'In 200 years people will be playing this game': The story of Civilization

19 July 2019
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In a rare interview, designer Francis Tresham reveals how one of the most revolutionary, influential and celebrated board games of all time came to be

In 1980, a board game called Civilization was published in the UK by a company called Hartland Trefoil. Created by the company’s founder, Francis Tresham, Civilization was the whole of recorded human history packed into a box; each player controlled a single nation from the invention of agriculture in around 8000 BC until the arrival of the Roman Empire in middle of the third century, expanding and advancing their people as they discovered new technology. Civilization was a revolution in gaming, introducing a level of depth and complexity never seen before and pioneering the civilisation-building genre that would go on to flourish and is today populated by games as diverse as Through the Ages, Twilight Imperium and 7 Wonders.

Civilization wasn’t Tresham’s first published game. In 1974 he had invented an entirely different genre with 1829, a lengthy simulation of operating and trading stock in railway companies that gave rise to the niche but cherished 18xx series. The following year saw the release of a lesser-known abstract strategy game, Kingdoms. His interest in designing more complex games for older players was sparked by a combination of encountering 1964’s Acquire, Sid Sackson’s classic game about investing in hotel chains, and being unimpressed by the ‘unbalanced’ gameplay of mainstream offerings of the time.

“We should not forget that there were precursors, including honourable ones, [such as] Dover Patrol, that hinted strongly at the glories that could be, but you needed eyes to see and the mindset that could detach itself from established custom,” Tresham recalls today. “Some were prejudicial, such as ‘real boys play rugger not board games’.

“Sid Sackson had already devised an excellent game based on building hotel chains and this became a flagship in 3M’s range of bookcase games – most of which were very good apart from a few duds. Then Monarch Avalon came along in the wake of SPI, both of whose growing ranges were heavily cantered on combat simulations of various types. These were wargames and this nullified their appeal to ‘peaceful’ players and, of course, they were strictly two-player creations. Before this we had Monopoly, technically a ghastly invention because it became unbalanced long before its official conclusion. Give that game its due, though. Many a family survived the blitz by playing Monopoly in blacked-out air raid shelters.”

It was a Monopoly spin-off, horse-racing auction and betting game Totopoly, that served as the blueprint for one of Tresham’s earliest designs, reworking the original 1938 edition’s bizarre scoring system – a flaw fixed in later iterations.

“During my senior teens a small group of us, rarely more than six, used to meet together to play board games,” he says. “Each year just before Christmas the latest Waddingtons offering had a high reputation with Monopoly followed by Cluedo, which is brilliantly original – and eternally unique – then Totopoly and Buccaneer. Other companies, notably with Scrabble, provided variety. Otherwise there was little choice or inspiration beyond the ‘throw the die, move your pawn, pick up the card and act accordingly’. Somewhere or other ‘marketing men’ appeared to penetrate boardrooms and the annual offerings became increasingly banal and were soon just damn silly.

“Totopoly attempted to cash in on [Monopoly’s] popularity and was interesting and more complex but was strategically disappointing because of its limited range of meaningful opportunities. It did, though, ‘accidentally’ start something because the ‘gang’ got hold of it, led by a certain F.G. Tresham who turned the scoring method inside out with amazing results. Risk arrived at about this time and we serious players suddenly had a standard issue proprietary game that was totally asymmetric and also ‘fair’.

“We took refuge in tuning old classics and then concocting new ones. Two of these became remarkably good, a motor-racing and then a railway construction game. I still have Waddingtons’ letter about what they thought about a game of running railways for profit.”


"I hate Diplomacy. I am not by nature either a liar or a swindler."

The mid-‘60s saw a boom in the number of American-made board games finding their way over to the UK, as a wave of innovative designs began to forge an audience outside of families.

“Import duties that had been penal were seen as worth paying because the ‘bookcase’ games that replaced our notorious ‘flat-packs’ were a revelation in variety and depth of content,” Tresham says.

