22nd Dec2017

‘Civilization: A New Dawn’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail


Sid Meier’s famous Civilization series is among the most revered video games of all time, having featured six core versions, a raft of expansions and several spin offs and sister series. The original Civilization is now over twenty years old, but perhaps the most impressive thing about it is the fact that the basic, turn based gameplay that made it so successful has never really changed. What began as a complex and strategic digital board game remains just that, even if new mechanics like culture, religion and complex combat are now presented with incredible visual fidelity.

Another way that players have been able to get their Civilization fix for many years is via one of several spin off board games, whether officially licensed as such or just clearly influenced by the video game. The subject of today’s review is Civilization: A New Dawn, the latest game to bear the license and the second to be produced by Fantasy Flight Games, which (as the name suggests) signals a change of direction and most importantly a change of pace. FFG’s 2010 implementation of Civilization is generally well liked, but it takes an awfully long time to play and considering how fast the board game industry is moving, it’s starting to show its age.

A New Dawn offers players a taste of what Civilization is all about, drawing inspiration from Civilization Revolution and Civilization VI but massively simplifies combat reduces overall game time to about an hour for familiar players. The game begins with players either choosing (or being randomly assigned) one of eight great nations. Choices include the likes of the Americans, Aztecs, Egyptians, French, Japanese and so on, although curiously for us as a UK website and core market, there’s no British Isles representation. There are only two things that differentiate each nation, which include a unique benefit for each and the starting order of technologies on their Focus Bar.

What’s a Focus Bar? Well, physically it’s a piece of cardboard about thirty centimetres long with five spaces on it, each of which includes an ascending number (from one to five) and a picture of increasingly more demanding terrain. Mechanically, the Focus Bar is pretty much the only thing you need to know about A New Dawn, which makes it a rather brilliant innovation. As instructed by the order on your nations card, you simply lay out the starting technology cards of your colour and then, on your turn, you activate one of them and move it from whichever slot it occupies beneath the focus bar back to one, then move every other cards upwards into the empty space.

Deciding when to play cards is probably the most important concept in the game, because some technologies provide a benefit equal to the number shown in the slot on the Focus Bar which the card currently occupies, whilst other technologies can only be applied on terrain which is either shown in or below the existing slot. As an example, to build a city on a desert space, you’ll need your relevant technology to be positioned in slot four or five, whilst to build on grassland, the card can be anywhere, since that’s what the very first slot shows. The Focus System is, frankly, excellent.

Building the board is similarly well handled and whilst variation is not absolutely unlimited due to a few sensible balancing restrictions, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll see the same board configuration twice (except for the preset tutorial map) due to the fact that quite a few pieces are shuffled and players take turns to position them based on the table. Whilst A New Dawn ultimately proves to be less strategically deep than some other modular board building games, this system does create a beautiful playing space that when combined with the Focus Bar, demands players to think carefully about how to place the tiles in order to make progress in the game.

Alongside board building (which is time-consuming in an interesting way) setup also involves a lot of card decks and token sorting that makes a handful of baggies an absolute must for any prospective buyer. There are several decks of cards to put in place, one of which (World Wonders) is a bit of a pain at any player count, but becomes increasingly faffy as you reduce the number of players from the maximum four down to the minimum of two. I’d say now that I’m completely familiar with the game, setup takes me about fifteen minutes each game, with teardown taking about five or ten. Sadly, there’s little opportunity to save time for the next play through except segregation of the pieces.

Once the game begins, you’ll really rattle through the turns, as each one consists of playing just one card from the Focus Bar. Playing Astrology, for example, means you simply advance your technology meter a number of points and if you hit a breathrough point, you swap one of your existing technologies out for one of the unlocked tier. If you play Pottery, you can build a World Wonder or a city on a space equal to or less than the position of Pottery on the Focus Bar. Early Empire allows you to place control tokens on the map, which act as a basic representation of your dominion, whilst Masonry allows you to flip control tokens over and “Fortify” them. After each turn, players move an event dial one space to drive barbarian movements and the creation of trade tokens in applicable cities.

Whilst I’m on the subject, I’ll talk briefly about control tokens. A New Dawn doesn’t feature representations of military units of any kind, whether that be miniatures, cards or tokens. Instead, the strength of cities, control tokens, barbarian camps and city-states is linked to the location they reside on, the technology card doing the attacking (plus the slot on the Focus Bar it occupies,) any trade tokens being spent on attacking and the roll of a single dice. The otherwise excellent instruction manual lacks a really good, clear visual explanation of combat, but once you’re used to it, it becomes very simple to calculate.

As an example, if I use an advanced technology like Flight in Focus Bar slot four and I want to attack a barbarian camp, I would add the roll of a D6 to four (for the Focus Bar slot) plus the bonus provided by the Flight technology and any bonuses from World Wonders or elsewhere. Then, I would compare that total to the value of the terrain which the barbarian camp is located in and the roll of a D6 which would be thrown by one of the other players. It’s an effective system that ties in well to the core mechanic of the game, but it remains somewhat inelegant without a better visual representation. There are so many numbers to add up that it can be challenging to keep track of additional bonuses, and the administrative overhead is high.

In order to win, players strive to achieve one objective on each of three objective cards dealt randomly from a hand of five. These objectives might include capturing a number of other cities for the Warmonger title, or holding a number of Natural Wonders for the title of Preservationist. There’s enough variety among objectives to make them interesting, yet there are few enough that players will be forced to come together in either outright conflict or as a kind of Cold War situation in order to achieve them. When attacking other players, you’ll balance the need to steal an advantage with the risk of leaving yourself open to counterattack because your military technology will drop to the weakest place on your Focus Bar. It’s a system that rewards decisive thinking and timing and creates tension, but rarely allows for prolonged military conflicts.

If the goal of Civilization: a New Dawn was to fully recreate the same vast, life-devouring scale of the middle-age Civilization games, then I think it would be considered a failure. But, as the title suggests, that is absolutely not what it sets out to do. Like Civilization Revolution and even Civilization VI to an extent, it aims to simplify the core concept of the game and bring it to a wider audience that has different expectations. The Focus Bar is a revelation in this regard and the way it ties together every key aspect of the game around simple numerical and visual cues is absolutely fantastic.

A game of A New Dawn can be finished within an hour of starting, but in that time you’ll have built a world, advanced your nations technology, spread their culture and built cities and Wonders of the World. You’ll have achieved everything that has ever been possible in a Civilization game, but you’ll also have time to play another round and even the score, or pick up something else if you want. Among all of the games that has aimed to replicate Sid Meier’s classic vision, I don’t think any other game can claim that.

**** 4/5


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