How Civilization Works

The fact that this box contains six full civilizations leads us to suspect that it's bigger on the inside. (The lush artwork throughout, by Norwegian digital illustrator Henning Ludvigsen, only deepens the illusion.)
The fact that this box contains six full civilizations leads us to suspect that it's bigger on the inside. (The lush artwork throughout, by Norwegian digital illustrator Henning Ludvigsen, only deepens the illusion.)
Image courtesy Fantasy Flight Games

The fate of civilization hinges on your next decision, and right about now you wish you could look into a crystal ball and see the future. Should you ramp up your society's military power or concentrate on the arts? Explore and conquer new territories or attempt to reach outer space?

It isn't every day that you can dictate the rise or fall of an entire society, but then again, Civilization isn't an ordinary board game. Its players can't succeed through luck, but must instead rely on layers of strategy. Players take on the persona of a famous leader and then take turns navigating a complex game system -- including a series of map tiles, military cards and hundreds of other cards and tokens -- so that they can advance their civilization through the ages to reach a victory based on one of four tracks: Technology, Culture, Economy or Military.


Sid Meier's Civilization: The Board Game, which debuted from Fantasy Flight Games in 2010, is based on the popular "Civilization" video game series (specifically "Civilization IV") created by Sid Meier -- which was, itself, originally based on a board game. This current version retains much of the digital version's visual appeal. Fantasy Flight Games also produces the board game versions of video games like World of Warcraft and StarCraft, along with classics like Talisman.

Civilization's playing field, which consists of a series of map tiles and a separate market board used to track the players' progress, is colorful -- and the artistic images on the game's cards are quite detailed. Players use the game cards, tokens and modular map to create a (hopefully) great civilization; this is done by conquering enemy territory, settling in new lands, building new cities, attracting notable citizens, researching innovative technology, creating prosperous economies, erecting historical wonders and fighting successful battles. The game, which is intended for two to four players of ages 13 or older, takes about four hours to complete. (That's less time than the video game generally takes, but the video game isn't necessarily played in a single sitting.)

Although it carries a nearly identical name, Sid Meier's Civilization: The Board Game should not be confused with an earlier and simpler predecessor of the game offered in 2002 by Eagle Games that is now out of print. Nor is it exactly the same as "Sid Meier's Civilization" video game series or "Civilization Revolution" for the iPad, both published by 2K Games. By its very nature, the 2010 Civilization board game requires a hands-on approach and a more lengthy set-up and playing time than the digital versions. It was designed by Kevin Wilson, whose other notable games include Arkham Horror, Descent: Journeys in the Dark and A Game of Thrones: The Card Game.

The modular map tiles allow players to experience different challenges every time they start a game.
The modular map tiles allow players to experience different challenges every time they start a game.
Image courtesy Fantasy Flight Games

If you're like me, buying a new game means you'll want to immediately open the box, set it up and play a round. This won't work so well with Sid Meier's Civilization: The Board Game, unless you have hours to spare.

The first order of business is to read the instructions. Unlike some board games with a breezy, two-page set of rules, Civilization has a 30-page manual that will require about an hour to read. Although you'll probably need to refer back to the manual as you set up the game and play the first round, reading it before you get started will give you a good overview of the game. In addition, you can view or download a PDF of the rules from Fantasy Flight Games.

You'll also want to set aside a couple of hours to punch out the cardboard tokens and map modules, and then set up the game. You can keep the game more organized (and speed subsequent set-up times) if you separate the different kinds of tokens, cards, markers and plastic figures into plastic baggies or containers [source: Three Wise Men]. In the box, you will find:

  • One market board and 20 map tiles
  • Six civilization sheets
  • Six Trade dials and six Economy dials (these will need assembly)
  • 12 city markers
  • 24 plastic army figures, 8 plastic scout figures and one white plastic Russian army figure
  • 55 combat cards, including artillery, infantry, mounted and aircraft units, plus two combat bonus cards
  • 224 cards, including Set-up, Government, Tech, Space Flight, Culture and Wonder cards
  • 12 wonder markers
  • Six culture level markers
  • 18 Great Person markers
  • 28 military technology markers
  • 49 building markers, ranging from trading posts to banks to libraries
  • 20 hut markers
  • 10 village markers
  • 12 disaster markers
  • 1 first player marker
  • 16 market resource tokens
  • 90 culture tokens
  • 28 wound tokens
  • 75 coin tokens
  • Four reference sheets

