Mega Civilization Early-Game Strategy Guide

It’s easy to go into a game of MegaCivilization feeling a bit overwhelmed – especially if you’re playing a full-on game of 12 or more players, or if you’re new to the game and have little experience of prior versions. There is a lot of stuff going on, and the huge array of civilization advances available for purchase makes the strategy space look huge (a lot larger than it actually is). Additionally, if you’re an Advanced Civilization veteran, that game may have taught you some bad habits you’ll have to break.

So here are some strategy tips to get you started. This is not how to win the game; this is how to avoid getting into an unrecoverable hole in the first third. For the most part I’m going to assume you’re using the Basic AST, but I’ll throw in a few comments for the Expert AST as well (in the critical early game where choices make or break you, I don’t think it makes a huge difference).

For clarity, there are three very different versions of Civilization, and I’ll refer to them in this piece by their official names:

Civilization: The 1980 Francis Tresham classic, published first by Hartland Trefoil then by Avalon Hill.

Advanced Civilization: The 1991 Avalon Hill design-by-committee total rebuild, spearheaded by Bruce Harper.

Mega Civilization: The 12-hour, 18-player, 22-kilo monstrosity you are now contemplating, designed by Flo de Haan and John Rodriguez.

Your Primary Goal

There are two things you want to bear in mind here. Firstly, the goal for the first third of the game or so is to get yourself into a position where you can build and keep 8 or possibly 9 cities from turn to turn. The high-numbered trade cards are hugely valuable, and if you can’t get reliable access to them, you not only won’t win, it’ll be hard to even feel like you’re accomplishing anything in the game. In Civilization you could compete while maintaining 6 cities most of the time; in Mega Civilization (as in Advanced Civilization), you cannot. You can maybe squeak by with 7, but really need to have 8 (or 9) to play. Secondly, when planning your civilization card acquisition strategy to achieve this goal, geography is destiny.

Although Mega Civilization has generally leveled each culture’s access to board resources compared to earlier versions of the game and so flattened things out a bit, there are still significant differences in how they play. In Civilization, Egypt has great geography but a punishing AST, while Minoa has really problematic geography but a very forgiving AST. In Mega Civ, all 18 cultures have essentially the same AST, but that doesn’t mean they’re all the same. Generally, cultures will either have easy access to adequate farmland, or adequate city sites, but not both. If you do have have slightly better geography (like Egypt), you’ll have some sort of vulnerability to calamities. The dynamics of the game make it hard to count on taking land from your neighbors and keeping it long-term to solve the 8-city problem, so you need to figure out how to make the most of the areas in your natural sphere of influence. Acquiring the cards you need to establish and keep 8 cities is your top priority.

As a general policy, you’re going to want to focus on two colors of civilization advances and not get spread too thin – the key to ultimate victory is leveraging a lot of credits to acquire points cheaply and not so much building a tableau of synergizing special powers. Once you’ve figured out which advances form the core of your development strategy – the core abilities that really are vitally important to you – the middle game will then involve expanding on that portfolio by taking advantage of the credits you’ve acquired to get cards that give you the best VPs for the investment. Category credits tend to dwarf the credits from the various 3-card sequences, so stay focussed on categories as much as possible. However, every credit counts, and the sequences can be important early before category credits have had a chance to fully develop. So I think they’re important to look at in the early game.

If you have city sites but not enough land (Minoa, Dravidia), you simply have to have Agriculture. The other advances on that track (Pottery -> Agriculture -> Democracy) are both extremely useful, so plan on getting Pottery first. There really is no other way. Since these cultures generally tend to be short tokens on the board but have plenty of space to shift tokens from stock to treasury, Architecture and Coinage can be very valuable. Since they can also be disproportionately vulnerable to city reductions, protection against Slave Revolt, Superstition, and Civil Disorder should be a priority.

If you have land but not city sites, this is a more forgiving but also somewhat more complex situation. Part of the solution (and possibly the entire solution) will be building at least a few expensive wilderness cities. Urbanism can be helpful here for some terrain, but not always – look closely and make sure it’s going to help, because unfortunately the other advances on that track are somewhat specialized (Diplomacy, Provincial Empire). Architecture is more clearly useful. The most important key to wilderness cities though is just making sure you have to rebuild them as infrequently as possible, so look to the blues and reds for calamity insurance: Music, Drama & Poetry, Law, and potentially Monarchy. The Music track (Music -> Enlightenment -> Philosophy) is particularly attractive, Mysticism -> Monument -> Wonder of the World is broadly useful if a little pricey on a cash-per-point basis, and Mythology -> Literacy is a good early bootstrap for credits, AST requirements, and some calamity avoidance.

