Bytes & Pieces: How to Enjoy Civilization Like a Barbarian

Sid Meier’s classic Civilization series is perhaps the most obvious choice in all video gaming when it comes to franchises begging to be turned into a board game. Particularly given that it took inspiration from the old Avalon Hill Civilization and Advanced Civilization board games

Eagle Games made the attempt back in 2002 with a weak, underwhelming licensed game. A few years later we had the superb Through the Ages, which obviously owed a huge debt to Sid Meier’s games but lacked official acknowledgement. It wasn’t until 2010 that we got anything vaguely definitive from Fantasy Flight.

The result is quite unlike every other video-to-tabletop translation that I’ve played. Because of the huge gulf between digital and physical, most settle for achieving the soft stuff. They feel right, seem correct, evoke a sense of similarity.

Civilization doesn’t settle for that. With such a tabletop-like game to begin with, it tries to go the whole shebang and recreate those randomly generated digital worlds in cardboard before your eyes. But this is an impossible task. Even the streamlined Civilization V, which inspired the board game, contains a wealth of micromanagement—far too much to replicate with cardboard and counters.

Instead, this design settles for stripping every subsystem back to its bare essentials and slotting it into the game. The result should still be unwieldy—a clumsy jigsaw of badly interlocking parts—but in testament to the skill of the designers, it manages to hang together as a cohesive, satisfying, and relatively accessible whole.

What’s lost, in any case, are the things that players often found annoying: There’s no happiness or population growth; Combat has been pared down to a minimum of units and a bizarre subsystem in which stacks of unit cards are represented by figures on the board; Each player can only ever found two cities. It all feels instantly familiar.

Fans of the computer series may find these changes to be annoying, or perhaps even jarring given how closely the game hews to the source. But what they really should be doing is marveling at how much of those dense, complex game mechanics are still here for their enjoyment.

There’s a randomly generated map built of modular tiles. This can’t equal procedural generation, of course, but it’s the closest we’re going to get in a physical game. There are multiple ways to win, including military and technology. There’s trade and culture, the latter managed by a mean deck of cards or the procurement of a great person to help lead your civilization. It’s all there, just like you remember it, but just stripped back a little bit.

There’s even switching governments, with Anarchy in between (if you change to a system you’ve only just researched, that is). That’s cleverly using a video game mechanic to do a board game job: stopping players from flipping governments every turn for maximal advantage.

Speaking of which, perhaps the most brilliant thing in the box is the research pyramid. Video games can have mind-bogglingly complex technology trees with sensible synergistic relationships for building up research. A board game doesn’t have that luxury.

Here we instead have the simple rules of building a pyramid. To get a technology of a given level, you have to have at two technologies of the level beneath to build on top of. At a stroke this mimics the sensation of slowly building toward space flight with a minimum of fuss. It’s brilliant.

That sensation of a gradual build-up is a big part of the pleasure of playing the video game—seeing your obedient populace grow from a meager settlement on a river bank to a globe-spanning empire. With so much brought across in compact form, it’s no surprise the board game manages to keep this sense intact, too. Sure, the globe is a little bit smaller, but any loss of scale gets compensated by the delight of getting to build your empire right under your friends’ noses.

That’s the big draw here. In the modern age, most games can be networked. Indeed, the three most recent iterations of the Civilization video game are all playable online.

One might ask, when you can have all the challenge and complexity of those games combined with real human opponents and the convenience of asynchronous play, why bother with a board game? The answer is because it’s one thing to crush your enemies and see them driven before you on a screen . . . but quite another to do it in real life. And to hear the lamentations of their women, too.



Sid Meier’s Civilization (2010)


Written by Matt Thrower

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