Three games enter; only one can emerge victorious. Well, not quite, but it’s more dramatic that way. Z-Man Games recently released Christian Marcussen’s Clash of Cultures and it’s hard not to compare it to civilization games of years gone by. Specifically, it’s hard not to compare and contrast it with Vlaada Chvatil’s Through the Ages and Kevin Wilson’s Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game. Why just those two? Because none of the other “civilization” games ranked in the top 500 on BoardGameGeek are even comparable, except of course Francis Tresham’s Civilization, but I have not played that so hopefully another Opinionated Gamer can comment on the relationship between the two. Other games may have “civilization” themes, like Tigris & Euphrates or Age of Empires III or 7 Wonders, but few try to recreate the vast and sweeping arc of a civilization’s development like these three. Through the Ages, Sid Meier’s Civilization, and now Clash of Cultures — these are ambitious games. They start the players small, puny even, researching prehistoric technology, but over the course of a few hours, they give players the chance to expand their civilization into an advanced powerhouse, or be wiped off the board trying. So which of these three games has the leg up in each of various facets — technology, map, victory condition, wonders/leaders, and combat?
In all civilization games it would seem the players must research technologies, or “advances” as they’re called in Clash of Cultures. Players start in the early days researching basic things like irrigation, fishing, pottery, horseback riding, iron, and the like. Over time they build up and ultimately might have the opportunity to research computers or even space flight. This is what you may be used to in Through the Ages or Sid Meier’s Civilization, where your technology progression is somewhat rigidly structured by the game.
A feature, or possibly a bug, in Clash of Cultures is that your technology progression is much more open-ended. In Clash of Cultures each player has a board with 48 technologies listed on it in 12 different categories with 4 technologies per category. On a player’s turn, he or she can spend 2 food to research any technology, with the one caveat being that you have to research the first technology in a given category before you can research any of the others. So for instance in the Spirituality category you have to research Myths first, but then that opens up the rest of the category, so you can research any of Rituals, Priesthood, and State Religion in whatever order you’d like. Or in the Warfare category, you have to start with Tactics, but can then move on to Siegecraft, Steel Weapons, or Draft in any order. (Although there are some exceptions, with a few technologies having prerequisites and government technologies working slightly differently).
Thematically, I think the reason for this is that Clash of Cultures appears to take place over a shorter time horizon than Through the Ages or Sid Meier’s Civilization. One indicator of this is that Clash of Cultures only includes the 7 ancient wonders of the world for players to build, whereas the other two include more modern “wonders” like Space Flight or the Sydney Opera House. In addition, the advancement of the technologies themselves never gets as modern in Clash of Cultures, so perhaps it makes more sense for the technology tree to be flatter.
In gameplay terms though, I’ve found the wide open technology tree in Clash of Cultures to be fairly daunting. Civilization games already give players a lot to think about and all of these games have long and complex rules, but Through the Ages and Sid Meier’s Civilization lead the players along in terms of the technologies available (for better or worse, depending on what you’re looking for). Sid Meier’s Civilization employed the innovative idea of the technology “pyramid,” which gave players 4 different technology decks. Players had to start by researching Age 1 technologies, but as soon as you had two of those, you could research an Age 2 technology to put on top of those like a small pyramid. Your pyramid grew as you needed another Age 1 technology, so you could get a second Age 2 technology, which would ultimately support an Age 3 technology, and so on. You can see this in action on the right of this photo, in case you’re not familiar with it.
Through the Ages guided players by the nose even more by making technology cards available through the use of the Showmanager slide and a stacked shuffle. Through the Ages also simplified technologies because everything but the special blue technologies did not give players a text-based ability, but rather a new building or unit that provided various resources. By contrast, Clash of Cultures and Sid Meier’s Civilization both present players will a wall of text to digest in order to understand their technology options. Clash of Cultures is the worst offender here because it literally provides a wall of text, whereas Sid Meier’s Civilization only really require players to read their Age 1 technology cards at first.