Warfare is generally not a great option for acquiring the land or city sites you need. At least on the West map, though, you can sometimes “snipe” city sites – opportunistically grab empty, unused ones (this is harder on the East map, which is generally tighter and also lacks the interior superhighway that is the Mediterranean Sea). If you want to take a chance on this, you’ll want to buy Astronavigation and Clothmaking to be able to get to the sites, plus Metalworking and Engineering to take and hold on to them. This is a tough way to go, but for some restricted civilizations (like Africa), civilizations that require seafaring anyway (Minoa, Saba), or civilizations with centralized locations with lots of coastal access (Minoa again, maybe Persia) this may be an option. Just remember, your exclave cities can be juicy targets for neighbors – especially when you’re holding valuable trade card from turn to turn and everyone knows it – so you need to defend them. Military is generally a somewhat dubious purchase because its advantages can be ephemeral, the calamities it makes worse are terrible, and the track it’s on isn’t super-attractive, but if you’re going to try to play the game of dodging and weaving and filling in gaps and think Military is an important piece of this, make getting it a priority (Military’s advantage of moving last is at least as important when on defense as it is on offense). For Civilization and Advanced Civilization veterans, note that map resources in Mega Civilization are much tighter than they used to be, and the east map is tighter still. In both previous games, there was often a little bit of extra space that cultures could flow into. This is just not the case anymore, especially in the early and middle game (in the late game, technology may create breathing room). So if you do start pushing on your neighbors with the various offensive tech, the opposition may be bitter because they literally have nowhere to go and any losses in territory may simply leave them without enough resources to play the game.

The other big geographic factor is your neighborhood risk. Some powers have lots of neighbors (Minoa, Hatti, Kushun, and in fact many eastern cultures). This is usually not great. They tend to get uppity from time to time. While warfare isn’t going to be a major factor in the game most likely, more and longer borders means a greater risk of low-level border conflict which results in some losses at inopportune times, and coping with that should be part of your strategy. Metalworking is an obvious purchase if you’re already investing in the crafts, although you don’t want to go further down that track (Military -> Advanced Military) than absolutely necessary because of the added calamity risk. The Deism -> Fundamentalism -> Monotheism track might be a better option. Diplomacy combined with strategically placed walls of cities can be very useful, although the Diplomacy track (Urbanism -> Diplomacy -> Provincial Empire) is otherwise not that generally attractive. Engineering is another excellent hedge.

The final factor you need to account for in your early development is calamity insurance. Calamities are brutal. You’ll need to make significant investments in avoiding them. You need to look at this in two ways, general risks and your specific risks.

The specific is making sure to protect yourself against calamities that are particularly dangerous to your civilization. The big one is Flood; if you’re one of the nations with a major flood plain presence (Egypt, Indus) you really want to get Engineering. Although Cyclone doesn’t show up until the 7 pile, some players are particularly vulnerable. Slave Revolt can be devastating to cultures which have a narrow margin of city support, typically the ones with lots of city sites but not that much agricultural support (Dravidia, Minoa). Mythology is cheap and on a good track (Literacy has tons of credits and is cheap points for early AST hurdles). Enlightenment is also good, and is on a generally useful track with Music. Nations with lots of cities on low-value sites can be particularly vulnerable to city reduction, coming via Slave Revolt and Superstition (early) and Civil Disorder (later). Agriculture might appear to help with city reduction, but since it makes Famine worse, you don’t want it for that reason alone, but if you have to have it for some other reason, it can help (just buy Pottery).

Most calamities though are of general risk to anyone. Civil War is potentially the most serious, and if it’s combined with a higher-value calamity like Epidemic or Tyranny it can be a virtual game-loser if you don’t have mitigation (if you’re facing a combo like this, it can be worth trading to try to get more calamities to avoid it). Getting Music and/or Drama and Poetry early helps a lot, also protects you against the potentially devastating Civil Disorder, and they are on good tracks. These are good investments for anyone. Epidemic is another nasty one, and Medicine and Enlightenment both help – since you’re probably buying Music anyway, look at Music -> Enlightenment. Barbarian Hordes is a pain but there isn’t a really great option; Monarchy’s downside of making Tyranny worse probably isn’t worth it unless you want Monarchy for other reasons. Tyranny is a new calamity in the 7 stack which should not be underestimated – it’s basically a Civil War that is guaranteed to be bad even if your culture is compact – and you’ll want Law. Sculpture is also helpful for some reason, and while I wouldn’t buy it early, I’d definitely sweep it up if you’ve built up a bunch of Arts credits. Regression is a direly bad non-tradeable calamity in the 9 pile, and before you go to 9 cities you’ll want Enlightenment or Library to stave it off. This sounds like a lot of stuff to keep in mind, but the good news is that the bottom line is pretty easy: reducing the impact of any of these calamities is good, and everyone is vulnerable to them. Whether you’re mitigating Epidemic or Tyranny or Civil War isn’t a huge distinction, and you can manage your risks in different ways (broad-spectrum vs. investing heavily in the mitigating the calamities that scare you the most). But you do need to manage them.

