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Subject: Extensive Session Report and Review after one Game. rss

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Chris de Bruijn
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It is not easy to play a game of Civilization, taking at least six hours. However, a game of Mega Civilization is a whole different story...
Text: Chris de Bruijn
Pictures: Peter Visser



Minoa is plotting its moves.

About me and Civilization games

My experience with Civilization is quite limited. Two or three years ago I played the original game and found it outdated. It gave me the idea of being treated unfairly by throwing one after another disaster at you. You try to build up your empire only to see it crumble down again. The first part of building up your civilization was fun and I hoped it would result in some form of advanced Risk but I was disappointed. I don’t believe we ever finished the game. In computer games I never played more than a few hours of Freeciv (a free open source version is based on Civ2). Several months ago I played Sid Meijers Civilization: The Board game. You know, the board game based on the computer game based on the board game. I like it; it plays a lot faster and fits in the current generation of games. Lastly I played a game called something like CVlization at Essen this year, which has nothing to do with the original game except for its box art and theme.

So why buy Mega Civilization?

When I first encountered Mega Civ online there was something that attracted me to the game. It didn´t just had to do with the wooden box, or the fact that it would be produced in limited edition, it is a (mostly) Dutch product, or the likelihood of value increase once it´s sold out. It was the number of players that the game supported. Eighteen! Yes eighteen players simultaneously on a huge map trying to survive and grow. What chaotic sceneries would come to that? Never have I played a game with so many people. Only party games support larger groups but the vibe is totally different. I kept on fantasizing about how the negotiations would be when you play a game and have seventeen other players to trade with. The idea was so tantalizing that I just had to try to get it and promised myself to play it once after which I would sell it again. The matter was settled. I could start making preparations!

To organize a game

I selected a few Saturdays in November and send around invites to see if I could make it to 18 people in total. Eventually I needed to contact more than forty people to find a single day on which 18 people were able (and willing) to play. It turned out to be wise to make a reserve list of participants as a stand-in for the people that pull out for various reasons. In our case there were five. Despite this we ended up with 17 participants. Unfortunately, the last civilization to join are the Celts. Our own ancestors! So nobody had a home advantage.

The location was set at my house. I live in a terraced house so the set up required some improvisation. The game board needs a huge table and fortunately my dinner table could provide just enough space for the map and the small player aids. There were not enough chairs to sit for seventeen so everyone had to play standing. I also created a seating area with a smaller table on which all civilization advances were displayed. These are very large and need a lot of space if you want to lay them out. Although the reference sheets provided by the game are useful to see what the costs of the cards are, they don’t show the unique abilities. In the Mega Civilization files section you can find a more compact reference sheet where all information is visible. For keeping track of the Archeological Succession Table (AST) and the Census track we used a whiteboard with small magnets on which colored paper (corresponding with the civilizations) was glued.

On the night before the game we started with ‘the first game’ variant which is a great way to teach the game to new players. It takes about two hours so we could play two games consecutively. After everyone had learned the basics of the game we were ready to play! The following day we planned to play from 9:30 am up to 20:00 pm. We decided to set an end time instead of letting the game decide when it would finish. This decision was not done lightly but I considered this the most practical choice for two reasons: to make sure everyone could stay till the end of the game and use the dinner table at a reasonable time to eat.
One last advice before you start: make sure you divide the various tasks in the game to other players. Else you will end up with no voice left at all.


Getting ready to start

A brief summary of the gameplay

Mega Civilization plays very gradual at first. You start with a single population chit on the board and at first you do nothing else but reproduce like you are some kind of bacteria. You try to gain as much territory as possible without crossing your neighbors (yet). Then you try to pile up your chits (either 6 or 12) into single regions and create cities. Every city generates a trade card, which are randomly drawn from corresponding stacks. Instead of a good you may also draft a calamity. In the trading phase that follows you try to make sets of the same goods by trading with others, three cards at a time at least. You also try to get rid of your calamities to other players. The more trade cards you have of the same commodity the higher the total value gets quadratically. In the next phase you use the sets of commodities to buy civilization advancements. These have three different properties. They give your civilization specific benefits (and sometimes partially cons), victory points at the end of the game and they are a prerequisite to progress on the AST track. When one or more players come to the last box of this track the game ends. The player that gained most points wins the game.


Sometimes it takes some persuasion to prevent people from attacking you

Playing the game!

