The Dawning of a Brand New (Short) Day

AT LONG LAST, MY NEMESIS, WE SHALL FACE ONE ANOTHER ON THE FIELD OF OBSOLESCENCE

Some games need room to breathe. There, I’ve said it, and you can probably infer many of my feelings on Civilization: A New Dawn from that one statement alone. Not every game requires streamlining, especially when that game’s goal — or at least that game’s genre’s traditional goal — is to capture the sweep of something epic. Cutting Twilight Imperium from eight hours to five is one thing; pruning it down to sixty minutes would kill everything that makes it special.

Broadly speaking, the same goes for Civilization games. As one of the principal granddads of the 4X genre (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate), Sid Meier’s Civilization carries certain expectations. Foremost among them is the notion that it will capture a hearty slice of the breadth of human history, perhaps all the way from mud huts to rocket ships. Rome wasn’t built in a day and all that.

Civilization: A New Dawn certainly accomplishes this, more or less. Emphasis on the less, since A New Dawn is more interested in wrapping up as quickly as possible than providing a satisfying play arc. The result is two-thirds of an utterly excellent game.

Not sure what else I expected from the Easter Morning Chuckwagon Supper Delivery Service Simulator.

Those are some soft colors.

It’s impossible to talk about A New Dawn without explaining its focus row, so bear with me for a moment while we get technical.

Every civilization begins with the same five technologies. Masonry, Foreign Trade, Pottery, Early Empire, and Astrology are the foundations that will underpin everything you accomplish, with each representing an action you can perform. Astrology, for instance, spins your technology wheel a few pips and eventually replaces lower-level techs with shiny new ones, like Pottery making way for Animal Husbandry or Iron Working replacing Masonry as your culture’s pinnacle of military prowess. In broad terms, there’s an option for spreading control tokens across the map, one for reinforcing those tokens or waging war on your enemies, one for trading with your neighbors or neutral city states, and another for setting up new cities.

Crucially, each of these options waxes and wanes in power throughout the game. The higher up on your focus row a technology sits, the more useful it will be when triggered. A high-level use of your trade caravans sends them hurtling over mountains and through deserts, while a lower-level use might see them unwilling to deviate from pleasant grasslands and rolling hills. Whichever of your techs wages war is a terrible thing to behold when primed; then your people grow weary of fighting and, as is always the case when you’re done using a tech, it drops down to the lowest level and everything previously situated below it pushes up into the gap.

The focus row is many things at once. Both delight and limitation. An elegant way to manage your civilization’s technology and resources, yet one that also precludes a whole lot of technological advances from ever occurring, like anything to do with seamanship. Handsome in practice, but also often cumbersome.

Most of all, the focus row is A New Dawn. It’s the system that prevents you from building a city every turn, waging endless crusades, or focusing on scientific advancement over everything else. There’s nothing stopping you from using the same option over and over, it’s just that the steeply diminishing returns of doing so — and the stagnation of the rest of your empire — gently guide you toward a diversified approach.

It also leads to delightful situations where your barely-literate people, who read the stars for omens and trundle across the prairie shod in nothing but leather, have knowledge of splitting the atom.

The focus bar guides the development and actions of your civilization.

It’s a brilliant little system, and its limitations are both unsurprising and largely forgivable. For one thing, the procession from one level to the next can feel somewhat predictable, but there is some room for customization depending on the evolving circumstances on the map. Meanwhile, each tier of technology is a marginal improvement over what came before. The fourth-level techs all break the mold, like Mass Media assimilating your opponent’s control tokens, Urbanization deploying already-developed cities, and Nuclear Power letting you wipe out swaths of an enemy’s defenses, but they’re a long time coming compared to the slighter bonuses of letting your caravans move a little farther than before.

Perhaps its best advantage is that each technological branch manages to feel useful. Even wimpy options like economy can eventually be tooled to buy off roaming barbarians and amass sizeable quantities of trade tokens, which boost your other actions when spent.

