Wednesday, September 14, 2016

GJJ Games Kickstarter Preview of Civscape

Civscape
Designer: Jeffrey Henning
Publisher: Troy Press

Disclaimer

I like Civilization games, with their tech trees, multiple paths to victory, combat, and player interaction.  Way back when I was in high school and college I used to get together with some friends for an entire weekend and play one or two games of Avalon Hill's Civilization.  I don't have time for an 8-10 hour game anymore, but it's still way up there on my I want to play this again list.  I really like 7 Wonders, have had by eye on Progress: Evolution of Technology, and have even been working on my own tiny civ building game.  So when I was asked to review a civilization building card game that was meant to be a fast playing, introductory to civ games, I jumped at the opportunity!

Civscape is a card game for 2-5 players that is intended to be a take-that gateway game into the genre of civilization building games.  It plays in 8-40 minutes and consists of just about 100 cards.  Civscape will be on Kickstarter beginning September 16, 2016 and will be available for $13 plus shipping ($6 in the US).

Overview:
Mechanically, Civscape is a very simple game.  Each civilization will start with a City.  You'll be working on building both your civilization's Timeline (which consists of advances in Government and Technology, as well as Events) and your civilization's Skyline (which consists of buildings).  Each of these advancements falls into one of five categories: Military, Science, Culture, Trade, or Production.  There are also Event cards that cause various things to happen.  Usually these are played and discarded, but occasionally they can add to your Timeline.

Each player will be dealt one random ancient City to start with (like Athens, Syracuse, Carthage, Pella, Sparta, etc.).  These don't have any unique abilities or powers, but they do fall into one of the five categories (e.g. Sparta is a Military City and Athens is a Science City).  Cities are the start of your civilization's Timeline.  Then each player is dealt a hand of five cards and play begins with the player who has the oldest City, as stated on the cards.
The game comes with nine standard cities, each with an area of expertise and the basic game rules printed on the card.
On your turn you'll play up to one card, plus up to an additional card for every three cards already in your Timeline or Skyline.  So if you have five cards out you'll be able to play two (you can always play fewer cards than allowed).  Once you are done resolving any cards you've played you'll get to draw one card, plus an additional card for every three cards in your Timeline or Skyline.  So, if you started with five cards, but played two to build your civilization, you'll be able to draw three at the end of your turn.

Some of the cards have symbols on them, and if you are ever able to play a card that has two symbols on it (generally an advanced Building or a second level Technology that has prerequisites), you win!  Simple as that!  But it's not...
Build a Library and Watermill and you'll have all you need to build the Royal Library for the win!
A Bit More Detail:
Like any good civilization game, some of the advancements you'll want to build have prerequisites, e.g. you can't add Logic to your Timeline unless both Mathematics and Rhetoric are already in your Timeline.  Likewise, you cannot build the Royal Library unless you've also built two of the Library, University, or Watermill.  These cards that have prerequisites are the cards that have two symbols and allow you to win the game if they can be played.  So your goal throughout the game it to acquire a winning card, and then also acquire the prerequisite cards so you can play your winner.  But that's often more difficult than it sounds.

Generally you only get the cards you manage to draw from the deck.  So getting what you need from there is mostly chance.  There are cards that let you draw more from the deck, so playing those will increase your chances of drawing the cards you need, but it's still luck of the draw.  There are quite a few cards that let you draw five cards from the deck and then keep one or more of them, discarding the others.  So this gives you a bit more control, but again, if you don't draw what you really need you're out of luck.  There are also cards that let you steal cards from your opponents.  Sometimes you steal blindly from an opponent's hand, but other times you are able to steal buildings from the opponent's Skyline.  This can occasionally allow you to steal cards with the symbols you need.
No buildings in my civilization yet, but I've played a lot of events.
There are four types of cards in Civscape: Government, Technology, Buildings, and Events.  Each of these cards has text on them that describes actions that happen when you play them.  Some of these actions benefit you, like the aforementioned extra cards from the deck, but most of the time the cards have actions that harm your neighbors.

Government cards are played to your Timeline and let you hold on to more cards when an opponent plays a card that has a Change Leaders action on it.  Change Leaders actions occur on some Events and Buildings, although why building a Theater causes other civilizations to change leaders, I don't know.  When a Change Leader action occurs all other players must discard their hands down to the number allowed by their government (a range from 3-10 cards).

Technology cards are also played to your Timeline and let you take a building from an opponent in the same category as the Technology, e.g. playing Masonry lets you take a Production Building from an opponent and add it to your hand.  There are only five basic Technology cards in the entire game, and two of them are required to play any advanced Technology to win the game.  So when a Technology card comes your way you'll want to snag it and play it as soon as possible.  None of the cards let you take things out of someone else's Timeline, so once you play a Technology card you have it locked in.  Cards in your hand aren't safe and can be stolen or discarded by a variety of other card effects.
Democracy lets you keep five cards instead of the basic three.  Masonry is a Technology card that lets you steal a
Production Building from an opponent and add it to your hand.  Just one of many ways to mess with your neighbors.
Building cards are played to your Skyline.  Buildings have a three different effects: Change Leaders, Calamity, or Supply Check.  I've already mentioned Change Leaders.  Calamity means something bad happens to all your opponents, like Plague, Fire, Economic Collapse, etc.  When Calamity strikes, players are sometimes going to lose some of their Buildings (usually by giving them to you to place in your hand).  You can build more Buildings than cards you have in your Timeline, but when someone plays a Calamity card you'll lose one or more Buildings if they aren't supported by at least an equal number of Timeline cards.  A few of the Calamity cards have slight variations, but they all pretty much do the same thing.  Supply Check is the same for every card with that action.  If any players have more Military cards in play than Trade cards they must return one Military Building to their hands.
Erecting a Building card is not going to bode well for your opponents.
Every building has one of three actions that really harm your opponents.

