Absentee Civilizations of the Inner Sea

another excuse to use my "old-looking quartz" backdrop!

Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea reads like a list of things that should appeal to me. Civilizations, check. Ancient civilizations, even bigger check. But abstract! Checkity-checkmate. Interactive, chaotic, punitive, not obsessed with technology as the sole motivator of human progress. That isn’t the distant rattle of a machine gun you hear. That’s me saying “check” so fast my jaw aches.

So why is this one of my least-favorite civilization games? I’ve narrowed it down to three reasons.

I'm already bored save me please

An Inner Sea and some of its Ancient Civilizations.

Overwrought Civilizations of the Inner Sea

Here’s what your average round of Ancient Civilizations looks like. First, everybody expands. This is done with disks. Every settlement means a disk. Every pair of shallow seas also awards a disk. Adjacent to other civilizations? You guessed it: disk. Sometimes your civilization will also provide disks. Celt-Iberia gets a free disk every round thanks to their metal-working. Same goes for Mauretania and their sub-Saharan caravans. Disks properly amassed, you spill them into the world. Don’t worry too much about rival claims; until later, borders are porous. One disk represents a camp and can share territory with opposing camps, two makes a settlement that will generate other disks in later turns, and three or more is a city. Cities score points, but don’t generate disks. How’s that for a trade-off?

Eventually all these disks will clash. Cities beat settlements beat camps. The disks in shallow seas might be cut off from land and wither away. Sometimes a combat card or civilization ability will tip the scales in their favor. Other times, grand cities will wither to camps thanks to mutual destruction. The process of decline is simple, disks whisked away almost as swiftly as they were placed.

But if this sounds grand, think again. Oh, it’s plenty long. And the rules are filled with steps and phases. But don’t assume that just because something takes four hours and includes something called an “Aeneas step” that it also captures the sweep of rising and toppling civilizations. The absence of technology hasn’t streamlined anything. Or rather, it’s streamlined out any sense of progression without redressing the genre’s customary duration, even though it’s the latter that needed attention. More than long, Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea feels the same whether it’s the second turn of the first epoch or the fourth turn of the third epoch. Disks expand, clash, and score. Nobody learns from the past. Nobody develops a strategy to counter the all-mighty phalanx. Nobody tames the deeper portions of the inner sea. Disks expand, clash, and score. The same churn, sometimes more or less profitable than in previous cycles, but repeated endlessly, like some art-house illustration on the pointlessness of conflict. Expand, clash, score.

This isn’t to say that things don’t happen. They do. Events punctuate the cycle the way nails puncture tires. But then the rubber reinflates and it’s back to the same old fluctuating borders, like one of those “growth of the so-and-so empire” GIFs, but without context and stuck an endless loop.

Success, Mother! I didn't go without saying something kind!

The cards are pointed and powerful.

Capricious Civilizations of the Inner Sea

Between expansion and competition, we pause for the real meat of the game: the card phase. This is the moment when players are permitted to play the cards they’ve earned and purchased. There are heaps of options, all drawn at random from a single towering deck, from great people who bestow bonuses to long-term investments to entire mounds of attack cards. There’s even the occasional mandatory event.

But mostly it’s attack cards all the way down.

There are ways to offset an attack. Let’s say somebody decides to play Millennial Earthquakes. This, like most of the cards in Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea, is a Bad Thing. In this case, one of your cities will get smashed to bits. Also, every other city within two areas will get smashed to bits. Hopefully you haven’t been building cities in proximity. You know, for defense. To stop the earthquake from destroying everything you’ve built, you play an Assassin, a negation card, and pray your opponent doesn’t negate your negation with one of their own cards.

Even if that happens, it’s possible to spend cards or talents, the game’s rare currency, to safeguard one disk a pop. That’s assuming you have cards or talents, of course. Or that the enemy’s attack assaults your disks and not your pool of victory points. Either way, don’t expect to keep your empire together, no matter how sound your preparations. This isn’t mere chance. It’s caprice, an unaccountable swing that cannot be braced against. Plenty of civilization games have presented natural chaos as something to be wary of. But even those that directly make chaos their subject matter generally provide some means for stepping lightly. Avoiding supervolcanoes in Bios: Origins, making sure to invest in irrigation and sanitation in Clash of Cultures, not marrying into a syphilitic family in Greenland. It’s inevitable that nature will kick you in the gonads, but that doesn’t mean you need to swagger around with the widest possible gait.

Then again, part of the issue is that a volcano in Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea isn’t actually a volcano. It’s a homing missile.

The first time: WOAH! The third time: Sigh.

Invaded by off-map barbarians.

Frivolous Civilizations of the Inner Sea

The city of Carthage stood for over six hundred years. The Minoan civilization managed almost two thousand. Rome and Egypt have a reputation for a reason. Troy was so famous that its namesake accounts for seventy percent of all American condom sales.

Not that you’d know it from Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea, where any one of these giants might be battered into flaccidity if they step into first place.

There’s a tricky balance to strike in any civilization game. Historically, size matters. Big walls, big armies, big unified peoples willing to fight to defend their sense of self. Hence a quandary: a civilization game needs to model the advantages of bigness without letting the first player to expand become unbeatable. Here, though, the game goes in the entirely opposite direction. Because its cards can be deployed with such reckless specificity, stability or greatness aren’t only difficult, but fundamentally undesirable. The moment a civilization’s borders swell, the instant it throws up cities and wonders, it will be ruined by plagues and volcanoes and sea people and radical ideologies and crop failures.