There are a number of advances that have abilities you might quite like, but make common and nasty calamities worse: Agriculture, Military, Mining, Road Building, Provincial Empire, Trade Empire. You should never buy these cards unless you have already invested in insurance against those calamities, you have credits that make them cheap, and they are crucial to what you are trying to accomplish. You never know, you might not get hit by those specific calamities, but hope doesn’t stop Epidemics when they hit. You need to set yourself up for these if you want them, not just in terms of having the money and credits but also in terms of having mitigated the calamities they aggravate. If you get lucky early and rack up a huge stack of Grain, say, it can be really tempting to jump the sequence and grab an extremely powerful advance like Trade Empire. This is quite risky. Not only are you making bad calamities a lot worse (the marginal pain of each additional unit point of loss keeps increasing), you’re not buying 2 or 3 or even 4 cards of calamity mitigation instead. In Advanced Civilization, it was a pretty good strategy to just buy expensive stuff and hope; if you got hit by a lot of calamities you weren’t going to win anyway, so you might as well just assume you were going to dodge them. Mega Civilization has changed this calculus somewhat by significantly increasing the number of severe calamities in the game and giving you more, better ways to mitigate them. Additionally, if you’re using the Expert AST, the requirements there for a broad base (lots of low-cost advances) makes jumping the sequences difficult.

This is a lot of stuff to balance. The key thing here is not so much to have all the answers going in, but to look at the board at the start of the game, have a sense of the character of the culture you’re playing, and pick a small handful of advances that are crucial to your early expansion and survivability. Early advances are crucial. You can’t afford to buy stuff early just because that’s how many points you had to spend, or for the credits, or as foundation for later advances, even though those things can be important. You have to buy things that are going to help you in practical ways towards your goal of maintaining 8 (or ideally 9) cities, be that in helping you draw more trade cards, get more units on the board, reduce the harm of calamities, or make it easier to recover afterwards, all while trying to retain a focus on one to two categories. The faster you get to a stable 8 cities, the more likely you are to win. Once you’re established, then you can focus on using credits to rack up points.

Let’s look at a couple different cultures and I’ll lay out what I see as their strengths and weaknesses, and brainstorm early card acquisition strategies. I’ll talk about what order you might look at cards, which is more about prioritization than about the actual order you might purchase them in, which is bound to be affected by the ebbs and flows of trade and calamities.

Dravidia

Dravidia has plenty of city sites but lousy agricultural land. They have a neighbor to the north (Maurya) who is really crunched for city sites and might have a large population looking at you greedily, but there is a fortified border with your western neighbor (Indus) that will probably be stable. Sometimes neighbors like Dravidia and Maurya with opposite problems can arrange land swaps (city site spaces for agricultural spaces), but unlike the flexible situation in Greece there just isn’t an obvious way this works here. If Saba and Nubia are in play there might be some seafaring opportunities, but this is unlikely to be a strong option. The flood plain is ignorable, but Cyclone can be a problem, as can Superstition and Slave Revolt. I’d focus on Agriculture first and calamity mitigation second. Without Agriculture, you can’t support 8 cities. Once you have that, though, you should have enough resources in your core area to manage, so concentrate on protecting them.

The top priority, well above anything else, is Pottery ->  Agriculture. The lack of arable land is quite dire.

After that, I’d go for calamity mitigation: Music -> Enlightenment, Mythology -> Literacy, with the Mysticism -> Monument -> Wonder of the World track as a possibility.

Other good targets include Masonry, Drama & Poetry, Architecture, and Law.

From looking at this core of cards, Crafts are an obvious main focus, with either Religion or Arts as a good secondary. When you get “wild” credits (Written Record, Monument) I’d prioritize Crafts. I’d probably target Wonder of the World for a first high-end purchase, just because unlike Trade Empire it doesn’t come with pain, with Trade Empire second. However, Trade Empire can be disproportionately valuable in large games (12+ players) where building large sets of trade cards becomes much, much harder. If your tolerance for calamity risk is higher than mine, this can be a very strong mid-game purchase if you’ve racked up a lot of crafts credits, especially when using the Basic AST.

Egypt

You’ve got a serious flood plain problem, and now that the Flood calamity has been moved to the 4 stack you have to worry about that earlier. Your frontiers are extremely secure, although if Nubia is in you might get some pressure from them – they’re a balanced power with good but not great city site availability, good but not great agriculture, but little excess calamity exposure. You do have a vulnerable coast, but seafaring as a strategy seems to be less popular in Mega Civ than it was in the old days (the Science category credits used to be enormous). You can absorb city reductions fairly easily but Flood, Cyclone, Civil War, and Tyranny are all nasty for you. Some of the cities that guard your borders are also very hard for you to retake if you lose them.

Without the crushing need for Agriculture that Dravidia has, you have more flexibility in what you want to target early. I’d focus on the problem that your best city sites are also your most fertile areas which will force you to build a few wilderness cities despite your plethora of city sites, and the advantages of your ability to play defense and maintain a large treasury. You’ll have to get Engineering, and Coinage is great for treasury and population management, so let’s explore Sciences as a primary category.

A set of advances to focus on early might include: Urbanism (some of your good sites for wilderness cities are a bit out of the way), Coinage, Written Record, Cartography, Medicine, and Calendar; Engineering isn’t a crushing priority the way Agriculture is for Dravidia, but get it as soon as is reasonable – it also helps to defend your frontier cities.

For a secondary category, I like the Arts for its combination of calamity protection and giving you ways to use your treasury: Sculpture -> Architecture (Architecture is extremely valuable in recovering from calamities), Drama and Poetry -> Rhetoric, Music, Literacy -> Mathematics (skip Mythology since you aren’t particularly vulnerable to Slave Revolt). Since you’ll tend to have fortified borders, Diplomacy can look attractive, but in fact it is highly situational – in the Levant at least, both sides of the border will tend to be fortified, making conflict very unlikely.