Ultimately, I have to give the nod to Through the Ages in this category because of the sense of progress over time that players feel by researching more and more advanced technologies. The technology “pyramid” in Sid Meier’s Civilization was intriguing, but in practice forced players to backtrack to earlier ages, which threw off the feeling of progress. Clash of Cultures tries for a more open-ended technology tree, but this is particularly off-putting given that all of the technologies are textual abilities, and the effort of trying to remember and apply all of your abilities by mid-game is a bit of a chore.
This is an interesting category to compare because the great innovation of Through the Ages is that it doesn’t have a map. Sid Meier’s Civilization and Clash of Cultures are more traditional in that they have maps with modular board tiles that feature different types of terrain. Players have cities, settlers, and military units represented on the map and march around to found new cities and engage in combat, either with other players or barbarian villages.
The map in Sid Meier’s Civilization is laid out with square tiles that each feature a 4×4 square grid. You use anywhere between 8 and 16 of these tiles depending on the player count. In Clash of Cultures, the map is laid out using tiles that each feature 4 adjoining hexagons, and you use anywhere from 10 to 18 of these tiles depending on the player count. In a four-player game of either one you’ll end up with a fairly large board with players starting at each of the corners, whereas the two-player game of each features more of a rectangular tunnel-shaped map with players squaring off at opposite ends.
Both maps feature a “fog of war” mechanism whereby the starting tiles are face-up but the rest of the tiles are face down until a player moves a unit onto that tile. One nice aspect of Sid Meier’s Civilization is that the unique civilizations that players represent (e.g., Egyptians, Germans, Russians) each have their own different starting tile that provides them with different terrain and resources. The civilizations are not differentiated at the start of Clash of Cultures and the starting tiles are all identical (with a plains, forest, mountain, and desert making up the four hexagons on each starting tile).
Terrain in both games leaves something to be desired because it has much more to do with the resources provided by the forests, mountains, and plains than the impact that such terrain might have on movement and combat. That being said, Clash of Cultures does factor it in somewhat by forcing a unit to stop moving for the turn after entering a mountain and not move out of a forest into combat on the same turn that the unit entered the forest. Then again, I would have thought that defending a mountain might have some impact on combat itself.
Through the Ages deserves a lot of credit for recognizing that it would be possible to make a fully-fledged civilization game without a map, a truly remarkable innovation that I dare say most people would have doubted was possible before Through the Ages came along. However, among those games with a map, I have to give the edge to Clash of Cultures. The hexagonal spaces are an improvement and the smaller tiles make for a more incremental and interesting revealing of the fog of war.
This is an easy category for me. I’m calling it for Sid Meier’s Civilization up front. Whereas Through the Ages and Clash of Cultures rely on the traditional accumulation of victory points (or “culture” points in the case of Through the Ages), Sid Meier’s Civilization determines victory based on meeting one of four possible conditions. This is very reminiscent of Splotter’s excellent Antiquity, which allowed players to dedicate their cathedral to one of five possible patron saints. A player’s patron saint would determine their special ability for the game and their winning condition for the game (e.g., population growth, resource collection, constructing buildings). In Sid Meier’s Civilization, players don’t even have to declare which victory condition they’re working toward because the game just goes until one player meets one of the four conditions and wins as a result.
The victory conditions cover all facets of the game, so a player can win through a technology, financial, military, or cultural victory. First, you can research so much technology that you reach the level five Space Flight. Second, you can accumulate 15 gold coins and win that way. Third, you can conquer an opponent’s capital city to win. Fourth, you can gather a certain number of culture tokens in order to win. There are two specific issues I have with these conditions though. I have yet to see someone win through a culture victory after 8 plays because it seems to require more work than the others, and in a multi-player game, the military victory could be achieved by one of your opponents conquering one of your other opponents on the other side of the map. Of course, you could try to intercede but it could be difficult and ultimately is unsatisfying to lose because one of your opponents dropped the ball.