The result is reminiscent of Liu Cixin’s Dark Forest Theory, in which a civilization’s best chance of survival is total silence, lest a greater opponent blow them up from afar. Rather than stability, the route to triumph is second-tier status. Rather than strength, the great warrior lies low. Rather than boldness, you need to creep into second place and hang there until the last possible moment. That’s an appropriate state of affairs in plenty of games, especially those about intrigue or asymmetrical warfare. Less so in a game about the Mediterranean’s greatest civilizations. To become powerful in Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea is like being the first player to reach a high level in Munchkin. And no game should seek a comparison to Munchkin.

Brace for a bunch of volcanoes, sucker.

A pyramid. Just one.

The peculiarity of Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea is that most of these issues could be stomached in isolation. If it were shorter, less chaotic, less direct in its aggressions, then perhaps its aspiration of being an abstract grand civilization game would have been realized. Summed together, it feels like a prank. Between straightforward area control, card battles that are generally won by whomever runs out of options last, and lack of differentiation, it simply isn’t interesting enough to warrant more than a glance.


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A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on November 9, 2020, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. Yes, nailed it! One of my biggest gaming disappointments of recent years.

    It was about an hour in when I realised “hang on, this random bash the leader bs is basically fucking M**chkin.”

    Its defenders, and they do exist, will say “it’s just supposed to be casual wacky fun” which is fine if you are Dungeon Mayhem and last ten minutes, but less defensible when you last four hours.

    • That’s the thing: it isn’t a universal rule, but there’s generally a direct correlation between how much wackiness I can stomach and a game’s runtime. An hour of wackiness, sure. Four hours — what?

  2. That’s super disappointing, I had briefly heard of this and thought it might be more like Endeavor- the arc and some of the mechanics of Tresham’s Civilization pared down to a breezy two hours. Heck, maybe it is, and the shrinking of the scope just leaves the game hollow afterwards.

    • Definitely. I’d love to see an abstract civilization game that takes two hours. Endeavor is a good contrast because it manages that without sacrificing what makes a game about colonialism interesting, and even adds to that formula via its clever inclusion of slavery. This… doesn’t do that.

      • What about Antike II or Vinci?

      • I haven’t tried Antike II. Vinci is fine, although I’d like to see its combo-civs done with a broader historical focus. (In other words, I’d like to see somebody develop its ideas without being called Small World.)

      • I’ve played a good bit of Antike II – It’s probably the lightest game you could still rightfully call part of the civilization genre, but it ultimately feels like a pared-down Imperial/2030.

      • I wouldn’t compare Antike to Imperial. Sans obvious similarities they don’t have that much in common, and both try to achieve different goals.
        I can definitely recommend Antike. It has it’s shortcomings, but overal is pretty clever and ticks most boxes for civ game, and with such simple rules and short playing time.
        I understand why it’s not as widely successful as Concordia, but for connoisseurs it’s worth trying. Just very well designed game without unnecessary chrome. You see less and less of those each year.

  3. I’m just glad the damn thing’s out and Inside GMT isn’t swamped with “here’s another faction from CoIS! They have a different color!” anymore.

  4. A very nice review. I really like the sound of that disc placement mechanic as a simple 90s-era German game but it sounds like the designer added a bunch of other stuff too.

    Reading about the take-that stuff, my hunch is that in our group the game would essentially become an old-school game of favor trading and threats and petty diplomacy, with the cards as the focal point for that. Does the game actually support that style of play, though, or are the cards so specific in their effects that you can’t wield them for leverage in that way?

    I still don’t know for sure based on this whether you’ll like Sands but I can at least say that you won’t dislike it for the same reasons you disliked this one; they have practically nothing in common.

    • Oops, double-posted comment, sorry about that.

    • There is horse-trading to some extent. Part of the problem is that there aren’t many ways to express that in-game. You can make a truce, go after a leading player, and so forth, but there’s nothing formal to incentivize such deals. It’s all “beyond the game,” so to speak — and any game can be a negotiation game if you’re willing to play that way.

  5. Hey dude. I was wondering what your thoughts were on Civilization: A New Dawn and if possible the recent expansion Terra Incognito which is supposed to address many of the base game’s issues?

  6. I enjoyed my first couple of plays of this with the caveat that we agreed to play two or three epochs, rather than the game’s default four. I think the designer/developers have been suggesting as much on a few discussions regarding the game’s length. I found the in-your-face swinginess of it fun – but the lack of overarching narrative beyond the ebb and flow of power counted against ACIS in the end: by the time of a fourth play (on two epochs) we felt like we were settling down for a two hour trading of blows and not much else. There was still some fun and laughter to be had in the bunfight, but ultimately the lack of control, absence of mitigation and overall abstract narrative counted against it. I’m hoping Ancient Civilisations of the Middle East is an evolution, rather than a simple geographic iteration.

    • Sounds like your experience paralleled my own, Sam. I liked it more at first than after a couple plays, specifically because trading slaps to very little effect grew less interesting with time. I’d love to see the next iteration add some longevity to the formula.

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