Some time ago I posted a review comparing Clash of Cultures with Advanced Civilization. A “review by way of comparison” works for me, since I tend to buy similar games, so this time I am going to compare Advanced Civ to the new hotness, Mare Nostrum: Empires.
MN:E is a revised edition of an older game. I haven’t played the older version, but I understand that, as with the original Civilization vs. Advanced Civilization, there are some people who prefer the older version.
I backed the MN:E Kickstarter and got everything including the Atlantis expansion (but not the extra bling - the supersized neoprene map, poker chips, and building miniatures). I’ve now played it several times, with two, four, and five players. (I have not yet played with the Atlantis expansion, which allows up to 6 players.)
It’s a very good game and I like it a lot. A lot of people, seeing the map, are struck by how much it looks like Advanced Civilization. I have described it as “kind of like Advanced Civilization, but you can play it in 1-2 hours instead of 6-10.”
While the two games have a lot of similarities, they are quite different experiences. I think most people who like one would like the other, but they’re certainly targeted at different audiences.
Both games are about the struggle for dominance among ancient Mediterranean civilizations. Advanced Civilization is an old school cardboard counter game, and plays like it, while MN:E is a spiritual descendant of Advanced Civ but there are traces of newer games like Settlers of Catan and 7 Wonders in its lineage.
(I know, 7 Wonders was published in 2010 and the original Mare Nostrum is older than that. I don’t know how much the newer version has changed from the original - I mention 7 Wonders because the “Heroes and Wonders” aspect of MN:E reminds me of that game, as well as the multiple victory paths.)
Advanced Civilization is a slow, methodical game of empire management with relatively little player interaction. There is always some border clashing and the occasional major attack against a rival, but experienced players know that prolonged wars in Advanced Civ are bad for both participants. Trading is my favorite part of Advanced Civ, as the winner usually ends up being not the empire that got bigger faster, or who “won” aggressions, but the player who made out best in the trade rounds.
Mare Nostrum: Empires, on the other hand, is a more modern game. It’s not just the slicker graphics and the plastic components, but the variety of game mechanics making it more complex on one level (there are many more decisions for each player to make at any given point) but also much faster-moving.
In Advanced Civilization, you start from scratch as a stone age tribe that eventually rises to a level of civilization comparable to where you are starting at with Mare Nostrum.
In Mare Nostrum, you are one of five civilizations: Rome, Greece, Babylon, Egypt, or Carthage (or Atlantis with the expansion), and you begin the game with a certain number of cities, temples, trade routes, and military forces already built. Whereas in Advanced Civilization, your civs are mostly alike except in geography, with the AST acting as a balancing mechanic to make up for some civilizations starting with more advantageous territories, in Mare Nostrum each civilization is distinctly different, starting with a Hero that gives you a special power, and territories that vary in initial resources. So for example, Carthage is a trading empire with a wealth of different starting resources and a special trade power. Egypt is rich and has a lot of cash and culture. Rome, as you would expect, is the military leader, and so on.
Similar to Advanced Civilization, you acquire resources, then there is a trading phase, then you build things, then you move/fight. Unlike Advanced Civilization, there are four different ways to win:
1. A military victory - control four capital and/or Legendary cities (including your own starting capital).
2. A hegemonic victory - become the leader on all three tracks (Trade, Culture, and Military).
3. Be the first to build 5 Heroes/Wonders.
4. Build the Pyramids. Immediate win.
There is no “tech tree” in Mare Nostrum. You can build cities, temples, trade routes, marketplaces, and military units, but the asymmetry comes in the form of Heroes and Wonders, each of which gives you a special ability. Some give an advantage in trade, others provide a military advantage, others just move you ahead on the leader tracks which are one of the paths to victory. This makes them somewhat similar in function to Civilization Advances, but some of Mare Nostrum’s Hero and Wonder abilities are instant game-winners under the right circumstances.
The trading mechanic works very differently than Advanced Civilization’s: each empire puts out a number of resources specified by the current Trade Leader (there are twelve different ones in the game, plus coins) and takes turns selecting one of their neighbor’s offerings and in turn having one of theirs picked. Your goal is to collect as many different resources as possible (or a big pile of coins) since that is how you buy more expensive things.
Combat involves dice rolling (and the possible use of special abilities), and there are three different unit types (Legions, Fortresses, and Triremes). Thus, there is more variability than in Advanced Civilization, and some tactical decisions.
