Essen Preview #23: Clash of Cultures

Designer: Christian Marcussen
Publisher: Z-Man Games
Players: 2-4
Ages: 12+
Time: 240 min

Theme:  Civilization
Main Mechanics:  Exploration, Tech Tree, City Improvement, Combat…you know, Civ stuff

The designer of Clash of Cultures, Christian Marcussen, made his debut two years ago with his take on the ultimate pirate game, Merchants & Marauders.  This time around, his vision is even grander, as this is yet another attempt at that most desired of Holy Grails, the Civ Lite game.  Hopefully, a look at the rules will tell us if Marcussen has succeeded in bringing us the epic nature of a full-fledged Civilization game in a manageable time frame.

The players represent generic, equivalent civilizations which have just discovered the state-of-the-art skill of agriculture.  The board is randomly constructed each game from regions, which are four hexes joined together in a lens-like shape, with each hex having its own terrain.  There are five possible terrains:  Fertile, Forest, and Mountain (which respectively yield Food, Wood, and Ore resources when harvested) and Barren and Sea hexes, which can yield food once certain advances are discovered.  There are two other kinds of resources:  Gold, which be substituted for any basic resource, and Ideas, which assist with making Advances.  At the start of the game, all the regions are face down, with the exception of a starting region for each player.  The number of regions and their shape varies with the number of players.  Each player begins with a single city on their starting region and one Settler.

A game consists of six Rounds, each of which is composed of three Turns.  During a turn, the first player performs three actions, followed by three actions from the player on her left, and so on.  After the third turn, there is a Status Phase and then the next Round begins.

So the game revolves around actions and there are six kinds of them.  Here’s a brief description:

1. Advance

The advances are, in many ways, the heart of the game.  Each player has their own player board which lists the 48(!) possible scientific, cultural, and governmental advances they can discover over the course of the game.  The advances are grouped into 12 categories, with four advances in each.  The top advance in each category is a prerequisite for the other advances in that category and there are a few other prerequisites listed, but other than that, the players are free to discover whatever advance they choose.

The categories cover a wide range:  they include topics like Agriculture, Education, Warfare, Spirituality, Economics, and Culture.  There are also three Government categories (Democracy, Autocracy, and Theocracy) and each player can only have advances in one of these at a time (they are allowed to switch categories and move the advance tokens to the new form of government).  The wealth of choices here should give the players great scope in molding the kind of strategy they want to play.

Buying an advance is simple–all it costs is two food resources (Idea resources can be substituted for food).  Certain advances allow the players to take other specific actions or utilize certain kinds of pieces.  There’s lots of variety in the effects and figuring out how to best use and combine the advances should be a big part of the game’s learning curve.

2. Found City

A Settler piece on a vacant non-Barren land hex can found a city there.  This is signified by placing a Settlement piece on the hex.  Cities are the basic units that allow you to fuel your engine in this game, as we will soon see.

3. Activate City

Each city can be activated once a turn to perform one of three actions:  Increase City Size, Collect Resources, and Build Units.  A city can be activated more than once, but it negatively affects its mood (more on that later).  The key point here is that multiple cities allow you to perform multiple city actions without worrying about your citizens having a ‘tude.

Increase City Size

At the cost of some resources, you can increase the size of your city by one.  This is represented by placing a city-piece into the city.  These come in four varieties–Temples, Fortresses, Academies, and Ports–and each has its own special ability.  The key rule here is that cities can’t grow to a size larger than the total number of cities you possess.  So at the start, you need to found a second city before you can expand your first one (since the initial Settlement gives it a size of 1).

Collect Resources

You can collect resources from the hex your city is on and every adjacent hex.  The number of hexes you collect from is equal to the size of the city.

Build Units

You can build a number of units equal to the size of the city.  Units include Settlers, Armies, and Ships and each costs two specific resources to build.  I’ve already talked about Settlers–how are armies and ships used?  Keep reading.

4. Move Units

You can move up to three groups of units, where a group is a set of units that have the same origin and destination hexes.  Land units move one hex, while ships can move to any sea hex they’re connected to over water.  Ships can be used to transport land units.

When you move a unit into an undiscovered region, it is revealed and you can position it via specific rules.  Barbarian units and/or settlements may be revealed, which represent both a challenge and an opportunity for your civilization.

Moving into a hex with foreign units or cities leads to combat.  Each combatant rolls a number of D6’s equal to the number of army units in the hex.  The sum of the dice is divided by 5, rounded down, to get the number of enemy units eliminated (combat is simultaneous).  Cards can be played by either player to affect the results.  Combat continues during multiple rounds until the attacker chooses to stop.  Cities can be captured and resources gained as a result of combat.

