardgame Railroad Tycoon, branded as a board version of the computer game, was itself a refinement of Martin Wallace’s take on tile-and-stock railroading, Age of Steam. There was even a DOS version of 1830 by Simtex (designed by Steve Barcia) released in 1995 with an excellent (for the time) interface, and a stellar (for any time) AI.

It was Francis Tresham’s Civilization, of course, that was one of the inspirations for Sid Meier’s Genesis-event computer game, and it was published first by Hartland Trefoil in 1980 and then under license by Avalon Hill in 1982. Foreshadowing the course of computer games to come, the Civilization boardgame got an expansion (adding the Iberian peninsula and southern Britain, as well as more trade cards) and along with some more tweaks (and some significant rules changes) was republished by Avalon Hill as Advanced Civilization in 1991. There was also an Avalon Hill computer game (for DOS) by the latter name released in 1995, as well as a lawsuit, and some selling of rights. For more details on that last part, please see LexisNexis or Google.

It’s this latter game, Advanced Civilization, that everyone talks about now, I mean when they’re not talking Firaxis or Sid Meier or Brian Reynolds or Soren Johnson or Jon Shafer. Copies of the Avalon Hill version can go for $400 on the secondary market. Rare but bad boardgames rarely hold any value, but this kind of price inflation, also seen with such gems as Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage, and Titan (before the reprint by Valley Games) often denotes a game people want because they are interested in playing. I was a bit surprised the game was still holding people’s attention, what with the new trends in card-driven gameplay and variable initiative and traitor mechanics and well you know zombies.

So I took it out of the closet and then flipped back through some old Generals (Avalon Hill’s defunct magazine that provided a lot of fascinating coverage of its boardgame line) and realized that all my memories of the game were strangely schizophrenic. In an effort to come to a sort of dialectical synthesis of all this, I began to record each thesis and antithesis based on both remote and recent memories.

It’s not a fiddly game at all. There are only three types of units: population, cities, and ships. The map is divided into spaces. Each land space has a number on it, which represents the number of square cardboard chits that could support themselves in that area during prehistoric cardboard chit times. When different civilizations meet in a space, each side takes turns removing chits until the total population remaining in the space equals the historically accurate number. Cities can be built by combining a fixed number of square population chits in a space, and then replacing them with round city chit. Ships can be used to move chits around, but don’t represent population themselves. If it’s not moving by boat, population moves one space per turn.


If you were to sit down and play the game now, you’d be about halfway to knowing the rules, and the only ones you would still need to know are that the more cities you have, the more trade cards you acquire. Trade cards are things like timber, wine, grain, cloth, and gems, which represent resources, as well as ochre, which I think is a monster in Dungeons & Dragons. The more cards you have of a single type, the more your hand is worth, and the way to collect them is by trading with other players, which is why they’re called trade cards. At the end, you buy civilization advances, which are things like Literacy, Astronomy, and Agriculture that Sid Meier and then pretty much everybody else subsequently used in computer games starting one decade later. The cards grant you special abilities (usually the ability to break certain rules, like supporting extra chits in a space with Agriculture, or nullifying the Superstition calamity with Enlightenment), and are worth points at the end for scoring. Furthermore, you’re trying to progress along a track called the Archeological Succession Table (AST) by meeting certain milestones: you need two cities in play to enter the Early Bronze Age, while to enter the Early Iron Age you need four cities in play, nine total advances, and one advance each from the five categories (Crafts, Arts, Religion, Sciences, and Civics). And so on. There are more ages. At the end, you tally up points and reveal a winner.


There really isn’t much more to it than that. Very straightforward, with mechanics someone like Tom Chick could teach in about fifteen minutes without breaking a sweat.

It’s one of the fiddliest games I’ve ever played. Oh man, I needed to move from Upper Germany to Gaul this turn, because next turn I’m going to need two chits there (after population growth) to add to the four in Massilia to build a city, but I forgot I’m going to need those units to build in Narbonne as well because the chits I thought I was going to move from the Pyrenees are going to need a ship and I have to use two population to build it, and if I don’t do that then I can’t get those two to Sardinia and if that happens then Illyria will lock me out of that city site forever.

