Sunday, July 24, 2016

Mega Civ, For the Eighth Time

When I picked up my copy of Mega Civilization at BGG.Con last fall, Nate told me I'd never actually get to play it. Surely, he said, a game for 18 players that takes 12-20 hours isn't something I'll be able to get to the table more than once in a lifetime - and not just because the box weighs more than 20 pounds! I told Nate I'd play it 10 times before BGG.Con the next year.

Fast forward 8 months and I've now played it 8 times, including live-streamed sessions at Plaid Hat Games and Gen Con's headquarters in Seattle. This game brings people together like few I've seen - I've got friends who've travelled from Connecticut, North Carolina, Chicago, Houston, Oklahoma, and Colorado just for a chance to spend the day playing an amped-up version of a game from more than 30 years ago.

Our map at the end of the game. Maurya and Dravidia not used in the game.
I played again last night at Collected Comics in Keller, TX, this time in a 16-player game that took about 15 hours to finish (Basic AST). I played as Minoa and won after three tiebreakers, 147-147. It's the most fun I've had playing the game so far.

Mega Civilization is magical, most of all for the experience it engenders, one that has nothing to do with the actual gameplay. As Foxtrot Games' Randy Hoyt mentioned last night after playing as Iberia, a game this long flips a lot of commonly held design beliefs on their heads. Downtime? To be embraced, not avoided. Fiddly bits? Enhances the experience, and being extra careful with them lends to the special feeling of the game.

He noted that when we go watch sports, especially baseball, the downtime we experience in between action is an enhancement, since it gives us time to relax and enjoy the experience, to talk with our friends, to take in the environment. Mega Civ is like that, only with backstabbing and frantic trading to get rid of the calamity cards that will doom your civilization for a turn or two.

I'm still new to the game - after all, eight plays isn't that many - but I've done it enough to feel changes in my consideration of the game. I think I like it alright as a game, and it certainly has its flaws, but as an experience it's intimate and complicated and immersive, something not easily replicated. I think everyone who enjoys games should try once it if they can.

Game Recap

After some last-minute player shuffling I stepped in to play as Minoa, arguably the toughest civ to play. They start on a two-spaces-wide island, with population limits of 2 and 3, which means I'm the only player in the game who has to build a boat (which costs 2 tokens) in the first few turns of the game. I hadn't played as Minoa before, but I've watched them closely in previous games and thought I saw some chances to take advantage of their unique start.

First, because Minoa starts on an island and mostly exists on islands in and around the Aegean Sea, I figured that if I could build cities on those islands, far from the contested land-borders of my neighbors, they might be at significantly less risk from random, capricious attacks. With the exception of a mid-game run from Carthage, who temporarily conquered Athens, this was proven correct and was a big advantage for me.

Second, Minoa's position provides extreme flexibility as a staging ground for moving quickly to attack Rome, Hellas, Hatti, Assyria, Egypt, Carthage, and Iberia. I didn't put this to the test during most of my game, but the ability to quickly move units into Hatti on the second-to-last turn of the game is a big reason why I was able to win. When neighbors attempt to build a city (stacking 6 tokens to do it), it gives me a chance to foil those plans with only 2 units of my own. I could have done this much more if I'd focused more on manipulating turn order in movement.

This is where most of my time was spent - staring at the Aegean Sea
On that topic, I think Military might be one of the most important technologies for the Minoans, right after Agriculture (so Greece can be fertile enough to support cities) and the Clothmaking/Astronavigation combination (so ships can sail all over the Mediterranean). Having Military would have given me the ability to hamper 5-6 other players, so that they would have to negotiate with me rigorously to "allow" them to build cities within range of my ships. I can't wait to try this again.

This was the first game where I saw players acquire and use Provincial Empire (props to Devon for being the first!), which forces up to 5 neighboring players to give you one of their precious trade cards every round. It's powerful, and in combination with Politics (players can't attack your cities) and Cultural Ascendency (players can't attack any of your units) it's a real powerhouse. That's what Brian did in playing Hatti, and he eventually tied me for first place after a super impressive comeback over the last five turns.

There's early pressure on Minoa to spend tokens on boats, so it's harder to build cities quickly and get the trade cards early in the game that come with them. I ceded that difficulty early on and instead focused on taking my time to reach the Basic AST requirement of 2 cities, and tried to spread out early and claim as much land as possible. The net result was that I had no problem with territory borders for most of the game, which was really nice - it would have been a larger problem if I'd hampered myself on turn 3/4 building cities.

As usual, I had good trading rounds early on, and was able to buy Trade Empire (Can use a trade card as a "wild" in making other sets, once per round) in round 7. It allowed me crazy flexibility for the rest of the game. I've heard other players say it's broken, and I'm definitely sure it's very powerful, but after feeling the wrath of Provincial Empire and Cultural Ascendency, I'm less inclined to say that it should be house-ruled.