The map is almost secondary, though that speaks more to the vitality of the focus system than anything else. At the game’s outset, the map is a glistening treasure trove of opportunities and dangers. Barbarians are simple red nibs that move around and possibly sack cities, though there’s no method to their madness beyond a rolled die every couple rounds. City states can be traded with or conquered, and in the former case they provide special ongoing bonuses for their friendship. There are even natural wonders that can be claimed and then perpetually mined for resources, because of course Mount Everest is prized for its bottomless wells of oil. It may be silly, but it does succeed at guiding the action.

My favorite detail is that wonders inhabit physical spaces on the map, much like the ones found in Clash of Cultures. Wonders are tied to the victory system — more on that in a literal minute — and are so powerful that a neighbor’s Hanging Gardens might be too tantalizing to not conquer. Over time, your selection of wonders shapes your civilization, whether it’s the Eiffel Tower flipping the loyalty of somebody’s control tokens to your side, the Great Lighthouse letting you settle new cities on any map edge, or the Oracle letting you toy with the order of your focus row. They’re all over-the-top powerful in their own way, resembling mind control devices or space lasers more than the actual Terracotta Army.

I can see my house from here.

This feels more like an expanse than the board from The Expanse.

Wonders are also integral to most of the victory conditions, which means this is probably a good time to discuss where A New Dawn starts to lose its way.

At the outset of the game, you choose three objective cards from a pool of five. Each displays two vaguely-related goals, like “Control 15 regions on the map border or beside water OR build two cultural wonders,” or “Conquer two city states OR build two military wonders.” By accomplishing one of a card’s goals, you mark it and move on. Wrap up all three and you win instantly.

There are a few problems with this system. First up, objectives are fairly easy to accomplish. Wonders, which are used in every victory condition but one, seem peculiarly affordable, and it isn’t uncommon to witness every civilization squatting on piles of unspent resources and trade tokens.

Far more troubling, most matches conclude painfully abruptly right as players really start butting into each other. It feels like the first two acts of an epic history. Act One deals with the first tenuous steps of your people into a world teeming with hostile barbarians and untamed wilds, while Act Two is the accelerating boom of cities and wonders and technology. In other Civilization games, Act Three would be the moment when cultures are forced into contact thanks to limited resources, land, or ideologies, and must compete to achieve dominance. While it’s possible for civilizations to come to blows earlier, the game ends with such a startle that it resembles a yelp more than a barbaric yawp.

I’ll give you an example. In one game, I needed two economic wonders to win. While I’d constructed the Colossus in ages past, the rest of the economic wonders had been claimed. Fortunately, I had a neighbor who’d constructed Great Zimbabwe on the other side of a narrow sea. I used the power of Flight, the top-tier military tech, to bombard him into submission, wrecking his fortified control tokens and finally laying siege to his city from above.

It felt like the opening salvo of a major war. Our nations had been friendly until that moment, including embassies and constant trade contacts with each other’s capital cities. The conflict could have easily spread like wildfire, eventually pulling our respective allies into a global brawl for supremacy.

Instead, a single action saw me weakening his defenses, nabbing the Great Zimbabwe, and winning the game.

eh.

The bobs are coming!

It was a dramatic moment, certainly. But it was also the highest-conflict conclusion to A New Dawn that I’ve witnessed, and it still felt like it ended far too soon, a grand narrative of global dominance cut short. It was like the attack on Pearl Harbor being the last moment in history.

There’s a lot to recommend Civilization: A New Dawn. The way it uses technology as both its source of potential actions and a means of metering development, expansion, and aggression is not only clever, it’s downright smart. It completely sidesteps the usual mess of technology bonuses that has been inseparable from 4X games since time immemorial. Rather than cluttered, it’s smooth.

But it’s hard to argue in A New Dawn’s favor when it behaves so skittishly. At the very moment it should be approaching a climax, it screams out a winner and scuttles beneath the nearest rock. The result is two-thirds of an excellent game, one that provides wonderfully satisfying moments, but no conclusion worth striving for. The price of wrapping up in under two hours is that the third hour may have been the most interesting one.