Egypt has a bunch of good options though. You might choose to focus heavily on mitigating higher-end calamities like Civil War, Tyranny, Iconoclasm & Heresy, and Regression since you are both more vulnerable to those and a generally strong culture that doesn’t have that serious a difficulty maintaining 7-9 cities. Make Engineering, Architecture, and Enlightenment your first priorities (although you might need to build up to these with Sculpture and Music and first) to build up to 9 cities as fast as possible, then go all-in for calamity avoidance. I’d avoid the more expensive Crafts though (Mining, Trade Empire, Agriculture, Roadbuilding) which offer benefits you don’t really need and credits towards cards that are not vital to you in exchange for making painful calamities worse.

Celt

You’ve got a lot of problems. You’re short on almost everything. You have a lot of neighbors (the good news/bad news on this is that you don’t really have anything they want). At least you don’t have a lot of specific calamity vulnerability, and without a lot of players you probably aren’t even in the game.

Due to your sprawling expanse and low population numbers, Pottery->Agriculture probably represents your best first step to sustainability. That’ll give you a lot of tokens you can turn into wilderness cities. I probably wouldn’t bother with Urbanism; border wilderness cities just aren’t that difficult for you to build. However, wilderness cities are extremely expensive and you have only a paltry 5 city sites in your nominal sphere of influence. You could pursue a strategy of aggressive wilderness city building, aggressive calamity prevention, and fortified borders, but that’s fairly expensive, so let’s look at a strategy of going hunting for some more by focusing on Crafts and then branching into either Religion or Civics.

Start with Pottery -> Agriculture, then Metalworking and Cloth Making.

Add in Engineering and Astronavigation as feasible.

You then want to choose between a military option and running the Deism -> Fundamentalism -> Monotheism track.

If you want Military, get it by the early middle game. The problem is, Military aggravates Civil War. The cheap cards that mitigate Civil War, Music and Drama & Poetry, are both good but take focus away from your primarily goals. So, get one if you can at low opportunity cost, but Military alone isn’t going to cut it and you don’t want to delay building out the suite of powers you will need. Focus on building resiliency and making the recovery easier. Get Coinage so you can tax at 1 to give you the best shot at a large population when needed. Astronavigation and Clothmaking will allow you the most flexibility in flowing into available space. Then just keep pushing the military angle into Advanced Military and Naval Warfare so if you get into a fight, you win it. Once you have a large suite of military advantages, this is a potent (if problematic from a calamity perspective) mix. If you do get hit disproportionately by calamities, you will be in serious trouble. There are a ton of risks here, and they may not be great risks. But you’re the Celts. You don’t play it safe like the Egyptians. Once you’ve bought into the big military stuff, definitely back-fill with Music and Drama and Poetry because Civil War and Civil Disorder have become enormous risks. You can use the very large Civics credits you’ve built up to back-fill Law, Democracy, and maybe Monarchy and Theocracy to solidify your position.

The Religions offer less punch, but probably have a better risk profile. You should go Deism -> Fundamentalism -> Monotheism first to give you the leverage over your many neighbors that you need, so you can hope to get up to 8 cities. But after that, fill in Mythology and Enlightenment. Universal Doctrine can be OK since city reductions probably aren’t terrible for you with Agriculture.

The key with the Military and aggressive Religion advances is not to screw around. Get them early, use them often, build your culture around them, and make peace with the fact that you may not be that popular at the after-party. However, it’s important to remember what the goal here is: get and maintain 8 cities. Never, ever needlessly antagonize your neighbors past a certain point. Don’t go on aimless crusades just because you can. 8 cities is all that matters. Keep your eyes on the prize.

Having just expounded on how to explore an aggressive strategy, let’s also bear in mind that for the Celts to get to 8 cities, you only need to build 3 wilderness cities, that’s actually not ridiculously hard, and you have the space. Unlike some cultures that are short agricultural land, getting to 8 cities is not technically that difficult. But it is costly, and Mega Civilization is basically a race to score the most points. Winning means buying advances, buying advances requires acquiring trade cards, acquiring trade cards requires cities, and cities require population. Your population growth limits your level of urbanization, and building wilderness cities quite seriously limits your population grown. You could argue that settling for building large numbers of wilderness cities means conceding a significant head start in the game to your neighbors, and since Mega Civilization is a race of constant acceleration, a head start is not something you want to give up. Honestly, I don’t know if this argument is totally persuasive. But it’s easy to make.

TL;DR: stay focused on two sometimes contradictory goals, your need to get yourself up to 8 (or possibly 9) cities, and your need to develop a primary and a secondary category color to maximize your credits. This is where the tough trade-offs are in Mega Civilization. In Civilization, the game was mostly in the race to acquire crucial cards and in managing the difficult risks associated with the AST hurdles. In Advanced Civilization, the game was around maximizing your credits and economy and making sure you got to play Egypt or Babylon. In Mega Civilization, you have to balance the need to mitigate the on-board calamity risk of your culture with the need to maximize credits and trade values. The game is ultimately won on points, which means buying lots of high-value advances cheaply, which means focusing on leveraging credits. However, you can’t win without a stable 8-city culture that is resistant to calamities, and that means you’ll have to diversify to some degree – and the need is highest early, when resources are tight and those credits would otherwise make a bigger difference.