I am a little disappointed with myself for going "orange" (the color of Trade Empire and other absolutely necessary techs like Agriculture and Metalworking). I've taken the orange route (buy all the orange techs, get huge discounts, trade like crazy) in each game that I've played so far. Next game I'm going to focus on Military and Politics and see if I can't make something of that combination.

Final scores
Brian and I tied for the victory at the end of the game, and I won by third tiebreaker. It was incredibly close - one more city for him, or one fewer for me, and he would have won the game. We worked together on turn 12 to bring Ace down (playing Hellas, our neighbor in a Aegean triangle) by attacking two of his cities, knocking him down a peg in trading and in space on the map. That combined with a Treachery calamity a few turns later, relegated Ace to playing for fourth place (against Jason as Babylon and Devon as Assyria), since John (playing Kushan) was cozy in his corner of the map with peaceful neighbors.

I'd never executed a planned attack like that, and I found it to be really refreshing. Brian and I were plotting in a corner of the room against Ace, and I made eye contact from across the room and asked him to come over, hoping to trick him into a double-down where we got him to commit resources to acting against another of our neighbors, only to have us then move in and strike him.

As it turned out, he read our minds and tried to defend himself, but it wasn't enough and our double-attack ended his chances for victory, while propping both of us up in a head-to-head competition for the win. For most of the game Brian and I were happy trading partners, but when I used 8 units to wreck 4 of his prospective cities two turns later, the game became a cold war along our mutual border. It was tense, it was close, and it was the most interesting game of Mega Civ I've played so far.

Teaching Recap

I've developed a system of teaching Mega Civ to new players that involves teaching only the rules they need to know each turn to take their actions that turn. Since the game starts with every player only having one unit on the board, it's easy to explain how that unit becomes two (leaving birds and bees aside), and how they're allowed to move that unit one space. Next comes explaining building boats and cities, then how to tax, what trade cards are for, and eventually combat and how to acquire technologies and resolve calamities. It's a smooth system of teaching that I've had a lot of success with - I've taught more than 50 people how to play the game now.

I have observed, though, that players tend to be passive in their first games, or when they're aggressive, it's not focused or purposeful, it's just a bit wild and chaotic. They're usually worried about upsetting their neighbors, or don't perceive the long-term benefit of claiming extra territory, or buy in too much to the idea that 100% peace will make the game easier for them.

It certainly makes the game more predictable, but of course the predictable outcome is that they won't do as well as they could have if they'd been willing to strike when opportunity presented. To offset some of this, I asked players to close their eyes and imagine themselves the leaders of tens of thousands of people who were relying on them to eat, to live, to prosper. I wanted players to feel more responsibility for their own success, and more motivation to do well in the game at any cost instead of trying to appease their neighbors and avoid conflict. I'm not sure if it helped at all, but I think our players had a good time, and that's what counts.

Twice during the game, a player was negatively affected in a way that should have been prevented by an advancement card they owned - once, a player who had Military failed to move last, and the other time a player lost a city to pirates without mentioning that she had Naval Warfare.

It's tough in those situations, because as a teacher and game master I want to be able to pull the game back and let them fix the problem, but in a game where 16 players each have 5-20 advancements, there's just no way for me to keep track of every exception to every rule. I need to do a much better job preparing players to recognize and announce their own advantages, because it's their responsibility to do so.


It's an interesting thing about Mega Civilization that a 15-hour game can feel too short. It's happened in every game I've played - by the time I'm using interesting powers and really putting heat on my opponents and creating interesting situations, the game is close to an end. I think I'm generally getting better at the game, and as a result taking more risks and throwing myself into more interesting situations.

I'm running a lot of Mega Civ games locally because I want to "train" my friends to get good at the game, so that some day I can run an 18-player game where everybody has played before, and is good enough to really push the game to its limits and create a dynamic, interesting experience for everyone.

There were a few things in this game that happened to me directly that I was really proud of, because players were taking their own risks and having a strong effect on the game. Liz's surprise attack of Athens from Carthage threw a huge wrench in my game, as did Devon's claiming Provincial Empire (shocking, because it's such an aggressive strategy, and he's generally such a friendly player), and of course, Brian coming from behind and tying my score at the end, through a completely different and super interesting group of technologies.

As always, I had a great time, and I can't wait to play the game again next Tuesday with all my friends at Gen Con!

First time finishing a game with the same number of players who started! 
Afterthought: I realized in looking at this picture that we seem like a young group of players. I looked through my player list and realized the average age of our players was 30, with the youngest player being 19 and the oldest player being 42. The original Civilization board game came out 35 years ago (1981) - that means all but two of my players weren't born yet when the game was released, and that's something special.

It says something about the growing tabletop hobby and the incredible design of this game that I can get "new" gamers to come to the table for a marathon session, and to have them unanimously wanting to play again immediately afterward!

AST #CivilizationE/WPlayerGame #ScorePlaceRounds Played

Read my previous recap of another 18-player Mega Civilization game

JR Honeycutt is a full-time husband and game-player, and co-host of The Nerd Nighters. You can find him on Twitter at @JayAhre or at a Friendly Local Game Store in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas.

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