The Dawning of a Brand New (Short) Day
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.
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’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.
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.
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.