Moving on From the Early Game

While the main goal here is to get you through the early game with a solid foundation, here are a few things to bear in mind once you move into the middle game – once you are stable at 8-ish cities and are starting to accumulate significant numbers of credits.

Trading: Aggressiveness and flexibility is highly rewarded in trading, as long as it’s not stupid. Don’t be afraid to deal. If you’re playing in a very large game (12 or more players, and things are even more challenging with 15 or more) you’re really going to have to work just because there are so many commodities and so many of them are split between east and west. Getting anything at all done may require doing multiple intermediate trades. Try hard to focus on commodities valued 6 or higher just to reduce the number of deals you have to do, assuming the board is rich enough (this is good advice in all game configurations of Advanced and Mega Civilization). In general, you want to be able to turn in full or very close to full sets. It’s virtually always worth passing on purchasing anything for a turn in order to complete your set unless the discards are really painful.

Don’t mistake success for competence: Just because you’re killing it, racking up civilization advances, don’t automatically assume you’re doing everything right. It could just be that you’ve been really lucky in avoiding calamities. Don’t let overconfidence lead you into overextension, buying big advances that don’t help you that much and aggravate serious calamities. Eventually – well, sometimes – calamities will catch up with you and if you’re over-extended it can really, really hurt. If you get hit by a Civil War with a couple aggravators (Military, Philosophy) and no mitigation, that may well be a the end of your game right there. Always manage your calamity risk.

Building on your core portfolio: The two ASTs are different, but not as different as you might think. This is a raw points game, in that you win by having the most points at the end. You get points, primarily, by purchasing civilization advances. The way you get ahead is by getting more for less. The way you do that is by mindfully leveraging the category and sequence credits. When cards are not essential – as they often won’t be after the early game – the powers they offer will probably not be as important as getting value. So, stay focussed on one or two categories, let the credits in other categories build up from incidental credits, and roll up cheap advances as convenient. There are lots of shiny objects in the game, advances that are expensive and look cool and that you can buy. If they don’t have special powers that synergize well with your portfolio, remember: the game is won on points. A big credit base makes a huge difference in the cost-per-victory-point.

The Expert AST: The difference between the Basic and Expert AST is that the Expert AST forces you to buy a bunch of cheap advances, whether they are useful or not. This does add some additional pressures and trade-offs; the main one is that you don’t want to have to buy cards that give each other credits on the same turn if convenient (typically, this means buying just one card from each color on a turn). You’re going to have to buy all the cards with a cost less than 100, so the best way to do it is over time rather than in big spurts. Moreso than with the basic AST, you’re going to be working your way up the chart, and skipping ahead to expensive advances will add some AST risk. However, you want to always be aware that sets of trade cards increase hugely in value with the last few cards. You’re leaving a lot of relatively easy money on the table if you turn in a set short one or two cards. Holding for a turn to acquire the cards you need will probably be much more economically efficient than wasting a few credits. The 5-point hit for a space on the AST is a lot, but it’s not a game-wrecking a lot, and most people will probably lose a step at some point. So do some thumbnail math on how much you’re giving up to save that AST step.

A Final Note

Mega Civilization is a huge game that gives you a rich variety of cultures to try your hand at. To my mind, the variety that the game gives you is not in the bewildering array of civilization advances – the choices there are less than they seem for a number of reasons – but in the range of geography and cultural interactions. The mapboard setups laid out in the rules give you standard configurations for different numbers of players, but as far as I can tell there is actually nothing magical about those particular arrangements. If you have 6 players, you can play with any reasonably contiguous set of 6 cultures as shown on the master culture map. Want to play game with the western cultures? Just use the Celt, Iberia, Carthage, Rome, Hellas, and Minoa areas as indicated on the master map and mark everything else out. Want to bring the Celts into a 12 or 14 player game? Kick out Parthia, bring in the Celts, and make Hatti an eastern power. Just aim for compactness (Celt, Iberia, Carthage, Egypt, Nubia would obviously be weird). In my opinion, changing up the standard geographies is important to keeping the game lively and fresh.

Mega Civilization has a lot of strategy space to explore. Like a lot of these games, the joy is in doing that exploration and figuring out what works and what doesn’t, and there is far more beyond what I’ve laid out here for you to enjoy. Hopefully these guidelines and suggestions for the early game will get you past the initial hurdles of wrestling with the system (which certainly can be frustrating) and on to the fun of exploration and calamity management.

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Civilization

We were able to round up 5 players for our game, so we used the Western Extension Map, which adds Iberia and western North Africa. I like this configuration with 5 because it removes Egypt and Babylon from the game, and those nations are tough to play despite tremendous geographic advantages, because of their need to build 2 cities early which cripples their population growth. We ended up with Assyria, Thrace, Illyria, Iberia, and Africa in play, which worked out pretty well I thought. There isn’t quite as much pressure on space as there is with the regular configuration – most of us were able to keep at least 7 cities up most of the time – but this didn’t seem like a major deal.

