“It’s a Cruel, Cruel World!” – A Replay of a Three-Player Game of Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea

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“It’s a cruel, cruel world!” is all my friend Max told his 22 year old son, Bennett, in preparation for his first game of Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea.  Bennett soon discovered and showed us just how cruel it could be, as in just one short evening all manner of calamities befell our empires, from multiple and repeated barbarian invasions to cataclysmic earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and floods of Biblical proportions – not to mention the Bronze Age version of The Black Death.

Yet we three survived these travails and more – including wars and the game’s card enabled catastrophes which we vengefully inflicted upon each other (“see, it really IS a cruel world!” was the oft repeated refrain) – with Bennett’s Phoenicians vying with his father’s Mycenaeans and my Egyptians for primacy in Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea.

A Highly Customizable Game

As the newcomer, we let Bennett choose which variation of the map and game to play.  He chose to use the “extended Eastern” version of the map, which cuts out Rome and Carthage and limits the playing area to portions of the map to the east of those storied states.  He also elected that each of us take just one of the five Civilizations which begin on that portion of the map (the rules do allow for a player to run two or even three Civilizations, but at a significant handicap cost in victory points to keep things competitive).

Bennett had first choice, electing to be the Phoenicians, whose Civilization advantage lies on the seas and in an ability to trade a card from its hand (for having a literacy-enabling alphabet).  Max chose Mycenae, the most singularly martial of all of the Civilizations, which has an advantage in competition on land (they’re also excellent City sackers).  Rather than be sandwiched between them as Troy (with its great walls) or Minos (a rival naval power), I went for Egypt, the most pacific and populous of the Civilizations.

Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea is highly customizable, as there are more than a score of match ups available, as well as historical and even solitaire scenarios to choose from in the Play Book.  Even the length of play is adjustable, as players can agree in advance at start to playing only one, two, or three of the four Epochs in the game.  Each Epoch, four maximum, can consist of up to four turns each.

We decided to play for two hours (as a time limit is yet another way to customize play) and then see how things were going.  (We went beyond that clock-imposed time limit, at Bennett’s urging, although he was winning, as he was having so much fun he did not want to stop playing.  We therefore played on and finished a full four-epoch game in under three hours).

So Much for a Peaceful Game

Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea is designed by wargamers, heck, one could call us “grognards” we’ve been so long in the hobby, but it is not nor needs to be a war game.  Players can peacefully coexist, build thriving cities and construct the seven wonders of the Ancient World – or they can unleash hell on each other.  Bennett chose that path from the get-go.

Each Civilization places their initial pieces, called Tiles (12 in the three-player game) in and around their home area.  Each starts the game with five cards, and draws or buys more as the game progresses.  Some cards give a Civilizations more Tiles to place on the board, while others allow them to force another Civilization to remove Tiles.  Such cards, however, can always be used to buy an extra Tile of your own for Competition Phase (where Civilizations clash) purposes.

A turn of Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea contains Phases.  A Civilization receives new Tiles to deploy on the map, then places them subject to stacking limits.  This is followed by a “Card Phase”, during which all but “Competition Cards” get played.  When all Civilizations have placed Tiles, a Competition Phase ensues if the conditions in a Land or Sea Area require it (and that’s when Competition Cards come in).  There’ll be more on the game’s mechanics with future InsideGMT articles.

During the Card Phase, should a player not wish to inflict a plague, famine, civil war, schism, barbarian invasion, heresy, pirate raid or some other nasty event (including volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and floods) upon their neighbor; a “nice guy” approach can be taken.  Bennett, however, was not so pacifically inclined – toward either myself, the designer, or his father:  so much for any “Mister Nice Guy” at our table!

Bennett quite literally drew a line in the sand above Sinai, daring my Egyptians to cross it, while, to press his point, causing me to lose some Tiles at home.  Although Bennett’s Phoenicians spread south to that line, their move westward was a bit more cautious, although hardly more friendly, as Bennett also used cards to undercut Max’s Mycenaeans.

Max and I both recovered, with my Egyptians going westward along the African coast through Libya toward Cyrenaica, and Max’s Mycenaeans marching into Troy and sailing down to Minos (Crete).  Mycenae also sent expeditions across the Ionian and Adriatic Seas into Italy and from there down into Sicily – where Mycenae and Egypt would eventually clash.

The Blue Tiles are Mycenae, the Green are Phoenicia, the Red are Egypt and the Black are the Barbarians, Pirates and other nasties.

