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Brave New World? – Sid Meier’s Civilization: A New Dawn Review

It seems as though Sid Meier’s Civilization series of games has been around since the dawn of, well, civilisation, however you choose to spell it.  Now on its sixth incarnation it was a star in the video game firmament before Catan was even a twinkle in Klaus Teuber’s eye, and in gaming terms that is a lifetime ago.  I still have a copy of that first edition tucked away on a shelf somewhere, while my better half spends much of her time these days tapping away on Civ VI, the very latest version.  Anybody who has even come into tangential contact with computer gaming will likely know what Civ is, and a significant proportion of those people will have played it.  Compulsive addiction tends to follow.

Civ in cardboard?  Quite the challenge!

However, when the studies of the cardboard phenomenon are eventually written future scribes will likely find that video gamers often grow into board gamers, realising at last that time is finite and that being around the same table with people can be a valuable commodity, even if you are trying to destroy their fledgling cultures.  So Civ should be an ideal candidate for conversion into a tabletop game, right?  There are even two games out there already called Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game, while a third, simply called Civilization, looks eerily familiar.  But it is not quite as simple as bundling up all that screeny goodness and binding it in cardboard and cubes.  There are all those calculations, all those tokens and cards and everything else to keep under control, to say nothing of the rules.  In other words, these games tend to be complicated and long, while even the current king of the hill, Vlaada Chvatil’s Through The Ages: A New Story Of Civilization clocks in at an official length of four hours.

Sid Meier's Civilization A New Dawn Board Game

Can all history lie within?

Enter from the uncharted lands (well, from Fantasy Flight, to be precise) Sid Meier’s Civilization: A New Dawn, a game that promises to encapsulate all of that exploration, development and conquering, but in a maximum of two hours.  The grail of Civ board gaming is surely a concise yet meaty game that provides all the flavour of the original experience, but can it really be done in only two hours?  Let’s see.

Sid Meier's Civilization A New Dawn Board Game

Caravan, city, capital – the building blocks of your civilisation.

A Fantasy Flight game?  The usual pros and cons!

As mentioned already, this is a Fantasy Flight game, so let’s get my standard gripes out of the way.  The single trough insert is pretty much useless, reducing the space in the box while simultaneously failing to keep things in any kind of order, and no extra plastic baggies are provided for all those tokens.  Other often smaller publishers are spending a great deal of care and attention on this kind of thing, and I am still waiting for Fantasy Flight to notice this and sweat the small stuff just a little bit more.  And, as usual, no player aids.  For heaven’s sake.  Fantasy Flight games live and die by their intricate rules and triggering of keywords, the definitions of which are often scattered all over the rule book (A New Dawn is no exception), so some basic turn order cards would be great, rather than just printing an outline on the back of the rules and expecting people to pass it around.

Sid Meier's Civilization A New Dawn Board Game

Use your speciality wisely!

And breathe.  Once all that anger has subsided it is time to get to the nitty-gritty of what is in the box and how it all fits together, and, at least in this department, Fantasy Flight tend to come up with the goods.  A New Dawn contains more or less the components you might expect  – many tokens, cards both large and small, and several map pieces that will go to make up your nascent world.  There are also dials to assemble, plastic representations of caravans and cities, and a long, thin bit of cardboard for each player that barely fits into that central trough without bending.  This unassuming component is A New Dawn’s killer app, and you will learn to love and hate it in equal measure.  This, dear reader, is the “focus bar”.

Sid Meier's Civilization A New Dawn Board Game

Focus, focus, focus!

Setup takes time – but worth the bother!

Setting up A New Dawn can be a fiddly process if you want to play it properly, as players get to construct their own map from the various pieces around a central core.  The placement rules are clear enough, but be prepared for some scratching of heads as your co-civilisers attempt to get all the bits to fit together.  Once the basic map is assembled, though, it gets populated with city states, natural wonders and, of course, those pesky barbarians.  You lose that lovely sense of discovery that you have with the computer game, but squeezing A New Dawn’s experience into a couple of hours was always going to take some sacrifice.

Sid Meier's Civilization A New Dawn Board Game

A brave new world, set up and ready to exploit

Players are allocated a random civilization, each with a special power, and then deal out their Stage I cards along the bottom of their focus bar, according to the order shown on their civilization reference.  The cards are where the core of the game lies, as each player’s turn is simplicity itself – you simply choose one of these cards to play and enact it.  The tricky part comes in how that card interacts with the focus bar itself, for once your turn is over the played card gets shunted to the leftmost slot and everything else moves one space to the right, and the further a card is to the right the more powerful it becomes.

Sid Meier's Civilization A New Dawn Board Game

Use this dial to improve your technology and upgrade your cards.

The secret of Civ?  Timing!

This is a simple and impressive piece of design that suddenly makes A New Dawn really difficult to get right.  In essence a card’s increased power enables you to do things over more difficult terrain, but as those cards get upgraded in the course of the game, the benefits of having a card in the fifth and most powerful slot become more accentuated.  More than once as players get to grips with A New Dawn they will find their options limited by the placement of their cards, maybe even having to commit that cardinal gaming sin – a wasted turn – simply to free up one of the higher slots.

