08th Feb2024

‘Path of Civilization: A Story of Humankind’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

The best board games are not the most complex or the ones that have the most components – but the ones which capture big decisions in simple rulesets, satisfying mechanics and an engaging theme. Without a doubt, one of the best modern games is 7 Wonders, which captures the idea of building an ancient civilization in less than an hour of gameplay and fits the brief above extremely well, but it can be considered a bit too light for some. This is where Path of Civilization steps in – with a design by Fabien Gridel and production from Captain Games (a team that includes ex-designers from the 7 Wonders series), the links between 7 Wonders and Path of Civilization are obvious.

Where 7 Wonders offers a fast, slick experience, Path of Civilization targets something larger and more grandiose – but with similar rules overhead. Play is simultaneous in most phases of the game, and whilst Path of Civilization is playable with up to five players, it should be over and done with in about 90 minutes. The solo mode is definitely quicker, and my first five-player teaching game took almost two hours – but every other play we’ve had has been between 60 and 90 minutes. This is a sweet spot for many gaming groups, and it helps that Path of Civilization can be taught as you play through the first round.

On that note – let’s talk about what you’ll actually be doing. Path of Civilization is a civilization-building game that begins in the Stone Age and takes players right through to the atomic era, albeit in a heavily abstract way. Players begin with five cards featuring advancements such as fire and rituals, and each turn, four of these cards will be placed into slots for use in later phases of the round, and one will be flipped face down and tucked underneath the player board – to be replaced later in the round by something new. This system ensures that players will progress every single round and whilst (if you play poorly) you may not be able to get much of an upgrade, you should always be able to get some new advancement that improves upon the card you just tucked.

Before this begins, there’s a bit of setup to attend to, and this is probably the most laborious thing about Path of Civilization. Ten card stands (numbered 1 to 9b) are placed, and each is seeded with a specific type of card. The first couple provide player aids, then in holders 3 to 9b, a random event or battle card will be placed – each of which provides a chance to score points in that round. In front of all card holders from the third onwards, there will also be a number of wonder and/or great leader cards, and these will become available for hire once that round is reached.

With three tiers of each to draw from, we begin the game with wonders like The Pyramids and leaders such as Wu Zetian, and then progress through the Middle Ages and into the modern era with wonders like The Eiffel Tower and leaders including Winston Churchill and similar. Even in five-player games, you won’t see all of the wonders and leaders, and nor will you see all of the scoring card options – and through these things Path of Civilization ensures a certain level of variety and replay value from one game to the next.

When gameplay begins, the flow is very simple and as mentioned earlier, can almost always be undertaken simultaneously. Players first set up the round – by flipping any wonder or leader cards and setting them up in a shared market, then by setting the military level for the next most conflict onto the matching space on the board. This latter step gives players a target to aim for with respect to scoring the battle event that will happen at the end of the round it sits in – and there will be four battles and four scoring events throughout the game.

With setup done, players will then place their cards as I described above. The two cards placed in the left slots on their player board (labelled B) will be used to generate the benefit on the left side of the card (which is generating cubes) and the cards placed in the right slots (labelled D) will be used to generate research. The next phase (B) is when the cubes generated by the cards placed are actually generated, and these represent soldiers, scribes, philosophers, builders and emissaries – each of which then goes into an associated box for resolution later in the round.

In phase C, cubes assigned to philosophy will be used to advance your civilisation’s spiritual track (if you have enough of them) which can lead to bonuses and points, whilst cubes assigned as builders or emissaries can be used to buy wonders or leaders respectively. Age I wonders and leaders cost two of the associated cubes, whilst those from Age III will cost seven. I mentioned earlier that almost everything in Path of Civilization is simultaneous and even this phase is no exception – with players all placing builders on what they want to buy and then resolving any ties by using their civilisation priority order on their player board.

In phase D, the players now assess the cards that were placed on the right side of their board, with each circle on the cards placed adding one research of the matching field to their research track. I should note that there is a separate limit on both cube generation and research generation which is equal to your current population level, and this is again tracked on your player board. Phase E is perhaps the most exciting phase, as this is where each player will spend an amount of any of research in order to purchase a more interesting technology.

There are five groups of technology to choose from and each one has four levels – with the cheapest advancements costing just one research, and levels two, three and four costing four, seven and ten research respectively. There’s nothing to stop a player from skipping levels, but with each technology taken, the player not only gets that technology but also some bonuses which will be printed on stickers that sit on the card tray either side of the technology you’ll be taking. As an example, taking the level three spiritualism card also provides a player with one cultural research point, three philosopher cubes and one level of military heritage (which equates to a permanent boost on the military track.)

Phase F is the final phase of the round, and here (with the exception of rounds one and two) players will compete in the end-of-round event. If this is represented by a yellow card, then it will focus on one of the non-military technology streams such as spiritualism, culture or industry. These challenges can be quite interesting and there are often two elements – the first half of the card can often change the rules of the game, perhaps making recruitment cheaper on later turns, whilst the second half is all about generating points for certain symbols you have on your cards. If the card is red, it will depict a battle and a list of rewards. All players who have at least one strength may score (even if that’s lower than the current battle strength) but the neutral pawn will claim the prize for whatever position it is in, often meaning that players who finish below that pawn will score little or nothing.

Playing through these phases is very logical and the best way to teach Path of Civilization is most definitely just to give players an overview of what they are doing and why, and then to start walking them through a round. You’ll more than likely spend your first few games working through things together, and clearly there’s an element of trust in simultaneous actions, but for most game groups, it’s possible to swing to fully synchronous play after three or four rounds. There is an element of multiplayer solitaire in Path of Civilization that is hard to avoid, but actually, there are touchpoints on the military track, when competing for leaders and wonders and on the spiritualism track that brings it together to some extent.

Path of Civilization feels pretty satisfying to play. There’s a sense of reward and advancement at all times as you go through the phases, with new cards coming in every round, loads of cubes flying out and wonders and leaders being added to your tableau. There’s no chance to take a wonder or leader in the first round, but it can be done (with difficulty) from round two, and wonders often start to be built from round three onwards. These (as well as advancements) add new symbols and abilities to your tableau and before you know it, you’re generating five or six cubes and research each turn and you’re worried about increasing your population to keep up with the work.

Perhaps the main issue with Path of Civilization aside from the feeling that your civilisation has no interaction with those around it, is the feeling that it never really gets any deeper than it starts. You begin the game by counting symbols on cards and trying to use those symbols on things that take you forward, and by the sixth or seventh round, you’re still doing essentially the same thing albeit on a grander scale. Whilst I see this often in games (and many others just hide it better), I think I would have liked to see the game change and evolve in more interesting ways. I’ll give an example – how does archery differ from aviation in Path of Civilization? Purely by the number of symbols and cubes it generates – there’s no change to how the card is used or the mechanics at play, and yet it goes without saying that Stone Age bows are worlds apart from warplanes in every imaginable respect.

Having said that, Path of Civilization sacrifices overwrought mechanics and new gameplay features for simplicity and speed, which are both things that it does very well. Yes, I might be moaning about a lack of difference between two diverse technologies, but then again, aviation increases your military heritage where archery doesn’t, and thematically it suggests you’re becoming a more modern military force. As long as you use your imagination, you can fill in most of the blanks in Path of Civilization and have a pretty good time while you’re playing it. For me, it nicely occupies a step above 7 Wonders, but still sits below the likes of Civilization: A New Dawn in complexity and weight, and so if civ builders are your thing, Path of Civilization is worth a look.

***½  3.5/5

A copy of Path of Civilization was supplied for review by Asmodee UK.

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