Civilization: The Board Game (2010 Fantasy Flight Games) Review

A game that I was quite intrigued by and definitely wanted to check out was Civilization: The Board Game. Since I finally got that opportunity, now it's time to ponder on my experience with the gameplay for your, my dear reader's, enjoyment.

In Civilization, each of the players takes on the role of one of the different historical world leaders who is attempting to grow and lead their civilization into world domination, whether that domination would be in military, technology, economy or culture. Each turn, players will collect an amount of "trade resources" (these are primarily research points but can also be used to help build things). Next, after they are allowed to trade with each other, each player uses his cities (up to 3 of them) to do one of the following: 1) build new units, buildings, etc, 2) gain cultural points, or 3) collect resources. After this, each of the players is able to move their various markers representing the locations of their military and their scouts. Finally, they are able to research a new technology assuming that they have enough trade resources to do so. This continues until one of the players has achieved one of the 4 victory conditions stated previously.

There were a lot of things that I liked about Civilization and a lot of things that I was not a fan of. The biggest thing that I liked about the game is that they "simplified" it (assuming you can call a game that takes about 3-4 hours and has 26 pages of rules "simple".) Essentially, they allowed you to have the feel of the computer game but without most of the monotony that normally comes with board games that are too closely tied to computer games. One of the best examples is troop movement. In this game, each of the players has "figures" which represent where they have troops deployed, and they also have a pile of cards representing their "standing army" which is their total military might. Instead of keeping track of exactly which pieces you have in which locations and having to move dozens of pieces each turn, there were only a few figures which had to be moved, and it allowed the movement phase of the game to flow smoothly.

The next aspect of the game that I need to discuss is how the battle system works. I really think a lot of the mechanics of the battle system are awesome, but I must confess that how this worked in practice made me so angry during the game that I was very tempted to quit and walk away. As stated previously, each of the players has a deck of cards which represents their "standing army". There are 4 different kinds of cards that can go in this deck - infantry, mounted, ranged, and aircraft. Within these cards, there are three different levels of cards and when the players purchase new units for their standing armies, they get a random card from the pile that they choose (ie, they can choose to get an infantry unit, but cannot choose how good that infantry unit is). Also, each of the cards is divided into quarters, with each quarter representing the strength of that unit for whichever technology level those units have. (That was a really complicated way of saying that if your infantry is at level 3, he is 2 points stronger and has a cooler picture than if he is at level 1.) Here's one of the places where I feel that this part breaks down - I do not feel like a good card that happens to be level 1 should be evenly matched with a crappy card that is at level 3, and this is a situation that you will in fact encounter.

Continuing with the battle system, each of the 3 basic unit types (aircraft are not really a "basic" unit type) has a unit type which it defeats and a unit type that it is weak to in a rock-paper-scissors system. Therefore, when buying new units, each player must make sure that his "standing army" is fairly evenly distributed. Once a basic battle starts, each player gets three random cards from his standing army deck (he can get more depending on if he has another figure in the square, what his government is, etc). These three cards are played one at a time, and each time a card is played the results of that skirmish are immediately determined. If a unit fights a unit type that it has a strength against, then it is able to deal its damage immediately without receiving damage in return (if it deals enough damage to successfully kill the opposing unit).

The rock-paper-scissors works pretty well. The difficulty comes in drawing cards. A situation that I encountered (when I was so frustrated I wanted to give up) was this: I had 3 level-3 infantry, 2 level-1 mounted and 1 level-1 artillery at the beginning of the turn. I intended to upgrade artillery during the research phase (after all the fighting), and so I bought 2 more artillery (while they were still cheap - now I had 3 level-3 infantry, 3 level-1 artillery, and 2 level-1 mounted). I went and fought barbarians (they get a level 1 unit of each type). For my three cards, I drew all 3 of my level 1 artillery (none of which were especially strong cards to start with because of a bad draw when getting them initially), and got absolutely destroyed because they drew good cards. This, in practice, just seemed like it did not work out well. I have played enough games to realize that this is the aberration and not the norm, but it was still excruciatingly annoying.

Now that the battles have gotten some press, its time to talk about the tech pyramid. I liked how the tech pyramid worked (well, mostly). Instead of having certain technologies which are prerequisites to other technologies, Civilization had a concept of a "technology pyramid". How this worked in practice was that you had to have 2 Level 1 techs before you could build a Level 2 tech, 3 Level 1's and 2 Level 2's before you could build a Level 3, etc. This was a neat, streamlined way to handle techs and prerequisites. Unfortunately, the world is still not all roses and cherries, as this system gets quite frustrating at the end of the game. If you play games like everyone that I know, you will start getting the best technologies as quickly as you can. Because of this, you don't do a great job of building the base of your pyramid. What this means in terms of actual gameplay is that towards the end of the game, you will be generating tons of resource points, but you will waste them all on some Level 1 technology that you care nothing about so that you can build a Level 2 technology the next turn (that you care nothing about) so that you can eventually buy a Level 3 technology that is actually helpful.

Now for pondering about cities. In this take on a Civilization game, each player is only allowed 3 cities (and the 3rd one only after you have a certain technology). I'm pretty sure this was to keep the game streamlined and "short" (short.... 4-5 hours.... hmmm... I guess it's better than 12 hours or more.)  Each city is only allowed to do one thing per turn (and if it is building, it can only build one thing - unless you have the right technology, then one of your cities can build two things). What's more, the only buildings that you're able to build during your turn are ones that you have discovered the technology to unlock. Perhaps I just built way too often and should have focused more on other things, but I regularly had significantly more production points available than I was able to use. This seemed a bit messed up to me.

Since I have rambled on much more than I normally do, I'll just hit a few more points of note quickly and without explanation:
  • Governments seemed useful but not especially important (I never changed mine)
  • Economic and Cultural victory seemed much harder to achieve than Technological and Military
  • The way that city attacks worked grows on me the more I think about it
  • How resources work is interesting, but I don't know if I like it
  • The game turned being "cultural" into being able to back-handedly screw your neighbor through culture cards
  • I wasn't a fan of the terrain limitations for building buildings - this seemed unnecessarily
  • I liked that the different civilizations actually had different traits and victory conditions that they would more easily be able to achieve
Overall, I give Civilization a 7.0/10.  Almost everything I liked about the game also frustrated me, and so I'm really confused about whether I like it - that makes it hard for me to really give it a great score.  With that said, though, there were a whole lot of things that I liked about the game.  If you're a huge fan of empire building games, then you should give this a shot.  However, for my time, I think I'm going to play Through the Ages instead.

Love Fantasy Flight Games? Some of my favorites are Lord of the Rings: The Card Game, Battlestar Galactica, Blood Bowl: Team Manager, and the often under-appreciated Lord of the Rings (Knizia's co-operative version).


  1. How would you rate it's length and difficulty to learn compared with Through the Ages? Both games look to be on the meaty/lengthy side, but for some reason I assumed Civilization to be a big lighter.

    Is it sufficiently lengthy that you might as well just play Through the Ages which has the better "street cred"?

  2. So, I personally would recommend Through the Ages between the two. Through the Ages has 3 different game variations that you can play (Basic, Normal and Full) that you can change to adjust the length of time the game takes - essentially you're setting how many eras you play through (and a few other things like how much depth is in the attacking). Through the Ages is probably a little bit easier to learn, too, once you get used to how it plays. Length of game is probably about the same between the full version of Through the Ages and Civilization. Just as a point of note, however, Civilization is a much more traditional empire building game where you build cities and explore a map and such, whereas in TtA you don't have a map and everything is card based.