When Sid Meier released Civilization in 1991, it quickly became the most addictive game of all time. With a new city, improvement, unit, or technology always on the horizon of a turn or two, it was difficult to find an appropriate moment to save the game and leave it for later. Everyone who played it was trapped in the mentality of “I’ll stop when the temple is built,” then “I’ll stop when I reach writing,” then “just one more time.”
I knew a number of people who almost lost their jobs to it. My college newspaper shut down when the entire staff got hooked. And the game wasn’t short. Leading your people from inventing the wheel to colonizing another planet takes time, and a single game lasted days, even if you played it straight through.
This length and addiction continued through the various incarnations; five so far, with a sixth on the way later this year. Which is why it was a curiosity when, in 2010, Fantasy Flight Games released a board game version.
To be clear, Civilization was not new to board games. A game with the same name and concept had been created in 1980. However, it required at least a six hour time commitment from a number of players. Modern gamers expect shorter games, so Fantasy Flight would need to find a way to condense the flavor of the computer game while streamlining its elements. This was a daunting task, but they seem to have accomplished it by breaking down the basic components of the computer game into the 4X formula: explore, expand, exploit, exterminate; simplifying each section in turn.
Explore: The first phase of the computer game is to establish your first city, and get a feel for your surroundings. The board game cut through this by giving each player a tile on which to place their city. Unexplored tiles are shuffled then placed down between the players’ home tiles so that no one knows what’s on them, (and also so they’ll be different every game.) Players begin the game with a settler and a scout already built so they can immediately get to the task of exploring these tiles, flipping them face up as their units travel onto them. This moves much quicker than having your explorers zigzag through the blank areas of the map to open them up as they do in the computer game.
Expansion: The expansion continues on into the second phase of the game. Because the players already have a settler in the scout unit, they can immediately found a second city, or wait until they’ve opened up some of the map to see more options. The players are limited in the number of cities they can have so the game doesn’t get bogged down in maintenance.
Exploitation: This is where the games diverge the most. The computer game calculates every resource within reach against a number of factors in the owning civilization, determining growth, happiness, etc. The board game simplifies this resource management in a clever dial system so players can see in an instant what they have and can afford.
Extermination: Here Civilization, both the computer and board game, diverts from the formula the most as conquering the opponents is only one of four methods of winning the game. In both cases, the player can also win through a cultural and technological victory, and in the board game they can win through a monetary victory. And it’s here that the streamlining is the most clever.
To win through technology, the player builds a pyramid of cards ranging from level one techs to space flight at the top. This condenses the slow march through a trail of technologies down to a visual goal that can be accomplished in a few hours, especially once the technology boosts begin to kick in.
To win through culture, the players harvest cultural points clearly marked on their improvements. This is very much like a scoring track, where the more cultural points you get, the closer your marker comes to victory. The economic victory is similar in that the player adds one to their monetary dial every time they attain a money making asset. And the conquest victory comes from defeating one player’s capitol city.
All of these methods are masterpieces of streamlining, taking complex concepts and breaking them down into their basic elements while retaining the flavor, feel, and fun of the original game. It makes me wonder what’s in store for Civilization 6.
Feature Image Credit: Fantasy Flight Games