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Two Different Styles of Civilization Games

Jesse Dean
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My absolute favorite style of video game is the civilization game. Something about needing to manage the multiple facets of an empire while expanding and prospering in the face of other civilizations attempts to do the same just works for me, and I have spent thousands upon thousands of hours playing various implementations of this idea. The most well known of these is the Civilization series, of which I have played every game except for the first one, but after a decade of playing that series almost exclusively I have slowly but steadily been introduced to other games, most notably Europa Universalis III (EU III) and Crusader Kings (CK), that have redefined what I want in a civilization game. As a result of this, most board game civilization games, which tend to follow the model seen in the Civilization series, have increasingly felt lacking.

The Civilization series of video games, regardless of the particular bells and whistles associated with each iteration, follow a general model that has been translated into some very popular board games such as Eclipse, Through the Ages, and Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game. In it you start with a limited knowledge of your environment, and through exploration learn about the world and its resources. By exploiting these resources you grow from a small nation to an empire and win either through military dominance, technological advancement, or cultural achievements (or some combination thereof).

On the whole it provides for a pretty entertaining narrative, and I completely understand why these sorts of games are very, very popular. However, too many board games hew to this particular narrative a little bit too closely, which is good for the sake of ease of entry, but after so much time focused on the video game, and board game, iterations of this I admit I am a bit tired of it, particularly since most of these games focus on combat at the expense of other, equally interesting styles of conflict.

Paradox Interactive, the video game company that publishes EU III and CK, publishes a large number of video games that are good at appealing to more historically minded gamers. They do follow the general civilization game model, in that you end up managing the economic and military aspects of your empire, but they add additional levels of conflict, in the form of diplomatic relationships and trade, that were very important historically but have been largely ignored or abstracted in games of this style. While wars and alliances are powerful options, they are not the only available tools in undermining and interacting with other nations or achieving civilization goals.

So with my shift in preferences in video games, I have also found a shift in preferences in my civilization building board games. Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game was perhaps the first casualty of this, in that it roughly coincided with the beginning of my disenchantment with the genre; it was such a great distillation of the Civilization series that it allowed me to begin to crystallize my thoughts on why I was no longer happy with games built on that model. My dissatisfaction with that model is also why Eclipse and Through the Ages do not quite work for me anymore. They are both very, very good examples of that model, but when I no longer am particularly happy with their baseline it is difficult to be completely happy with a game built on that baseline.

The best examples of what I want are probably found in some of the two player hybrid card-driven games, many of which are published by GMT. Hellenes: Campaigns of the Peloponnesian War and Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage are good examples of this as they have a fairly strong political component despite being largely focused on sieges and battles, but they pale in comparison to Labyrinth: The War on Terror and Twilight Struggle. Both of these games include wars as tools that can be used to help accomplish your national objects, but they also focus a great deal on other methods of conflict, with coups and contests to influence secondary nations that are important to the conflict in Twilight Struggle, and insurgency and counter-insurgency actions in Labyrinth.

Multi-player games that provide a similarly deep look at multi-player conflict are a bit sparser. Of recent games, I find Colonial: Europe’s Empires Overseas to be one of the better examples of this. While you can and do have the ability to make war on other players, a large part of the game is focused on direct non-military competition. In addition to influence wars over colonies, it is possible to inflict privateers on opponent’s merchant fleets, incite native revolts, and even potentially push other countries into revolution. The importance of trade is highlighted rather than either ignored or abstracted away, though I admit even with my appreciation in how Colonial handles it, I would appreciate slightly more differentiation in this area then is actually present.

Because of its comparisons to EU III, I was quite optimistic Warriors & Traders would also work for well for me. With a focus on country unifications I was hopeful that it would end up providing a multi-faceted look at how these countries founders used a combination of diplomacy, bribes, and force in order to bring their burgeoning nations together. Unfortunately, it mostly ended up being a somewhat scripted, with a focus on combat that is maintained by the sheer difficulty of fights against barbarians and how quickly they escalate in power. It seems that this was meant to make the game challenging, and in that it is succeeds, but it also makes the game a bit too narrow, with only a few reasonable options available at any given moment of time. It does not help that most of the conflict is against the game itself rather than other players. You can trade, and I do very much like how different levels of trading technology can make a trade valuable to both players involved simultaneously, but otherwise interaction is limited to forcing barbarians to retreat into territories your opponents want, and thus make them difficult to impossible for them to claim, or declare war, which is so costly in actions that it is frequently not worth pursuing.

Here I Stand, also fits this model well and with a great deal of depth, but at the cost of extended game length. There are opportunities to politically influence third parties, fight out religious conflicts, compete for the new world, and even engage in piracy in addition to engaging in extended wars. The costs and opportunities of the conflict are very well handled with the card play, and the diplomatic opportunities are heightened by the ability to make mechanically meaningful deals, particularly as the game is designed so that other players will have things that you want that cannot simply be claimed by taking one of their cities.

The fact that probably the best example of a multi-player implementation of this style of game, Here I Stand, is so lengthy is probably a good indication that to have the full experience I desire will require a game that is outside my typical comfort zone for time. I can spend dozens of hours on a single game of EUIII or CK, and distilling it down into something that is similarly rich, yet still playable in a three or four hours is a daunting task. Some additional levels of abstraction are required, but at some point this abstraction shifts too far from something that is useful, and you end up with something like Age of Empires III or Endeavor, which discard what was interesting about these conflicts in favor of something that is bland and largely uninteresting.

It will be interesting to see if someone is able to reach this perfect midpoint between playability and breadth. Colonial and Here I Stand both come close, from opposite sides of the spectrum, but are not quite there. Still, I am pretty happy that I have finally been able to identify what I want in a civilization game and why I find games such as Through the Ages and Eclipse, which are generally well loved by the gaming community, to come up short. They are very good games for their particular style, but it is simply a style that I am just not that interested in anymore.
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