Civilization in 90 Minutes?

A couple of days ago I looked at Civilization games and the entwined ideas of why they’re popular and the expectations that players have. Today I’ll look at why a 90-minute Civilization game might be a dream that never materializes.

Let’s start with the math. I’ll abandon the idea of a 5p game off the bat. With four players, this means that each player gets 22 minutes. This isn’t small, and ideally players can also use other players’ turns to think, examine opportunities, etc. However, we can’t leave out the heart of the genre: expanding and getting better opportunities as the game progresses. For this to feel meaningful, it means the beginning, middle, and end of the game all have to feel different. (Think of the settlement phase, buildup phase, and explosive final turns of, say, Twilight Imperium. Each player needs to spend around 7 minutes in each one of those phases, and suddenly now time is starting to look tight. We’ll need to skip exploration entirely, because that’s going to shove interesting but time-consuming decisions in the middle of every turn where it happens. If the player has several moving parts to consider–multiple bases, multiple armies–a two-minute turn might be OK but still feel rushed. So we need to get an interesting amount of action and decisions into a total of nine two-minute turns.

But wait, there’s more. We also need to provide a way for the players to interact. With only nine turns, we can’t have much tactical or positional back-and-forth. (Eclipse manages, but that’s because it breaks up its nine-turns into mini-player-turns. This makes a fantastic game but means it takes about twice as long as our hypothetical Grail.) This means that any aggression is going to have to be pretty abstract. If combat has a lot of randomness, that’s exciting to play, but it means that after every fight every player is going to have to recalculate all their options. If combat is more deterministic (comparing military values or whatever), that’s faster to resolve, but invites a lot of thinking or analysis paralysis before the fight breaks out. Adding the possibility of alliances or trade between players is a desirable feature, and a way to add balance and drama by letting the players resolve a runaway leader themselves–but the more freeform the negotiations can be, the longer the game will take.

After this amount of thinking about it, the idea of a 90-minute Civ game seems extraordinarily ambitious but not, as I had suspected at the outset, outright crazy. It requires some well-considered and painful sacrifices of a couple of genre tropes, which will certainly turn some people off; it requires very elegant mechanisms for expansion, exploration, and technology, probably even creating some innovative new ones or combining existing ones in unexpected ways.

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