Sid Meier’s Civilization: A New Dawn

James Kniffen

Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games

I wish they had a space program in the game. That’d be cool (Photo credits: Eric Martin@BGG)

I love Civilization games. Well, I should qualify that by saying I used to love Civilization based computer games growing up. As an adult, I have no desire to revisit the computer games due to time constraints, but the IDEA of playing civilization games has broad appeal since I want to recreate the nostalgic moments from my teenage years. This is part of the reason why I am always seeking a good implementation of a civilization board game that produces the epic moments without the hundreds of hours of play time. I know the original Civilization board game has a group of ardent followers, but the game length is prohibitively long. Enter Kevin Wilson’s Sid Meier’s Civilization which was published a decade ago. I was legitimately salivating at the prospect of playing the game. The 2010 game actually captured much of the core mechanics of the computer game on cardboard but in reality, the game dragged and required a hefty time investment. At least 3-4 hours if not more with newbies. It didn’t help that battles were too complicated and not intuitive and our first few games ended in utter failure. I got rid of the game years after my final play, always hoping to get to the table, but never had the energy to revisit the rules or the right company. In the mean time, “Euro” based civilization designs led by Through the Ages, and Nations took center stage. These games were really good in a Euro sort of way. They were all very meaty designs which managed to distill the main maps and battles into card driven affairs. I enjoyed most of them and all these games were well-received and remained highly rated. However, I still missed the spatial component of maps that seems to me, a must for all civilization-based games. To be clear, 99.9% of my collection are Euros. Pure solid Euros without a single “dudes on the map” design (ok, Space Hulk is the only exception). Civilization-based games are the only exception I am happy to entertain. Despite the different variations on the market, I got rid of almost all my civilization games since they I knew they would barely get any play time.

Enter the most recent interation of Sid Meier’s Civilization from FFG. This game actually came out a few years back but I guess the hype was considerable less than the previous version. The only reason I decided to try A New Dawn is because a) Sid Meier’s name is on it and b) It is purportedly VERY streamline. What I wanted was a 4x game distilled all the way to, but not crossing over to the land of the abstract. It is a tall task, I know. I wanted a game so streamlined that rules are simple and a cheat sheet is not required without completely discarding the essence or feel of playing a civilization game. The reviews for A New Dawn seem to suggest that the game is just that. Short, sweet and still immersive enough: 30min/player. Too good to be true perhaps?

A New Dawn is a race game. Period. This is not exactly surprising given that civilizations compete for dominance in resources, arms and soft power. In the original computer game, the space race is the defining moment for winning the game. The first player to develop a space program and launch a rocket wins the race. In a standard game of A New Dawn, the race is to complete three objectives from three separate objectives cards, with each card having two objectives. All you need is to fulfill one of the two objectives on each card. An epic game would have you fulfill four objectives. Objectives are quite mundane and standard for these civilization games: build 8 cities, conquer two cities or city-states, obtain highest technology rank, build two wonders of a particular type, etc. The first player that fulfills all three objectives on each card triggers the end game and wins the game if no one else can complete the objectives in that round.

The game features many familiar and comforting elements for a civilization game: modular map tiles, technology upgrades, caravans, barbarians, resource harvesting, capital cities and neutral city states, natural wonders, unique leaders and finally, the defining feature of all bonafide civilization games: Wonders. The rules are too numerous to recount, so it is impossible to spell out the details with all its pros and cons. There are many things I enjoyed about the game but it also comes with several gripes. Without elaborating the game, I will spell out one major element of the game which I like and also dislike.

