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Civilization Review

Quick Look:
Civilization is a classic civilization builder that plays like a mashup of Risk, Small World, and Through the Ages. Over the course of the game, you will guide a people through 8,000 years of history, learning everything from mysticism to democracy while guiding migration, building cities, and competing for fertile land.

There are a surprising number of games named Civilization. Most have nothing to do with each other. The common thread through most of them is they are inspired by Sid Meier's video game of the same name. This review is for Francis Tresham's board game that came out in 1980 and probably inspired Sid Meier. It's rare for a game from that period to still be competitive in this golden age of Kickstarter masterpieces, but people have been begging for a reprint for years. Thanks to Gibsons, we finally have one.

No, Advanced Civilization was not incorporated. I think it's owned by another company now.

Designer: Francis Tresham
Artist: Greybox Creative
Publisher: Gibsons Games
Year Published: 2018
No. of Players: 2-7
Ages: 12+
Playing Time: 1-8 hours (depending on variant)

Find more info on BoardGameGeek.com


The rulebook is eight pages of small text, few pictures, and headings like "4.3.9 Aquire Trade Cards (E8)." They are generally clear, but they're not the easiest to reference. The mechanics are straightforward and elegant.

A couple of weird oversights in the rulebook:
  • There is a chart that lists which color token goes with each people, but Italy isn't mentioned.
  • I can't find anything that tells me if cities count toward your Census value. The wording says to count your tokens, so I'm guessing that a city counts the same as any other token. That would also imply that boats produce people. Both seem odd to me.
  • Phase E10 on the player mat says "Aquire Civilization Cards," but in the book, it says "Exchange Trade cards and Treasury." Both are accurate because you spend Trade cards and tokens from your Treasury to acquire Civilization cards. Still, a finished product needs to have all its headings in order.
  • The term Round Tokens refers to round tokens as opposed to square ones, but when I think round token, I think of a marker that tells you what round you're on. Round tokens in this game are generic for money, people on the board, and potential people/money in your stock.
Ultimately, the rulebook isn't perfect, but it does the job.

Setup: 5-10 minutes
Place the board in the center of the table. Set up the Trade card decks by separating them into nine stacks based on their number, shuffling the 1 and 2 decks and then placing a red-backed Cataclysm on the bottom of stacks 2-9. The board has a place for each stack.

To determine play order, take one card per player from the top of each deck (so for 6 players, you'd take one card from decks 1-6), then shuffle them and deal one card to each player. Starting with the person who got card #1, players take turns choosing their faction and collecting their bits. Place one square token on each of the tracks on the board. All the other tokens go in the Stock section of your player mat. Place one round token from your Stock in your starting city. Finally, all the Civilization cards are stacked to the side of the board where everyone can read them.

The book has charts that tell you which factions can be played with which player counts, where they start, and which tokens go with which faction (unless you're Italy). Civilization cards are stacked next to the board so that each unique card is visible.

Theme and Mechanics:
This might be the most macro civilization builder I've played. Every round, representing about 500 years of migration and development, is played in thirteen simple phases which ultimately provide you with opportunities to meet requirements so you can move up on the progress chart in the final phase. At the end of each round, each player's token will advance on the Progress Track unless they have hit a new Epoch and don't meet the requirements to enter. Epochs are the different-colored sections of the track. There are five Epochs, each with a different requirement to enter.

Epoch 2 - Have 2 cities.
Epoch 3 - Have Civilization cards of three different colors.
Epoch 4 - Have 7 Civilization cards.
Epoch 5 - Have 1,000 points.

Whoever gets to the sixteenth spot first wins.

Epoch requirements are the same for each faction, but the lines are drawn differently on the progress chart, so some players don't have to meet them as fast as others. This is a balancing mechanism that keeps factions who start with better placement from winning too easily.

The last space or two on the fifth epoch also have point requirements to progress. Again, these are different for each player and help to balance the game. The points come from Advancement cards. Their cost is also their point value. Half of them are worth less than 80. You can only have 11, so be careful what you pick up.

Here is an example of one area. The colors denote which areas are playable with your player count. For instance, in a five-player game, the pink area isn't used, but the rest of the board is wide open for development. You will start in one of the outermost spots. The numbers on each space tell you how many people it can support. The little black squares with names beside them are the spots where it's cheaper to build Cities. The ocean spaces with no land in them are not accessible until you get a Civilization card that lets you cross.


