18th Sep2019

‘Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail


I am perhaps a little bit biased towards GMT Games products. I love the COIN series because of how it represents the interesting, highly asymmetrical conflicts that it depicts in intricate detail. At the other end of the spectrum, GMT has some exceptional lighter games, like the classic Richard Berg (may he rest in peace) Commands & Colours games, or the likes of Fort Sumner. In between these experiences are games representing conflicts at all scales, across all eras and at every level of complexity.

When it comes to Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea, GMT Games has delivered one of the fastest paced, most brutally interactive epic scale war games that I’ve ever played. Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea can take three or more hours to play when its full quota of six players are at the table, but large parts of each turn are close to simultaneous, and the rounds just fly by as players push out more and more of their coloured disks in an attempt to build the largest empire.

Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea comes with two attractive, very clearly marked mounted boards, that lay beside one another and for which pictures cannot do justice. There are ten ancient civilisations to choose from, but depending on the player count, the specific nations in play are predetermined based on optimal board layout. At six players, the whole board is used, whilst at two, only a little more than half will be in play. All other counts use some variant in between, but the key thing is, every game is extremely well balanced using nations that are placed in such a way that a competitive game is guaranteed.

Players can choose from any of the active nations in each game, with the only real difference being that each one has its own specific ability and starting locations. Rome, for example, can gain a combat advantage by drawing additional tokens during the competition phase (which I’ll explain later) whilst Egypt gains extra growth as long as it occupies one of the regions besides The Nile. The objective of Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea is, as always, victory points, but in practice what you’ll be doing is competing for territory in a sort of area control kind of way.

Much of the action in Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea is card driven, with turns that are made up of several distinct phases that feel very different, but equally satisfying. First up, all players participate in a growth phase that allows them to add disks to their ready pool. One disk is added for every settlement (an area that is controlled with two disks in it) and another for every two sea regions. A further disk may be given for each adjacent nation (as the result of trade) and then there are the abilities like the Egyptian one I just mentioned.

Next, players take turns (in order) to deploy their disks to the board. As long as they come from the ready pool, they can essentially be placed anywhere that the active player currently controls, or in an adjacent space. Placing one disk into a new area essentially means you have a presence their (but no more) whilst two becomes a settlement and generates growth. At three disks, a region has a city, and no longer generates growth, instead adding victory points during a later phase. If two or more disks of any one nation occupy a space with at least one disk from another region, then a competition will occur (also in a later phase.)

With all disks placed, the next phase is card play, which is again played in turn order. Each player begins the game with five cards and will draw and discard over the course of the game. On their turn, a player can play one card and activate its effects. Talking very broadly, Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea has more interaction during this card phase than any other game of this kind. Cards cause all kinds of carnage, with some, for example, causing volcanic eruptions that flatten entire regions, or bring forth barbarian invasions that can quickly claim the lands of your nearest rival.

To literally counter this, there are a number of cards marked with an N, for negate. Depending upon the circumstances, these can be used to counter certain kinds of cards – and can then be countered in turn. The card names are fairly generic and not specific to any real life individuals, allowing for some enjoyable artistic license. For example, I recall a huge turn in which I used a Great Person to negate a negative card that would have removed control of several key regions. Thematically speaking, this felt like a great leader organising the people and evacuating them to negate what would have been a great disaster.

After all players have played their cards or passed, the board state can be dramatically different to how it is after the growth phase, and players will then enter the competition phase. Wherever there are two disks from one nation and one or more from another, there will now be a competition. To summarise this, the player with the most disks will retain control of the region, but each competition needs to be resolved individually. Again, there’s a bit of card play here, with cards marked C offering additional strength in contested regions – again, these can be negated with certain other cards.

After the competition phase, there are several clean up steps that are simple enough when using the excellent player aid, but which wouldn’t make for interesting reading. Loot is handed out for conquering cities, sea domination is determined, victory points are scored for cities and wonders that have been constructed and cards are drawn to determine if the current Epoch ends. If it doesn’t then play moves to the next turn of the current Epoch and the players draw cards ready for the turn ahead, which again begins with the growth phase.

At four, five and six players, a game of Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea will go on for at least two hours, but usually three. None of this time spent really feels like it’s lost in downtime or through boring decisions – it’s simply a rip roaring ride through the ages. Each turn represents at least a generation (I don’t recall it being specifically stated) and a nation can double in size during their growth spell, then be decimated or worse during card play and competition. This might sound frustrating, but it’s not. For every volcano that erupts in your territory, there’ll be barbarians and famines in neighbouring territories aplenty.

The board is also large enough to allow players to expand a fair bit at the beginning of each game, and as I mentioned earlier, the different set ups for various player counts really help. Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea also includes comprehensive solo rules and a number of solo scenarios to play through that depict specific eras in history. I’ve only tried a couple of these, but the solo play is straightforward and challenging, making this a good solo gateway game towards some of GMT Games more complex titles.

Overall, Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea is a fantastic addition to your gaming shelf. It will appeal to fans of fast playing games that still require a lot of strategy, and it will certainly appeal to history buffs. It’s a superb game no matter what you compare it to, but to be clear about how highly I rate it, I’d say it’s now straight into my top 5 GMT Games of all time. A fast, brutal and attractive journey through ancient history. Wonderful.

****½  4.5/5

A copy of Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea was supplied by GMT Games for review

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