Arabian Knights: A Review of Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game and its expansion, Fame and Fortune

Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game released in 2010 by Fantasy Flight Games. Designed by Kevin Wilson. For 2-4 players. Fame and Fortune released in 2011 by Fantasy Flight Games. Designed by Kevin Wilson. For 2-5 players.

You’re playing as India. Things are going okay. You’re about half-way to a culture victory, with enough culture tokens in reserve for further progress in this area to be rapid. You have temples in two of your three cities, which are capable of generating a couple of culture tokens per turn each. With the next technology advance with you’re aiming for, Theology, you’ll be able to convert those temples into cathedrals.

In short, you’re spewing out culture faster than the Wu-Tang’s flow.

There is, of course, a lone Arabian army prowling around the southern extremity of your empire. Otherwise things are pretty peaceful. You know it could reach one of your cities, Kolkata, later this turn. Is it a threat?

Arabia approaches

The flags used to represent armies look less than menacing

On the face of it, the odds say not. The composition of Arabia’s forces isn’t a secret, since the three units available to Arabia all played a part in taking down a barbarian village a couple of turns ago. Two weak spearmen, and a middling horseman. Arabia has the technology to build cannons, but the one Arabia had had was lost in an earlier skirmish.

Of course, Arabia does have a great general. That gives an attack bonus – and an additional ability which is secret from you. One, perhaps two, of the seven the Arabian player could have pulled from the deck might possibly be enough to swing this battle. Low odds. But then, what’s her army doing on the edge of your empire, in the first place? There was still an unexplored hut near where she had been, but she moved towards your city. It must mean something. Bluff?

Your big choice this turn, then, is whether to devote your cities to the arts, in order to make use of the culture you’re capable of generating. Three or four turns might be all it would take to grab the win. Or is it more important to expand your armed forces because of the threat from Arabia? If Arabia were to attack, because it’s a city you’d be defending, you’d be allowed to draw five units to defend with against Arabia’s three. But, at the moment, you only have three as well.

Still, they’re pretty decent units: a pikeman, which is better than his spearmen; a knight, which is better than his horseman; and a good archer.

You leave it, and go for the culture. After all, you can spend some of the tokens now, to advance on the culture track. Doing so gives cards, one of which might force Arabia to disband the army. But none do.

The attack comes, and Arabia reveals her great general. It’s Gustavus Adolphus, who allows her to kill the three units which would have constituted her battle force, and replace them all with cannons. Pants. They’re too much. Kolkata is destroyed. As spoils of victory, Arabia takes from you two of the three resource tokens you’ve gained from barbarian villages. Not knowing what each is, she takes steel and a spy. Which means she didn’t get your uranium.

Suppress that smile. Make out it was the steel which had been precious to you. She might not believe it. But, what does it matter. The game is still on.


Arabia is booming

In a diary published before Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game was released, designer Kevin Wilson writes that creating a Civilization-building game had been ‘sort of a holy grail’ for him, and that his first priority had been for the game to have multiple paths to victory. The four found in Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game, military, technological, cultural and economic all have their roots in the computer game series from which the board game is licensed. The first two have been staples of the series for its entire life, the other two becoming part of the franchise with Civilization III and Civilization Revolution respectively.

Sensibly, it is the latter from which Wilson borrows most heavily for the board game. A streamlined version of the PC game, Civilization Revolution holds the rare, probably unique distinction of being released on Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Nintendo DS and iOS with essentially identical gameplay (though, unsurprisingly, with different graphics on the home consoles and portable systems). It’s fun and brisk; a full game can normally be completed within an evening.

This, Wilson strips further. Hence, in Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game, each player can only build three cities, and explores a much smaller world than in any of the computer versions of the game. Each city is able to accommodate a maximum of eight buildings (ten in the capital if it is grown to a metropolis, which can only be done with the recent Fame and Fortune expansion).

There are also, in the base game, only six possible civilizations to play as, each with a single possible leader (though one might suspect Fantasy Flight’s marketing department might have had a say in this particular cut). These each enjoy a different starting technology, and one or more special abilities. For instance, pursing a culture victory as the Romans is aided by free advancements on the culture track for building cities and wonders, as well as for conquering cities and villages. Indeed, so focused are these abilities that pursuing a victory condition other than that which the civilization is oriented towards is often a dicey thing to do. Fame and Fortune adds four new civilizations. It is hard not to imagine more will not trickle out in future.

In addition, Wilson abstracts combat, such that it requires the player to manage less units, and he simplifies technological progression.

Aircraft, Cannon, Spearman

A wonderful Civilization attack force: An aircraft, a cannon and a spearman. The Indian army is completely destroyed

Thus, in the board game, a player’s units (spearman, archers, horsemen and so on) do not travel around the board. Instead, these are considered standing forces, which are not directly associated with any of the army pieces which a player does move. When one of these pieces enters a battle situation, the player draws a random selection of these cards (usually three of them) to employ in the combat. If more pieces are moving together, then the player may draw cards. The same pool is also used to defend cities.

