Back in 2010, Christian Marcussen essentially issued a stop work order to anybody developing a pirate-themed board game. Merchants and Marauders was and still is the best pirate game ever published, a stunningly complete expression of the concept that was dynamically open-world, filled with narrative adventure, and rich with both traditional economic game elements and exciting naval conflict. Late last year, Mr. Marcussen showed up on the “Civilization lite” scene and again pretty showed anyone working on such a game the door. Z-Man Games’ Clash of Cultures is a masterpiece of judicious design, careful abstraction, and economy- it is the new standard by which all games descended from the works of Frances Tresham and Sid Meier should be judged. There’s never been such a fighting fit, slim and ready-to-rock game of civ-building.
The basics may as well have been written in cuneiform thousands of years ago. You start with a settlement and a settler, your fledgling culture at the precipice of seeing what’s over that mountain or beyond the forest. You send your one, lone pawn into the wild, looking for fertile land and hoping to avoid local barbarians. Eventually, you found another settlement, and then another. These settlements grow in population, technology, knowledge, and wealth. Your people develop skills, tools, techniques, and concepts that help them do things better or create new opportunities that weren’t there before. The general mood of the populace shifts, as can their mode of governance. Sooner or later, you’ll encounter neighbors, and eventually there will be conflict.
Of course, that’s hardly a rules explanation or description of flow. I don’t want to reveal all of the intricate ways that Mr. Marcussen has shorn this genre of so much fat, like tying population attitude and culture increases specifically to technology advances and using those resources to modify core actions. I want you to discover those things for yourself and to experience the kind of revelation I had playing this game, that you can make the epic manageable. The key is that for all of its carefully measured and metered rules, its stately sense of progress, Clash of Cultures never feels rules heavy, overly complicated, or bogged down in systems.
Yet this is not a simplified, toothless game. There are diverse mechanics at work, including a multilayered resource mechanic that depends on Settlers of Catan-like combinations to build assets and an absolutely brilliant (and simple) one that reflects how neighboring cultures influence and integrate with each other. When cities develop, you add on a physical piece to the existing site so that you can always see the level of development. Other, stronger cultures might exert their influence and change the color of one of your city pieces to their color, earning an endgame victory point. These city pieces also carry special benefits and are part of the technology game.
Everything makes perfect sense, from the tech trees to the basic dice-and-cards combat resolution. There’s never a point where you’re looking at a bloated, byzantine set of rules or structure propping up its epic theme- quite unlike some other recent botched attempts at condensing the civilization building game. By tying a lot of the detail to cards, it’s also a highly narrative game despite the degree of abstraction. Event cards affect famine, revolution, calamities, and good harvest. Objective cards give you multiple paths to victory, and at any time you might have anywhere from two to six different possible “suggestions”, so to speak, as to how to proceed with your turn to achieve these goals. Each action card offers a civil effect and a military one, imparting a sense of control and strategic planning in terms of hand management.
Clash of Cultures doesn’t attempt an “all of human history” scale and it remains, like the original Civilization, in the Classical era. Some may chafe at the lack of real-world signifiers like geography, specific player nations, or national advantages and I thought this would be a concern myself, but in play I found that I didn’t really care about that part. It was fat, and the goal of this game’s design is something leaner, fiercer, and tighter than something like Fantasy Flight’s fumbled board game version of the Sid Meier PC game. Tresham’s design didn’t have national powers either. This led me to realize that part of the genius of this design is in how it bridges gaps between the original Civilization board game, the classic PC game, and a highly modernized and hybridized ideal of the civilization building concept. Its linkages are clear, but in its wake are so much dead weight, extraneous detail, and superfluous mechanics.
Clash of Cultures is a masterpiece of its genre. I regret sort of overlooking it at the end of last year. At the time of its release, I felt as if I didn’t really want to play another game that makes another mediocre stab at this genre, which isn’t necessarily burgeoning, but it’s a class of game where one or two great examples are all you really need on your shelf. I should have had more faith in Mr. Marcussen as a talented, insightful designer. This game’s approach and what it accomplishes are different enough from my other favorite civilization games, Mare Nostrum and Innovation, and it absolutely carves out its own space not only there but also among the best games of recent years. It’s a thrilling, spectacularly successful design that is fearless, maverick, and utterly exciting to engage with and play.