Then there are the Events.  Most Events are simply played and discarded, but a few remain in your Timeline and have longer reaching effects.  Each Event is different, although many are just slight variations of each other. Events can have effects ranging from you drawing additional cards, to causing opponents to remove buildings from their Skyline, and more.  These are the core of the take-that part of the game.  They are what will let you fill up your hand with cards and what will cause you to dump cards most often.  Playing events will really mess with the bit of strategy your opponents have been working on.  So it becomes critical that you hold on to only a few critical cards for any strategy you're working on and then play tactically with whatever other cards you happen to have in your hand on your turn.
Events can really swing the game around.  I went from basically
nothing to a winning set of cards after playing one event.
The rule book also hints at the possibility of playing different scenarios, however at this time there don't appear to be any scenarios listed on the game's website.  I suspect the scenarios have to do with pitting two civilizations against each other and then only including cards related to those civilizations (each card has some identifying information on it telling what civilization it works best with).

Final Thoughts:
The artwork on the Civscape cards is nice, but very plain. Timeline and Event cards are just text (and most of the time quite a bit of text), and many of the Building cards have the same pictures. I believe there will at least be more building art, but I'm not sure if art will be added to the other cards. I do like how all the edges of the Building cards line up so you have a coherent Skyline, so I hope that remains.

I really like the theme of Civscape and the idea of a civilization building game that is fast, easy, and accessible. I also think the mechanics of Civscape work as a take-that card game. But I really didn't feel like the mechanics and theme worked well together. Because so many of the cards had take-that effects that caused you to get rid of lots of cards from both your hand and skyline I found it very difficult to build up any meaningful strategy.  Coupled with the fact that cards are acquired randomly, I never really felt in control.  In fact, in my first game I won completely randomly by just happening to draw three cards with matching symbols (including a two-symbol winner) and then playing them over the course of three turns.
The three winning turns included drawing the Dockyard at the end of a turn.  Next turn I played an Event that let me draw
several cards, including the Walled Harbor (with two symbols on it). Then I played the Dockyard.  At the end of my turn I
drew the Harbor.  On my next turn I played the Harbor and Walled Harbor for a win.
As a take-that game, Civscape works OK.  If you're cool with ruining your opponents' plans and don't get upset when they win anyway out of pure luck, Civscape is works well.  The cards are a bit wordy for that type of game, especially since your cards cycle so often, and you do spend a lot of time reading through a lot of cards (I often had 10+ cards in my hand).  And more often than not, just after you've finished reading through everything and have decided on a plan of action, you have your hand dumped by a Change Leaders card before you can do anything with them.

As a civilization building game, though, I felt like Civscape really missed the mark.  There is too much take-that to really feel like you are ever building anything.  I think the game would work much better as an abstracted take-that card game, maybe with a silly theme.  It'd need the card text to be much simpler though.  To keep the civilization theme (which I love, just not with these mechanics), the game will need to tone down the amount of card cycling that goes on.  Player interaction would still be great, just not in such a hostile way.  Civilization building should be about planning, technological synergy, out powering your opponents, and interactions through trade and combat.  Instead, Civscape is all about getting lucky with cards that screw your neighbor while you hope to be the first to draw a winning combination.

It really seems that there are two game ideas here.  One is a light take-that game and the other is a casual civilization building game.  Separately they would probably both be fine, but together they both lose something.  I'd love to see what the designers could do with two different games here because both ideas show promise.
Cards with gray backs are the Cities.  The other cards are Timeline, Skyline, and Event cards .
So, while I did have fun playing Civscape, it didn't quite hit the mark for me and won't be one I pull out often.  However, if it still sounds like something you'd be interested in, be sure to check out the Kickstarter campaign, starting September 16, 2016.  The game will be available for $13, plus shipping.  Plus, they'll have a "One for You, One for Teacher" option, where they will donate a copy in the your name to a U.S. social studies teacher (through an industry association).

Preliminary Rating: 5.5/10
This review is of a prototype game. Components and rules are not final and are subject to change.


George Jaros is a board game player and designer from DeKalb, Illinois. He has loved board games for years and played all the classics when he was younger. He loved Civilization (the Avalon Hill version) back in highschool and college, and played tons of card games, board games, and more for most of his formative years. He didn't play games much after he got married and had kids, until 2014. Now his boys are old enough to play most games and he has found that tabletop games are a huge hit in his household. Their collection keeps growing and they keep playing. Over the last few years, he has been getting more and more engrossed in the gaming community and started GJJ Games to both showcase his own game designs and review others' games. He does a lot of Kickstarter previews, occasionally review published games, and has been adding more content to GJJ Games, like the People Behind the Meeples series of indie designer interviews, Eye on Kickstarter, and more. Find out more about George at http://georgejaros.com/GJJGames


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