The Declarer (Floyd McWilliams' Blog)

Monday, March 24, 2003


Colby Cosh likes to while away sub-arctic winter days in marathon Diplomacy games. We don't have Canadian weather here in Woodside, California, but the climate right now is nothing to brag about. Five of my friends joined me yesterday for an all-day session of Advanced Civilization.

I've talked a lot about the Civilization computer game (also known as Sid Meier's Civilization). Civilization the board game is an Avalon Hill product from the 1980's. I don't know what connection there is between the board games and the computer games. The number of "Civilization" games is confusing. Avalon Hill put out a computer game which is an exact copy of the board game. Meanwhile Sid Meier has put out a board game based on the computer game!

Here is a capsule summary of Advanced Civ: The board is a map of the central and eastern Mediterranean and the lands surrounding it: Italy, the Balkans and the lands north of the Danube, Anatolia (modern Turkey), the Middle East, Egypt and North Africa. The board is divided into sea and land regions of differing sizes. The land regions have numbers from 1 to 5 which represent the number of people that they can support.

Players start at the edge of the board with one population "token". Each turn a token produces another token; the tokens may then move one region. Ships can be used to carry several tokens longer distances. Six tokens may be combined to form a city.

There is some conflict but it's not a key part of the game. Tokens from different nations can coexist in the same region if the region can support them. If not, both nations remove tokens until the support limit is reached. A large number of tokens can sack an opponent's city.

When you build cities you receive trade cards. There are nine stacks of trade cards, each with two different kinds of commodities. When you have one city you get a card from the "1" stack, when you have two cities you get a "1" and a "2", and so on. The commodities increase in value as you collect more of them; in fact they increase as the square of the number collected. For instance, Spice from the "7" stack has a base value of 7; one Spice card is worth 7. But all six Spices are worth (6x6) x 7 = 252. You may trade cards with other players, and obviously everyone is attempting to build up large sets of the same kind of card.

You turn in trade cards and use their value to buy Civilization advances. There are 24 advances. Some give you advantages; for instance when you have Clothmaking your ships move five spaces instead of four. Others help out against Calamities (which I will explain in the next paragraph); for instance, Medicine mitigates the effect of Epidemics. All cards are worth victory points.

Along with the commodity cards are the Calamities. There are a total of twelve calamities. All of them are pretty nasty, and some are devastating. Some can be traded, others must be kept by the player who drew them. (Calamities are parasites on the trading process; when you trade you must trade at least three cards and must identify two of them. So the unknown third card is usually a low-value card from the "1" or the "2" stack, or a tradable calamity.) When trading is complete, the calamities are exposed and take effect. Some calamities cause trouble for other players as well as the player who was stuck with it.

It is calamities, not combat, that cause players to lose the majority of their tokens and cities. The game tends to be somewhat cyclical, with players building to their maximum of nine cities, then crashing back to half that number after a devastating round of calamities. This can be frustrating but is challenging as well.

Civ is a great game but it is long. Many phases of the game take a fair amount of thought, especially the trading and the decision of which civilization cards to purchase. Also it is a big game that plays best with six or seven players, and with more people comes more interaction. A Civ game can easily take twelve hours or more.

The Dawn of Man

Everyone came over to my place by 1:30 and after a quick rules refresher we were able to start around 2. None of us had played in awhile; we had played the odd game several years ago, but our preference has been for shorter games. In the last year or so we had kicked around the idea of playing Civ on a rainy winter afternoon, and now we finally agreed to do it. My last game was about three years ago; my brother-in-law loves the game and we had played at family gatherings.

We drew cards numbered 1-6 to determine the order in which we would pick civilizations. Brian chose Africa, Scott took Egypt, Dave chose Babylon, Emil took Assyria, and Eric selected Thrace. I was last and chose Crete. Crete is the only civilization that does not start on the edge of the board. Crete is difficult to play because it's in an area with low population support, and because it is necessary to use sea movement to build cities on the nearby islands. But I like the challenge of playing Crete; the nations that are easy to play (Egypt and Babylon) are also boring. Anyway I had little choice in the matter; there are other civilizations I could have selected but Crete was by far the best remaining.

Sparticus

Supposedly the Chinese word for "Crisis" consists of two characters, "opportunity" and "danger". (I think this is a middlebrow urban legend; I read a blog post somewhere debunking this. My wife is hard at work and I don't want to bug her; tonight I'll verify the truth of this factoid.) My experience playing Civ made me believe that the Chinese word for "Calamity" consists of two characters, "opportunity" and "getting screwed in the ass".

It takes awhile for people to build cities and collect good trade cards. After several turns we had some real trading, and some calamities. On the last trade I was passed Slave Revolt. I had forgotten the details of the calamities and turned to the reference sheet. When I saw the effects I gasped involuntarily:


Fifteen tokens belonging to the primary victim may not be used to support his cities.


I didn't even have fifteen tokens, so I was forced to reduce half of my cities. (Most disasters "reduce" cities, which means that cities are replaced with as many tokens as the space can support. Most of my city sites were on 1 and 2 support squares, which made rebuilding them difficult. Other nations such as Babylon and Egypt have 4 and 5 support city sites.

I Do Need Your Civil War

But my luck turned when Dave got a Civil War. This is the worst calamity; it split Dave's nation in half and gave the smaller part to me, the player with the fewest units on the board. Suddenly I had a full-sized empire again.

Now things started to go well for me. At this stage my core territories were the Aegean islands, the Peloponessus and Thrace, Cilicia (southwestern Anatolia), and territories obtained from Babylon's civil strife, which gradually shrank to Lebanon as I evacuated to let Babylon rebuild. My cities included Phaestos and Knossos on Crete, Thera (waiting for the Volcano calamity that would destroy it -- another Cretan disadvantage), Argos, Corinth, Athens, Chelcis, Eretria, Rhodes, Sidon, and Jericho.

At this point Italy (Brian) was the game leader. I made some raids that reduced his population and prevented him from building a city. Then I made some blockbuster trades. At one point I traded in all the grain and all but one of the oil, worth 400. I surpassed Brian as game leader, but then Eric's Thracans started doing well. So I pounded him a bit, sacking the city on Corfu and stealing a wine trade card from him (when you take someone's city you get one of their trade cards). I turned in all the wine and all the cloth for 405.

Now I was clearly game leader and made a mistake. I didn't want to offend anyone, so I bought a set of fairly passive cards. On that same turn Eric bought Military. Now normally in Civ the players with more units on the board go before those with fewer units. This makes it hard for a nation with lots of tokens to beat up on a smaller player, because they move later and can readjust to make the attacks lose their force. But Eric's Military allowed him to move after me, even though he had more tokens. Also the other players who had been attacking Eric attacked me. So I had to waste a lot of units to defend a city; then Eric sacked another city and took my only good card. I had no trade cards because I had cashed in, so I could not buy Military myself. The same sad story was repeated next turn; Eric sacked another city and got another good trade card.

Also I had been hit several times with the Piracy disaster. (Which I referred to as Butt Piracy. This is the second anal reference in the post. Hey -- it's the Greek Way!) Most disasters reduce cities, but Piracy replaces two of your cities with neutral "pirate" cities. It's much harder to sack a city and build your own then to rebuild a reduced city, so I was not able to build nine cities for the last few turns.

The upshot of this was that I finished fourth! But it was a very close game; Eric won with a total score of 4591, while I had 4450 and Emil, in fifth, had over 4300. (Dave had to leave early and could not play the last two turns.) We finished at 11:00 after nine hours of play.


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