Among the most inventive releases was Allan B. Calhamer’s influential strategy wargame Diplomacy, which had been commercially available in US shops from 1959 and is notorious for its encouragement of deceit and betrayal among players as they attempt to conquer pre-World War I Europe.

“On a rising tide of determined skulduggery Diplomacy surged to prominence,” Tresham recollects. “I hate that game. I am not by nature either a liar or a swindler and would rather watch those who are appear at the quarter sessions [local courts held four times a year in the UK, replaced in 1972 by the Crown Court].”

Although Diplomacy wasn’t to Tresham’s taste, a chance (and begrudging) encounter with the game of wartime treachery solidified his own beliefs in what games could achieve on a grander scale, laying the foundation for his own ambitious simulations.

“I enjoy the company of serious-minded game players and had been invited to join a Diplomacy meeting who could not muster more than five otherwise,” he recounts. “My job was to swell the cast to six.

“I took an untested full-country 1829 [the 1974 edition’s map featured only the lower half of Britain] with me to show my friend Maurice. This version of the game had been treated with some reluctance by hardcore ‘1829ers’ because it dabbled in shares as the only apparent method for allowing people to play realistic competitive games featuring more independent railway companies than there were players. The resultant edifice had already staggered under the onslaught of some participants, only three of whom would be rated as ‘good’ all-round gamers, whereas the others had been attracted to this soiree by the presence of a barrel in the next room. The barrel was the sole obvious survivor.

“At this Diplomacy meet a brief visit to the bog followed and then into the games room. Here hexagonal benzene chemistry-inspired tiles were now everywhere and so was a map of Britain, cards depicting trains – actually, railway engines – play money and shares, shares, shares. We none of us needed telling. The world had become a different place to what it had been just previously. Asymmetry spells realism, which means variety, which is conviction. It took ages to block the Great Western from getting into Liverpool. Such games are unsuitable for Aunt Flossy to play with the brats while the parents are clearing up after Christmas lunch and should carry health warnings to that effect.”


Players trade commodities – and calamities – to grow their civ and hamper others

The idea for a board game that would simulate the whole of human development over the course of millennia came to Tresham during his time perusing the library of the Royal Air Force’s No.4 School of Technical Training, based in St Athan near Cardiff, where the nascent designer was stationed as a radio instructor during the 1970s. 

“Here I came across the Pergamon General Historical Atlas,” he reveals. “This was a wonderful primary reference work on historic geography, simple, concise, clear and immensely stimulating to someone’s interest in history and whose schooling had been abysmal on this subject.

“I now saw territories, tribes and major cities as entities, marvelled at how they co-existed along natural frontiers and could speculate on how their natural characteristics differed according to their environments. I had long been excited by board game design and a Mensa couple got me into Risk. I admired its simplicity and multiplayer combat system. Uniting these two stimulants came automatically.”

The designer began to consider a game that, like the historical atlas, chart the evolution of civilisations as they expanded across the globe. As he worked on the project, it seemed that the sheer number of geographical, political, cultural and economic factors that could lead to a nation’s growth or downfall would make creating a board game that remained fair and fun an insurmountable task. Tresham persisted and, eventually, it clicked: that previously daunting diversity was the beating heart of the game. 

“I was into board games design as a hobby,” he continues. “Could this be the basis for a board game? Perhaps unlikely for the obvious reason that nations that survived for long enough to get into the Pergamon General Historical Atlas, which typically needed many hundred years of evolution, had to develop specialised national characteristics to suit them for the various disparate environments that their perpetrators needed. Assyria is not Crete. Some would find drama and poetry more valuable to advancement than skill at arms. Next question: what is meant by ‘advancement?’ – and in what direction? – all the same or – if not – why not? Gor blimey – is this in itself a game? A real game? And almost by definition a highly distinctive one. Get out the felt tips and a large sheet of blank but tinted cardboard.”

With the game’s action driven by the progression of civilisations over the centuries, Tresham opted to have each playthrough take place over the course of human history during an almost 8,000-year stretch of time, beginning with the first farmers and concluding with the emergence of Rome. 

