Thursday, August 31, 2006

Give Me a Light ... No, Civ Light!

One of the Holy Grails of modern game design seems to be "Civ Light", a game that inexplicably is like Francis Tresham's 1980 masterpiece Civilization, yet at the same time is not. Every year lately one or two games come out that are proclaimed--by designers, fans, or both--to be this Grail, and every year each and every one fails to live up to the standard--potentially because it sets an impossible bar.

In this article I want to look at first Civilization itself, then the many contenders for the "Civ Light" throne. In the process I'll give each game a "Civ Score", which is a 4-point score based on how well the game mimics the four core Civilization gameplay elements of civilization advance, resource management, trade, and warfare and measure the "Weight" of the game, based on BGG stats. Though both stats are clearly somewhat arbitrary, I think they offer relatively analytical measures of how each game approaches the Civ Light ideal.

Civilization (1980)

Author: Francis Tresham
Major Game Systems: Civilization Advance, Resource Management, Trade, Warfare
Score: 4.00/4 Civs :: 3.80/5 Weight

Comments: Like some of the best board games out there, Civilization is truly a creative endeavor. You feel like you're creating and expanding a civilization because it gains a unique character as you expand it in certain ways across the board and as you select certain civilization advances to build.

I think that the idea of "civilization advance" (or technology, if you prefer) is potentially the core of a civilization game and ultimately the aspect that pretty much no other game has ever duplicated. In Civilization players have numerous different advances they can build, each of which gives some advantage to their civilization, and many of which are built into "trees", where one advance is required in order to purchase another.

Other players consider the trade the most important element of gameplay, and it is a well-developed system in Civilization. There is warfare, and you do have to be careful about how you collect (and use) resources, but the simple idea of trading in order to collect sets of increasing value can make or break your game (and likewise adds another element that many Civ Light games don't have).

It's probably been at least 10 years since I've played Civilization and that falls to its main flaw: game length. Civilization can easily be a full day event running at 12 hours, plus or minus, and in an era where a 2-4 hour game is stretching it, Civilization is pretty much never going to hit the table, hence the desire for "light" variants, by which most people mean: a faster, more elegant version of Civilization that nonetheless has all the core attributes.

Vinci (1999)

Author: Philippe Keyaerts
Major Game Systems: Civilization Advance, Resource Management, Warfare
Score: 1.50/4 Civs :: 2.88/5 Weight

Comments: I don't know that anyone actually ever called Vinci Civ Light, but it wouldn't surprise me. It's a game where you're trying to build up Civilizations in Europe by taking advantage of unique technologies and are trying to gain controls of specific territories whose resources advantage you.

However, the "Civilization Advance" feature is relatively vestigial. Each civilization has its own pair of advantages, and there's no way to improve or build upon them. Likewise, the resource management is solely a player-specific conduit to victory points. The only fully developed Civ system is warfare, and by its core importance, the game is actually distanced quite a bit from Civ proper, which included warfare as an option, not a necessity.

Overall, not a Civ Light game at all, but a wargame that does include the interesting facade of some of the same ideas.

Mare Nostrum (2003)

Author: Serge Laget
Major Game Systems: Civilization Advance, Resource Management, Trade, Warfare
Score: 3.00/4 Civs :: 2.99/5 Weight

I'm surprised this game didn't get more attention as a Civ Light game, though maybe it did back in 2003. In summary, it's got all of the elements, and it was purposefully (and well) designed to fit the niche.

Resource management and trade are both precisely in the Civilization mode, with your collecting typed resources and then trading those to get the right sets to build what you want. Likewise there's a solid combat system that nonetheless isn't exactly the point of the game: you can win without it, but you'll probably have to face it at some time.

Mare Nostrum's biggest failure in the Civ Light contest, and perhaps what knocks it from the competition entirely, is its lack of any sort of meaningful technology. There are Wonders of the World, and they're crucial to the game, but each is unique, and there is no tree, so these just aren't built or used in the same way as technology would be.

Also, the game length is a bit long, trending toward the 3 hour range, when most of these others can eke by at 2. And, I have one game design complaint, which is the ending can be very sudden. But, these are minor in the face of how well Mare Nostrum otherwise pulls off this style of gameplay.

Overall I'd consider Mare Nostrum the current winner of the Civ Light crown, with the major caveat that you have to not consider technology crucial.

