There’s something infinitely enticing about the prospect of a short civilization game. Centuries, even millennia of technologies, policies, wars and wonders, played out in a couple of hours rather than an entire afternoon. You might even call it one of the holy grails of game design.
For a moment, Matthew Dunstan’s Monumental looks like it might reach out and choose wisely. The turns clip along nicely. It has decisions with room enough to stumble, but not so badly that you’ll slip onto your face. And of course there’s all that plastic. What could possibly go wrong?
After the jump, let’s talk about what went wrong.
It’s difficult to avoid comparing Monumental with Clash of Cultures, and not only because they both look like a bag of Skittles exploded in your face. That isn’t even a particularly good parallel. Monumental, at least its deluxe edition, with its oh-so-tall miniatures and garish plastic bases for denoting player ownership, is so crowded with soldiery that Clash of Cultures looks downright restrained. That’s in addition to the heightened detail of Monumental. The Japanese are staffed by samurai, blades drawn for a duel. The Chinese figures are shown charging into battle, spears hefted in a pose I would rate as thirty percent effective. The Egyptians resemble the dog-headed Anubite soldiers from The Mummy Returns or Age of Mythology. The Greeks look Greek.
Other comparisons quickly out themselves as skin deep. Sure, they’re both played on hexes, but that’s par for the course in civilization games these days. Even as early as the setup, it’s hard not to pine after the simplicity — that’s right, the simplicity — of Clash’s setup. Rather than slapping a bunch of hexes face-down and calling it good, here you painstakingly arrange a pre-designed map. That or follow a list of rules to make something slightly different. In both cases everything is visible. There’s no need for exploration when your map has radial symmetry or sprang into collaborative existence only a moment ago. Unlike actual geography, nothing is ever a surprise. In the scenario maps, market towns and barbarians are even placed so that everybody has equal access. The result is perfect balance, but also a certain featurelessness, absent of unexpected mountain ranges or great cities or impassable seas or dangerous terra incognita, all the things that give history — and games about humanity charting its course across that history — their texture. Their topography. That it takes so long to set up something so bland is insult piled upon injury.
The point is, even before it begins, Monumental is determined to throw up roadblocks. This is ostensibly an entry-level civilization game: quick to play, a bite-sized decision space, fast turnaround. But only ostensibly.
Credit where it’s due, the map is the smaller and less interesting half of Monumental. The better half is each player’s capital city, an exercise in deck-building and resource selection that occupies far more attention than any of the happenings in the wider world, and for zero percent of the weight in plastic.
It works like this. You have a grid of nine cards, each representing one of the rudimentary structures of your budding civilization. Many of these are worth resources: work camps for production, forts for military might, libraries for science. Others bestow a bonus, such as a mine letting you claim a gold piece — a wild resource — as long as you gained two production. The method of that gaining is elegantly straightforward: each turn, you activate one row and one column, then use their resources to buy actions. That’s five of your nine cards, after which you’ll toss them into your discard pile and draw replacements from your deck.
This is where Monumental shines. Sometimes these decisions are easy, especially when particular resources happen to align. Other times you’re presented with a tough choice, maybe wasting a building while nabbing two better offerings, or accepting a weaker turn to churn those pesky structures out of your current city. Most compelling of all, this generates an ever-changing representation of your civilization’s strengths and values as they develop, rise to the fore, wane into forgetfulness, and are eventually recalled by some future renaissance. As you claim cards from the market, better structures and wonders allow for greater resource gains or wilder bonuses, while knowledge cards, this game’s equivalent of a tech tree, splay underneath regular structures for added benefits. Flimsy structures can be archived to vanish from your civilization forever, while particularly beneficial cards might be reinforced to stick around for another generation. It isn’t long before your capital is far more than a grid of cards; it’s a visual representation of the decisions you’ve made, a personal creative landscape that’s yours to revel at, manipulate, take advantage of, and shore up at your convenience.
