Advanced Civilization

A Few Thoughts on a Game I Love

Advanced Civilization™ is a boardgame by Avalon Hill that simulates the rise of primitive cultures and their growth into great civilizations. It was the inspiration for the computer game by Sid Meier and has inspired many Variants and Copies. The Microsoft Age of Empires game can be said to be inspired by this boardgame as well.

Ideally for 7-8 players, the game is played on a board which is a map that streches roughly east-west, from the Persian Gulf to Italy and Tunisia. The game deals intensely with issues such as population growth and starvation, urbanization, and technical innovation, as well as natural and social disasters.

While the game of Advanced Civilization™ is a game I greatly enjoy, I have often been frustrated with its inability to simulate the course of history and the general failure of its game logic. This is less distressing if people remember that it is not meant to strictly simulate any sort of historical process but rather is strictly a game and is meant to entertain. However, people who are history buffs and are excited by the period the game represents and the possibility that they may be able to recreate them may find themselves wanting more.

For instance, Since each turn represents a span of at least a hundred years, it is absurd to think that a ship could not travel from one end of the mediterranean to the other in one turn, even without astronomy, or even sails! The territories that are controlled by the African player, such as Carthage, as well as areas of southern Spain, Sardinia, and parts of Sicily, were settled, not by native Africans, but by Phonecians from cities such as Tyre and Sidon. Likewise, areas around the Black Sea, and the cities of Tarentum, Syracuse, Cyrene, and Massalia, were all settled by Greeks travelling by sea.

Even a person on foot should be able to traverse from one side of the board to the other in the space of a turn. For example, in 376 AD the Visigoths crossed the Danube and settled in the region that on the board is called Moesia. By 388 they were on the move again; they menaced Constantinople, ravaged southern Greece, made their way through Illyria, attacked Rome, and finally settled again in Aquitaine, all within the space of 31 years, far less than the scope of a single turn.

In fact, most of the player nations had at some point controlled a majority of the inhabited population of the board; both the Assyrians and Babylonians at some point not only controlled all of Mesopotamia but the entire eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean and Egypt as well. The Persians (not even a player nation) under Darius controlled all this territory plus Anatolia and Thrace as well. The Hittites (vide: Asia) at their height controlled not only most of Anatolia but also Mesopotamia, Syria, and Lebanon. The Macedonians conquered everything east of Greece, and the Romans obviously conquered the entire board. In each of these instances this expansion occurred over the course of one or two turns (in Alexander's case over a period of 13 years). These empires usually also dissapeared within another one or two turns, being overcome by another empire.

One way to view this aspect of the game is that the territory and population controlled by any given player represents the influence of that Culture rather than that of any given government. After all, many player nations never or infrequently had a unified government, such as the Cretans, Illyrians, Africans, and Thracians. Even the Babylonians, Assyrians, Italians, and Asians had substantial periods in which they had no unified government but were instead composed of various city-states. In fact, this often gave these cultures an advantage in spreading their cultural influences, particularily in the case of the Greek nations, since adopting the institutions of a foreign culture did not neccessitate accepting the rule of a foreign power.

Another thing that seems odd is the choice of city sites. Rather than reflecting any specific urban pattern the placement of city spaces is a game mechanic to force players to compete for territory. After all, in classical periods there were cities in almost every space on the board (with the notable exceptions of North-Central Europe and areas of the Sahara and Arabian Deserts), in most cases several cities in a single territory. Hence, it would be incorrect to view cities in Civilization as the only urban centers in the world; simply the most important ones. Spaces that simply have population counters in them should still be understood to have cities there.

Likewise, cities were much easier to destroy or conquer in antiquity; in the game cities have a great impact in limiting expansion of civilizations and in defensive value. The posession of cities limits both your ability to attack neighbors and also their ability to attack you. Historically this has never been the case; cities have never provided an obstacle to armies which simply intended to bypass them, and without the defense of an opposing army, cities were usually easy to besiege or attack. In fact it has generally been historically easier to conquer an urban culture than a rural or nomadic one.

The subtle relationship between stock, treasury, and population is particularily interesting game-wise but does not seem to have much grounding in any realistic process. Some argument can be made that increasing levels of taxation are likely to retard population expansion, but taxation occurs in a very arbitrary way; taxes in effect go to the cities rather than any institutional leadership. Likewise rural societies are just as able to implement taxation as urban ones.

Perhaps the most arcane game system in Civilization is the trade card system. It is hard to see how the commodity system relates to any sort of economic system in any but the most abstract way. How can a disaster be "traded" to another nation? It also forces players to interact economically with other players, when this is not necessarily how ancient economies operated. Some cultures developed with relatively little economic interaction with other societies.

And how does cornering the market on a particular commodity entitle a society to institute cultural advances? Some argument can be made that wealthy societies are more likely to advance technologically than poor ones. While this is a valid argument, it is unclear how this differs from the game's treasury/taxation system in terms of the general wealth of a society. Likewise, particularily for natural resource commodities, availabilty of these commodities is based on geography rather than urban development.

The result of these rules is to create an environment where there is generally only one winning strategy: Claim a territory large enough to support 9 cities, and don't antagonize your neighbors outside this area. Occaisionally it makes sense to capitalize on the weakness of another player, but largely the goal is generally to maintain strong borders but not to exceed them.

Ultimately these issues are what have inspired me to write these articles. Presented here are some alternate rules which you may find enhance the realism (or at least the game logic) of your game. In addition, the added detail will hopefully enhance you game and make it more interesting and enjoyable.