Figuring out what number of players is the optimal number for Civilization is a little tricky. More players gives some fairly intense competition for Civilization cards since there are only 4 of each type, which is good. On the other hand, more players also seriously stresses the trading phase (as we shall see), as there seem to just not be enough cards to go around. Build too many cities, and you can get rather shut out as large numbers of stacks of commodities are depleted by the time it gets to you. You can throw in the expansion trade cards (Timber, Oil, etc.), but this isn’t a particularly satisfactory solution either because it seems to add too many new cards to the mix, and it significantly increases the randomness of the game. That said, they do seem almost required for 7 because otherwise things are simply too sparse.

So at the end of the day, I think I can say that 7 players is definitely too many for classic Civilization. My recent plays have always been with 5, and I’ve been pretty happy with how well that has worked out. The trading part of the game seems extremely well balanced at that number. At 5-6 hours, the play time isn’t unreasonable, and since the game increases in length almost linearly with the number of players, adding more can take it over the threshold from “long” to “unworkable”. The only downside with 5 is that you lose the interesting competition for Civilization cards. An idea was floated during our game that when we play again with 5, we should play with only 3 of each regular Civilization card, 2 Mysticism, and 4 Democracy and Philosophy (although the rest of the Civics should have 5 available) to introduce more competition. I like that idea a lot.

Anyway, I enjoyed our game of Civilization, more than I expected to in fact, and I would happily play again anytime. I swore off Advanced Civilization approximately 10 years ago, and since that time I’ve only played classic Civilization intermittently, and it’s taken me a while to unlearn all the things that Advanced Civilization taught me. It’s amazing the number of my instincts that are still wrong. And each time I play again, I appreciate more of the subtlety and depth of the original. Heuristics that were simple and clear-cut for Advanced Civilization are all of a sudden grey and interesting again. I love it.

Take the point-value hurdles in the Late Iron Age. Each nation has certain point objectives they have to meet to win, varying from 1200 to 1400. These have to be met with values of civilization cards and hoarded trade goods. I had internalized the fact that these numbers simply don’t matter; if you’re going to win, you’ll have to exceed them for other reasons anyway, so they make no difference when choosing nations. In our game, though, the player playing Iberia won when he could just barely amass enough points to pass by his 1200 point barrier while Assyria, who looked like he was cruising to an easy win, fell just short of his 1400 point target – even though he had a very strong mix of cards, having bypassed Mysticism and picked up very few cheapies like Pottery. In fact, all the barriers in the game (with the exception – for most people – of getting two cities to get out of the Stone Age) are tough, and a 1400-point box at the end is nothing to sneeze at. Even if you ace the Early Bronze Age by getting Architecture and, say, Astronomy, if let your guard down and have a bad round of trading and a Civil War, you can easily get hammered by the Late Bronze Age’s requirement for 5 cards. It’s great to see an empire-building game where a strong start doesn’t give you a huge leg up in the middle game (it definitely helps, it’s just not huge, that’s all). You have to play well throughout. A corollary here is that getting hit with a lost step on the AST early is bad, but it’s far from fatal. In our game, the only person not to be held up was the eventual winner, and it was a very closely-run thing. Of course, you don’t want to get held up early if you can avoid it, but again … it’s not the kiss of death it has a reputation for being.

The other thing that impressed me this time was how well the trading worked. Sure, everyone says that the best part of Civilization is the trading, but playing it again, it was clear that both a) the trading is cool, and b) the way it feeds back into everything else in the game is also cool. There really aren’t that many systems in Civilization – trading, city maintenance, taxation, civilization cards, calamities – and they all are interlinked, feeding back into each other in important, interesting and surprising ways.

But on the mechanics of trading itself, the simple way in which it works belies surprising depth. Commodities escalate in value in a geometric progression, where the value of n commodities of value x is x * n^2. So 4 Salt (value 3) are worth 3 * 4^2, or 48. There are 9 Salts available in the game, so Salt maxes out at 243 (although on any given turn, not all may be available of course). Each later commodity has one fewer available, so 8 Grains can be worth 256, 7 Cloths 245, 6 Bronze 216, and so on, up to 3 Gold for 81.

Obviously, there are some trade-offs here. Bronze doesn’t go as high as Grain, but it gets there faster. The three commodities in the middle – Grain, Cloth and Bronze – are the most valuable, because they both have a high ceiling and appreciate rapidly. Spice (7) is cool, but with a maximum value of only 175, and with fewer people acquiring it due to the difficulties of maintaining 7 cities, it’s somewhat less attractive. Salt maxes out at a big number, but it takes forever to get there (9 cards can be worth 243, but only 6 Bronze are worth 216). Also, because you can only hold 6 cards at the end of the round, being able to acquire 8 Salt will be rather painful because you will be forced to spend instead of holding out for the last one next round.