The benefits gained by your capital are written onto the wider world, although this isn’t a situation where the practice rises to the theory. The problem is that very few of your available actions manage to land with anything more than a plink and a ripple. Science exists to gain knowledge cards, but that’s almost entirely an internal affair. Production allows for better structures and wonders, but apart from needing terrain for the wonders themselves, there’s very little reason to hold onto much territory. This connection between wonders and the land they’re built on could have led to interesting decisions and tense standoffs, à la the discoveries of Clockwork Wars, which could be conquered to steal their advantages from their original builder. Unfortunately, nothing this interesting is permitted in Monumental. It doesn’t matter that your pyramids were occupied long ago by Danish raiders; as the one who quarried and dragged and shaped those stones, you’ll always have access to the structure itself. Although there are plenty of real-world nations that would be relieved to hear that the prestige and memory of the objects currently sitting in foreign museums have not been lost after all, this reduces both wonders and the terrain itself to spaces with a slight defense bonus.
Speaking of slight defense bonuses, it’s hard to imagine combat being more anemic. All conquest comes down to a simple sum between a space’s defenders and its terrain. One troop in a marsh requires three soldiers to defeat; a tower in a mountain requires six. Defeat sends your troops back home, ready to spring back into action on your next turn. Much of the time, it’s hard to express exactly why they should bother with such zeal.
This isn’t to say that conquest isn’t useful. Especially early on, beating barbarians or marching scouts to trade cities will result in significant bonuses. When you’re racing to pick up production tokens or loot barbarian camps, it hardly matters that the combat is less interesting than the exchanges in Small World (where, it should be noted, at least you might take the occasional risk). Rather, the issue is that combat hardly matters once all those tokens are claimed. At that point, combat stops being a race for territory and loot, and becomes instead a contest for a few meager points at the end of the game. Even your scouts will likely be finished. In most of our plays, we wound up removing them from play entirely and balking at the occasional third-age wonder that for some reason assumed we’d be thrilled with some free scout movements.
Of course, these complaints come parcel with an easy rejoinder, because the map isn’t the core of the game. Despite its footprint, the map is there to actualize what you’ve accomplished in your capital city. It’s like the trackers in Through the Ages but with a greater emphasis on adjacency and terrain.
But while the capital is undoubtedly the highlight of Monumental, its cogs become more poorly oiled the longer you play. Early turns are a snap. Here are a few resources, maybe a bonus, maybe a knowledge card, there you go. Later, the addition of extra wonders and knowledge cards not only adds complexity, but also provides information you can’t account for in advance. If everything could be planned up front, you could use those ten minutes in between turns to prepare for what’s coming, which would in turn shave down those ten minutes. But when you have multiple cards that let you draw and use other cards, plus a wonder pending completion, multiple useful options for activating your city, and a shifting market and world map to consider, Monumental seems to argue that the pinnacle of civilization is not a space shuttle soaring free of gravity but the Department of Motor Vehicles waiting room.
It’s slow. Worse, it’s slow for a game that provides so little impact. Long waits aren’t always a bad thing, provided the outcome is worthy of the investment. Here, a turn from the game’s midpoint onward might see you conquering a territory you don’t care about, building a structure for nothing but points, or — worst case scenario, but one that happens surprisingly often — grabbing multiple cards from the market just to hurry the game along.
That’s the paradox of Monumental. The card system is a fantastic expression of your culture’s traits, letting you see the results of your actions like few other civilization games. But between the pointlessness of everything on the map and the constant need to reexamine your city’s optimization puzzle in the later stages, its velocity soon grinds from a sprint to a trudge. Worse, that trudge makes an entry-level civilization game take longer and feel slower than some of its richer peers. When some of those peers include titles like Clash of Cultures and Through the Ages, both straightforward games in their own right, Monumental struggles to carve out an appeal of its own.
A complimentary copy was provided.