1. Collect Taxation - For each city you have, move two tokens from your stock to your treasury.

2. Population Expands - Place a token on each space that has one of your tokens, and two on any with more than one.

3. Census - Count up all your tokens. That is your Census value (determines turn order in Movement phase).

4. Construct Ships - Pay two from Treasury to build a ship. Pay one for upkeep on each previously built ship. Remove any ships you didn't pay upkeep on.

5. Movement - Starting with the player with the highest Census value, each player may move each of their round tokens on the board one space on land or onto and off of a boat. Boats can move up to five tokens up to four spaces, picking up and dropping off along the way.

6. Conflict - Each space has a number on it that tells you how many tokens it can support without war breaking out. Cities count as six tokens, so anybody moving in will create a conflict. Conflict is simple and predictable. Starting with the player who has the fewest tokens there, each player takes turns removing one token until the tokens equal the number on the space.

7. Build Cities and Remove Surplus Population - Remove round tokens to place square City tokens. If you have six tokens in a space with a named City, you can remove them to place one city token. If you have twelve tokens in an unmarked space, you can remove them to place a city. No space can contain more than one City. After that, any tokens that exceed the number on their space are moved back to your stock. They starved.

8. Acquire Trade Cards - Count your cities. Each player will gain cards from the Trade decks depending on how many Cities they have. In other words, if you have three cities, you take the top card from decks 1-3. The player with the fewest cities goes first. You have to take the cards, whether you want them or not.

There are three types of Trade cards. Most are resources that can be traded, but a few are Cataclysms. Black-backed Cataclysms don't hurt you unless you trick another player into taking it during the Trade phase. If that happens, there may be some backlash, but at least it's not clogging up your hand anymore.

Cataclysms will do some really nasty stuff. I loved that. You have to discard down to six cards in phase 12, so you really need to trade. This adds a hint of danger, especially if you're trading with somebody who may want revenge.

The third card type is the Red-backed Cataclysm. These can't be traded and do very nasty things to you in phase 11.

9. Trade - Everybody takes turns making deals until everyone passes. If you trade, you have to pass another player at least three cards, but there are no value requirements. You have to tell the other player what one of the resources is and the total value of all cards you're giving them (ie. Player One says, "I need salt." Player Two says, "I have salt. I'll provide you with salt and three other cards with a total value of 7 in exchange for some cloth." If Player One is interested, they make an offer. Other players can pipe in with offers, too.)

10. Aquire Civilization Cards - You will spend Trade cards and money from your treasury to get Civilization cards. Civilization cards give you special powers and/or discounts on other cards. You gain them by spending Trade cards with a value that meets or exceeds the large number at the bottom. One card of a type is worth its level, but the value increases immensely with each other card of that type. For instance, one Spice is worth 7, two are worth 28, three are worth 63, four are worth 112, and five are worth 175. You can also spend tokens from your treasury to add trade points at a rate of 1-1.

11. Resolve Calamities - Those bad cards you got stuck with go off. Epidemics decimate your population, pirates burn your cities, earthquakes level cities, etc. They are brutal. Also in this phase, any cities which are Unsupported are removed. Each city requires two tokens on the board to support it. It doesn't matter where they are. If you have four cities, you need eight round tokens. Unsupported cities are taken off and replaced with the max number of tokens that space will support.

12. Return Excess Trade Cards - Discard down to six cards. Discarded cards are put on the bottom of their respective stacks.

13. Move your maker up on the progress track, unless you would cross into an Epoch with requirements you can't meet.

Repeat these phases until somebody makes it to the last spot on the Progress track.

Game Play:

Thirteen phases sound like a lot, but they move pretty quickly, especially in early rounds. Many phases won't kick in until round three or four. The first few rounds are mostly spent spreading out to get a foothold and waiting to have enough people to condense into a city. Once you have a City, you'll start getting money and Trade cards that let you trade for a better hand or acquire Progress cards. That slow buildup of stuff you can do makes this game really easy to learn.

Once things get going, you'll develop enemies and alliances, go to war, or maybe just get wiped out because somebody wanted to increase their hand size. Anything is possible when your region becomes overpopulated.