So players will be able to upgrade their cards in A New Dawn by advancing their tech dial, send out caravans to forge diplomatic agreements with other players and with city states, build wonders to reap their benefits, establish and protect cities and, naturally, go to war with other cultures.  In the middle of this mix are the Barbarians who will roam the land and attempt to lay waste to whatever lies in front of them.  They can be wiped out, but that will take a precious turn away from building up your own civilization.

Sid Meier's Civilization A New Dawn Board Game

Those barbarians are coming to destroy my caravan.

To win the game? Be objective!

To win A New Dawn a player needs to be the first to achieve three objectives, which are dealt randomly from a deck of five cards.  Each card has two objectives on it, which, while not mutually exclusive, at least head in different directions, and the winning player needs to have achieved one objective from each of three victory cards, and you can play an Epic Game with four of these cards if you so wish.

Sid Meier's Civilization A New Dawn Board Game

For the win!

There is so much that is good in A New Dawn that it is difficult to know where to start.  You’ll need to go into it aware that compromises have been made to tuck a proper-ish Civ experience into two hours or so, but with that caveat A New Dawn achieves pretty much everything it sets out to do, and sometimes in very clever ways.  The focus bar has been the – pardon me – focus of most people’s interest in this game so far, but this is only a small part of what A New Dawn does so well.  The diplomacy agreements and varying powers from game to game mean that the challenge is always new, and that is without mentioning the map, which can alter substantially from one game to the next.  Even the supposedly tricky combat rules we found easy to get to grips with.

Sid Meier's Civilization A New Dawn Board Game

Trade tokens and resources are vital to success.

I have also really enjoyed the thematic touches in the game, which is only to be expected from Fantasy Flight.  For all my griping about player aids and box inserts, Fantasy Flight certainly know how to do theme, and it comes out here in the little touches on player cards, wonders and in other areas too.  Personally I love the way that two or more players with Nuclear Power sit there eyeing each other warily in the knowledge that the first one to make an aggressive move will likely trigger a retaliatory strike and mutually assured destruction.  Nothing like real life, eh?  There are other polished moments wherever you care to look, such as the fact that constructing the Lighthouse wonder then allows you to build on coastal areas as if they were adjacent to your own territories – A New Dawn is all at that expected high level of Fantasy Flight impressiveness.

Sid Meier's Civilization A New Dawn Board Game

The wonders are subtly thematic, other things too.

Looking for immediate rewards?  This one needs investment!

Where A New Dawn might find it difficult to win over players is that it takes time to get to grips with the subtleties and intricacies of the cogs and wheels.  For me that aspect is a positive point, but those who are distracted by the new shiny are likely to dismiss this early on, and they will be the poorer for it.  Our first play of this was a slightly underwhelming experience, and I must admit that I felt that the game was a disappointment, but it was better in game two, and by our third encounter I was beginning to feel not only how it all hangs together, but also how much there is left to discover.  If you plan to play A New Dawn once or twice and then move on to your next Kickstarter then that is all well and good, but be aware that you will be missing some pretty decent gaming for the sake of your latest Goliath pledge full of snapped plastic.

In fact, my putative mark out of ten for A New Dawn has increased as our games of it have gone on, and I would say that it is going to be a regular visitor to our table.  Even though playing it head to head curtails many of its details, such as the forging of temporary alliances, it still works pretty well with two, but the full player count of four is where the sweet spot really resides as different sides plod towards victory while trying not to upset the apple cart enough to ensure their own destruction.

Sid Meier's Civilization A New Dawn Board Game

Need resources to build wonders.

Is it the Civ game to rule them all?  It’s a question of balance!

A New Dawn inevitably falls short in attempting to replicate everything that Civ does, but that is to miss the point.  This is meant to give the flavour of the full game but in a time scale that can be much more easily managed, the taster menu as opposed to the main event, and missing out some key elements of the original game is a necessary evil to ensure that four players can get in a game of this within a couple of hours or so.  It is a balancing act of content versus economy, but I have to say that the trade off between the two feels just about right.

Sid Meier's Civilization A New Dawn Board Game

Two player game in progress.

So A New Dawn is not the Civ game to end all Civ games, and neither is it the grail head to head experience that some seek, but it fills its own particular niche with elegance and aplomb.  It is easy to learn the way that the game runs, but difficult to play it well and utilise all the advantages it has to offer, and that gives it serious longevity and the promise of something different every time.  As mentioned, my rating of this started in the average range and has slowly gone up since then, and I am going to award it 9 out of 10.  Like all Fantasy Flight base boxes it already feels as though it requires an expansion, and that will surely come in time, but for now this will do very well indeed.  Into the collection it goes, and it will stay near the table for some time to come.

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Nick O'Neill

I have been playing Hobby games for as long as I can remember, including Waddington's Formula-1 in my teens and family card games before that. I mainly play with two, sometimes more, and I'm happy to give any game a try. I lean towards medium-weight games with simple rules and deep gameplay. Homo ludens and proud of it.