5. Civic Improvement

This action allows you to improve the mood of your cities by paying mood tokens.  Cities can be “happy”, “neutral”, or “angry”.  A number of things in the game can decrease the mood of a city (including being activated multiple times or being conquered) and this action reverses that effect.  Mood affects many city activities; for example, happy cities can produce an extra resource or an extra unit, while angry cities act as if they’re size 1, no matter how big they are.

6. Cultural Influence

Enemy cities which are close to your cities (a city’s size equals its range) can be targeted.  If a successful D6 die roll is made (5 or more), then you can exchange one of the targeted city’s city-pieces with an identical one of your color, which increases your VP total (and reduces his).  There is yet another kind of token (called, logically enough, Culture tokens) which can help you with this process.

There’s a number of other elements in the game, including Events (which come up periodically and usually only affect one player), Action cards (which give you extra options or special actions when you play them), Objective cards (personal objectives that give you nice VPs when their conditions are met), and Wonders (which also are revealed periodically and give significant VPs to the first player to meet their conditions).  At the end of the sixth Round, each player scores VPs for each city-piece on the board, each Advance purchased, and each Objective and Wonder achieved.  The player with the highest VP total has led the world’s most culturally significant civilization and wins the game.

Thoughts from the Opinionated Gamers

Larry:  The Civ Lite genre has become a crowded one recently, so the question is if Clash of Cultures distinguishes itself from similarly themed fare (such as FFG’s Sid Meier’s Civilization from a couple of years ago, which covers much the same ground).  After reading the rules, I think Marcussen’s approach is to include as many epic, “Civ-like” elements in the game as he can, while streamlining the mechanics that deal with those elements as much as possible.  I think that’s a solid way of handling subject matter like this and the overall approach has made this an attractive title to me.

One thing I like is that play is divided into many bite-sized actions.  Even though there’s a great deal of freedom in what the players can do, the hope is that this approach will reduce the amount of potential AP and make each player’s turn relatively short.  The hooks are there in the design to achieve this goal; the proof will be in the playing.

I suspect that Clash will live or die based on how well the advances work.  There’s enormous potential for the players to set up their civ the way they like and to try to utilize efficiences and clever combos in doing so.  Presumably the types of terrain you encounter and the actions of your opponents will influence your master plan, but there’s also no reason not to say, “I’m going to try advances X, Y, and Z today” and see what happens.  It sounds as if there will be a huge amount of replayability, but we’ll have to see if different advances really do lead to different playing styles.

The form of combat resolution used (summing up the dice and doling out a hit for every 5 pips) is one that I’ve been a fan of in the past.  I much prefer this approach to the more commonly seen “every unit gives you a die, which hits on a roll of X or higher”.  The mechanic that Marcussen employs has a lower variance and features less extreme results (i.e., fewer combats where you do minimum or maximum damage).  The first time I saw this system used was in Dominique Ehrhard’s excellent Serenissima, first released 15 years ago (and reappearing in an Ystari redesign this Essen).  The method feels “fairer”, while still allowing for some unexpected results.

The one thing that causes me to hesitate about trying out this game is its duration.  At 4 hours, the temptation is to say, why not just play Through the Ages, my all-time favorite game and the design that showed that Civ Lite was not an unattainable dream.  Even without that consideration, the duration will make it harder to get this to the table and equally hard to get in the multiple plays that a game of this scope requires.  I haven’t decided yet how I feel about this and early reviews will probably influence my thinking on whether or not I pull the trigger on buying it.  But the rules have shown me enough that I’ll happily try it if another person in my group picks it up and lacking that, I may just fork over the moolah for it myself.  I do love Civ games and, 4 hour games or not, this looks to be a very promising one.

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3 Responses to Essen Preview #23: Clash of Cultures

  1. Larry R. says:

    I’m glad combat is simultaneous. I’ve never really liked mechanisms which have someone go first (IE initiative, etc). There is a place for initiative in squad based settings for ambush purposes and the like, but on a grander scale such as in these Civ Lite games, simultaneous seems appropriate.

  2. Doug says:

    4 hours … pass and play two games of Through The Ages instead. In much the same way I can play two games of Blackbeard (AH ed!!!!) instead of Merchants & Marauders.

  3. peer says:

    Why “Civ Lite”? With 4 hours its not much shorter than 4player-Civiliazaion and it doesnt seem to be easier…
    Or “Civ” Sid Meyers Computergame, which he based on Treshams Masterpiece? ;-)

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