104: 1arta 0mpera 4ictoria
Rémi Amy’s CIV: Carta Impera Victoria is so cute that I could vomit. No, it isn’t the way the bobble-headed artwork by Christopher Matt recasts human history as one limitless highway of nodding along to the radio. Nor is it the pun hidden right there in the title. Carta Impera Victoria. CIV. Civilization. We get it.
Nope. It’s the fact that the game entitled CIV should contain 104 cards, just as the Romans would do. Ugh. I don’t even believe in assigning scores, and already this thing is pulling zero stars out of a hundred.
Which is a pity, because CIV is one heck of a slick card game.
Let’s start by setting our expectations as low as possible. In CIV, each player’s civilization is racing to control six domains — military, religion, economy, science, culture, and utopia — and the first to amass seven (or eight in the two-player game) of a single domain wins instantly. For the first few rounds, you couldn’t invent a plainer set collection game if you tried. From your hand, you lay a single card. Then you draw back up to three. Then the next person lays a single card. On and on, single cards laid and single cards drawn. It has all the verve of quarrying limestone.
Then CIV clicks. I’d say that something unknowable happens, but there isn’t anything mysterious about it. Once everyone has placed a few cards, you start using those cards. And then CIV goes from pathetically straightforward to — well, not deep. But certainly it steps beyond the shallows.
First of all, any card can be discarded from your tableau to drop a one-time ability bomb onto the table. Each domain provides its own opportunity. Want to block somebody from adding yet another card to culture? Spend an economy card to temporarily embargo any domain. That’s as good as skipping their turn if they haven’t been playing into multiple domains. Want to diversify your hand while also potentially ruining somebody else’s? Religion can do that, letting you nab someone’s entire hand and then returning the same number of cards you stole — usually after a good ransacking of anything valuable. Science does something similar, drawing five cards only to immediately discard five. Hope you found what you were looking for.
Not every option is equally worthy of consideration. Military, for instance, requires you to discard both a military card and something else, then forces everyone at the table to discard that same thing. One part potential commentary on the fruitlessness of war (an empty-headed commentary, but there you have it), one part desperate measure that whittles down your own tableau more than anybody else’s. At least the need to sacrifice two cards per attack prevents the willy-nilly declaration of war.
But that’s only the first way to use your piles of cards. The other is more permanent. As you gain stacks of cards within a domain, you gradually unlock new abilities, no discarding required.
Religion, for example, is all about expanding your hand size. Once you have two or three religion cards (depending on player count), your hand limit jumps from three to five. Hit four or five religion cards (again: player count) and now you can hold seven. Who cares about science when everything you need is provided by the comfort of an impenetrable theology? Well, never mind, because science and economy are all about swapping out cards — the flexibility of rejiggering your entire tableau at a moment’s notice. Hitting seven cards doesn’t sound so bad when you can strip out four worthless cards in favor of four matching ones within the same turn.
But here’s where CIV takes yet another step into the pool and finds itself craning its neck for breath. With a few more plays, this initial gasp of understanding becomes a toddler’s chubby-legged waddle. Now you know the threat posed by economy and science. Now you know that a player can use their dominant culture to copy the ability of anybody else’s stack of cards. Now you know that somebody leaning into utopia is able to pull cards out of the discard pile.
You know and you know and you know.
And all that knowledge gets weaponized. Those weaker options, like spending military cards, or splurging on an economic embargo, or diving into somebody’s hand? Now they’re additional scalpels in a surgeon’s arsenal. Rather than focusing only on your tableau, with an occasional glance around the table to make sure nobody is one or two cards away from immediate victory, CIV moves into a totally public space. Every card is a threat. Everything in your hand is vulnerable. Disruptions can arrive fast and hard.
At that point, everything matters, right down to the composition of the game’s three ages, their decks layered atop each other like the ruins of one civilization built atop those of a predecessor. Religion is crucial early on, but disappears entirely by the third age. Military is always important but slowly declines, replaced by economy and science and culture. Utopia doesn’t even bother to show up until the third age, right in time to be a game-changer. How? By increasing victory conditions, for one thing. By dipping into all those ideas from eras past, for another. It’s a Renaissance, drawing from a classical age, and it can scratch the proceedings to a halt as everybody strives for dominance. Only the leading player will be blitzing to end the game by draining the deck.
Because — and this is crucial — about halfway through a game of CIV, the victory conditions shift. Sure, a player can still win by amassing enough of one domain. But if that never happens, then everybody earns points for those domains they own the most of. Ties in contested domains still award points, and there are tiebreakers aplenty should two players both have, say, three points. Like everything else in CIV, these are tidbits of knowledge that are quickly drilled, dieted, and marched into battle.
And this is when CIV goes pearl hunting. With a group of people who’ve learned its song, the back-and-forth rhythm of one domain to another, one player’s culture war, another’s economic blustering, someone bullying religion or science — that’s when its subtleties unfurl and everyone starts competing. And let me tell you, there’s nothing quite like angling for victory on a game’s third tiebreaker and then actually pulling it off. Like every other detail, thank goodness CIV makes them so easy to remember.
All too often, complex games are outed as simplistic, a core of gelatin cowering beneath a dusting of every flavor in the pantry. CIV: Carta Impera Victoria pulls the opposite trick. What first appears as the world’s starkest set collection game is perhaps one of its fullest, brimming with plays and counter-plays, at least for those willing to discover them.
It’s still a small game, of course, and as such carries a pleasant finiteness, divulging its secrets without inordinate interrogation. The result is both small and large, deep but not suffocatingly so, and equally accessible and capable of mastery. What a delightful surprise.
(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign. Like CIV, we are small yet mighty. Or so I tell my mother when she asks how my “fan-club blog” is going.)