“8000 BC is widely accepted as the dawn of recorded history,” the designer articulates. “It isn’t, of course, and teams of ‘experts’ will instantly start pontificating through their beards and calling Tresham all manner of derogatory things. But it will do. It is simple, concise, cost-effective. Don’t forget this is a board game, not a moon shot. 250 BC is about the time that various pundits with various shaped beards began to make some meaningful attempt at correlating historic events in different cultures. Once again: it isn’t, but it will do.”


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"Such games are unsuitable for Aunt Flossy to play with the brats while the parents are clearing up after Christmas lunch and should carry health warnings to that effect.”


Aside from its scale, part of what made Civilization so individual at the time was its avoidance of warmongering. Whereas games such as Risk and Diplomacy relied upon the constant conflict of players, victory in Civilization came as a result of overall advancement in culture, technology, economy and politics. War could still be waged when necessary over land or specific disputes, but co-operation between factions was often far more valuable in the long-term. Trade cards representing commodities can be passed between players in an effort to collect increasing amounts of points for a set, but also present the chance to secretly offload calamity cards, which depict disasters such as civil war, volcanic eruptions and famine, and cause the loss of cities and population.

“I and some brilliant assistants had knocked together a modus operandi that all sorts of different player groups enjoyed picking up and kicking about,” Tresham says of the decision to move away from explicit hostility. “Unlike armies, cities which provide a reasonable veneer of stability can’t just get up and start running around the board. If they are not to be ‘merely’ defensive perhaps they might trade with each other. The method that evolved for this appears to be the work of a genius but I believe it was accidental. Anyway, it is simple – well, fairly simple – concise and cost-effective. And it works. If they hadn’t enjoyed this process do you really believe we would be discussing its finer points 50 years later?”

Cementing this alternative stance away from combat was a concentration instead on managing workers and resources, and investing in the development of major technological advancements, such as literacy or metalworking, which could then increase a nation’s growth and lead them to future breakthroughs. This aided their progression along the ‘archaeological succession table’ by achieving specific conditions each turn, with the first player to reach the 15th and final space winning the game.

“I deliberately kept the combat mechanism as simple as possible,” Tresham says. “Risk pointed the way. It was the size of the various playing zones, their stated resource limitations and the number and inherent strengths of the adjacent zones that spelt that fresh word to gamers: ‘Civilization’, spelt with a ‘z’ and a capital ‘C’. This could get completely out of hand and, left to the combat resolution table and hexag grid fanatics undoubtedly would do so. Drastic action at the primeval stage was essential – and little could be more drastic than using the same font of identical counters for population or wealth depending on which way up the player saw fit to deploy them. Hang on! Is that realistic? No. Of course it isn’t. It just happens to work. And is also cost-effective.

“Time and again in the Tresham family archives one comes across that same sentiment, ‘It just happens to work.’ A long-standing friend of mine who is very intelligent says that a vital stage in evolving any new simulation masterpiece is ‘abandon unwanted realism’.”

At the centre of the gameplay was Civilization’s most radical feature: a technology tree along which players could advance a number of different branches, with each new discovery unlocking the ability to research more sophisticated breakthroughs. It’s a simple yet groundbreaking concept that has since been used in countless other tabletop games, as well as dozens of video games, becoming a modern staple. Despite the enormous impact the system has had in the decades since, Tresham says its invention took very little time. 

“I now believe this was largely spontaneous,” he says. “I designed this as a novel game and the whole show just took off.”

Despite Civilization’s hugely ambitious gameplay and vast scope – games can take six hours or more to finish – Tresham maintains the game changed “very little” from his original concept to its first published release.

“[The design process] had dumped us recreational game meddlers into a sort of operating regime that we could persuade ourselves was realistic and also fun,” he says. “It only needed a ready hand with the sandpaper or perhaps the blowlamp and the angle grinder.”


