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.

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1829 Mainline

1829 (South) was the first 18xx game, published back – it’s hard to believe it was so long ago now – in 1974. 1829 is a very fine game, with the caveat that it takes, oh, about 12 hours to play. Especially problematic in light of the fact that it’s only fun for maybe 6. But you know, there just weren’t as many good games back then.

1825 tackled this problem by keeping the core game more or less intact, but chopping the huge 1829 up into much more manageable chunks. Two games (1829 and 1829 North) become 3 base games plus 3 regional expansions plus an expansion to lengthen the game plus at least half a dozen more mini-expansions adding various features from the original. Some additional rules streamlining and game balancing was done, and players were given significantly more flexibility, but 1829 at its core is clearly recognizable.

Playing the small 1825 games, though, you miss out on the scope of the bigger 1829, the long runs and open play. 1829 Mainline is an attempt to do an 18xx game that is both simple and short(er), and operates on a large geographical playing field, as well as bring us a game that is different enough from 1825 and 1829 to be worthwhile.

The first thing I noticed was the streamlining that eliminates the last few major 18xx features that non-regular players find troublesome. The main one is the phases of play (certain trains trigger rusting of other trains, changes in tiles available, changes in train holding limits, and colors of track available). Now you can just buy whatever is available, and upgrade track whenever you want. All good. There are also no longer restrictions on buying and selling stock; you can buy whatever is available and sell whatever you want. All of which is a relief.

The operations phase is mainly familiar to players of 1825 or 1830, with the only major rules change being that yellow tiles (basic track) can be put down in large batches, jumping ahead to the next city in one fell swoop as long as no drastic maneuvers are required. This is simple, but combined with the larger board it opens up a much richer tactical game than is typical in these games. No longer are entire geographical regions non-viable because of the plodding pace of tile laying. No longer is building bypasses necessarily an excruciating process of laying one time at a time over many turns. You now have a lot more flexibility in developing your runs, and with lots of cities and lots of companies, there is interesting competition for the best routes.

The major changes, though, are in the stock round.

For those unfamiliar with 18xx, stocks are bought and sold in rounds, where each round you can buy a single share. This tends to give everyone a crack at owning desirable companies, and also allows some to-and-fro as some players may sell to take advantage of an opportunity or defend their holdings from takeover, and others then scoop things up, with opportunities opening and closing as the round goes on.

It also means things can take a while, and can be uneven when some players are buying and selling heavily while others are watching (due to cash constraints, lack of interest, or greater or lesser foresight). 1829 Mainline tries to both simplify and speed this up. Instead of selling at any time, you can only sell the first time around the table. Instead of buying one stock at a time, each turn you just buy as many as you can afford.

Obviously, this shortcut wouldn’t work with the basic 18xx system of having a large pool of stocks available to everyone at the same time. So instead there is a mixed system. Each player is dealt a hand of some number of stock cards (around 10) at the beginning of the game, which you can buy from freely. This is your private pool. Then there is a draw deck of stock cards; if you want, you can take a random draw from it and either buy it, or not (ending your turn if you don’t, thus adding an interesting element of risk). And there is the discard pile of rejected stocks, which you can keep buying off the top of. To keep some motion going, your turn must end by flipping a card of the draw deck and not buying it.

I like all this in principle. It dramatically speeds up the stock rounds. It eliminates a couple fiddly rules about when you can’t buy stocks you’ve already sold, rules which sometimes seem artificial and can hammer new players. And it adds a nice element of variance (because the stocks available for immediate purchase will vary each game), planning (working with the cards you’ve been dealt as well as judging when to keep reserves of cash to take advantage of opportunities since you can’t freely sell) and uncertainty (the draw pile) which 18xx generally lacks. I’d be happy with it if it were not for two issues.

The first is how companies float. Like in 1856, your company can begin running as soon as two shares are sold. Also like 1856, your company gets money to its treasury only when people buy stock.

Here is the problem: your companies need a lot of cash to succeed in the long-term. Therefore, they need to sell shares. What if those shares aren’t available, because they are buried in the draw/discard pile or because someone is sitting on them in his or her hand because he or she has other priorities? It’s really tough to be sitting there in the middle game on a company starved for cash, but with 50% of the stock unavailable to purchase at any price. Also, companies that other players buy into early will tend to do much better than those with a single sponsor, as they have so much more money. This problem can crop up a bit in 1856, where good companies like the CPR, LPS, or Welland will get other players’ cash, while second-tier companies won’t, to their own detriment. At least in 1856, though, you have the ability to take out loans and “flip” your own stock to generate the cash you need. 1829 has no loans, your ability to flip stock is limited, and with the random availability of stock, who knows if it’s even available to buy? It’s possible to get behind the 8-ball here and not have a lot you can do about it.