Parthenon: Rise of the Aegean (2005)

Author: Andrew Parks, Jason Hawkins
Major Game Systems: Civilization Advance, Resource Management, Trade
Review: RPGnet (B)
Score: 2.00/4 Civs :: 3.06/5 Weight

Comments: In many ways, this isn't a bad adaptation of the most important aspects of a Civilization game.

The trade is best, because it's a complex system that allows trade with both other players and to the game system. Better, the system is set up to make trades mutually advantageous. The resource management pretty closely ties in to that because each player can produce certain resources and has to figure out ways to get the rest.

The biggest failing of Parthenon as a Civ Light game is ultimately in its limited scope--and this may well be an issue that ever contender for the Civ Light crown will face. There are very limited numbers of resources and limited ways to generate there and overall a limited scope for expansion. Technology isn't really built into a tree, and every player is trying to gain the exact same levels of tech, with the only difference being who does what first. You have no way of deciding that you want to head off in a certain direction because you're constrained by what you're allowed to build. Mind you, this all contributes to the tightness of the game, which is what makes it work, but it also keeps it away from being a true Civ Light game.

Likewise, the lack of a a true game board is likely to make anyone looking for a true Civilization game to turn away, and as noted in the overview above, there's no actual warfare either.

On the whole this is only a tiny bit closer to the Civilization ideal than Vinci. It turns out to not be a Civ Light game at all either, but instead a resource management game with a facade of Civilization.

Antike (2005)

Author: Mac Gerdts
Major Game Systems: Civilization Advance, Resource Management, Warfare
Review: GG Top Ten, Mini-Review (C+)
Score: 2.75/4 Civs :: 3.08/5 Weight

Comments: I really wasn't too enthused about this game after two plays, but in weighing it on the Civ Light barometer, I begin to understand better where other peoples' enthusiasm comes from. This game entirely neglects trade, but for the other three aspects of Civilization, it hits almost entirely dead on.

The Resource Management is a core part of the game, and it's both very different from Civilization and well-considered. There are only 8 technological advances, but there is a tiny bit of a tree (with each branch having two nodes), and unlike Parthenon there's no guarantee that everyone is going to hit all the levels. I find the combat somewhat troublesome because it feels too costly and too weighted toward the defender, but that's ultimately an issue of game design.

And it's in game design generally that Antike let me down. Besides not liking the combat dynamics I also feel like the victory points are set up in such a way that the entire game can bog down in some situations. Overall the game's just got too many sharp corners for me.

On the whole I'd say that Antike is a pretty good Civ Light design, minus the trading, but it's a pure indie design with enough awkward play and sharp edges that it'll always have somewhat limited appeal.

Tempus (2006)

Author: Martin Wallace
Major Game Systems: Resource Management, Warfare
Score: 1.50/4 Civs :: 3.24/5 Weight

Comments: Tempus has been long-hyped as Civ Light and is now facing some backlash, and I think it's pretty easy to see why when you measure it up as a Civilization style game.

Tempus gets the weight of warfare about right: it's important, but not central to the game. And that's about where it leaves Civilization land behind. There is a sort of resource management, but it largely centers on board position, and which lands you control and with which pieces at any time--a pretty far stretch from the handheld resources of the most Civilization like games. (There are cards but they're just random special-power cards that you can buy.) There's likewise (and not surprisingly) zero trade.

However, where Tempus falls down (as a Civ Light game), and where it's most likely to disappoint, is on the question of technology. In short: there isn't any. There's a theoretical "technology track", but all players advance along it simultaneously, and at best any player might be one space ahead on any turn. It thus ends up being just another resource to manage.

Don't get me wrong. Tempus is a very clever game that I'm quite happy to play. Its style of resource management, and the strategy that it entails, is quite clever. However, though it has the facade of a Civ Light game, like Vinci and Parthenon it's really a totally different sort of game.


In chart form, here's my rundown of the Civilization-like games, from most to least:

GameCiv. Score
Way too long for a "light" game.
Mare Nostrum
Largely misses Technology.
A bit longer than others.
No Trade. Technology a little light.
Some developmental issues.
No board. No Warfare.
Technology is light & ubiquitous.
A wargame with Civilization facade.
A resource game with Civilization facade.

On the whole, this analysis tells me a few different things.

First, not a single game has passed the 75% level for trueness to Civilization gameplay in a Light format. Mare Nostrum is the closest by hitting 3 out of 4 elements almost dead on, but it's near total ignorance of technology just about knocks it out of contention. Antike is next, but various systems come up short, and I also don't particularly like the development work.

I'll add and clarify that I'm measuring these games based on similarity to Civilization. I think they're all good or better games, with Antike slightly trailing the pack.

