Designer: James Kniffen
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
2-4 players, 60-120mins
Price: £45-50 approx
Many will roll their eyes when they think of Civilization, either in despair at the way Sid Meier’s computer version has become the ‘de facto go-to’ whenever anyone mentions the game, or because they have memories of a game designed by Francis Tresham back in 1980 that was guaranteed to swallow at least 7-8 hrs of your life, and like as not 10+ hrs if you played it with the full complement of 7 players.
Despite its fearsome reputation, the original Civilization isn’t a complicated game to play, although it could take a bit of planning to achieve what you planned to over the course of a few turns. Indeed, apart from the convoluted trade/purchase civilization cards phase, the main reason it’s considered ‘fiddly’ is because the cardboard chits (especially the ships) are generally too large to fit into some of the board spaces, making things look very crowded and significantly increasing the ire of fellow players should you be unfortunate enough to knock or jog the table and mess up the board state at any stage during the game!
Civilization: A New Dawn is a much more streamlined, player-friendly version of the classic original, with the same core principles, but a considerably simplified gameplay system at its heart, and not a ship or army counter in sight. Arguably, it’s been over-simplified and ‘dumbed-down’ too much for some, but that’s an argument for another day, I suspect. Fans of the original may turn their noses up at this version, but I’d suggest they’re depriving themselves of a real treat: this game is fun, quick, and does a grand job of getting across that feeling of expanding your empire in a relatively short time frame.
So how does it play?
Each player takes a random Civilization Leader sheet from the 8 included, selects a colour and sets up their Focus Bar according to the layout shown on their Leader sheet. The Focus Bar is the core mechanic of the game, and deserves further explanation (see later), but once you know how it works, the rest of the game is a total breeze to play.
Initially, setting up the board can be a faff, but the rulebook does go into detail (with diagrams) to ensure you do things properly and generate a different board for every game, although there is a ‘beginner’s set-up’ recommended for your first game:
On the board will also be a number of spaces that need filling in with the relevant tokens: barbarian dens, independent city-states, natural wonders, and natural resources. With the Advanced Map Building rules, you’ll occasionally get the odd ‘hole’ in the map, and these are just filled with water tokens to complete the set-up.
Winning the game involves achieving one of the two victory conditions shown on each of the starting Victory Cards. There are only five of these cards in the game, and three are selected randomly to determine the game end conditions, although players can use four Victory Cards for a slightly longer game. Once you’ve achieved one of the Victory Conditions (“Control 2 natural wonders”, for example), you cannot lose it again, so if you tick this one off the list, it doesn’t matter if you subsequently lose control of one or both of those natural wonders because that Victory Condition has already been achieved. On the flip-side, there’s no point aiming for the other Victory Condition on the same card, because you can’t score that card a second time: achieving 3 out of 6 conditions is your aim. There’s been some discussion among players (and in my own group) about changing how this works to keep things ‘fresh’, because it does seem really restrictive, but I suspect Fantasy Flight have their eye on an expansion, possibly to increase player numbers and/or victory options?
So far we’re not really feeling the Civilization-vibe as we know it, but once the game begins, you’ll be expanding your empire, increasing your technology levels, fending off and conquering barbarian states, and building cities in earnest, as well as sending your caravans all over the map to pick up additional trade tokens and ‘diplomacy cards’: these give you various advantages and/or go a little way to protect you from attack by your rival players, but won’t stop them entirely…
At it’s heart, the game revolves around the rather cool but nonetheless simple Focus Bar mechanic, which is a 5-space bar that sits in front of you and has five distinct terrain types numbered 1 to 5 along the top (Grassland, Hills, Forest, Desert, and Mountain). These ‘slots’ not only depict the difficulty level of that terrain to conquer/cross, but are also linked directly to the relative ‘strength’ of the technology card beneath it (technology tracks are: Culture, Economy, Industry, Military, and Science — the order they start the game under the Focus Bar will vary according to your starting Civ Leader).
In brief, Culture allows you to place control tokens down to expand your territory and conquer adjacent spaces (incl. natural wonders and resources), Economy lets you use your caravans, Industry allows you to build new cities or purchase/build a world wonder, Military lets you perform attacks or Reinforce your control tokens (placed using Culture and valuable for protecting your cities from barbarians and other players), and Science will advance your Tech Dial a number of spaces and potentially allow you to increase the level of a technology card currently in your Focus Bar (it gives additional trade tokens at higher levels, too).
Each technology card starts at level I but can be researched and expanded up to level IV during the course of the game by advancing your technology, and if your level I Science card is under the level 1 terrain type/slot (Grassland), it’s only worth 1 point on the Tech Dial, for example, whereas if it’s under the level 5 Mountain slot, it’ll be worth 5 points on the Dial. Similarly, if you use your Economy/Caravan card under the Grassland/1 slot, you can only move through that terrain type, whereas if it’s under the Desert/4 slot, you can move your caravan(s) through any terrain type of Desert level or below (but not through Mountains which are level 5). Predictably, as the tech level of your cards increase, so does their relative power/ability (caravans move further, you can place more control tokens, your military strength is increased, etc) and of course, the further they are along the Focus Bar, the more powerful they become.
Every turn, players must choose a card from their Focus Bar to resolve, and then place it back in the first slot, shifting all the remaining cards one slot across (thus making them more powerful). Common sense would suggest that you try and maximise your gains by always using the card under the fifth slot (Mountain), but things are never that easy, since using a card will send it back to the first slot (and weaken its ability). A large part of the gameplay and strategy stems from knowing when to play each card, and at which slot level it’s effect will still benefit your current situation, thereby requiring you to balance a card’s current effect with the benefits of building up the strength of another card that’ll move along the Focus Bar and become more effective.
It’s a really elegant system, and works so well within the confines of the gameplay that it becomes a game in itself to manoeuvre your cards into the slot(s) where they’ll do you the most good, and takes nothing away from the core experience of expanding your empire and increasing your technology, etc.
Each turn (once all players have taken an action), the Event Dial marker will move along, which indicates whether something else happens: Barbarians move (random direction), they respawn at their respective dens, or players can collect additional trade tokens for any mature cities they have.
A ‘mature city’ is defined as a city surrounded by control tokens or water (or the edge of the board), and any trade tokens you earn are placed on one of your technology cards to augment the effect of the card should you choose to spend them (they can also be earned through defeating barbarians or using your caravans to visit cities).
Play continues in this manner until one player has achieved at least three of the relevant Victory conditions to win the game (one from each Victory Card, remember).
There are strategies aplenty, and while natural wonders will provide ongoing additional resources (marble, oil, mercury or diamond) that can be used towards building world wonders, those same world wonders offer ongoing additional benefits to your civilization as a whole, and thus are usually worth pursuing when the opportunity arises.
There’s still some discussion among my own group as to whether or not the level IV Military card (Flight) is too powerful —it allows you to ignore rival spaces, water, and barbarians when tracing a path to your target(s)— but so far all of our New Dawn games have proved quite competitive, and very enjoyable, which is always a positive sign in my book.
With its innovative ‘focus bar’ mechanism, and considerably shortened playing time —4 players can comfortably finish a game within 2 hrs— this is without doubt an easy game to recommend, whether you’re a fan of the original, or just intrigued to see what they’ve done with the franchise. A good game, and great fun, too, all told.