That’s not some cataclysmic endgame scenario full of conditionals occurring because so much is at stake: it’s just a normal turn. Because the mechanics are so straightforward, there paradoxically isn’t a lot of room for error. Miscount by one chit, and that city you were counting on to get you to six cities and a chance to draw bronze doesn’t get built, and now you’re drawing two places earlier than you thought, and that red-backed calamity sitting in the grain pile you thought your neighbor was drawing is now yours. Happy civil war.

Multiply this by seven players and you can see where this is going. The different phases are performed in varying player order (sometimes it’s most units on the board, sometimes it’s order on the AST, sometimes it’s the reverse of this order). But the actual time-consuming phases like movement and buying advances (Wait, let me see, I can get Medicine and Law for 265 points. I don’t have that. But hey, I get 20 points of credit towards Medicine because I have Engineering. Ah, I forgot Engineering gives me 20 points towards Theology! They’re not even the same color! Maybe I should get that.) are solo affairs that wait on each player in turn. The corollary to this is that…

…there is nothing to do while it isn’t your turn. Once you’ve moved, you’re essentially waiting for six (or seven, if you’re playing with eight) people to go through all that stuff one by one. Sure you can plan out your turn, but you can’t do anything out of order, and the game is remarkably static: it is difficult if not impossible to eliminate anyone, and while territory may change hands at the fringes or as the result of a calamity, there are rarely any major territorial shifts or things that someone looking at the map might notice even if he or she didn’t really know how to play the game. Instead, the most important things are fiddly details, which are the hardest things to plan for. Meaning you have to sit and wait until your turn arrives.


The number of things to do while it isn’t your turn is overwhelming. Each opposing move opens up possibilities. Did Egypt just put three units in Cyrenaica? Why did she do that? She could totally build a ship and grab Thapsus. Do I need to put another unit there? Hey Egypt, what’s your problem?

So while you’re not necessarily doing anything during another player’s turn, you’re constantly watching, and thinking, and counting. Sure, you’re Africa, and there isn’t much that Thrace is going to do that matters to you, but depending on how many cities he builds, you might be faced with no trade cards of a certain type, or a calamity, because trade cards are drawn in ascending order of number of cities in play. One of your opponents may have an advance like Roadbuilding, that allows land movement through two spaces in one turn. Paying attention to the board allows you to see threats as they materialize, and sometimes to convince your fellow players that they really don’t want to build that boat because if they do, you move after them, and you guarantee you are totally coming after their nearest city unless they stand down the navy.

The end of the game invariably turns into stop-the-leader. All information is public except the trade cards in a player’s hand, so it’s pretty easy to figure out who is “winning” at any given point. Early on, this isn’t a big problem, but in the later stages it becomes crucial, as players identify “the threat” and make plans to reduce his or her cities, invoke trade embargoes, and the like. It can be very tiresome for the person who ended up in the lead to have wave after wave of calamities, city reductions, and amphibious invasions roll up to his borders. This can lead to very public disputes between players, where someone who has been publicly identified as a “threat” gets the unhappy task of protesting while others take turns attacking him. I’ve seen some quite bitter reactions to a situation that makes perfect sense in game terms but makes less sense in collegial ones. Really, we all came here to play this game all day and now you’re all going to be attacking just me for the next two hours? Meaning your turns will take even longer while you confer and plan things out? Why did I agree to this again?


