With the announcement of Civilization 6 last week my mind has been abuzz with excitement. Civilization is a grand strategy PC game covering massive spans of time. The board game industry has been producing similar games for years, and some say Sid Meier, the creator, was even inspired by the great boardgame Civilization from Avalon Hill in 1980. But the problem, for both the video game and the board game, has been one of time investment. Avalon Hill’s grand epic took as much as six hours, and its sequel Advanced Civilization ballooned to eight. Covering such a grand scale with any sort of detail seemingly requires a massive time investment, and as the years go on, it is no wonder that fans of such strategy games flock to the PC game. There the computer can handle all of the complexity and bookkeeping, and players are able to save and play over several days or weeks without taking up the entire dining room table.
The allure of this civilization theme in boardgames did not die out with the advent of the more convenient computer version. In recent years many board games have tried to capture the feeling of building a civilization without the complex and time consuming nature of older civilization games. Some games use the theme like a coat of paint, merely motioning towards the progression of humanity over generations, while others abstract the essence of the great Sid Meier classic, and condense it to a reasonable play length. Here are a few games that will make you feel like you are building an empire, and also perfectly fit how much time you might have in an evening.
7 Wonders is a smash hit board game for doing the impossible. The game takes the theme of building a civilization and boils it down to a thirty minute game you can play with up to 7 people. Its secret is a simple card drafting system. Players receive a hand of cards, select one, and pass the remaining cards to the left or right. Since players all choose simultaneously, there is no time spent waiting for others to take their turn, and the game takes the same amount of time regardless of how many are playing. However, within this simple system, there are some tough decisions that mirror those in other civilization games. There are resources to manage and trade with your neighbors, military conflicts, scientific discoveries, great buildings, and of course the titular wonders. Now while it is an excellent game where the civilization theme comes through, it is not like the grand strategy games of years ago. 7 Wonders is an abstraction of those classics that focuses on the feeling of building up an ancient city instead of covering all of human history.
Another card game that abstracts the civilization theme is Innovation. Created by the mad game scientist Carl Chudyk, Innovation boils civilization down to its fundamental technologies throughout the eras and creates a confrontational and chaotic card game out of them. Players play cards of five different colors into stacks in front of them. Each card is a technology represented by a unique action that players can take with that card along with several icons that represent aspects of a player’s civilization. Players can use attack cards against those with fewer icons of a certain type, or follow the actions of other players with whom they have the same or more icons, creating a back and forth battle of trying to stay ahead in the six different icons. The piles of cards can then be spread out up left or right to reveal more icons from past technologies, escalating the battle even further. Unlike 7 Wonders, which covers ancient civilization, Innovation covers the full history of human invention, from the wheel to nuclear fission. Players draw through 10 stacks of cards that represent the different eras of history, and attempt to claim ever increasing victory point achievements for each era.
Both games succeed in condensing the feeling of building a civilization into a tighter more focused package, but not without losing something in the translation. For example, there is no map in either game, and outside of the “neighbor” concept in 7 Wonders denoting specific interactions with the players to your left and right, there is no sense of place. This sacrifice in favor of brevity necessarily removes the exploration and travel aspects that were part of the original Civilization boardgame and the PC game series. To condense the experience each game focused on one aspect of the theme. In the case of Innovation, the game itself is the tech tree of a grander strategy game, while 7 wonders captures the city building and advancement found in the PC game.
One lighter civilization game from recent years manages to bring in the map but still keep the game length from exceeding that 90 minute sweet spot. Deus uses hexagonal tiles to represent a map with different resources to exploit and barbarians to conquer. All interactions with the board and other players, however, are done through cards played to different columns in a player’s tableau (the play area in front of them). Each column represents a different color of card and corresponding type of building that might be part of an ancient civilization. When a player builds a card, they place a token on the map representing that building.
Blue cards and ship tokens represent naval buildings, green farm buildings represent production, soldiers represent your military etc… In this way the game combines what is essentially a card game with a spatial element not found in the previous two games.
Each of these games extract an element of the grand civilization games on the PC and hones it into a game of its own. 7 Wonders captures the sense of city building, Innovation makes the tech tree live and breathe, and Deus captures the map and the balancing act of managing different aspects of a civilization. The key to keeping these games short is focusing in on a part of a larger whole, but still making it feel like a complete game in its own right. All three of the games capture that wonderful civilization theme, and will keep gamers plenty busy while they wait for Civilization VI.