Epoch II: The Barbarian Hordes Cometh, and Cometh and Cometh Again

The first Epoch ended a turn early (there are at most four turns per Epoch, and the Epoch can end at the conclusion of turns two or three) with Bennett’s Phoenicians having a slight lead.  (Points are scored for having cities – i.e. stacks of three Tiles – and for domination of the seas and the construction of Wonders, of which I built the first – and only – of the game).   At the end of each Epoch a random event occurs; we got one of the few beneficial results: “A More Temperate Climate” which gives each Civilization five bonus Tiles to place in turn order.

As we drew cards for Epoch II, many of the cards that mandated Barbarian Invasions came up.  These are “Must Play” cards, and as the name indicates, must be played.  The player in last place (in this case, Egypt – me) decides where the invasions hit, within the restrictions on the cards (usually an indicated map edge or, in the case of the Sea Peoples, anywhere from, well, the Sea – which can be just about anywhere, as all but eight of the 70 land areas on the Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea map have coasts).

These invasions dominated the Epoch.  They came from all directions.  At one point there were so many Barbarians, pirates and the like on the map that we ran out of the Black Tiles that represent them (and had to add in an unused color of Tiles, in this case red).   This worked to last-place Egypt’s advantage, as Mycenae and Phoenicia expended most of their Tiles and Cards in expunging these invaders from their respective territories, thus giving Egypt a breathing spell in which to catch up.  The Epoch ended with one of the other few “good” events, the aptly named “A Sigh of Relief,” which grants each Civilization an extra Card in the upcoming deal.

The Sea Peoples Ravage Phoenicia

Epoch III: The Black Death

Discards are reshuffled at the end of each Epoch to constitute a new full draw deck of cards, and although there are only five Must Play invader cards in the 103-card deck, most of those, as well as many other cards that cause the appearance of barbarians, pirates, rebels, schismatics and the like to appear did so.  What were the odds of that occurring?  We were too bemused by dame fortune to calculate them.

As only the Must Plays are placed as the player in last place wishes, Max as Mycenae and Bennett as Phoenicia were able to toss these other disasters about to hit each other – and Egypt. Using a combination of such cards and their own Tiles, Phoenicia came close to knocking Egypt out of the game – but Pharaoh held on, if barely.   Although there is the Aeneas Rule, which allows a player to abandon a losing Civilization and come back in elsewhere, there can be costs involved, and being a bit of an ornery and determined cuss, I decided to stick with Egypt.

Then the Black Death hit.  This is an End of Epoch Event chosen by card draw. It is one of the many and perhaps worst of all of the “bad events,” and one that shows just how prescient Max was in his “cruel world” pre-game warning.  Every city on the map next to water (and again, all but eight land areas on the map are next to water) lost two of its three tiles.  That devastated Mycenae, which had ten cities at the time, all of them on coasts, but merely decimated Phoenicia, which had more than half of their ten cities deep inland.  Egypt had the fewest cities and thus lost the least.   As cities generate victory points and bonus cards when a new turn begins, this is one of the worst of the eleven possible events on the End of Epoch Table (three of which, however, are actually beneficial, yielding more Tiles and Cards).

As the two hours were now up, we could have stopped playing as per terms originally agreed for the night.  Bennett, however, although he was in the lead, wanted to go the distance and play the fourth and final epoch.  Max and I, hoping to catch him, agreed.

The Fourth and Final Epoch

Epoch IV went three of the four possible turns.  Egypt made a huge comeback, finally taking both halves of Sicily and gaining a toehold on the Italian boot, but at a cost, as it came out of the war with a mere three cities. Mycenae, however, went for intensive rather than extensive expansion, putting its efforts more into building cities in its rear than in fighting on the front lines. It should be pointed out that in this game, due to the cards, no rear area is truly safe, but in this instance Max got away with it.

Phoenicia followed suit, building back up to nine cities while also spreading out across the seas (for which that civilization gains bonus victory points).   A card that brought the epoch and the game to an end was drawn on turn three.  The final End of Epoch event, “Traditionalists Resist Change” cost Max three victory points for having the most cities, and cost Bennett three also for having the most victory points.  I was spared the pain, being third in both categories.

After the dust settled and the points were tallied, Egypt (me) had 34 points.  Mycenae (Max) had leapt ahead to 41 points, but honor and glory went to Phoenicia (Bennett) with 45.  All glory and honor to Phoenicia!

Mark at the Board

Editor’s Note: Incidentally, those interested in perhaps learning how to play this game and giving it a whirl may do so during the upcoming GMT East Convention in White Plains, New York.  Both Designer Mark McLaughlin and Game Developer Fred Schachter will be in attendance.

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