That being said, the victory conditions in Sid Meier’s Civilization are much more interesting to me than the simple accumulation of victory points in the other two games. Through the Ages does have the interesting concept of a per turn victory point gain that you can build up in order to gain more and more points per turn. Clash of Cultures has the problem of not tallying any points until the end of the game, which means that either you’re keeping an eye on the rough tally as you go or just winging it. The former takes a lot of effort and the latter means that the winner might just be a surprise announced at the end. This is especially true when it’s a close game decided by a point or two. In Clash of Cultures you get victory points for each city building (1 VP), for each technology (0.5 VP), for each wonder (5 VP), and for each objective card completed (2 VP). The randomly drawn objectives nicely give each player different things to work toward, but I have to take issue with the 0.5 VP for technologies. Why on Earth don’t you just double everything so you can add up points as integers?!
Sid Meier’s Civilization takes this category hands down, which means that each of the games is now tied with one category a piece.
Wonders & Leaders
What civilization game would be complete without wonders of the world and recognizable leaders from throughout history? Apparently Clash of Cultures would be complete without the latter, but it is a noticeable absence. Even Innovation is adding great leaders in its latest Figures in the Sand expansion, and Sid Meier’s Civilization added them in its Fame & Fortune expansion. Perhaps Clash of Cultures will add them with an expansion, but for now I have to consider the games based on what’s available.
Through the Ages does a fantastic job of making wonders and leaders available to the players. They’re readily available, but not so much so that you’re constantly building a new wonder or gaining a new figurehead. By the end of the game, you’ll probably have built a couple wonders and have had a few different leaders. It’s always interesting to look back at the end of a game of Through the Ages at the wonders and leaders that you had over the course of that game. They’ll often have shaped how you played and the tenor of the civilization you developed. Did you build the Universitas Carolina and take Aristotle as a leader to develop a technological civilization, or did you build the Great Wall and take Genghis Khan as a leader to develop a warlike civilization? The one issue I have to note is with the strength of Napoleon and the weakness of J.S. Bach. Obviously one pitfall of wonders and leaders is that they need to be well-balanced so that their impact on the game is not too lopsided. But overall, Through the Ages does a fantastic job with its wonders and leaders.
And obviously wonders and leaders inspire the player base because that’s the facet of Through the Ages that folks gravitate toward and innovate on by developing variant wonders and leaders for the game. I think this is a clear sign that people want wonders and leaders in their civilization games because they are defining of a civilization and particularly memorable aspects of past games played.
Both Sid Meier’s Civilization and Clash of Cultures include wonders of the world thankfully, but neither implements them as well as Through the Ages. The wonders in Sid Meier’s Civilization are available on a card display, but they’re expensive and their cost has to be paid all at once, unlike in Through the Ages where it can be paid over time. So the display tends to clog up (like Liberte), both of which have inspired variants to keep the card display fresh. Clash of Cultures similarly makes very few wonders available for the players to build and also makes players pay the entire huge cost at once. As a result, you end up with many fewer wonders in both of these games and I find that to be a shame. In my head I know that wonders of the world should be rare and difficult to build, but in my heart I want a game that lets me get a few of them over the course of several hours because they’re something unique that differentiates the players within a game and the games played from game to game.
In this category, the nod has to go to Through the Ages, for indulging my desire for reasonably plentiful wonders and leaders, but if you want them to be much fewer and farther between then perhaps the other two would be your cup of tea.
What civilization game would be complete without combat? Knights fighting knights, armies marching against armies, it’s the stuff of history, it’s the stuff of sweeping and epic civilization games.
