Your Thumb on the Scales of History
The civilization genre has always been about gluttony. Think back on all those times you shepherded a civilization from tiny settlement to grand empire. When was having more not a good thing? The success of a game-based civilization is nearly always measured in size, stockpile, quantity, output. Even digital civgames, which occasionally fret over issues like expansion stress or population pressure, nearly always treat these issues as minor debuffs on the national scale, and offer solutions as something you can build, research, or buy. To solve the inflation caused by your treasure fleets, spend extra money on more treasure fleets.
Of course, historical civilizations have no such advantage. Too much gold infused into your economy and it sheds its value. Too many stockpiled resources invites theft and pestilence. Too many cities and your borders stretch until invasion or fragmentation is all but inevitable. A soaring population is a hotbed of plague and strife. Even happiness is a double-edged sword. When low, your people revolt; when high, they grow plump and expect new amusements. It’s easy to forget that Juvenal wasn’t being shrewd when he wrote about “bread and circuses.” He was decrying the complacency of the population. In game terms, Juvenal’s Rome had a maxed-out happiness score. It just so happened that max happiness also spelled significant dings to military readiness and civic duty.
Now let’s talk about Gentes.
Before you get too excited, Gentes is still very much a civgame. A nontraditional civgame, yes, but still captive to many of the genre’s trappings. As an ethnic tribe spreading across the eastern Mediterranean, growth is still at the forefront of your thoughts. Growth and population and construction and something ephemeral called “points.” No, the lowest score doesn’t win. Gentes isn’t that subversive.
But a little subversive, sure. For one thing, Gentes isn’t all about growth all the time. Sometimes it’s about balance.
Turn by turn, it goes like this. On the map are a bunch of tiles. Really, a whole bunch. There are tiles for gathering cards and tiles for building cards. Tiles for expanding your population and tiles for expanding your cities. Tiles for gaining money and tiles for… well, those are all the tiles. On your turn, you claim a tile and perform its action. In that regard it’s similar to a worker placement game, except rather than putting meeples onto the board to claim actions and block other players, you’re withdrawing an option from consideration every time you do something. Some people have called it a “reverse worker placement game.” Don’t let them fool you. This is far more interesting than that.
Most of the time, your goal is to build civilization cards. These little guys pull multiple duty as your main source of points, a little bit of thematic texture, and a bonus that differentiates your civilization from those seated to your right and left. They’re also what initially pulls your gaze toward the population chart, which is where you’ll get your first hint that Gentes is doing something unusual. Rather than tracking population as a solitary digit, in the sense that eight population is clearly superior to seven population, here your citizenry also represents the makeup of your civilization across six professions.
There are two things to note about this. First, it’s where Gentes finds its footing. Every civilization card requires a particular population before it can be built. A theater, for example, needs two nobles, a merchant, and three priests. A granary requires multiple soldiers and merchants. A court must be staffed with an equal mix of nobles, soldiers, and scholars. Some civilization cards require a prerequisite city, but the focus is squarely on your population. If you have the right people, you can build the corresponding structures. It’s a lovely little wrench that keeps the game circling a closed loop: money is for population is for cards, around and around, and whichever civilization strikes that balance most efficiently shall emerge triumphant.
Second, it isn’t enough to have the right professions. Each one is paired with a counterpart, placing them in direct opposition. On the same track you’ll find priests and scholars, forever debating whether the clouds are the footstools of the gods or hovering rolled oats. Merchants and soldiers have different ideas about whether nearby city-states should become trade partners or your newest expendable labor force, and nobles and artisans both think of themselves as the prettier class.
On the one hand, there’s some rigidity to the metaphor as presented here — after all, there have been plenty of clashes between noble and merchant, or scholar and soldier, or really any conceivable pairing. Still, it’s a prime example of how Gentes views civilizations as projects to be balanced and cultivated rather than expressions of pure brute force. Put another way, every other civgame has all its population invested in soldiery; here, at least, there’s an alternative.
While Gentes’ approach to population is refreshing, the real highlight is the way it manages its time. And not only because it’s a reasonably brisk game. No, we’re speaking figuratively.