The second problem combined with the above is simply one of length. We played with 3 very experienced 18xx players who didn’t play slowly, and the game took 4.5 hours. On the scale of 18xx games, and with players new to the specific game, that doesn’t sound too bad. But with the random allocation of shares, and the reduction in flexibility in the stock round, I think 1829 Mainline really wants to be 2.5 to 3 hours. Which, interestingly, is what it says on the box – and Mr. Tresham is usually pretty good about getting these estimates right, even when they are unpalatable; the numbers for 1829, 1853, 1825, and Revolution have been quite accurate, even erring in favor of being too generous, for me. But I have a hard time seeing my way clear to a 2.5 hour playing time on this one.

Which leads me to my last point. Somewhat unusual for a Francis Tresham game, the 1829 Mainline rules have a few problems. As a fan of 1825 I was able to work them through, but the cost to build on various terrain types (rivers and mountains) are nowhere to be found – we just used 1825 values. Also, it is possible, if unlikely, for a company to become completely unowned, and what happens in that case is not covered (as it is with the receivership rules in 1825). So it’s possible that there is a rule missing here. If, for example, whatever cash is not paid out in dividends were to go to the company treasury, this might make a significant and possibly positive difference in the game.

At the end of the day I’m a bit on the fence about 1829 Mainline. Although I am unsure if it works quite right, I do like the new stock round rules and will give Mr. Tresham the benefit of the doubt until I’ve played some more. I like the large-scale tactical feel of the game, and I do think it’s successful in giving us the opportunity to do some really interesting, long-distance route development. But I am concerned by the time it took us to play it. I don’t mind losing a bit of control in the stock round in general, especially if it compresses the game a bit and because the game has opened up more flexible and interesting route-building options. But given that the semi-random allocation of stock does have a driving effect on the game, I worry that it’s a bit too easy to suffer misfortune in the middle game and then have to play a game you are out of for too long.

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.

Revolution: The Dutch Revolt

Francis Tresham may be in the pantheon of all-time great game designers, but he’s done this on the strength of remarkably few designs: 1829, Civilization, 1853, 1825. And now, Revolution: The Dutch Revolt, 1568 – 1648 (hereafter know as Revolution). Revolution has reputedly been in the works for ages, and it’s Mr. Tresham’s first new game in about a decade. Was it worth the wait?

The first thing you notice when sitting down to play Revolution: the graphics are very nice, and within 10 minutes we were trying to figure out how to get around using them. As is by now traditional for Phalanx games, there are all sorts of minor usability problems: most things are too dark and with not enough contrast, and many important game features don’t stand out enough. There was some debate as to whether it was better than War of the Ring, and the consensus seemed to be it was – so while that’s a low bar, it’s serviceable … but I wish it were better. Particularly, the cities with Universities and commercial towns don’t stand out enough, and the city names are not clear. It’s overall an improvement over some of the Phalanx games with more serious problems (Waterloo’s invisible terrain, Nero’s hard-to-use cards, Age of Napoleon’s impossible-to-distinguish terrain types), but it’s still a ways away from the sweet spot between appearance and functionality.

Upon reading the rules, there seem to be great similarities between Revolution and Civilization. You have the same dynamic of a fixed pool of tokens being used to represent both influence and cash, and managing your faction’s balance between the two. You have cities which you can tax, turning tokens into cash. Factions compete for areas, which have occupation limits, and conflict is resolved identically to Civilization (or Mammoth Hunters, for those who may have played that but not the classic), by simply eliminating excess units from each faction in turn.

Given how similar many of the superficial mechanisms are, I was surprised that the play is almost entirely dissimilar to Civilization.

Revolution is, at its heart, a compete-for-areas game. Players pour resources into areas, which after conflict can be used to control cities (themselves mini-areas that have to be competed for), which provide cash and points, or the countryside, which provides influence and some tactical advantages in deploying future influence. The tools you wield to wrest control of these areas from your opponents are influence (tokens), armies, and cash. Influence is cheap and generally available, but usable only in areas where you already have some influence to begin with and hard to reposition once put on the board. Armies are expensive to build and maintain, can be more easily countered by opposing armies, but can move around easily and can be used to break into new areas, can influence a lot of territory, and are very effective against opposing cities. Cash can be used to not only to raise armies, but also can be used to directly sway the public opinion in cities, which can result in big wins for some of the factions.