You can’t really play stop-the-leader. I haven’t mentioned the trading phase much, even though it’s arguably the central mechanic of the game. Each turn, you set a fixed amount of time (usually 10-15 minutes, using an actual timer) and players may make trades with each other. Trades have only two requirements: they must involve three trade goods or tradeable calamities on the part of both players, and players must be truthful about the identities of two of the three cards they are giving. This leads to crazy speculation (“Hey, I think he drew Epidemic this turn! Watch out for him!”) and wary exchanges, followed by poker-faced acknowledgements as players who were just traded a crippling Civil Disorder card try to foist it off on another unsuspecting trade partner as quickly as possible. The way the commodities are structured and the formula for value (number of identical cards squared times the single-card value) makes cornering the market on mid-tier commodities like grain and cloth more lucrative than top-tier goods like gold or gems, because there are many more of the former two than the latter. But it also means that collecting seven or eight identical cards is a project requiring sharp trading that takes advantage of all the, shall we say, “opportunities.”

So what does this have to do with stop-the-leader? Simply, that the importance of the trade market makes it very difficult to enforce trade embargoes. Like US Federal Reserve investigators found when it came to preventing financial transactions with Iran, large financial institutions have an incentive to both trade with proscribed partners and then lie about it. Since you’re basically the leader of an entire civilization over multiple millennia, you’re the equivalent of a Babylonian Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and JP Morgan Chase all put together, and although you can’t conceal the fact that you’re trading with the nation everyone wants ostracized, you can always use those two cloth that Assyria has, even though he might be winning. Why should you stunt your economy just because the Iberians and the Egyptians want to cut off trade with Assyria? Then one of them will win! Anti-leader coalitions usually break down over this kind of thing: ultimately, you gotta look out for you.


It’s really hard to find seven players willing to devote 12 or more hours to a game all at one sitting, and the versions that reduce game time aren’t worth playing. You can play with fewer players, or set a time limit, but the game plays radically differently if you’re not planning to hit the end of the AST. Boardgamegeek lists the play time as 360 minutes, which has to be some abbreviated version that doesn’t get out of the Pleistocene — most estimates of play time for the 7-player game are 12 hours or longer. The last time I played in a real 7-player sit-down Advanced Civilization game was at Avaloncon (now the World Boardgaming Championships) in 1998. That took the entire day and had to be resumed the next morning after the night break. There are no bot rules, either, and someone dropping out halfway through completely kills the game, so you need seven people committed to playing through the whole thing, even if they are losing badly. Whenever I hear people arranging games, it’s one of those all-day affairs, where you choose players in advance, and all agree on a date to meet at 11:00 AM at somebody’s house on Saturday and we’re ordering pizza but we’re not stopping — be ready to go home at midnight.

There actually is one version apart from the full sit-down one that’s worth playing. The secret? It’s online. This is something I learned just recently: there is a site called civ.rol-play.com with what is actually a pretty robust browser-and-email client for the game. It’s this site that got me (at a friend’s urging) to join the first Advanced Civilization game in any format that I’ve played in 16 years. And while I struggle a bit with the interface for movement (it’s fiddly!) the developers have done a great job of automating the phases so that you can provisionally enter orders and then confirm them when it rolls around to your turn, or just do things in advance because you really are sure you’re not building ships this turn. There are all sorts of nice touches, like hotlinks to each player’s email to propose trades, automated trade checking, and prompts when you try to violate a rule. Furthermore, the site sends you an email with the prompt “Action Required” when you need to do something, and provides you with a link to the game. And it works on the iPad.

A game is ultimately only as good as its community, though, which makes it dependent on players submitting their turns in a timely manner. The game I’m playing in has 5-day deadlines, which means that in theory it could take until about 2045 to finish. But so far we’ve been proceeding at a steady clip. We just got to the Late Bronze Age, meaning that half the AST (and most of the action) lies ahead. But a combination of nostalgia and free development got me to this point, and it is working well enough that I’d recommend it to others. Maybe not for the first game. (There is no AI.) But if you can find someone to host a game at their house, and promise to stay until midnight if necessary, you might just discover a whole new boardgaming experience. Tom Chick, I’m looking at you.

(Here is a pretty dry video tutorial. They for some reason pronounce Sid Meier’s name like he is related to Jan Vermeer.)