A Monumental Clash
Christian Marcussen is a name I associate with Sid Meier, and not only because both of his published games, Merchants & Marauders and Clash of Cultures, could be described as adaptations of Sid Meier’s Pirates! and Sid Meier’s Civilization. More than that, it’s because Marcussen has a way of taking big ideas and making them… well, still big, since both games are long-winded, but more compressed, more digestible. More distilled.
Clash of Cultures in particular is one of the finest portrayals of the rise, rise, rise, and earthquakes that beset ancient civilizations. It now has a Monumental Edition from WizKids that preserves all the highs the lows of the original game and its impossible-to-find expansion — and, in some cases, smooths out the original’s rougher corners.
When searching for a defining characteristic, one could be forgiven for calling Clash of Cultures “plain.” Not so plain as to qualify as bland, exactly, and it only absorbs a few scratches before revealing unexpected depths. But its outermost gloss is one of unrepentant familiarity. Here’s a hex map of the world, largely uncovered. Here’s your starting city and your first settler. Here’s a sprawling chart of technologies to research and a basin of plastic pieces that will soon mark your expanding empire. Even the action structure is unusually prim: three actions per turn, with such wild offerings as “move some units” and “harvest some resources.” The trickiest one to get right is the use of your cities, and that’s mostly because it’s three options rolled into one, combining recruitment, construction, and harvesting, and damn anyone who makes the mistake of thinking they can force a city to do more than one of those three things in a turn before its populace gets cranky.
The rhythm is familiar. There’s a whole genre named after it. Your first few units explore the landscape, uncovering barbarians and seas and mountain ranges. Resources are exploited. New cities expand into resource-wealthy crossroads or strategic junctures. Tensions on the border develop into skirmishes and then sieges. Somebody researches the ability to sail around the world and deposits an army on your back door. If you’ve played a civilization game, the beats are beaten into the soles of your feet like a stroll through your childhood neighborhood.
But Clash of Cultures sneaks up on you. I’ve written many times before that every civilization game reflects a set of assumptions. Clash of Cultures is no exception. The two biggies — or at least the two obvious enough that an undergraduate could wring them into a suitably shell-shocked term paper — are the presence of barbarians and the constant pressure to expand. Here the tropes are trod down to the bedrock. Barbarians are a bunch of no-names who pop into existence ex nihilo and serve as little more than foils. Expansion is a given, a necessity unless you’re consigned to obscurity.
Behind the tropes, however, Clash of Cultures offers a paean to history’s grandest (if often less than polite) cultures. This is where its features and expressions harden into a recognizable face, sometimes stern or adventurous or outright rude, but always recognizably human.
Marcussen produces this flourish on two levels. The subtler but more important of the two is the organic character of your cities themselves, and it’s here that Clash of Cultures most significantly departs from its source material. You may recall how many civilization games reach a point where every city is functionally identical, a procession of granaries and libraries stamping out cloned urban spaces with all the enthusiasm and personality of a production line.
Here, such cookie-cutter design is impossible. Cities develop according to an intersection of needs, researched advances, and the goals you hope to accomplish down the road. There are seven structures to choose from, and the way they’re added to your starting city as expanding “quarters” is the same masterstroke of visual design it was back in 2012. At a glance, these cities have distinct strengths. Personalities, even. A neighboring isthmus city with a fortress and a market might represent a spear leveled at your heart; that same city with a port and an obelisk can pose a very different sort of threat. Even wonders get in on the fun, appearing as distinct quarters of their own, an improvement over the detached standees of the original game.
The flashier of Marcussen’s techniques for celebrating humanity’s tendency to relentlessly expand is the game’s selection of fifteen separate cultures, each with their own unique advances and a trio of leaders who can appear on the map to administrate, battle, or otherwise oversee your empire’s development. These aren’t as organic as your individualized cities, although that’s no bad thing. They function more as suggested directions: taking captives as the Aztecs, using roving cities as the Huns, recruiting elephants as India or Carthage, snobbily reminding anybody trying to culturally influence your Phoenician cities that your ports are immune to conversion. Where these civilizations really come alive is through their leaders. These offer the expected range of powers, and they’re more smoothly integrated than they were in the old expansion. At their best, they even drive your civilization in contrasting directions, encouraging dynastic changes and some measure of experimentation — or providing targets on the battlefield, since killing off a rival king is a surefire way to earn a couple of points.
The game’s great weakness is an appropriate one, thematically speaking — namely, that governing a sprawling empire is a logistical quagmire compared to managing a few huts. As you unlock new advances, buildings, units, leaders, and multiple flavors of cards, it isn’t long before those once-straightforward actions are stressed from multiple directions. This is one of those games where it’s common to remember something you forgot only moments after wrapping up a turn. Oops, I meant to barter away an objective I’ll never accomplish. Oops, my state religion means that temple should have cost less. Oops, I should have recruited that army with a happiness token rather than food and iron. Oops, I forgot to draw a wonder card when I researched monuments. Oops, I forgot to activate steel weapons during that last battle. I could have won!
To some degree, Clash of Cultures is best played with a measure of forbearance. Not that every misstep should be taken on firmer ground, but that it isn’t a big deal to award the occasional missed bonus or two. The same goes for the game’s length. For the genre, it’s one of the brisker offerings, but especially in the later eras there can be significant downtime between turns. What some call slow, I try to think of as deliberate, albeit with mixed success.
The thing is, though, there’s a reason the original Clash of Cultures, along with its overpriced, out-of-print expansion, has remained in my collection all these years. More than most board game genres, civilization games require tradeoffs. Want it to be short? Then it will lose definition. Want granularity? Then it’ll require half a day to play, and that’s speaking optimistically. Want to dive into a bunch of technologies and their specific advantages? Then it should probably be limited to a single span of time. Clash of Cultures never moves past the classical period, and thank goodness for that. Some of its more ambitious peers struggle to incorporate, say, flight, or colonialism, or what happens when one nation develops gunpowder while everybody else is still domesticating horses. Here, everybody is placed on similar enough footing that paradigm-shifting advances never threaten to obsolete half the map — or perhaps worse, come across as a hiccup rather than a roar.
With Clash of Cultures, Marcussen strives to walk a middle path between detail and playability. For the most part, he succeeds. The Monumental Edition leans into what made the original game special while also smoothing over its potholes. The result isn’t the most radical portrayal of civilization, but neither is it the most staid; it’s a highly polished depiction that wholeheartedly and unashamedly loves the civilization-game genre, tropes and all. Every time I play, it reminds me why I love it too.
A complimentary copy was provided.
Posted on October 28, 2021, in Board Game and tagged Board Games, Clash of Cultures, Clash of Cultures: Civilizations, Clash of Cultures: Monumental Edition, WizKids. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.