This category is the closest call for me. Each of these games has something to be said for its combat system. Sid Meier’s Civilization innovated by incorporating a separate combat minigame. Players march a representative army figure around the map, but they separately have a hand of military unit cards (i.e., infantry, cavalry, archers, and maybe even airplanes). When army figures collide, each player takes a random subset of the military unit cards in their hand, and then plays those out against each other in a linear fashion, matching unit against unit. It’s an interesting concept and by employing a rock-paper-scissors method of giving each unit type “first strike” (in Magic parlance) against a different unit type, it makes for some interesting player interaction and mind games.
Through the Ages innovated by abstracting combat significantly. This should come as no surprise since this is the game that removed the map from the civilization genre. Along the same lines, a civilization’s strength is tracked abstractly on a military strength track that sums up the strength of all of that civilization’s military units. Combat only occurs when players randomly draw aggression or war cards from the deck of cards. When combat occurs, it’s a simple matter of comparing each player’s relative strength, which may be boosted by sacrificing units during the combat. It’s fairly straightforward and makes it really easy to see the relative strength of each player at any given moment.
Clash of Cultures is the most intuitive in a way. There is no separation of the army figures on the map from the unit cards in your hand and there is no abstraction of a civilization’s strength, instead there are army units that players build and march around the map. When the army units collide, players roll as many dice as units, sum the dice, divide by 5, and round down. The result is the number of hits they get on the opponent army. Armies roll and fight simultaneously. They keep doing this until the attacker retreats or one side is eliminated. Before each round of combat, both sides have the chance to play a combat card with an ability, like in War of the Ring, that will augment their abilities in some way for that round.
This is a clear, straightforward, and intuitive combat system in Clash of Cultures. It’s somewhat like a simplified version of Twilight Imperium 3 combat since there is only one unit type. However, unlike many other games with combat, it’s nice that low die rolls can still contribute to hits because you sum all the dice and divide by 5, instead of just counting 5’s and higher as a hit and lower rolls as a miss. My one gripe about Clash of Cultures is that it may be too easy to take over an opponent’s city because a single unit present in a now empty enemy city flips the city to your color, which can be a huge swing and costs you no units. I wonder if you should lose a unit when conquering a city or perhaps need as many units present as the size of the city to conquer it.
This category is a tough call, but I’m going to give it to Clash of Cultures because it’s the kind of combat system that makes sense in a civilization game and there’s so much complexity to these types of games that the combat should be as intuitive as possible. Plus, as Richard Garfield said about designing King of Tokyo, it’s nice when die rolls don’t simply indicate success or failure, but are used in a more innovative way.
It’s silly to compare these three ambitious and sprawling games by tallying up arbitrary categories. They’re all interesting, engaging, and highly complex games with a lot to offer. The downside is that they all take a long time to learn and a good deal of time to play as well. They require a definite commitment and that’s not for everyone. I am partial to civilization games because I enjoy epic, memorable games and would generally rather play one of those in 3-4 hours than several forgettable games in the same amount of time. Give me Die Macher, War of the Ring, Antiquity, or Eclipse any day over a bunch of one-hour games.
Ultimately, Through the Ages is the king of civilization games and it’s not entirely fair to compare any game to it. Vlaada Chvatil’s masterpiece is unique and incredible in its approach to the civilization concept. It’s fiddly and abstracted, but with time and patience unfolds as one of the most amazing game experiences that board games have to offer.
Sid Meier’s Civilization and now Clash of Cultures are both interesting entries in the canon, but not on the same level as Through the Ages. These lesser civilization games are actually fairly similar and give players the same sort of feeling of starting small and slowly developing into a full-fledged civilization over the course of a few hours. Between these two games, I think I prefer Clash of Cultures, despite its more traditional victory points and more open-ended technology tree. It’s got more intuitive and streamlined combat, more enjoyable city building, and a more interesting map that unfolds during the game. Clash of Cultures is an impressive design in the comprehensive and yet fairly streamlined universe that it creates. Players start particularly small in Clash of Cultures, as feeble fledgling civilizations that can do very little and only slowly grow into city-states capable of building, expanding, and fielding armies. It doesn’t do everything perfectly, but it does give you that epic feeling that you’re surely looking for in this type of game.