As I mentioned earlier, every turn sees you claiming a tile. This tile is immediately slotted onto your timeline, along with little hourglasses representing how long it took to grow your population, construct a building, found a colony, or dream up new ideas. This is yet another element that requires careful equilibrium, letting you choose between cost or speed. Want that pyramid built right away? It’ll cost you. Otherwise you can wait three centuries for the aliens to return with more limestone blocks like the rest of us.
More importantly, there’s a decision to be made whenever your chosen tile displays two or more hourglasses. Rather than spacing them out, it’s possible to double up, tucking two hourglasses onto a single space of your timeline. You’re burning brighter and twice as fast. It’s only natural that there’s a downside. When everybody resets their civilization for the next round, only one hourglass is removed from each space. The remainder are pushed down to the start of your track, where they’ll take up precious time in the coming era. When you burn the midnight oil, the hangover hits you twice as hard. Jesus said that. To the Maccabees, as I recall.
The pressures underpinning these options soon generate friction. You can spend a heap of money for multiple civilization cards, except now you’re more likely to waste an action in the middle of the era to tax your populace. You can found a colony or build a structure swiftly or at cost, but forget about doing both. You can grow a small segment of your population or invest in sweeping social change. Work harder now, but accept that next round you’ll only get a few things done. And the entire time, your rivals are snapping up tiles of their own, claiming city spots, and stealing desirable professions and civilization cards. It’s a perfect conundrum, teetering between the need to accomplish something now, at a premium of time or money, and the flexibility to do it later, accompanied by the risk that somebody might block you. Clever decision points: Gentes has them.
Not that this golden age is entirely rose petals and marble statues. The foundation may be solid, but it’s hard not to gaze upon this particular edifice and regard it with a shrug. How can such a careful and intelligent labor result in something so featureless?
The problem is twofold. In mechanical terms, Gentes never really escapes the orbit of the games it’s determined to imitate — and I’m talking about milquetoast point-scoungers, not the civilization genre. Events that ought to be momentous, like founding a new city, hardly rate alongside the grind of scraping together piddly quantities of points. To reinforce this, there are rubber bands around every corner, desperate to snap trailing players back into the running. Whether you’re landing second place at a goal or earning endgame points for civilization cards you didn’t even build, the last thing Gentes wants is for anybody to be lost to obscurity.
The deeper problem is connected to the first, in that nothing feels wholly preferable to anything else. For the most part, cards are worth points first and everything else second. Like a spark of flint in a dark cave, there are occasional glimmers of thematic import. A mine grinds artisans into money. Irrigation frees up your civilization to spend more time thinking. But these are vastly outnumbered by head-scratchers. Why does a shipyard aid your philosophical endeavors? Shouldn’t a barracks produce soldiers rather than priests and nobles? When a port earns money according to how many scholars you have, what exactly is going on?
The same goes for those six professions, so carefully paired to evoke clashes of class and ideology. Sadly, they’re almost immediately outed as window dressing, mere prerequisites and nothing more. Soldiers are not soldiers; they’re a picture of a soldier, not a threat to your neighbors. Scholars don’t come up with ideas, artisans and merchants don’t generate wealth, nobles don’t produce anything at all — an accidental insight — and at no point can a nation with a full clutch of six priests ever finish drafting the many names of god, thus winking out the stars and ushering existence through the back door. Even as prerequisites they’re lacking, hardly ever requiring a major swing from one paradigm to another. The result is a veneer laid atop some very compelling systems, grasping for meaning without ever quite attaining it.
This might make Gentes sound like a bad game. It isn’t. I wouldn’t even call it a disappointing game. Rather, it’s a surprisingly smart and subversive game endowed with at least two intelligent systems, that still unfortunately falls prey to some of the foibles of mass market design. Where it’s innovative, it’s fresh and even perceptive. It offers an alternate vision of the civgame, one where populations stand in tension with their next-door neighbors, golden ages are closely interlinked with periods of decline, and philosophy plays an important role in defining the personality of an empire. Its gameplay is laden with powerful tensions and tricky decision points. Then, when it risks being too innovative, it stumbles a hair’s breadth short of greatness. Does that come as a surprise? Gentes clearly values balance. Perhaps, in the end, its central irony is that it should have been more expansive.
A complimentary copy was provided.