When I first heard that Christian Marcussen was designing a civilization game, I was upset, and rightfully so. How dare he pause work on the expansion for Merchants & Marauders?! The civ genre did not interest me very much at the time, hence I had nothing to look forward to, except extra time until I’d be able to sail my plastic merchant ship to Europe and back. Well, I’m still waiting for that opportunity, but since my general desire for an M&M expansion was finally satisfied, I was hence ready to take a look at Christian’s second design, namely Clash of Cultures.
My first contact with Clash of Cultures came after a lengthy persuasion duel with the the Friendly Local Game Store manager (which I henceforth will be calling Paka) about which one of us would buy the only copy in the store. To make things clear, we were both pushing for the other guy. Finally, he gave in and invested in his own business so to speak.
The first impressions were of intrigue. The rules seemed easy enough, but somehow I was unable to gather enough momentum to do anything productive. I was glazing over my advancement board from turn to turn, and when the pressure of AP became to high I would simply buy something, hoping that it would make a difference in my unorganized strategy (If I dare call it so). Certainly, the other players seemed to have understood the delicate interactions and combos that were hidden in that convoluted research tree. Surprisingly, I was not frustrated in the end. I concluded that I had just played a complex version of Antike. Paka insisted that it was not so, seemingly worried that I did not liked the game; Which was understandable considering the fact that I had scored poorly and that I generally seem to dislike games on the first play (a bad habit that I’m working on fixing…honestly).
On the contrary! I happen to like Antike, and unknown to him was that I always hoped to play a civ game with a little more meat on the bone. That wish was granted a year ago when I was invited to a session of Sid Meier’s Civilization… I found it to be a mess. All those little city icons and flimsy flag units. It is not only that the exact army composition is a total surprise to your opponents, but even you might be surprised of what your army consists of when the battle starts. Furthermore, you can win by going to space? What gives? Does launching a rocket suddenly convinces the world of your right to rule it? This didn’t happen in real life either, but I digress.
The focus in Clash of Cultures
Clash of Cultures takes a different approach. To make a civilization game that spans from the stone age to the capitalistic society of the last fifty years is somewhat difficult without making big compromises regarding rules. You would also need to sacrifice the impression of going through history. Marcussen instead focused on delivering a solid recreation of antiquity.
The struggles of a small population with great ambition is enough a premise to make a game interesting without stretching it through the ages. Here, players start with a non-descriptive population which has transcended the need for migration patterns and developed in agriculture and mining to some degree. Slowly your settler units will explore and find a suitable place to found new cities and encounter new neighbors.
It doesn’t take long before civilizations tend to… well, clash. This can happen for a variety of reasons, and Clash of Cultures features the classic method of promoting combat: Barbarians!
Through exploration, event cards and sometimes action cards, barbarians are spawned and activated. Having one of their settlements near you will thus instill enough motivation to build up a defense garrison. Once you have some army units, there’s no reason why you would not attack back for a change. Attacking a settlement (barbarian or otherwise) will generally yield spoils of war and the prospect of a new city under your control. This is very tempting, especially since cities are worth points and are necessary for growth. More on that later.
Taking this rationale further, often times after subduing barbarians you will be left with some military units which are now closer to an opponent’s city. Now, if cities are worth points and eliminating a player ends the game, what better thing to do with an idle army than to march through the streets of your opponents?
However, not everything in Clash of Cultures is battle and conquest. Actually, there are quite a lot of ways to expand and score without necessarily attacking anybody, although it won’t always be up to you. If you happen to have access to far reaching water areas for example, there’s good reason to explore the coasts, create a merchant fleet… or maybe an invasion fleet.
There is a second way of conquering foreign cities. Subversiveness goes a long way if your focus on developing culture more than your neighbors. Advancements will lead to more happiness or to more culture (and less happiness). Culture tokens are generally the least used “resource” when dealing with the various costs throughout the game. However, they are the prime resource for influencing rival cities. Influencing a city essentially transfers points from an opponent to you, and although the process can be reversed, influenced cities are unable to exert influence themselves. This creates a real parallel battlefield that has nothing to do with swords and bows, but with the slow elements of customs, religion, architecture and even clothing. There is little you can do once your people have adopted a new religion.
Cultural influence is still easier said than done. While cities are not mobile, they can only “influence attack” other cities if their size is large enough. A level 1 city, which is just a settlement, will not reach very far, but a level 4 city can be quite a threat to your uncultured neighbors. However getting a large city requires more settling because its maximum level is equal to the number of cities you have in total. As mentioned earlier, military conquest is a viable avenue to city growth. That’s why barbarians can be a blessing and a curse at the same time.
During the game, each player will receive a hand of objective cards. These score a fixed amount of points, and generally call you to accomplish things that would score points anyway. So there’s a clear incentive to try at some of these objectives (unlike Twilight Imperium III, where the game will tempt you to ruin your relations with your neighbor in order to blockade a space dock when normally you’d rather destroy it or leave it alone altogether). The objective cards help create a game narrative and also have high thematic sense. This is clearly inherited from M&M and it works great.
What strikes me the most with Clash of Cultures is that although it is not obvious from the beginning, every action you take requires to be well thought out. Even in the case of reactionary measures, there is room for strategy. Forward thinking must shake hands with adaptability to a higher degree than usual to make it through. This can lead to some AP, as was in my case, but once players have climbed the learning curve, this aspect gets highly engaging and tense, especially when game turns are running out and you still have multiple un-scored objectives in your hand.
I have not touched on rules or component quality since, I find these less important than the general impression. Suffice to say that once your group is invested, plastic component issues and initial downtime will soon become history. Just remember to buy a pair of tweezers and some glue with your game.
Clash of Cultures is a wonderful surprise that manages to evoke the struggles in the time when nations colonized the Mediterranean and influenced each other. The game feels like everybody is part of one stem culture with particularities only appearing as cities mature with the passing of time. The expansion Civilizations, brings in different ancient cultures to play with, but honestly, I like it the way it is (especially since the expansion is out of print and will be for a while).