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Other Opinionated Gamers’ Opinions:
Ben McJunkin – I’d like to play Clash of Cultures at least once more before providing an opinion of it. Broadly speaking, I found it pleasurable enough and mostly well-implemented, with the sizable caveat that I generally don’t have much interest in Civilization games. Perhaps because I tend to seek quite different dynamics from my games than Tom, however, I find that many of his assessments are at odds with my own. For instance, I found the wide-open technology advances of Clash of Cultures much more to my liking than the more rigid technology trees of Through the Ages. In most games, I prefer that the options available to players be roughly similar throughout the game. To the extent games offer individual player powers, I strongly prefer that those powers do not create path dependencies that effectively prohibit players from changing courses as needed. I want to be able to engage with and react to my opponents. Too often I feel that civilization games with lengthy and specific technology prerequisites lock players into proceeding apace in whatever direction they took at the outset, even once it becomes obvious that the direction is a losing one. That Clash of Cultures does away with that model and permits players to rapidly and inexpensively develop technological advances provides the game with a fluid and exciting dynamic that is far more to my tastes than so many other civilization games.
Mike Siggins – I enjoyed Clash of Cultures. I think it is a solid design and reminded me of Eclipse in many ways – I am pretty sure it has spun out of that game. I certainly thought it better, and much quicker, than TtA. Not perfect, because of the positional advantages and the bonus cards, but pretty decent. Not a game I will buy, but would happily play if it popped up at a con.
Larry – This will be a fairly long comment about why I think Clash of Cultures is a good design that I have no interest in playing again. If you want the short version, I think the civilization aspects are very interesting, but there’s just too much wargame in it for my tastes. More significantly, there’s a good chance you won’t be able to avoid the battle aspects even if you want to.
Okay, here’s the extended version. First, the good things. The tech tree works very well and gives the players tremendous scope for shaping their abilities and strategies. The powers are interesting and varied. I also like the basic structure of the game: three actions per player, repeat three times, then have a bookkeeping phase. This usually keeps things moving along, although inevitably there are still some long turns. The mood system is very nice–the difference between Happy, Neutral, and Angry cities is significant, without dominating play. The Objective and Action cards all work well. The combat resolution mechanic is a good one; using an additive dice system rather than an “X or more hits” criteria reduces the variance in combat, which to me is a good thing. For the first third of the game, I was really enjoying myself, even though it was apparent that this was going to last longer than advertised.
Alright, now for the bad stuff. The game is too long for my tastes and with four players, the downtime is noticeable. I see no reason for playing this with more than 3 (I feel the same way about Through the Ages). The events mix things up quite a bit, which is a plus, but it’s just too likely that they’ll unbalance things. One of our players, for example, got absolutely hammered by barbarians. They also mean that you’re often very reluctant to buy certain advances, for fear that they’ll trigger an event that you just can’t afford to befall you. That’s too disruptive for a game with heavy planning.
The big negative for me, though, is how difficult it can be to avoid having to focus on the military. Most civ fans would view this as a necessary aspect of a good civ game, but I prefer concentrating more on the civilization aspects and less on the fisticuffs. I think Though the Ages, with its abstracted combat system, gets it just about perfect for me. In Sid Meier’s Civ, though, it was an issue, particularly because a player can achieve a reasonable military strength at quite an early stage of the game.
Of course, it’s possible that you won’t have to deal much with combat in CoC, particularly if you’re isolated by geography or your neighbors are busy with other concerns (like a barbarian infestation). But it’s more likely that some player will take the plunge, build a few military units, and launch an attack against you. The problem is, army movement is very fluid in this game, thanks to the unusual rule that an army can move up to three times during the same turn. This means that even a small breach in your defenses can expose all of your cities to attack. Whether it’s to deal with such a threat or to keep it from occurring, there’s a good chance that at some point in the game you’ll be absorbed with military matters for an extended period.