Before play begins, the game board and pieces will need to be divvied up between players according to the rulebook. The game includes six civilizations:

  • Americans, led by Abraham Lincoln
  • Chinese, led by Wu Zetian
  • Egyptians, led by Cleopatra
  • Germans, led by Otto von Bismarck
  • Romans, led by Julius Caesar
  • Russians, led by Catherine the Great

With all these materials in place, you'll have everything a proto-empire needs to go a'conquering. So how does a fearless leader go about such an undertaking?

The Russians' civilization sheet. If you step into Catherine the Great's shoes, you might consider conquering via Technology.
The Russians' civilization sheet. If you step into Catherine the Great's shoes, you might consider conquering via Technology.
Image courtesy Fantasy Flight Games

I'd been warned that Sid Meier's Civilization: The Board Game could take up to six hours to play, so when I found the rulebook's suggestion about first playing a shorter sample game in which there were no winners or losers, I jumped at the chance. It cut the playing time to two hours and seemed especially helpful to a player like me who wasn't familiar with the video games. However, if you've played the "Civilization" video game series, you'd probably be able to begin with standard game play; the board game is similar in rules and concept to the video game [source: Goodhead].

To begin the board game, each player selects a civilization sheet at random: Each contains information about the civilization it represents, including the name of the leader and what type of government and technology the civilization starts out with. The sheet also lists the civilization's special abilities, and has a dial to track its current trade and total coins [source: Fantasy Flight Games]. China, for example, starts the game with an abundance of Technology, but very little Culture. This imbalance, whatever it is, may partially determine a player's tactics. If dealt the China card, it would be easier to pursue a military victory rather than a cultural victory [source: Goodhead].

Unlike many games in which players only take action during their own turn, in Civilization, each player takes action during every phase of every turn. During your own turn, you go first in each phase. (This isn't always a perk in a game that relies on trumps to determine the outcome of battles.) The five phases are Start, Trade, Management, Movement and Research. Start, Management and Movement go round-robin around the table starting with the player whose turn it is, but during the Trade and Research phases, all players can make their moves simultaneously.

The object of each phase, in the order that they're played, is to:

  • Start: Build new cities, change governments or perform other designated start-of-turn actions using the Wonders or Culture event cards.
  • Trade: Collect trade from your cities and negotiate resource trades with other players.
  • City management: Take action within one of your cities, like devoting it to the arts or to goods' production.
  • Movement: Moves your armies and scouts the number of squares that matches their travel speed (travel speed always starts at two spaces and increases depending on a culture's technological discoveries).
  • Research: You may discover one new technology, but must spend trade to do it.

The progress of each player's civilization is tracked through the use of figures and cards on the map tiles, and by tokens and cards on the Market board. To win the game, you must be successfully complete one of the four tracks -- Military, Economy, Culture or Technology -- before your opponents each complete his or her own track of choice. You can build an enduring civilization and win the game by:

  • inventing increasingly complex technology, including space flight (Technology)
  • ascending the cultural ladder through a variety of artistic accomplishments (Culture)
  • destroying an opponent's capital city (Military)
  • gathering 15 gold coins (Economy)

Each type of victory is achievable by each civilization, but it's wise to start the game on the path of least resistance by rolling with your civilization's initial strengths. As you follow this obvious progression, however, your opponents will attempt to block your progress through military action or other means. And that's when strategy really comes into play. Working a secondary (but no less powerful) plan can result in a win by building up a secret powerhouse. Technology, for example, can be quietly collected as you pursue a more obvious objective and then employed during a last-round bid for success [source: Goodhead].

