I think I’ve always loved civilization games. I like the epic scale that these games inevitably encompass and I enjoy following the ebb and flow of history. I’ve probably played every iteration of the Sid Meier computer and video game and I’ve played dozens of board game versions. Fun Fact, by the way, though Sid Meier’s name has become virtually synonymous with Civ games, he isn’t the father of the genre; that honour goes to board game designer Francis Tresham. Tresham published the first Civilization game back in 1980, more than a decade before the first Sid Meier Civ game, pioneering many of the elements that have become standard features of all the Civ games that appeared subsequently.
Francis Tresham’s Civilization game has been in and out of print over the past 40 years and has been through several publishers and numerous editions. Its most recent iteration is an edition published earlier this year by Gibsons Games: a version so faithful to the original that the publishers subsequently conceded that they probably needed to revisit the rulebook to make it more accessible to a modern audience.
Given their immense historical sweep, Civ games have a tendency to be epic in scale. They don’t get much more epic than Mega Civilization, published in 2015 by 999 Games. Flo de Haan and John Rodriguez shared the design credits with Francis Tresham for a monster-sized game that incorporated more than 2000 tokens, almost as many cards, and a map board that would exceed the surface area of most large dining room tables. This game came packaged in a massive wooden box. It accommodated up to 18 players and you could typically expect a game to run for 12 hours or more. This is a game that’s nice to own but you’ll struggle to find a shelf big enough to take it and, even if you have a table big enough, this isn’t a game you’ll be able to bring to that table very often.
The hand of history on our shoulders
Clearly, there’s a need for something more manageable. That’s where The Flow of History comes in. Taiwanese designer Jesse Li has taken some key elements and much of the flavour of conventional civilization games and distilled it down into what is essentially a card game that you can expect to complete in a little over an hour.
The game was originally published by Moaideas Game Design but the current version also bears the imprint of Tasty Minstrel Games (TMG), who promoted the game last year through a Kickstarter campaign. Out goes the need for a playing board; this is a Civ game that pares away the ‘exploration’ element that is given prominence in the computer Civ games.
Of course, The Flow of History isn’t the first attempt to create a card-based Civilization game. Among its best known predecessors was Vlaada Chvatl’s Through The Ages: A New Story of Civilization, first published in 2015. Through the Ages, however, remains a long game – again, one that you can typically expect to run for three or four hours.
History in the making
The Flow of History is altogether a more compact experience. The box contains a pack of cards, five obelisk markers and four cardboard resource tokens. The cards are sorted into their various eras. Each player takes an obelisk marker and a randomly dealt starter card. Five cards from the first era are laid out in a row. This forms a market from which players will acquire cards to add to their civilization – a tableau of cards that they will assemble in front of them over the course of the game. The resource tokens are held in a reserve and only moved into a ‘supply’ when this is triggered by an action. This is important because it is only tokens in the supply that are ordinarily accessed.
The Flow of History is an engine building game where players will be seeking to acquire cards which give them icons from which they will derive a benefit when they are activated. Some of the cards also give an immediate one-off or an ongoing effect as long as the card is in force. When you acquire a card of the same colour as an existing card in your tableau, the new card goes on top of the old one, representing the superseding of that technology. Any ongoing special ability that is covered up is lost, but the player still benefits from icons at the bottom of that card.
Investors and snipers
Players ‘bid’ for cards by placing their obelisk marker on the card they want to acquire, along with one or more resource tokens. This is considered to be an ‘Invest’ action. Another player can on their turn ‘snipe’ your investment. This allows them to take that card but they have to first pay you the number of resource tokens you placed on that card. The resource tokens you had on the card go into the supply but you also take from that supply resource tokens equal to the number of trade icons in your tableau, and then take half the remaining resource tokens in the supply (odd numbers rounded down). You can see, in this way, it can be advantageous taking an Invest action for a card you don’t particularly want but you know an opponent is after. It can potentially generate a lot of resource tokens which you can utilise to your advantage in bidding later for a card you are anxious to secure.
If no-one has sniped your investment then, when your turn comes around you can Complete by paying the resource tokens you placed on the card into the supply. You do, however, take back from the supply, resource tokens for any icons already in your tableau that are highlighted on that card. It is possible, therefore, that you could get more than your money back. If the card you add to your tableau is one with an instant effect then you immediately activate it and take its benefit.
As the game progresses and players’ tableaus build up, players may want to use their one action per turn to Activate a card: making use of the effect that that card can trigger. Alternatively, they can Harvest: moving resource tokens from the reserve to the supply and taking from the supply tokens equal to the number of harvest icons in your tableau.
Cards are replaced as they are taken from the market, and when the first card appears from a new era then any remaining cards from the last but one era are wiped.
Wonders never cease
Although government (blue), military (red), knowledge (green) and construction (orange) cards are stacked, the (yellow) cards representing leaders are treated differently. Each tableau can only ever contain one leader, so if a second leader is acquired then the first one has to be discarded. That means you don’t just lose its special ability but also its icons. On the other hand, the (black) Wonders cards always remain active, so their special abilities are not overridden when you acquire subsequent Wonders. The Wonders, however, have text that only affects end-game scoring.
The Flow of History plays quickly: unlike many other Civ games, this isn’t a game where players are likely to dither about as they agonise over every turn. Although you’ll be concentrating on maximising the output of your own engine-building tableau, this is a game with a decent amount of interaction. Obviously, there’s interaction in the ‘snipe’ mechanism but there are also military and some leader cards that can initiate attacks on other players. These are resolved by comparing the attacker’s military icons with the total military and defence icons of the defending player. The card sets out what the effect will be of that attack; often it will be to force the defender to discard from their tableau the top card of a particular colour. You can also have some fun with some of the other cards; for example, the adoption by any player of Communism as their form of government forces every player to pool all their resource tokens and share them out equally!
The game ends the instant the Future card enters the market or is otherwise acquired by a player. Victory is decided at this point by totting up the number of icons each player has, taking account of modifiers typically found on the Wonders cards. Culture icons are worth one victory point apiece whilst all the other icons are each worth half a point.
The Flow of History is a great little game that manages to distil the essence of the Civilization experience into a very manageable, very playable form. The box doesn’t suggest the game as working with two but there is a two-player variant offered in the rulebook. You won’t see the game at its best with just two, however. It’s much better with its originally intended three to five players.
The iconography could be clearer. Happily, the rules include an explanation of the effects of every card but you’ll find that, at least on a first play, you will be looking up cards to be sure you know exactly what they do. That’s a minor quibble, though, about an otherwise very good game. It scores a very civilised 8/10.
The edition of The Flow of History reviewed here is the retail edition. In their Kickstarter campaign, TMG published what they described as a ‘deluxified’ edition. This has the same cards but comes in a larger, sleeved box. It replaces the wooden obelisks with sculpted versions and replaces the cardboard resource tokens with small metal coins. This version also includes a cardboard playing mat on which the market cards can be laid out. The box insert can be used to distinguish the resource token reserve and supply. Game play for both editions is exactly the same.
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Selwyn has been playing, collecting and writing about board games for more years than he readily admits to. He has written about and reviewed games for Games & Puzzles, Spielbox and Tabletop Gaming, and his Board's Eye View page on Facebook includes short reviews and commentary on both old and new games.