Civilization doesn't have that tense, gotta-feed-my-people-or-suffer-horribly vibe a lot of big civ builders do. The element is there in that you have to have enough tokens on the board to support your cities and enough tokens in your stock to put them out during population, but it's not as tight as some other games. Part of the strategy is making sure you have a balance between your cities, stock, and treasury. When you need to spend/put out a token and can't, something bad happens. So you want your people to die sometimes. You want to spend your money to get that stock refilled. That part's not really hard, though.

Civilization strikes a balance between the choose-a-path-from-many-options and the get-there-first-and-kill-the-competition style of games. It has tons of nuance and plays out in a very realistic way. It shows how humans developed the clan mentality based on a strategy necessary for survival and how destructive that mindset becomes once space ran out. Now that we have advanced farming, irrigation, medicine, and other technologies that ensure there's enough for everyone to survive, it's easy to forget how we got here. It's hard to see people with the us-versus-them mindset hindering advancement because they want to be sure that "us" is on top of "them." This game is an excellent illustration of how that came to be and why we don't need to be that way anymore.

Oh, and it's a lot of fun.

Artwork and Components:

The quality of the components is great. The tokens are thick, punched out well, and look nice on their printed side. The downside is that they are white on the other side. You spend a lot of time moving tokens around in this game, and almost as much time flipping them to their printed side. In a previous printing, I see they had different images on each side so you could tell if they were people or money. I don't think that's necessary, but in my opinion, there should be something on the other side.

And that's pretty much my take on all the components. They obviously didn't skimp on the quality of the physical product, but nothing is very attractive. I think they were trying to make it look nicer while keeping the general aesthetic of an old-school game. Maybe it was to keep the price down. Unfortunately, the end product looks like an overproduced prototype to me. The advancement cards look cool in an anachronistic way, but the other side is blank. I like the new resource cards better than the old ones. The board is very shiny and thick, but the hard lines and garish colors look like a mock-up you would send to a designer.

That's just my opinion, though. Look at the pictures and decide for yourself.

The insert is decent but doesn't look customized for Civilization.

The cards fit nicely in their spots, but there are six compartments for tokens and seven factions. Everything fits well, but you'll still have to bag your bits if you want them to stay separated.

The player mats are my second biggest gripe. The player aid in the center has a list of all the phases, but none of the little details that could keep you from having to grab the rulebook every couple of minutes on your first game. More detailed playmats could have made this twice as easy to learn. They at least should have listed the criteria for entering the different Epochs and the cost of ships. After your first game, you probably don't need the reference, but it would be nice to have in case you go six months between games.

The Good:
 It's fun, elegant, nuanced, and highly strategic.
Time flew by.
There are no dice in this game.
The mechanics are pretty easy to remember, so you know exactly how things will play out in the conflict phase.
Lots of different advancement cards allow you to build your empire into whatever you choose.

The Bad:
IMO, the artwork is flat and abrasive.
One-sided tokens.
Can take a long time to play.
Needs a better How-to-Play video. This is the best I found, but it's very short and for a previous edition. There are a couple of full game playthroughs, but nothing in between.

Final Thoughts:
There is a good reason so many people describe Tresham's Civilization as elegant. It's a spectacular game that definitely deserves a reprint. This was one of the few games that everyone in my group loved.

I'm clearly not a fan of the look. I've been spoiled by Kickstarter games with blinged-out components and hundreds of pieces of beautiful art. Still, once I started playing, the bits didn't matter anymore. It's an engrossing experience and one that I plan to have many times in the near future.

One concern many people have with Civilization is the length. Don't let the 6-7 hour play time put you off. It doesn't feel like a long game while you're playing it. Also, it doesn't have to take 6-7 hours. One of the variants lets you end the game at an earlier point on the track without changing any mechanics. That version takes 3-4 hours and ends before things get really nasty. There are a couple of other variants that cut it down to 1-2 hours by removing some of the mechanics. 

If you want a beefy strategy game that doesn't get mired in annoyingly complex rules, this is one you need to check out.

Players Who Like:
Risk, Small World, civilization builders, macro-strategy, engine building, trade/negotiation, area control, pure strategy, no dice.

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Stephen Gulik - Reviewer

Stephen Gulik is a trans-dimensional cockroach, doomsday prophet, author, and editor at sausage-press.com. When he’s not manipulating energy fields to alter the space-time continuum, he’s playing or designing board games. He has four cats and drinks too much coffee.

See Stephen's reviews HERE.
Civilization Review Civilization Review Reviewed by S T Gulik on March 22, 2018 Rating: 5

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