And sometimes the best defense really is a good offense. A valid way to defend your capital city is to attack your opponent before he reaches it -- if you have sufficient fighting power to successfully trump your enemy. If you lose, and lose your army cards in the process, your capital city will be left unprotected.

Keep in mind that battles are won not just on the number of army cards each player has, but according to a civilization's accumulated battle powers. (And you'll quickly learn that Civilization's military action doesn't always follow traditional rules. In fact, sometimes it seems almost comical: Footmen can destroy tanks and archers can shoot down airplanes [source: Three Wise Men].) Even if you lose a battle that takes all your army cards, you could still triumph because of your city's defenses, bonuses from barracks or academies, or the expertise of a great general. The possibilities are (purposefully) endless, and it may take a few games before you start to get a feel for how to balance your resources.

The Fame and Fortune expansion pack may be tiny by comparison to the original, but it can add a great deal to the game (and it addresses many early reviewers' complaints.)
The Fame and Fortune expansion pack may be tiny by comparison to the original, but it can add a great deal to the game (and it addresses many early reviewers' complaints.)
Image courtesy Fantasy Flight Games

Although you may attempt to develop a tried-and-true path to victory, each game of Civilization will be different because of the modular map -- and because you must continually react to your opponent's strategies. This is terrific for the game's replay value but makes it difficult to master. Like other popular strategy games such as Settlers of Catan, the key to winning the game is learning how to set yourself up in the beginning to gain the resources you'll need throughout the rest of the game.

One strategy is to deploy your scouts early, and continue to do so as the game progresses. During the early part of the game, these figures can travel the map and help start cities. During mid-game, they can garner valuable resources on map squares outside your civilization's cities, and your cities can then use these resources to their advantage. As the end of the game nears, scouts can block your opponents as they attempt to make critical moves; your scouts can bar their way to their own buildings, map tiles or wonders. Scouts can even take opponents' resources so that your own cities can use them.

Another solid strategy is to move to a more advanced government as early in the game as possible. Switching governments can be done at any time throughout the game, but you'll lose a turn -- through all five phases -- because the change will throw your civilization into anarchy. If you're at a critical moment in the game, either defending a capital city or on the verge of discovering a civilization-changing wonder or technology, it could become difficult or impossible to recover from anarchy.

Should you happen to want even more options, or to add a fifth player to game, there's an expansion: Fame and Fortune. This add-on introduces four new civilizations -- Arabs, Spanish, Greeks and Indians -- as well as 11 new map tiles and more than 150 additional cards into the game, including a new deck of Great Persons cards that includes Joan of Arc. It also introduces a deck of cards that players can use for investing their civilization's coins and reaping future dividends [source: Board Game Geek].

Whatever strategies you use, Sid Meier's Civilization: The Board Game lets you take on history -- hours at a time.

How Civilization Works: Author's Note

I love a good board game, so I was excited when I found out I'd be researching How Civilization Works. Although I'd read cautionary tales about how long it takes to set up the game and peruse its 30-page instruction manual, I was undaunted as I opened the box. Surely I could assemble and master it in one-fourth the time.

After four hours of punching out cardboard components, separating hundreds of cards and pieces, and reading the rulebook page-by-page, I was too exhausted to actually play. But after recouping for a couple of days, I played a practice round and then a full game -- and am completely hooked. Now if only I can master Civilization, too.

Related Articles


  • Board Game Geek. "Kevin Wilson." (Feb. 20, 2012)
  • Board Game Geek. "Sid Meier's Civilization: The Board Game." (Feb. 20, 2012)
  • Board Game Geek. "Sid Meier's Civilization: The Board Game: Fame and Fortune." (Feb. 28, 2012)
  • Goodhead, Paul. "Civilization Board Game Review." Bit Gamer. April 15, 2011. (Feb. 20, 2012)
  • Plunkett, Luke. "'Civilization V' Revolutionizes its Game." MSNBC. Sept. 21, 2010. (Feb. 20, 2012)
  • Three Wise Men. "Review: Sid Meier's Civilization: The Board Game." (Feb. 20, 2012)