That’s exactly what happened in my game and it really spoiled the experience for me. It was like I was playing an enjoyable Civ game when all of a sudden, a wargame broke out. No doubt I was being naive, but shuffling armies around and virtually ignoring the rest of my progress was not how I wanted to spend the next 2.5 hours of the game. And I have to think that this kind of thing will occur more likely than not.
So I applaud the design of Clash of Cultures and can recommend it to fans of Civ games, particularly those who like a good tech tree and who don’t mind a long, protracted session. But in spite of that, my rating is “Not for me”. And in this case, my rating means just that: not a game for my tastes, not necessarily a poor or badly designed one. Just a game I can happily live without.
Greg Schloesser – Note that I have only played once so far, so I reserve the right to revise my comments after a further playing or two.
At this point, my feelings closely mirror that of Larry’s: good design with interesting features, but the game is too long with a considerable amount of downtime. Our one game, played with four players, lasted nearly four hours and we still aborted the game midway through turn five. Our group does tend to play slow, but not that slow.
Unlike Larry I tend to enjoy civilization building games. Or, perhaps I used to. The last few I have played have all suffered from the same “too long, too much downtime” problem. I love the idea, but I am beginning to feel more and more like my good friend and fellow gamer Craig Berg, who proclaims: “I never want to play a game again where you start with a stick and a rock and you have to build a civilization.” I find the slow build-up to the point where you can do anything substantial to be unexciting and not much fun.
On the plus side, I really like the tech tree, which gives player wide scope and strategic options. However, the myriad powers and the abilities they grant are a major source of the downtime, as players must contemplate their best options from a vast array. The “mood” system is interesting, forcing players to make some tough choices. Combat is simplistic, but I am happy they did not overly complicate it.
If I was forced to make an assessment after one playing, I would probably rate the game as “Not for Me.” However, I am hopeful that subsequent playings will improve my opinion.
Mary Prasad – I have only played this game one time with two players. My rating may change with more plays. The rules are pretty straightforward, even though there are a lot of them. I don’t tend to like overly long games anymore, although I will play them if I really like them. Likely I won’t play Clash of Cultures with four players, just two or three, due to downtime. There were a couple red flags for me with this game: the cultural influence and the war aspect (I don’t like war games). It takes one action for cultural influence; the player whose turn it is rolls a die and on a 5 or 6 wins a piece of another player’s city within a certain distance of her own. This is two point swing between the players based solely on a die roll. I did not care for this aspect of the game at all.
There wasn’t much war in our first game with two players but I could see this becoming annoying to me in future games. Even in our game, I had to build armies in each city just to leave them there to protect the city. It can fall far too easily without armies. Also, I couldn’t leave the cities to fight barbarians (right next to the city) for fear that my opponent would swoop in and take over. The movement of armies is good in one way, basically getting to a war, but not good for fighting and returning, i.e. you can’t do it in the same turn. Thus, unless you build up your army a lot, you have to abandon your city (or leave it with a reduced force) in order to fight, and leave it that way until your next turn.
I’m not sure yet about the impact of event cards or variability of objective and action cards on the game (e.g., if there are any outliers). In my one game, we were both helped by events and hindered; neither of us got too much of an advantage nor were we too crippled. More plays needed.
I do really like the technology tree and other parts of the game (see other comments). The building part of civilization games is what I enjoy most. I plan to play Clash of Cultures a couple more times, probably with two and three players before deciding if I really like it or not.
Opinionated Gamers’ Ratings:
- I love it –
- I like it – Tom Rosen, Dale Yu, Mike Siggins, Luke Hedgren
- Neutral – Greg Schloesser, Mary Prasad
- Not for me – Larry Levy
(Disclosure: I received a review copy of Clash of Cultures from the publisher)