Civilization Games

A few days ago I wrote about why I think the goal of Walsingham is a “Holy Grail” design. It’s the Holy Grail I am most interested in, but not the most famous. The most famous Holy Grail design, I think, is “Civ-Lite”, or a Civilization game that plays in 90 minutes or less. To get an idea of why that goal seems so out of reach, let’s look at the existing Civilization games and what players expect from them.

The first Civilization game was, well, Francis Tresham’s Civilization, published back in 1980 by Avalon Hill. The game is well-regarded but long out-of-print; I have never actually played. Each player controlled a Mediterranean civilization (Egypt, Assyria, Crete, etc). struggling for supremacy from the late Stone Age through the early Iron Age. The Civilization board game inspired the classic video game by the same name; Civilization was excellent, widely popular, and became in many eyes, including mine, the prototype of what a “4X” game should be. The 4X acronym stands for:

  • eXplore: players start off without much knowledge of the world and must explore to find resources and contact other players
  • eXpand: players grow their empires and claim territory by colonizing the areas around them
  • eXploit: players use the resources to research technology, create civic improvements, and muster military units
  • eXterminate: players are able to attack one another, gaining control of territory and possibly winning through eventual world conquest
  • Although it’s not spelled out in the acronym, technological progress has always been a key part of the Civilization series and the games it’s inspired. Technology provides more powerful military units, the ability to create bigger and more productive cities, and other capabilities as well, such as espionage or incresed mobility. One of the interesting parts of a Civilization-type game is prioritizing what technologies is most important to develop, and prioritizing technology which will be useful in the future against a military buildup that might be needed immediately.

(Whether on the computer or tabletop, most 4X games have either been about historical Earth civilizations, or interstellar civilizations, often starting off at the dawn of interstellar travel. On the computer, the Master of Orion and Galactic Civilizations series use the latter theme. A notable outlier is Alpha Centauri, a science-fiction game that takes place on humanity’s first colony, a single planet orbiting the titular star.)

Building a 4X board game is not easy, but it’s been done successfully several times: Twilight Imperium, Eclipse, Civilzation: the Board Game, and Through the Ages are all popular.

  • eXplore: It’s very hard to simulate fog-of-war, where some players have geographic information but not others, on a tabletop board. Often exploration reduces to granting the first player to send scouts into a new area a random event which can be good or bad (an ancient technology, a resource cache, angry natives, etc.)
  • eXpand and eXploit: This is board games’ wheelhouse; from Settlers of Catan to Puerto Rico to Hansa Teutonica and far beyond, many games have been designed and developed to challenge players to find the best ways to turn the resources they have into the resources they need.
  • eXterminate: This is the toughest challenge for a designer. Players expect direct, aggressive conflict; and this conflict will indeed drive the tension and drama that makes 4X games memorable. Naturally, this aggression usually takes the form of conquest. This opens up many design issues, though:
    • The conflict should not take too long to resolve–or the players who aren’t directly involved will get bored on the sidelines
    • There should be a way for wars to be limited, rather than total. On the computer, this is often modeled through war-weariness, having to spend resources to quell rebellions in captured territory, etc.. These details would typically be elided from a tabletop game, but if they’re simply removed, there’s little reason to simply take a few resources from a beaten foe rather than conquering everything. (Civilization: the Board Game handles this by saying: if you capture the capital of any rival, you win immediately! This provides a strong incentive to ally against an aggressive rival–or for a third player to threaten to pick off the loser and claim victory if the fight proves indecisive.)
    • There should be a way for players to ally with each other and against others to mediate a balance of power.
  • Technology: Like expansion and exploitation, the idea of gradually increasing capabilities is familiar territory for board games; unlike expansion and exploitation, the 4X genre demands a level of scope and sophistication that’s beyond, say, Hansa Teutonica‘s advancements or Agricola‘s occupations. Technology needs to be integrated into the resource system; it needs to meaningfully affect both your military power and further resource-handling capabilities; and there needs to be a way of tracking it so you can determine what every player can do as the game progresses.

This article is already long enough, so in a later article I’ll talk about the additional complexities of trying to distill all of this excitement into a 90-minute game, and discuss why that Grail might be entirely legendary.

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