The key element to the game is balancing your efforts among these three tools, because they tend to be mutually exclusive: not only can tokens be used only for influence or cash, but the sources are different: cities will generate cash, but the towns and countryside generate influence. When you are consolidating your own holdings or fighting for your base, influence is key; but when you are trying to break into other players’ areas, you’ll need cash and armies. Timing these cycles is important, because the choices you make this turn affect your capabilities for the next turn or two (and there are only 5 turns). Further complicating your timing, there are external factions (The Huguenots, Spanish, French, English Bankers, etc.) who will provide support to your faction, and they seems to function like a strategic reserve: you can build up influence with them over time, and then when you decide to use them you can deploy it all of a sudden, ignoring the usual limits on deploying influence, in a (hopefully) decisive stroke … but once spent, it takes time to build up again to meaningful levels. Co-ordinating your taxation and army building and foreign allies gives you lots of options and lots of things to worry about.

All this is rather interesting, but might be somewhat mechanical in and of itself. The cool thing about Revolution though are the 5 different factions. These are the Catholics, Hapsburgs, Nobility, Burghers, and Reformers, and they all have different objectives and capabilities. The Catholics want to control Bishoprics, the Hapsburgs want military control, the Nobility wants influence with the peasants, the Burghers want control of critical trade towns, and the Reformers want control of Universities; and everyone wants control of cities and provinces. The cool thing is that while all these objectives have peripheral conflict, none of the agendas will collide head-on, so there aren’t factions that simply have to beat each other up all game. However, they do create natural alliances – the right-wing types (Hapsburgs and Catholics) share some common interests and lack fundamental conflict, as do the left-wingers (Burghers and Reformers). While there is nothing to say that the Catholics and Reformers can’t make temporary arrangements of convenience, and while the Burghers and Hapsburgs may have to act as a check on their more-extreme partners on occasion, such alliances are extremely unstable and short-term. So while there is certainly significant scope for deal-making, this is much more of a management and tactical game than a free-form negotiation game. I like this. There is certainly much more direct competition than in, say, Die Macher, but it doesn’t seem to come down to the somewhat degenerate whack-the-leader-fest that you get in The Napoleonic Wars or Sword of Rome either. Also, each of the factions has subtly different parameters: the Reformers get cheap armies and can pop up anywhere, sometimes throwing entire cities into revolt, but start with no cash and almost nothing on the board. The Catholics start with a strong board position and cash, but their armies are expensive. Both the Catholics and the Reformers suffer because their units are the first to be eliminated in battle. The Burghers and Hapsburgs have nice foreign support and when they campaign with the Reformers or Catholics respectively, their allies are likely to take most of the losses while they reap the benefits. And so on.

This faction differentiation is Revolution’s real strong suit. In the post-game discussion, which was generally quite favorable, most players indicated that they felt they knew how to play now … at least the faction they were playing, and that playing a different faction would almost be a completely different game. This is pretty impressive given that there are minimal faction special rules, just a few different parameters (like army costs), different victory conditions, different setups, and different sets of off-board allies. I’d almost say it does a better job than Sword of Rome, despite Sword of Rome’s much higher overhead (all the different card decks and faction special rules).

The other neat thing is how positions solidify over the game. While some have complained about this, saying it’s too hard to break into other players’ positions in the late-game, I see this as a feature. One of the problems with a game like The Napoleonic Wars or A Game of Thrones is that it seems a bit too easy to rein in anyone who gets ahead. In Revolution, carefully built-up positions can’t simply be wrecked because you’re ahead on the last turn, and so there is some incentive to invest rather than just trying to hang back and then make a late-game surge. Likewise, you want to keep an eye on your opponents lest they build up too strong a position, and try to intervene early. This is good. And unlike Civilization (or especially Advanced Civilization), the game doesn’t seem to go past the point where the outcome is apparent, although one player doing poorly may suffer through the last turn.

The big question hanging over Revolution is that of playing time. The box gives the rather wide and uninformative range of between 4 and 8 hours (perhaps after Phalanx’ ridiculous underestimate of playing time for previous games). We played in 4.5, despite a couple of handicaps: it was everyone’s first game and we had to go to the rules to figure stuff out on a number of occasions; and we were playing at Bay Area Games Day XXXVIII, which can be rather crowded, loud, and so a bit disconcerting. I’ve heard reports of much longer playing times, though. 4.5 hours was quite comfortable; I think I could have gone to 5 or 5.5 hours and still been happy. Much beyond that and it might get problematic. There is definitely opportunity here for analysis paralysis; there are a lot of things to work through, and the situation can get complicated. I think you want to try to peg this at 5 hours, and make sure that people are thinking while others are moving, and do stuff in parallel when possible.

Bottom line, I quite liked this play-through of Revolution and am looking forward to trying it again sometime soon. While it doesn’t quite have the obvious visceral thrill of, say, A Game of Thrones (a game I can’t help thinking of it alongside, despite their lack of any real similarities other than being multi-player and conflict-based), on the other hand it seems like a fundamentally very well-crafted game, as most Tresham games are, and really makes an effort to address the fundamental problems of these free-form multi-player conflict games. And it seems to succeed.