We randomly divided the civilizations over the seventeen players. I got the people of Parthia under my command, famous for their way of executing the Roman general Crassus by letting him drink a goblet of molten gold. They start in what is now known as North Iran near the Caspian Sea. This is on the East side of the map. My strategy at the start of the game was to spread as much as possible to my borders and then build inwards again to my starting region. The advantage of this strategy was that I grew quite large quickly. The downside was I ended up in conflict with all my neighbors. I chose to wait a turn longer than the other players to build my first cities. I hoped to maximize my growth by suddenly building a lot of cities. This worked quite well, giving me up to six cities in a few turns. However the downside of being Parthia is being last on the AST track meaning it will get trade cards after all other players received theirs. By the time it was my turn to obtain trade cards most stacks were empty, so you get a worthless water card. The first trading sessions therefore were disappointing. Trading water will not make you rich. I also ended up with several disasters.
Fortunately the game altered its pace when the first players started to give in their trade cards to buy advances. These cards come back in the corresponding stacks and therefore some piles will hold more cards then others. At that moment my trade cards improved and then I could start trading. A few turns later I could buy my first advancement: the cheap Pottery card, which helps you against the starvation calamity and gives a discount to the more favorable agriculture, raising the limit of chits per territory by one, effectively giving you more space for your people. A few other players on the east side of the board already acquired three advances by then.
It took a few more turns to get second advancement, Metalworking, which unknown yet to the coming turn of events, would turn out quite useless. Metalworking helps you in conflict. Combat is done by a 1 to 1 removal of chits from a territory, starting with the player with the lowest amount of chits. In case of a tie both players remove one population marker until the maximum capacity of a region is reached, then combat ends automatically. Meaning you will always know the outcome beforehand. Metalworking lets you remove one of your opponent’s markers first regardless of who has the most chits in the region of conflict.


Ah, wonderful Parthia. Indus (green) is at our border, driven by calamities. They will quickly be disposed of.

I had not much hope left for the brave but not so developed people of Parthia. But two things happened that changed my way of playing the game and getting back into the race. The first thing was that due to mere luck I got hold of seven trading cards of rather cheap grain which nobody wanted. Although one card of grain is worth only 4 points, seven cards are worth 196 points! (remember, the value goes up quadratically, in this case: 4, 16, 36, 64, 100, 144, 196). Together with the discounts I got from Pottery and Metalworking I was now able to buy Mining. Mining lets you double your treasury when you buy an advancement card. In addition to give in trading cards you can use treasury as pocket money to get to the exact price of an advancement card. Treasury is produced by cities. Normally it’s only a minor proportion of the price you pay for a card but with Mining it gives you a significant boost.
The grain trade gave me an idea. Instead of going to ask each player individually whether they had something I needed I went crisscross through the crowd calling out loud the product I needed. This accelerated finding desirable cards tremendously. I also shifted my attention of getting as many sets of high trading cards to just getting a single (or maybe two) sets of lower cards.
My second discovery was that all of a sudden it became clear to me that way over the other side of the board the Roman empire consistently held nine cities and stayed out of any border conflict. The player told me that by avoiding conflict you can grow much faster. I quickly turned to my neighbors; the Kushans to the east and the Persians to the south and told them what I learned. Having had their own share of calamities, they agreed in a cease fire and so I could focus on grow.

A Golden Age of not using Metalworking had started.


Thinking, planning, betraying and drinking beer

At some point in the game you find yourself in a cadence where you build up your empire, lose a few regions or cities due to calamities and start to build up again. The few turns you get before a new calamity occurs you try to gain as much trade power as possible and buy new advancements. The conflicts with your neighbors become less important and are mostly reduced to predictable skirmishes at the border. Unfortunately when you play this kind of game you can also have bad luck of getting more calamities than you can handle. In our case Indus was that player. He faced in quick succession a number of devastating disasters and could not come back in its own region (I was eager enough to settle my share on his lands after a devastating flood cleared most of his cities). The creators of the game came with a compensation mechanism for this purpose and provide the greatest benefits to the weakest players. Both at getting trade cards and the execution of major calamities, making Indus pop up like a cockroach whenever a player got crippled by disaster.

After many hours consisting of standing around our dinner table and running around frantically during the trade phases the game came to an end. With an estimation of only two turns left we stopped. And to my great surprise I ended up second, just after the Roman empire.

The verdict

All in all it was a fantastic experience to be able to organize such a project with so many people. It’s impossible with so many players on such a gigantic board to oversee everything what is happening. You feel very tiny with your hands in the fate of random card-draws, semi blind trades with others and aggressive acts of your neighbors. It makes you feel like a cog in a machine which is rare in board games. However, unlike some games where you have the feeling the game plays itself and you are just a bystander, this game grabs you and gives you a sense of control. In this wild sea of shrink and growth of your civilization you will be the captain that determines where you set sail next. Eventually the people who understand the underlying mechanisms are rewarded mostly regardless of setbacks. As the designer describes the game is asymmetrical with some nations performing better than others in certain phases of the game, so don’t worry too much when you see other civilizations are getting ahead of you.