Second, I found this analysis interesting for where it shows Civilization-light games being created: 2 French designs, 1 English design, 1 American design, and 1 German design. The Civ Light games are coming from all over, but clearly more from countries with a strong Anglo-American influence (which makes me wonder if we'll soon see Civ Light games from Italy as well).

Third, I increasingly wonder if a Civ Light game might be a mirage. The core element of Civilization as I said, is the joy of creating this unique, expansive civilization. I'm not entirely sure if this can be done in a short game, and looking at how limited the technologies are in every one of these games just increases my belief.

On the other hand, writing this article makes me want to go try my own game design skills at the problem ... which makes me believe that we'll keep seeing entrants in this genre for years, whether the goal be a will o' the wisp or not.


Hermus said...

Nice comparison Shannon. My one complaint with "Civ Light" discussions is the idea that the games have to come in at under 2 hours. While I agree that the 8-12 hours of classic Civ is prohibitively long, I am perfectly happy to play a 3-4 hour game if it's actually GOOD, and I feel immersed in the gameworld the whole time. I actually believe 3-4 hours is ideal for a Civ-type game. Less than that and the games just feel too light and/or abstract, which I think is behind what you found in your analysis.

Jonathan said...

It would be nice to see an article on some of the alternate-themed "Civ Lite" games such as Twilight Imperium.

Shannon Appelcline said...

No, it's a pretty pure resource management game, closer to Settlers of Catan than Civilization.

Pawnstar said...

I think you're right, Shannon; it's something we'll never see just because of what people expect it to be. It's an impossible bar because everybody has different ideas about what they require in "civ-lite".

The low emphasis on warfare - as an aid to civilisation expansion rather than an objective element - is an important aspect of all civilisation games in my opinion; few games get the balance right but all of your contenders seem to fit the bill fairly well in this respect. I prefer to ignore war as a core element and refer to expansion instead because of this view.

I still wonder about whether the core elements are all necessary; I think I'm in the minority.

Doug Orleans said...

How would you score Cities & Knights of Catan? It might be a stretch to say it has warfare, since the main source of destruction comes from a non-player (the barbarian invasion). But it seems to have all three of the other elements.

Shannon Appelcline said...

A very good quesiton. Offhand, I'd give it 2.5/4 Civs.

The trade is clearly fully-featured. It doesn't have some of the neat limitations of Civilization or Mare Nostrum, but it nonetheless is a core part of the system.

Ditto, the resource management is fully featured.

It falls down on the technology. You do have a tree with three branches, which provides about as much depth as Antike. However, for the most part the technology doesn't do anything. Each branch has one real gain, and besides that it's just incrementals, which aren't as interesting as most Civ technology is.

And as you said, there's no warfare.

So, at 2.5/4, It's clearly in the same neighborhood as the two that I really consider Civ Light attempts, Mare Nostrum and Antike.

On the developmental side, I find that C&K usually runs too long, overstaying its welcome.

Dr. Matt J. Carlson said...

Put me down as a vote for Goa as a possible Civ-lite entry. By my tally, it comes in somewhere around 2.5/4.

It lacks any warfare, and the trading is somewhat limited in that you are are auctioning things back and forth with each other (so no direct exchange of goods). The tech tree doesn't branch but does have plenty of room for good specialization.

I'd say Puerto Rico is even less of a civ-lite game as the "tech tree" presented is less of a broader theme over areas. Also, direct player interaction is even more removed.

huzonfirst said...

Nice analysis, Shannon. I agree with all your major points, including the likely possibility that we'll never see a "Civ Lite" game worthy of the title. I would also contend that most games that do receive the label are hurt by it more than helped (witness the backlash you mention against Tempus).

I do have one comment about something you said: "I'm surprised Mare Nostrum didn't get more attention as a Civ Light game, though maybe it did back in 2003."

Oh my, yes! No one outside of France had heard of the game back in 2002 when Bruno Faidutti announced on his website that his design parner Serge Laget finally was going to be able to publish his "masterpiece, that he had worked on for over a decade", a "2 hour Civilization". Naturally, this inspired tremendous interest in the game and, of course, the inevitable backlash occured. Today, the game seems to be played much more often with its mythological expansion, which hides its Civ roots even more. Perhaps because of this, it isn't thought of as a Civ Lite game too much anymore, which is probably all for the good.

Anonymous said...

I don't think it's a just a backlash. I believe the civ-lite on-line community is just the harshest, quickest-to-judge pack of misanthropes that every existed.