Meanwhile, technologies no longer exist as pre-requisites for later advancements. Instead, Wilson introduces a pyramid structure whereby technologies are divided into five levels. Any two level one technologies must have been developed for a player to research one at level two. In turn, a level three technology can only be researched when two at level to have been discovered (and, by implication at least three at level one). This can, of course, lead to strange situations where a player discovers, say Mass Media without ever having learnt Writing. But, in a sense, the technology pyramid makes this kind of situation less peculiar than it is in the computer games with their technology trees (where they could also occur, though less frequently). In that only one or two level four technologies are likely to be discovered in a game (even by a successful player), which technologies carries less weight in representing technological advancement. In short, by not mimicking comprehensiveness, the gaps in the board game’s technological pyramid become unimportant.

As in the computer games, technologies typically make it possible for buildings to be built, better military units to be created, or give a once-per-turn ability (which will usually cost a resource).

A technology pyramid

A technology pyramid after four rounds. It's not that yellow in real life. Code of Laws unlocks the Trading Post building, Mathematics allows better artillery, Irrigation is needed for a player to build his or her third city

A result of the fact that most technological abilities can be grouped in this way is that, even when a player has a dozen or so technologies, as may be the case late in a game, he or she is not drowned by rules exceptions and special powers: Technological benefits are not typically of the ‘on your turn, you may now do x, y and z’ school. Nor are those of the buildings they unlock.

Instead, buildings almost all give a limited amount of one or two from four currencies – trade (used to research technologies), culture (which is used to advance along the culture track), coins (accumulated for an economic victory, or in Fame and Fortune, spent on various developments), and hammers (which are the cost for building units, figures, buildings and wonders). Numbers are kept low. So, say, a high level building like the Cathedral only gives three culture.

Thus, the maths of the game doesn’t ever reach the point that it requires calculators, though a bit of re-counting and double checking will, most likely slip in by the latter part of the game. Also, distilling the functions of buildings into these four primary currencies means that, as with technologies, rules do not start to pile up on top of one another. A workshop, say, just gives extra hammers, not an extra rules headache. In the base game, even the great people which are gained through reaching certain points on the culture track act in just this way – a great scientist, say, gives two points of trade per turn, and a hammer.

Partly as a result of this, a player generally only needs a broad plan for the future, rather than to know his or her exact moves for the next couple of rounds. Even in the unlikely event that, say, the last workshop is built by another player, there are other buildings which can also produce hammers (so blocking, and micro-management are not so often features of the game).  Good play, in my experience, is efficient in the sense that each city action should be useful (each city can only perform one action a turn – either building something, harvesting a resource, or collecting culture), but if, say, a city does not use all of its hammers in a turn when building, this is not a cause for concern. As it should be, then, Civilization is about grander things than making sure every single point of trade is spent in a turn.

Early in the game

Early in the game, the Arabian lands are still undeveloped. Note that the terrain, even without buildings, produces hammers (the yellowish symbol top left of some squares), and trade (blue/red, in the same place on others). Thus, a well-situated city need not have many buildings to be valuable

The Fame and Fortune expansion broadly remembers this. One of its main introductions, coin-investments, adds very little extra complication, in that it mostly allows coins to be spent for other currencies (with say, an investment of three coins in an endowment for the arts reducing the cost of advancing along the culture track by two tokens per step). The other significant step Fame and Fortune takes, however, is to attach cards to the culture track’s great people. These do, in the main, introduce rules exceptions which ought to be remembered. It must be said that many offer one time effects – for instance, Albert Einstein can be discarded in order to ‘spend any amount of trade to gain an equal amount of culture tokens’ or the reverse. One time only it might be, but it is a power the player has to keep in mind (possibly for many turns), if he or she hopes to use it to best effect. These cards have potential to produce memorable experiences, as in the example with Gustavus Adolphus above, but trying to remember, and successfully utilize, two or three of these abilities does add somewhat to the brain energy the game requires. Otherwise, Fame and Fortune, largely adds more of the same – new civilizations, new technologies, new benefits for raiding barbarian villages. This is pretty sensible, and the expansion is worth owning. Whether another expansion offering similar would still feel worthwhile is doubtful, however.

On the whole, though,  Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game does offer the kind of experience it ought. Some may not like the extent to which playing as a given civilization pushes the player towards a particular victory condition (especially with Fame and Fortune, attempting a culture victory with a civilization not directed towards this feels like serious folly). Nevertheless, you, for the most part, can play the ruthless dictator or benevolent king or queen of your civilization, and not its finance minister or treasurer. Ironically, this is made possible through Wilson’s wise decision to distil a good proportion of building and technology benefits into generating different currencies – in that it means you, the player, are not (too) bogged down in special abilities and rule exceptions. The decisions mostly stay suitably broad. To collect culture this turn, or to spend hammers? To make a late switch towards an unexpected attempt at military victory? Which pesky Arabian city to nuke?

2 thoughts on “Arabian Knights: A Review of Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game and its expansion, Fame and Fortune

  1. Pingback: Revisions, January 2013: Sid Meier’s Civilization; Hey, That’s My Fish!; Food Chain; Oregon | Painted Wooden Cubes

  2. Pingback: The New Year Hit Parade | Painted Wooden Cubes

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