30 July 2018
The original empire-builder returns, but is it stuck in an age gone by?
Whether you’ve played Civilization before or your brain automatically adds ‘Sid Meier's’ before the word, the return of the original empire-building classic in a long-awaited new edition is a reason to celebrate.
Despite its intimidating play length – the six to eight hours suggested can be shortened by simply playing to the end of an earlier epoch in the game’s central timeline, or using some of the simplified variants included in the manual – Civilization is beautifully pure as a design. The dozen or so different phases that make up each round seem excessive at first glance, but do an excellent job of keeping each step easy to handle, as they largely consist of a single action, many of which whizz by with little player input beyond shifting tokens around.
Combat couldn’t be easier to understand – remove tokens one at a time until only one faction remains – and the minimalist set of components, where faction tokens double as population markers and currency depending on which side of the player mat they’re kept, leads to a straightforward yet brilliantly effective simulation of the cost of maintaining an empire. (Run out of population tokens due to taxation and your people will revolt, so managing your growth is crucial.) It may run long, but you’ll never mind yourself bogged down in admin – every moment leaves time to consider what your next tactical move will be, rather than how to actually do it.
While expanding across the map and settling cities is important, the heart of the game is in its trading phases. Settlements gather resources, which can be exchanged between players, but also hidden in the decks are calamities, which inflict devastating disasters upon the empire holding them later in the round – making them vital to offload. The real fun of this arrives via a blind trading system that means players only declare one card in the offering of at least three and the total point value of the cards, so there’s plenty of room to bargain, lie and deceive to forge prosperous alliances or desperately try to save your civilisation from ruin. The real-world negotiation and social haggling is akin to fellow streamlined classic Diplomacy, but the daggers never sink quite as deep, even as your cities are levelled by an earthquake or civil war erupts. (Dodging a disaster by successfully fobbing it off on someone else, of course, is both hilarious and endlessly satisfying.)
All of this builds to Civilization’s crowning feature: the tech tree that players must clamber up to progress through the ages and win. Resources are traded for advancements in cultural knowledge, from agriculture to metalworking, which then unlock more abilities and the chance to more easily access other skills. Compared to its many modern successors, Civilization’s tech tree is pruned back and basic, but the strategic diversity and sense of progression it offers still remains first-rate almost four decades on.
Despite the updated cover art, this is less a complete overhaul than a sprucing up. There’s no change to the rules beyond a slight streamlining of how they are explained (the preserved terse, succinct tone is amusing, although the untouched use of exclusively male pronouns is a shame), and the board and pieces retain their distinctive ‘80s garishness with clashing shades of green, orange and pink. The trade cards are slightly more picturesque than their plain block-colour originals, but it’s otherwise pretty much Civilization as it was then, now. In some ways, it’s nice to see such a classic preserved as a historical curiosity for first-timers and affordable reprint for genre fans, but at times you can’t help but wonder what a deeper visual reimagining might have produced. (Having the calamities’ effects summarised on the cards without needing to consult the rulebook and doing away with the plain backs of mats and cards would’ve been nice, for example.)
Even as it is, though, Civilization hasn’t lost an ounce of the tight gameplay and knack for sparking conversation among friends that made it just as engaging to play in 1980 as today. It’s purely strategic, purely presented and purely fun. Considering that, you can see why they barely changed a thing.
There’s little effort to modernise the dated-in-parts look of Civilization in this new edition, yet there’s no need to fix what isn’t broken when it comes to its gameplay. The rules are tight, the strategy engrossing and the trading thoroughly entertaining. With the classic easy to pick up once again, there’s no excuse not to experience this truly excellent piece of history.
Designer: Francis Tresham
Time: 6-8 hours
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