Civilization creator Francis Tresham at the launch party for 2018's re-release of the original game (Image: Gibsons)

After Hartland Trefoil published Civilization independently in the UK in 1980, the game quickly attracted interest and was subsequently republished in the US by wargame giant Avalon Hill, which also released the first computer game adaptation of the title: 1984’s Incunabula.

A pair of small expansions followed, expanding the map and adding additional trade cards, but it would take a decade for the arrival of Advanced Civilization, the major 1991 overhaul developed by Avalon Hill without input from Tresham that restructured the trading and scoring systems, and included more options for players to advance their nation. A combination of simplified gameplay features and more complex aspects of the original game, Advanced Civilization often divides Civilization fans on whether the changes make it the superior way to play.

“I don’t think much of Advanced Civilization because of its unnecessary complications,” Tresham retorts.

“Advanced Civilization is frequently billed as being an easier game to understand and a quicker one to play. I am totally unconvinced on both points. It is a routine example of the American philosophy of find something that is very good, mess it about, add complications and then try and market the result. For profit.”

Tresham reveals that he began to create his own follow-up to Civilization, which remains unpublished – at least for the moment.

“Civilization might end up as Civilization I. It is my ‘Opus 26’,” he says, seemingly referring to the first of composer Frédéric Chopin’s polonaises, which pioneered an unconventional new style of classical music.

“Civilization II could be my ‘Opus 71’,” he continues, referencing a trio of polonaises only published after Chopin’s death, but quickly tempers expectations with: “A test session for Civi II ended as the most stupid I have ever attended.”


"Come back in 200 years’ time and you will find, somewhere, somehow, people playing this game."

Easily Civilization’s best-known spiritual successor is Sid Meier’s Civilization, the long-running series of best-selling PC games that also debuted in 1991 and happened to be co-developed by one of the team that had adapted Tresham’s 1829 for Avalon Hill as 1830: The Game of Railroads and Robber Barons.

While Meier admitted the influence of Civilization on the empire-building gameplay, and studio MicroProse licensed the rights to the name from Avalon Hill (a legal legal battle over rights to the name would ensue in the late 1990s), he would ultimately claim that Tresham’s title didn’t have as great an influence as other games. Meier’s Civilization would go on to sell more than 1.5 million copies, with the series as a whole shifting over 40 million units.

“I am sure that all sorts of people like to think that they had far more to do with the origination of this game system than I did,” Tresham says of the game’s legacy. “They can think what they like. Before 1950 there wasn’t a game called Civilization, and now there is.”

Meanwhile, the original Civilization eventually went out of print, but its influence lived on in various tabletop successors, including Mega Civilization, an even bigger version of the game that supports up to 18 players and takes roughly 12 hours to complete. There have been various board game spin-offs of Meier’s own Civilization series, bringing the loop full circle, while Tresham’s version – or Advanced Civilization – occasionally surfaces in convention tournaments.

A new edition of the original Civilization republished in early 2018 marked the first time the game had been widely available for a number of years. While the visuals were updated for a modern audience, the gameplay itself – archaic, complex and lengthy as it may be – remained untouched. Tresham himself expresses a desire to see his original creation preserved.

“Yes, yes, yes,” he replies when asked if the game should be considered a relic. “It takes ages to play. Very few of the pundits who rile about this seem to be aware that the original Hartland Trefoil Ltd. rulebook contains a selection of suggested limitations that may, by agreement, be implemented in any game and can shorten the playing time as desired without messing about with the game itself beyond accommodating those who require a shorter playing time because they haven’t got all day for the experience. It is just possible that Hartland Trefoil Ltd. may know what they are talking about. And, come to that, so do I.”

Civilization’s story will continue, whether in the discovery of the original game by a new generation or the countless games that owe a debt to the once singular experience that has now become the template for an entire way of playing. Much like the power it hands to its players, Civilization changed the course of history and propelled culture in a brand new direction: exploring a fresh branch of the technology tree.

“Come back in 200 years’ time and you will find, somewhere, somehow, people playing this game far better than either of us can now,” Tresham says. “It really is a super game and I am enormously pleased that I have given so many ordinary people so much fun.”



This article originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.


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