Are there any downsides? Well of course there are! The length of this session report is to give you a shallow impression of the tremendous amounts of planning, time, space, people, money and groceries you will need to play this game. It’s not easy to play this game once, let alone to do it on a regularly basis. I’ve played Diplomacy, Game of Thrones, Eclipse and several other long games with six or more players. The downside of all these games is that either you have to wait a long time for your turn or when you know you are going to lose there is little chance of getting back in the game. Mega Civilization deals very well with these issues, letting you play simultaneously most of the time and having a catchup mechanism to compensate bad luck.

Of course the game has its own problems as well. The core mechanism is created 30 years ago and doesn´t stand out in originality. The advancement tree was a new concept at that time but is now done better in other games. It’s hard to see in a glimpse which technologies are available to you now and what their features are. Second is that the game would really shine if it would give you the same experience in a shorter time span. We kept the trading phase limited to the suggested 10 minutes, but it turned out to be the movement phase that sometimes gave the sense of dragging on too long. Players are stimulated to move simultaneously but are not obliged to. They may refer to the official turn order and wait for their neighbors to move first. If too many people play this way the game stalls considerably.

In summary this game is something every serious board gamer has got to play at least once in his or her career. If you love to look at novel ways of mechanisms board games use in this fast developing market then this is really something you should check out. All seventeen players, independent whether they were hardcore board gamers or not, had a blast and whenever I see them we keep on talking about how epic the whole event was.

My copy is not for sale yet!


End game mess.
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Tony Kotler
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Awesome session report! Thanks! I can't wait to get my copy; although organizing an eighteen or larger player count game is probably going to be challenging.
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Mattias Elfström
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Very nice report! We are planning our first Mega session in a few weeks.

That said I am surprised that you had such a bad experience with original Civilization. Besides the number of players the differences are really minor. Civilization is a true classic that has never been surpassed. Advanced Civilization and Mega Civilization are just tweaks to the original that provide some polish while keeping the essential parts.
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Christian K
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Great session report. Btw, it does look like the valuea of the trading cards grow quadratically, not exponentially.

For grain it seems to be 2n^2
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Eric Brosius
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Muemmelmann wrote:
Great session report. Btw, it does look like the valuea of the trading cards grow quadratically, not exponentially.

For grain it seems to be 2n^2

In general it's k * n^2.

In modern English, the adverb "exponentially" has two meanings. One meaning is "exponentially" (in the technical sense) and the other meaning is "really fast".
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David Chapman
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Muemmelmann wrote:
Great session report. Btw, it does look like the valuea of the trading cards grow quadratically, not exponentially.

For grain it seems to be 2n^2


That's because Grain is worth 4. As Eric says, the value of a set is always the square of the number of cards in the set multiplied by the base value of the card.
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Mark O'Reilly
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Fantastic report. Thank you for sharing this awesome experience
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Chris de Bruijn
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Thank you for pointing this out. It's quadratically rather than exponentially indeed. I corrected this in the article.
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Becq
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the_kloet wrote:
Unfortunately when you play this kind of game you can also have bad luck of getting more calamities than you can handle. In our case Indus was that player. He faced in quick succession a number of devastating disasters and could not come back in its own region (I was eager enough to settle my share on his lands after a devastating flood cleared most of his cities). The creators of the game came with a compensation mechanism for this purpose and provide the greatest benefits to the weakest players. Both at getting trade cards and the execution of major calamities, making Indus pop up like a cockroach whenever a player got crippled by disaster.

While certain combinations of calamities can certainly be very painful, its worth asking: did you take into account the rule that you can only be hit by up to three calamities (and only two major calamities) in a turn?

In addition, you can sometimes pick your losses from one calamity to reduce the effects of another. An example: you get hit by Famine and Flood. You have 35 strength points, including 15 on a flood plain; losing 10+15 will cripple you. However, Famine is resolved first. So what you can do is take your Famine loses from your flood plain, leaving only 5 unit points vulnerable to the flood! In essence, the Famine had no effect on you, since you would have lost those units to the Flood, regardless! (Just be sure to leave at least one unit on the flood plain, or else the flood will affect your coastal areas instead...)

Of course, sometimes you have no recourse. For example, Civil Disorder (reduce all but 3 of your cities) occurs before Iconoclasm & Heresy (reduce 4 of your cities), which mean you reduce all of your cities. If you have high-population city sites, this isn't too horrible, but if you have lots of 1-pops or worse, low-pop wilderness cities, you are hurting bad.

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Chris de Bruijn
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Playing Calamities

We did follow the rules in regard to the limited amount of calamities per turn. And it's true that in some cases (especially Civil Disorder) it's better to have more than one calamity per turn.