So you ideally want to be trading in Grain, Cloth, and Bronze. Not only do they represent good value, and partial sets are easy to save from turn-to-turn, but it’s also not too hard to maintain the 6 cities required to generate them, so there should be plenty out there. But only three people can do this; if two of us are collecting Grain, and we split them, we will each have four grain worth a paltry 64, and will face tough decisions about continuing to hold them until the other is forced to make a purchase by the AST or other factors (thus ensuring ongoing Civil Wars until that time), making a swap that inordinately favors the other player, or cashing out now to buy something less than what we want but to at least get something and let credits and advantages accumulate. Meanwhile, someone who was working in the nominally less-useful Salt probably came out ahead. With 5 players, and only three commodities in the “sweet spot”, there is considerable trading pressure.

Meanwhile, the basic incentive to trade is huge. If you and I each have a single Cloth and a Bronze, we both win big when we swap, regardless of who gets what. Because commodities appreciate so rapidly, you can’t just sit there. The player who quibbles over five or ten points will be in trouble, because just making the deals is so important initially. So in that situation you should always ask for the Bronze (it’s worth more, after all), but all other things being equal you should always take the Cloth and close the deal rapidly if push comes to shove, because moving quickly and scooping up a number of commodities before someone else has time to do the same, causing a painful split, is a very good idea. Just because you aren’t playing with a recommended time limit on trading doesn’t mean it doesn’t pay to be fast. But the incentives to trade weaken dramatically as sets grow in size, because the appreciation right at the end is disproportionately large and so making reasonably fair deals is harder unless we’re both closing out sets. Players invested in less-optimal Salt or Spice can extract very nice trades if they can hold out until they have the last Bronze someone is looking for, and players who are having a weak trading turn due to calamities and whatnot and are not expecting a big payoff until later can hold out and make life interesting. Recognizing when you have the strength to start aggressively collecting Bronze or Cloth, and when you should let others fight it out and try to cherry-pick some Spice or hoard Salt, holding your mid-ranking commodities until you can get a sweet deal, is a critical decision.

In addition, while keeping an eye on these mathematics of trading, you have to be aware of your board position. At a basic level, you don’t want to be acquiring Spice so much if you know you’re not going to have 7 cities next turn because you just drew the Civil War, and so your personal supply is going to dry up. But one also has to keep an eye on what you want or need to acquire, because it’s easy to over-trade. There will usually be constraints on what you can buy, typically because you need to hit a target to pass out of an age, desperately need a technology like Engineering, Metalworking, or Agriculture which may not be available next turn, or need to acquire or wait for credits or pre-requisites to kick in (like acquiring Literacy, Law, and Democracy on sequential turns). It’s a not-infrequent occurrence to trade heavily, pick up a 6th Bronze, and then realize you are unable to spend it. Given how much money you likely gave someone else to get it, this is very bad.

All this is the main reason I have qualms about the variant trade cards. By doubling the number of commodities in the “sweet spot” (adding Oil at value 4, Wine at 5, and Silver at 6), everyone can basically have their own commodity and the trading falls out in a fairly predictable way, with everyone monopolizing one type. Because the disincentive to trading someone the last couple good commodities that they need has been greatly reduced in most cases (because you can usually get a good one back, too), the balances seem to get messed up. In the original game, with fewer commodities, there is more pressure – and pressure is generally good. Granted, when playing with 7 players, you’ll probably need the variant cards just to make up the numbers for dealing out cards each turn.

I could go on with the interesting things I discovered about Civilization getting to play it again, but time and space are limited, so I’ll let you discover some of the rest for yourself. Suffice to say, my respect for this classic game did nothing but increase. Check it out.

So You Want to Play Civilization …

The recent “One Hundred Best Games Ever …” rankings, another survey of a bunch of guys (in fairness, this time there are at least 3 women amongst the 60+ voters) to find their top games, reminded me of one of the current great theory/practice disconnects, that of Francis Tresham’s classic Civilization. While often rated as a great game in these surveys, and while it is in most everyone’s Hall of Fame, I never see it actually on the table anymore. And when I say “never”, I don’t mean “rarely”, I mean that apart from the one game every four or so years I manage to get in, I never see people playing it. While it’s certainly true that Civilization has been squeezed in recent years by games like Tigris & Euphrates and Puerto Rico, and its legacy has been confused by Advanced Civilization – a game to which it is at best only marginally similar – Civilization is still a classic game that deserves to get some play. And folks who have joined our hobby in the last ten or fifteen years may have missed out on classic Civilization entirely, and might enjoy giving it a try; despite the game’s length, it’s certainly possible to actually appreciate it more now in the post-euro age than it was back in 1981.

So …

First, let’s dispel a couple of myths:

– Myth #1: You need 7 people. Mr. Tresham has made significant effort to make sure the game scales fairly well. Anywhere from 4 to 7 is good. Heck, I’ve played with 3, and that worked out OK, although it wouldn’t be my first choice. I think the sweet spot is probably at 6 players personally, but 5 is very good too. 7 is probably a little too tight, actually, and with 4 you lose some competition for Civilization cards, which is unfortunate; but none of this is a major problem.

– Myth #2: Civilization takes forever. Yeah, Civilization is a long game, but many peoples’ memories are influenced by the fact that the playing time issue was greatly exacerbated by Advanced Civilization, which could take a grueling 8-12 hours, or even more, to play. Civilization can be comfortably played by 5 reasonable people in 5 hours, similar to what it takes to play Die Macher or Revolution. You might even be able to do a 4-player game in a weeknight if you move along. It’s long, but it’s not nuts.

