Tuesday, July 21, 2015

A Short Story of Civilization

It’s no secret we like civilization games at NSKN. You could say that it’s a company thing, but I’ve liked them ever since I played Through the Ages, and it was some time before NSKN Games was actually established. This love, a love probably also shared by every other board gamer alive, is bringing me today to talk about civilization games that were able to do two things: present a new take on civ games and amuse us enough to remain in our collections.

Before I talk about newer games, let me first pay my due to the two most important and formative civilization board games – at least in my opinion. The first one is (obviously) Civilization (later upgraded to Advanced Civilization) designed by Francis Tresham. It’s a game a too young to remember in its original incarnation, but its second edition still sits on my shelf – and I do play it on a semi-regular basis.

The second civilization game that seems a cornerstone of not only civ games, but board games in general is Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization. It was one of my first heavier Euro games (yes, I do believe TTA is a Euro game as well as a civ game), and one of the most fascinating experiences in my personal history of gaming. It’s also the civilization game I personally love to go back most often.
Image Source: BoardGameGeek

Through the Ages is a game I wanted to mention also for another reason. Although the game is not new by any stretch of imagination, it was quite innovative for its time, and in a way has never been successfully imitated by another game. Some innovative elements from TTA surfaced in other games, but only two years ago a game with a truly similar approach to civilization games emerged. Nations (if you’re a fan of civ games you probably already knew which game I was referring to) with its strong design and depth managed to find its way onto many gaming tables – but failed (in my opinion at least) as a civ game, remaining “only” a rock solid Euro.

Over the years we’ve had some novel approach to civilization games – as well as some games that would simply take the rather obvious, but still quite entertaining route when it came to game design choices. While extremely fun, FFG’s Sid Meier’s Civilization follows a rather safe path, not really trying to re-define the genre, but solidify it and create a kind of a template many other civ games would be compared to. It also certainly fared much better than the previous Sid Meier’s Civilization which, over the years, has almost universally attracted scorn from its players.

Image Source: BoardGameGeek
It seems that the way to innovate civ games lies in making them shorter. While no less than impressive, Francis Tresham’s design takes six to eight hours to play properly, and with both of its expansions, the FFG Civilization may take a good few (five or six) hours to complete. Building a game that would have this civilization feel without actually taking a whole afternoon (and/or evening) is something many have dipped their toes in. 

This is how we got the spectacular 7 Wonders, which reduced a whole civ game to a few decks of cards, a bunch of player boards and a pile of tokens. This is also where Golden Ages probably came from, this time not doing away with the map component, but still managing to squeeze the civ feel into a much smaller frame – and a smaller footprint.

Image Source: BoardGameGeek
And speaking of 7 Wonders, we’ve also tried out hand at a civilization game that consists mainly of cards and player boards – for that reason many people would instantaneously compare our Progress: Evolution of Technology to Antoine Bauza’s phenomenal design (which only made us blush a little), and will try again in the not so distant future, this time with a completely different design (a light sprinkle of deckbuilding, anyone?).

Innovating in civilization games is no easy task, as it’s very easy to misplace those precious few elements that make a civ game what it is: the sense of building something grand, and the feeling of great progression, of one thing evolving from another. That is why I personally never found Nations appealing as a civ game, that is why Innovation never really spoke to me. And that is why when come around to making another civ game, we’ll not forget its basic building blocks while trying to innovate.

Just to wrap it all up: are there any smaller civilization games you love? Perhaps you know of some undiscovered little gems we should definitely check out? And before you say anything: yes, we’ve Olympos, Historia, Uruk and Uruk II. We like them.

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