Mare Nostrum is similar to Advanced Civilization in that experienced players have an advantage over newer players, as certain strategies make a lot more sense (and certain other actions are obvious blunders) once you understand how the game works. However, I would say that Mare Nostrum is more newbie-friendly. Even if you haven’t mastered long-term strategy, you can usually see what would be beneficial in the short term, and (unlike ACiv) there are often multiple good choices which will allow you to pursue different strategies. So if you want to be militant, you can do that, and if you want to build your economic engine, you can do that, and either one might prove to be the winning strategy.
The biggest difference, of course, is that you can indeed play a game of Mare Nostrum: Empires in under two hours. The other big difference would be the asymmetry and variability introduced by Heroes and Wonders.
This leads to the major way in which Mare Nostrum plays differently from Advanced Civilization. ACiv is for the most part a very predictable game. Everyone is going to do more or less the same thing (expand, build cities, try to make profitable trades, and buy Advances efficiently) and it’s hard to really “surprise” anyone with your strategy. Sure, you can take advantage of going last to sack someone’s cities, and the calamity phase introduces some randomness, but for the most part, the game is a slow race for victory points.
In Mare Nostrum, there are four different ways to win, and some of them (especially building the Pyramids) can happen quite suddenly - and unexpectedly, if you’re new to the game.
Once everyone is experienced enough to know what to look for, you know that you have to keep careful track of how many coins and resources each empire has acquired, and that this will dictate what you can put out for trade during the trade round. If someone has increased their income to 8 coins and they kept 2 coins from last turn, you know they only need 2 more in order to build the Pyramids, so DON’T PUT ANY COINS OUT FOR TRADE! But we didn’t figure this out for our first couple of games, hence the surprise reveal of a Pyramids victory twice in a row.
So far I haven’t found any “game-breaking” combos, but with up to 17 Heroes and Wonders in play, there are an awful lot of possibilities.
Our games have tended to end in Pyramid or Wonder victories. For some reason, our group hasn’t gotten very militant yet. The next time I play Rome, I may just eschew economic development and start cranking out legions. We’ll see how quickly Carthage or Egypt can build Pyramids then…
Mare Nostrum plays best with five players, though the four-player game is good enough. (As I said, I haven’t yet tried it with six.) The two-player rules are not bad - it’s a fixed setup, Rome vs. Carthage, with “Barbarians” acting as a neutral force that the two players can bribe or trade with. It lacks the strategic options of a multiplayer game, but it’s quite playable, and some people on BGG have devised alternate two-player setups to use different starting civilizations.
The Atlantis expansion also contains a lot of variant scenarios and extra Heroes specific to certain Legendary Cities, making Mare Nostrum a game with a lot of replayability if you have played the base game out.
Advanced Civilization, let’s face it, is a gruelling game with a small and dedicated audience that takes pride in their stamina for playing a game that literally takes all day to finish. Mare Nostrum: Empires, on the other hand, is a game you can actually play at your local evening boardgaming meetup, and you might talk eurogamers and even the occasional casual gamer into it.
I confess I am a victim of the “Cult of the New” where boardgames are concerned, meaning I buy more games than I play and thus an awful lot of my games get one or two plays and then put back on the shelf. While it’s fun to always be trying something new, really good games deserve to be played over and over and over again, until both you and your regular opponents are really good at the game, good enough to stomp new players who don’t know better. (Not that I encourage the merciless stomping of new players, outside of a tournament setting - just that I like games where you can really tell the difference between an experienced player and an inexperienced one.) I am trying to focus on the few games in my collection that I like enough to want to do that with, and MN:E has made that list.
MN:E will not replace Advanced Civilization for me - nothing quite matches an old Avalon Hill classic - but for sure I’ll be able to get MN:E on the table more often.
The new game is structurally the same as the old one. The differences are in tuning of resources in some regions, the addition of lots of wonders and heroes, some refinements of the rules surrounding those and the role of super city states. Ships are slightly more flexible in deployment in the new version, which i think is an improvement. The new game feels essentially the same as the old one, but tuned for a more carefully balanced experience.
If you have not got militant, yet, you need to play more. Egypt can run away with the pyramids victory unless Carthage and Rome play their parts, and the Greeks need to be out on the high seas.
I played a 5 player game of this today, and I have played the 1980 Civilization, and this game just feels like a clone. A prettier clone, with less strategy and a bit too friendly.