– Myth #3: Advanced Civilization is better for newbies. Setting aside for a moment the divisive question as to whether Advanced Civilization is better than the classic in any respect, there is no particular reason that Advanced Civilization would be preferable for new players. Civilization is a clean game, so a player familiar with euros can be up and running within 15 minutes, given a passable teacher (if that teacher is going to be you, be sure to solo a game through the Bronze age to get a feel for it. That shouldn’t take too long). Both games can be unforgiving, but Civilization is mechanically much easier to grasp, and is certainly much friendlier to fans of euros than the rather chrome-laden Advanced version. Advanced Civilization is also substantially heavier on overt whack-the-leader type conflict, again something euro fans tend to shy away from.

So, let’s say you’ve found a copy of Civilization (perhaps the Descartes or Gibsons Games edition), and you want to play. Here are a few things to bear in mind:

– The #1 thing to remember is to avoid the Free Parking syndrome. Play the game straight out of the box; this is a great game from a master designer, and while some of the variants may help in some circumstances (and I’m going to recommend a couple very minor ones in a moment), the expansions and major house rules are iffy at best, and the best bet is to play the game as it was designed. Specifically, the expansion trade cards (timber, wine, oil, silver, etc.) are unhelpful unless you have 7 players, and can be detrimental at smaller numbers because they tend to have an arbitrary random effect on the game. Absolutely, positively do not use the Advanced Civ trade cards with Civilization (the high-valued cards, Spice through Gold, are hugely more valuable in that game). The Western Extension Map is nice for variety but adds little. Its main advantage is that with certain numbers of players you can exclude Egypt and Babylon from the game, which leads us to …

– Egypt and Babylon are for the experienced players. These nations are tough despite their geographical advantages, due to their need to build 2 cities when they have only 16 tokens. If you have experienced players mixed in a game with new players, the experienced players should be given these two nations. I am very serious about this. If you are the new player, absolutely don’t take any guff from the veterans on this point. If everyone at the table is new, try this minor house rule for your first game or two: when building cities on flood plains, Egypt and Babylon require only 5 instead of 6 tokens. Africa isn’t exactly a walk in the park either, and as a new player it should be treated with skepticism when picking nations. The Western nations, with their easier AST progressions, are definitely easier to play. Are the nations unbalanced? In the end, I think that while they are to some degree, with players who’ve played a few times and know what to watch for the imbalances are generally outweighed by the inherent randomness and competitiveness of the game, and the token limits prevent nations from taking and holding more territory than they can use. Plus, with this sort of game, it’s very likely that someone at the table will simply enjoy the challenge of playing a somewhat tougher (and very different) nation like Egypt, Africa, or Crete. But for first-time players, you can get into a hole early in Egypt, which is not much fun.

– Civil War. What to say about this calamity, that is probably Civilization’s only real design glitch in my opinion? Civil War is tough, one of the harshest calamities in the game, and yet one that starts showing up early and is hard to mitigate until late. If you aren’t careful and end up getting hit hard by the first Civil War – especially if you are Egypt or Babylon – it’s going to be very tough to come back and be competitive, let alone win. Later Civil Wars are nasty but part of the game, as you get a rotating effect as the last person to get hammered tends to benefit from the next one (and some tradable calamities, like Epidemic, can be worse). Certainly, everyone should be clear on the risks of ramping up to four cities. You might want to consider another minor house rule for your first game or two that the very first time a Civil War comes up, it is discarded without effect.

Remember that this, along with Francis Tresham’s 1829, was essentially the first “big” eurogame. It’s a direct ancestor in style to currently popular high-end euros like Power Grid, Age of Steam, Goa, Die Macher, and Puerto Rico. Unlike the Avalon Hill-style games that were then in the vogue – games that tended to make some attempt at simulating something – Civilization is a themed game. That is to say, some stuff in the game may not necessarily make immediate intuitive sense in terms of simulation, but it’s in there because the game requires it. Strictly from a systems perspective, this is where Advanced Civilization went awry – it added a bunch of stuff for various reasons of “simulation”, but wrecked the finely-tuned underlying mechanisms. This is not to denigrate the theme of Civilization, which is excellent and better than most current euros – but I think it’s important to the enjoyment of the game to realize that in many ways this game was way ahead of its time, and is not cut from the same cloth as other Avalon Hill games of that era.

Most of the big, long, multi-player games Avalon Hill put out in the 80s and 90s are really hard to enjoy today with so many good shorter games available, but Civilization, along with Dune, 1830, and Titan (bearing in mind Titan’s issue with player elimination) are definitely exceptions. None of them are going to be staples of the gaming diet anymore, but they’re all fun to drag out on occasion, and they give you a more substantial game experience that euros can’t provide. Of these games, Civilization is probably the most robust: it’s of not-unreasonable, predictable length, and has complexity comparable to higher-end euros. It’s a lot less punishing of differences in player skill than Titan or 1830. It’s got a nice empire-building theme. Its lack of the overt combat of Dune and Titan, and the fact that single mistakes won’t wipe you out like they can in 1830, makes it a lot more generally accessible. It’s not a top-10 game anymore, but it’s definitely a classic.