Posted on December 2, 2017, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Hello, and thanks a lot for this review.
    I am wondering: have you tried the “epic game” optional rule whereby 4 victory cards are in play instead of 3? And do you think it could bring what you feel is missing, and make the end game a bit more climactic?
    Other than that, it sounds like the core of the game is solid and that future expansions could easily build on it and enhance certain aspects to give it a stronger civ buidling feel. Any thoughts on that?

    • Good questions, Pierre. Let’s see if I can answer them.

      First of all, we did attempt the “epic” game, and furthermore attempted to play with all five victory cards as well. In both cases, the game was a tad longer, but not by much. The objectives remained largely easy to accomplish, and the conclusion anticlimactic, though we did prefer the epic variant to the regular mode.

      As I wrote, this isn’t necessarily a gamebreaker, and I imagine some people will appreciate a shorter Civilization game, but I’m not one of them. If I’m going to play for two hours, I’d rather play for another 30 to 60 minutes and arrive at a satisfying conclusion.

      It isn’t my remit as a critic to fix a game, but I’ve given this one some thought because I enjoy the focus row system. I wonder if it would be possible for the victory conditions to act as triggers for the endgame — as in, perhaps they begin a countdown or something — rather than ending it outright. This mode would require different things to count for points (cities, wonders, city-states, natural wonders, etc.), much as in Clash of Cultures.

      I think that could work, and I think an expansion or official variant could absolutely “fix” the game. However, I suspect it would require more than just fiddling with the victory conditions themselves. As it currently stands, the tech dial actually doesn’t run for very long, so you might wind up with a state where science is worthless for a huge portion of the game. That would be a shame, since leveling up your technology is quite pleasant.

      But with more involved victory conditions and perhaps some fiddling with how technology operates in a longer version, I do think A New Dawn could be crafted into a superior expanded version.

      • Hi Dan, thanks so much for taking the time to answer.

        Maybe something that could work for you is to only declare victory if you simultaneously meet one victory condition on each card. With the basic rules, once you’ve built two cultural wonders for example, that’s done and you can probably forget about it and focus on another objective entirely. Now if you have to defend these wonders to stay in the race, that would probably change the game’s dynamics.

        Just to be clear, I have not tried the game myself yet, but I’m thinking about getting it. I don’t have any experience with 4x or civ building games, so at least it won’t feel like a step down from there for me. The game I have that seems to be the closest to this one (at least on paper) is Concordia. I’m not really in love with Concordia, but there are very significant differences between Civ. New Dawn and Concordia that make me think I can like Civ. a lot better (wonder building, tech leveling …).

        If I said that this game sits somewhere between Concordia and Scythe, would I be completely off? And as you seem to enjoy Scythe a lot more, would you be able to pintpoint what makes it work better for you?

      • I’m always happy to discuss games!

        I suspect your proposed solution — meeting all victory cards at the same time — would move the game in the other direction and potentially drag on indefinitely. It’s easy to envision a situation where everybody is wonder-stealing back and forth until somebody gets lucky with the dice and comes out on top. That doesn’t strike me as more desirable than the current state of affairs.

        Since I haven’t played Concordia, I can’t really comment on the comparison.

        Scythe, on the other hand, accomplishes precisely what it sets out to do, which is to be a competitive race to gather resources, acquire upgrades, and amass points. It boasts a distinct play arc that begins with players tentatively moving into the world, making their first few upgrades and land grabs, and eventually coming into often-violent conflict over limited territory and resources. Unlike A New Dawn, Scythe approaches and then achieves a conclusion that feels like a culmination of the game’s action. It has its own problems (the combat is funky), but at the very least it has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

        For good examples of the 4X genre, I’d say Star Trek: Ascendancy, Clash of Cultures, the fiddly Civilization from 2010, or even Through the Ages strike me as superior offerings to A New Dawn.

      • Well, I take that last part back. I think I probably enjoy A New Dawn more than the 2010 Civilization.

  1. Pingback: 5 on Friday: 08/12/17 – No Rerolls

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