First and foremost the focus bar and the focus cards works incredibly well for the game. In fact, I’d argue it is the BEST part of A New Dawn and not surprisingly, it took a Euro mechanism to help streamline action selection. Think about it, the greatest contribution of Euro mechanisms is to curtail options but yet maintain the illusion of control mainly to accelerate the pace of the game. Rather than give players too many options, Euro games tend to find a way to present you with partial options: Gloomhaven forces you to choose one of two options on a card, Battlelore enforces troop movement with a small selection of cards, etc. Games such as Kramer and Kiesling’s Mask Trilogy have not gained more traction because the Action Point mechanism is too open-ended for the casual crowd and induces analysis paralysis. Unlike other civilization predecessors which give you a dozen possible actions, the focus bar gives you 5 actions which represent the sphere of activities a nation would invest in: culture, economy, military, science and industry. Each of these focus cards allow you to carry out one or two different actions. For example, the industry card allows you either build a city or build a wonder. That’s it. Each of these focus cards are placed beneath a slot on the focus bar and paired with a corresponding terrain ranking from easiest (plains) to hardest (mountain) to traverse. These slots are transient as activated cards are removed from the row and placed at the lowest rank all the way on the left and all other cards slide toward the right, making it more powerful as they increase in rank. In this way, cards in the row become more and more powerful as they move from left to right on the focus bar. At the highest rank (5), cards are most powerful and allow you to have the longest range of movement and can traverse across all terrains. At lower slots, cards have more limited range and cannot move through higher ranked terrain. This focus bar system allows players to activate the five actions based on need. You may want to wait until cards are fully powered to the fullest capacity but there might be a need to pull the trigger earlier as opportunities and threats arise. This system is flexible enough to provide unfettered choice balanced by a sliding scale for the strength of the triggered action. In other words, the longer the wait, the more powerful your actions. It is I think a brilliant system for the game. To makes things interesting, each focus card can be upgraded from level I to IV. This is essentially the linear tech tree. Each level ups the benefits of the action of the focus card. Again, it simplifies the tech tree to 20 choices split over five action. No more complicated and branching prerequisites to track. Overall, the focus bar and card system is fantastic. The five actions may seem limiting at first blush, but when combined with the variable and interacting board elements, the action selection becomes a multidimensional decision that is diverse yet not too overwhelming.

So what’s not to like? Well, as streamlined as the game is, it ultimately suffers from what all other Civilization games suffer: an abundance of overlapping and conditional rules. Rules or events that trigger more conditional rules that snowball. What is a simple rule set quickly morphs into something ambiguous and not intuitive. In our session, placement of control tokens were particularly egregious. Control tokens are placed around friendly cities and this rule can be altered by multiple cards from wonders, leaders, diplomacy cards, etc. The concept gets particularly muddied when control tokens extend beyond cities to friendly tokens. All of a sudden, the tokens can be placed further away and now subjected to a different set of rules and conditions that applied to only tokens around cities. These tokens can slide to adjacent places, placed on specific terrains, etc. exception to the rules start cropping up and play gets bogged down for some players where the synergies are particularly confusing. I had to refer to the rule book often, and often without a clear answer.

Another aspect which I had hoped A New Dawn remedied are battles. There are too many modifiers to remember for both attacker and defender: terrain bonuses, defense bonuses, city state bonuses, wonders bonuses, leader bonuses, diplomacy bonuses, reinforcement bonuses, trade token modifiers, etc. To compound the issue, players have to remember defender stats which differ depending on whether one is engaging barbarians, city states, rival cities or control tokens. Victory also brings different reward depending on the opponent. Why FGG couldn’t be bothered to provide a summary sheet is beyond me. It sorely needed one and FGG could easily have anticipated that.

A New Dawn is clearly redesigned with the more casual and mainstream crowd in mind and is way more streamlined than its predecessor. It is not strictly a sequel to the 2010 Civilization, but it has enough elements from Wilson’s design to be a sequel in spirit. Many of the elements of civilization building can be found in A New Dawn and it does many things well: the modular map, the focus bar and cards, the compact action selection and tech upgrades, the concept of sphere of influence via control token placement, the elimination of individual combat units on a battlefield, the race aspect to complete the objectives which makes the game tick faster and more results oriented. The list of frustrating moments are a lot fewer and certainly will abate somewhat with time and familiarity. Still, the hiccups we had in our plays gave us enough pause for concern. There is also the issue of variability or lack thereof. Some players will complain that the tech tree is too simplistic or the Wonders are too few. Fantasy Flight usually sells the bare bones game and then later cash in on expansions if the game is popular. As of today, Terra Ingconita, the expansion for A New Dawn has been announced. I am not particularly against this model for sales actually. Make the base game cheap enough for many people to try and if you want more, you pay more.

Whether you like A New Dawn really depends of what sort of gamer you are. If you enjoy Ameritrash designs with “dudes-on-the-map” being the primary type of game in your collection, then I bet A New Dawn will be a let down. The 2010 Civilization will be a better bet for you. This is simply because A New Dawn is designed to cater to the Euro crowd. The game is short and can be wrapped in 2-3 hours for a 4 player game and shorter still with repeated plays. Overall, A New Dawn is one of the games where it will always teeter near the trade pile. For now, I like it enough to keep it only because I have no other game in my collection that looks and feels like a civilization game. Whether the game will actually hit the table often will be the million dollar question. Hopefully, the game is good enough for two players but I have a sneaky feeling it will suffer a fate similar as its 2010 sibling. Which just means I have to wait for the next version to be designed.

Initial impressions: Good

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