They hate every and all civ-lite titles on-sight. They have unanimously fault-finded and hated every title released, and fall over eachother in their race to see who can condemn each new title first.

They even hate the original Civilization, which they never play because it takes "too long" --but when they play Sid Meier's Civ4 (a game that plays so long it assumes you'll stay up nights playing it, including a go-to-sleep alarm in the game) for 12 hours on the PC, that's okay.

The problem isn't the games.
The problem are the on-line jerks who spend far more time poisoning every civ-lite title than actually playing them.

Every civ-lite game should be a candidate for the "Shut Up and Play" geeklist.

Lewis Pulsipher said...

For a time recently I experimented with designs for "civ lite" games (I had maps, notes, etc., no actual prototype), but concluded that the people who want civ lite don't want to sacrifice any significant aspect of Civ, but want a much shorter game. Not gonna happen. To shorten the game immensely, you've going to have to drop one or two of those four core aspects, or have one or more of them be unsatisfactorily simple to most players. Maybe sometime I'll try again, but something's going to be dropped.

Good summary of the "contenders". Lew Pulsipher

Anonymous said...

Nice article! Caveat: I haven't had a chance to play most of these games, and I happen to be working on a Civ-lite game of my own, which makes my comments doubly suspicious.

While Civ is a great game, I think looking for "Civ lite" as opposed to a light civilization building game may not be the same thing, and that the former pursuit may in fact be fraught with difficulties. Any well-themed game that is also a good game will emulate its theme in some respects and abstract its theme in others. Civ does this just like any game, and it may be counterproductive to assume that the particular collection of emulations and abstractions that were assembled into Civ represent some ideal. In fact, I would say that they represent nothing more than a very good set of design choices that work well together. Take, for example, Civ's trading mechanic that is well-loved, and rightly so. But it is a tremendous abstraction - it removes the location specificity of resource production that creates scarcity, and hence, the need for trade in the first place; and, it abstracts the physical interaction of trade that requires geographic proximity to complete transactions. Furthermore, it adds in the crazy idea that you can, through shrewd trading, hand off a calamity like a famine or earthquake to your neighbors! Now, these work very well as a game mechanic but overzealous allegiance to this mechanic as the only way to do things could lead to unrealistic expectations.

I think your article does a nice job of focusing the discussion to the four broad areas that a Civ-lite game should include, giving latitude for different mechanical implementations of these systems. I'll note that a crucial element of Civ games is that the feel has to be right, and so to slap in any old mechanic and call it "trade" or "advancement" would not necessarily satisfy the requirement. With that in mind, I would say that the following are elements that a Civ game needs to provide to really communicate the right feel:

* Growth: The player's empire gets larger both in its footprint on the board and in its population. Population growth creates additional capabilities but also brings pressure to expand. Territorial expansion also brings benefits but results in interaction with a player's neighbors, which can lead to conflict as space becomes scarce.

* Enhancement: The players have ways to receive additional abilities or upgraded forms of existing abilities that they do not possess at the game's beginning; their civilizations grow and progress as the game proceeds, and players can steer that progression.

* Differentiation: The particular set of enhancements that a civilization acquires is different for each player and, ideally, different in each playing; it isn’t necessarily forced upon the player by the game.

* Specialization: As players progress down a particular path of differentiation, it becomes either easier to continue down that path or more difficult to switch to following a different path.

* Multiple paths to victory: The scoring system accomodates the different cultural paths that players will follow, and allows a variety of paths to lead to victory. These allow a player to attempt to emulate different historical civilizations as well.

* Cooperative interaction: Generally implemented via trade, but the idea is simply that players can interact in a way that results in a mutual benefit as opposed to a diminishing of one player's position by the direct action of another.

There are a couple of additional elements that I think are important to the theme, and that haven't been incorporated into any game terribly well yet (which is why I'm trying to incorporate them!)

* Self-aggrandizement: What we know about the ancient world comes primarily from historians who wrote about what they observed or heard about, and from rulers who boasted about their accomplishments. By making sure that much about your civilization is recorded, you can insure that tales of your greatness will survive the test of time.

* Political control: Growing an empire involved conquering territories, but then the real work of managing and governing began, and some empires succeeded at this better than others. The idea that a smoothly-administered empire will be more successful should be communicated by the game in some fashion.

* Cultural diffusion: The idea that your culture can "rub off" on the foreign civilizations you interact with.

Incidentally, anyone who is interested in my solution to this design challenge (still in active development) can go to

Again, very nice article.