In certain cases the calamity can actually be a benefit. For instance, in the last turn of the game I got Civil War, which makes you give away all your cities and population above 35 unit points to the player with the fewest cities in the game. (If you look closely you can see at the 'end game mess' picture that yellow (Hellas) is on the Eastern map just behind the Caspian Sea)

I just recently got Trade Routes, letting you turn in trade cards for twice the face value of the card in treasury tokens. This in combination with Mining, giving double value to these tokens, gave me about 80 points extra to spend on advance cards. The removed population served well as treasury. With all the credit and trade sets I could buy Monument (3 points) and Wonder of the World (6 points) instead of receiving the endgame victory condition of 1 point per city.

And about Civil Disorder and Iconoclasm & Heresy, The Iberian player suffered both at once and went down from seven cities to none. If we had played the experienced version, he would have gone one step back on the AST-track as well! However it only took him two turns to get back to 7 cities again.

Civ compared to Mega Civ


In response to Mattias about my distaste of the old Civilization game and euphoria about the new one. I needed some time to think this question over. My first thought was that you were right. The difference, except for supported player amount, is hardly non existence. It's easy to be enthusiastic about a new game that I own myself and which looks great rather than an old game with an ugly box and outdated boring components, which isn't even my own game to start with! I played that game with the wrong assumption it would feel like some kind of conquest game like Risk. With a lot lower expectations to sum it all up. But truth is it's only part of the story. There is a large difference in the 'feeling' of this game compared to his predecessor.

When I organize a game weekend with friends, or when I attend a Friday night game night at my local board game community I am happy to see my friends and play with them. Most of the time I only know vaguely or not at all what I am going to play and I just bring my copies with me of the games I recently got hold of or games I like to play again because they stayed on my shelf for too long.

With this game it's not possible to use it like this. You need to plan a long time ahead to get enough people together, prepared and committed to play the game. It's not just playing a game with friends, it's playing an event with a group which takes at least a month of preparation. Of course I'm not talking about playing the game with less than 10 players. I won't recommend anyone buying this game and not playing it with the maximum (or near maximum)player count. Right now I'm thinking about the word 'foreplay', but I think this may be suggestive to things not related to Mega Civ. I do hope you get the idea what I mean. Playing the game is one thing, but living up to it is quite another. And this game generates a lot to live up to.

The second argument might sound strange at first, but I think that playing this game while standing upright instead of sitting at a chair makes this exercise feels like... Well... An exercise. Let me explain with the following example. Everybody knows how it's like to wait endlessly for your analyse paralysis prone neighbor before he finally acts the way that you already have predicted ten minutes ago. When playing standing it's so much easier to just walk away for a minute to have a drink, get some food, look at the advancement cards on a different table, the AST-track on yet another table or whiteboard, or just sit down in a corner with some other friends who are waiting and have a little chat. You don't have to feel so irritated every time you have to wait. For me it removed most of my feeling of distress I had with the original game which required you to sit down for hours and hours, with just an occasional moving in the trading phase.
Speaking of the trading phase. Running around in a ten minute time frame getting the best deals with 16 other players to get theirs is no easy task and really requires you to focus while moving, talking and trading, getting yourself instantly in an active state. All in all it's a good mix to keep your brain alert for all those hours.


Trading phase

One last argument before I come to my conclusion; when you suffer, you are not alone. Suffering defeat is common business in this game. Whining about your losses is part of playing the game. With eighteen people there is always somebody who has it worse, or had it worse one turn before you. And even if you are the one in the last position you don't have to feel bad, because the game tries to kick you back in the race at every corner. For example by making you the beneficiary of Civil War.

My final thought is the experience of playing Mega Civ is nothing comparable to Civilization. And as you can see my arguments are not supported by the mechanisms of the game or the difference in rules they made. It's the feeling what playing this game generates which makes it stand out to most other board games. It's truly magnificent. Being part of something this big is memorable for years to come.
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Gary Heidenreich
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Great write up!

I was wondering if someone was going to play this with 18 (17) people.

I would potentially play in a game this large (I have no need to own it) as I'm a huge Civ fan.

I think you hit it. Those who do well in this game ride the ebbs and flows. You WILL get hit by calamity, just prepare for it. Your Civ will grow, and shrink, but you can make it work (great example on your grain trading - I like being sneaky in gathering salt).

Again, love the write up.
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Thierry Vlaeminck
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Very nice session report. Thank you for that.

I have one or two games scheduled around new year, I hope we can reach 18p.
The trading phase is going to be awesome.

Would making badges for people to wear to represent their Race have any value?
 
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ThierryV wrote:
Very nice session report. Thank you for that.

I have one or two games scheduled around new year, I hope we can reach 18p.
The trading phase is going to be awesome.

Would making badges for people to wear to represent their Race have any value?


Badges: YES, colour and east/west and civ. With those three things it helps THE People who are not expert on this game.
 
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Thierry Vlaeminck
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Arontje wrote:

Badges: YES, colour and east/west and civ. With those three things it helps THE People who are not expert on this game.


Darn, we used to have one of those classic 80's round badgemakers... But I quess I can make some cheap paper ones easily.
 
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