|CIV: Carta Impera Victoria (2018)
|Meeple Like Us
|Medium Light [1.93]
The first time I played it, I bounced so hard off of Carta Impera Victoria (CIV) that it may as well have been made of weapons-grade military rubber. It seemed an utterly asinine game where you basically race to lay out enough cards to win the game, with only a few perfunctory powers available to prevent that happening. It’s a good object lesson though in why it’s important to play a game a few times before you review it – if I had done so on my first play of the game it’d be joining Monopoly at the arse-end of the blog’s ratings. I never fell in love with CIV in the end, but I did come to appreciate its quiet charms.
The thing is that CIV isn’t a simple game, but it’s one that can make you think so if anyone at the table neglects to take advantage of the opportunities they have built before them. Essentially the game loop is to draw cards, play a card to a specific sociological category on the tableau before you, and then make use of the powers you have thus permitted yourself. If you have enough cards in a category played down, you get a passive bonus. If you have a lot of cards played down to the same domain, you get a double strength bonus. On your turn you play, empower, and then draw replacements to your hand limit. During your turn you can discard a card from any (and indeed, all) of your categories to enact their active power. The first player to get seven cards laid down in a single domain will win the game.
That’s the entire thing.
And this is why, to begin with, it didn’t feel like a game at all. The passive powers are primarily about giving you ways to cycle through the deck and optimise the speed at which you can build up a hegemony. The active powers, on first casual inspection, seem largely irrelevant. Most of them focus on preventing your opponent from doing something but always at the cost of your own civilization. For example, the military cards can be discarded to force everyone else to discard a card from a domain of your choosing. However, that includes you – you lose two cards and everyone else loses one. You can sacrifice an economy card to stop someone playing to a specific domain, but they can play to any other so what’s the point? Where active powers seem useful it’s primarily to the extent they let you build up and play down a number of cards in a single category in one fluid motion. In other words, the powers seem additive – only as useful as the speed at which they let you add numbers to your key domain.
You can come away from CIV feeling spectacularly underwhelmed.
That perspective changes with a little familiarity as you start to see your domains not as integers in a spreadsheet but as ordinance that can be expended. CIV becomes a much better game when you realise it’s as much about sacrificing one domain to prevent an opponent from achieving victory in another. Turns stop being primarily about ‘getting the right cards’ and become about balancing the need for playing defensively and offensively. A powerful military isn’t necessarily about building up that domain so much as it ammunition in potentia that can rained down to cull the advances of an opponent. All the domains will emable that kind of perspective change as time goes by. They all have powerful situational benefits as well as a subtler propaganda impact on everyone around the table.
A large military presence for example has a distorting effect on how people play – people start building diverse civilizations so as to limit the effectiveness of a military called into action. That in turn eases advancement for everyone because suddenly there’s compromise rather than competition over the available cards. In this you see a glimpse of history – when confronting a superior force, an inferior force will scatter so as to prevent larger numbers being brought most effectively to bear. The presence of someone with a powerful culture domain on the other hand allows a civilization to piggy back on the accomplishments of another and that might disincetivise someone from building their domains until they can lay down a victory in a single rush. They will hamper their own effectiveness to ensure they’re not accelerating that of an opponent. The composition of a tableau as the game goes on becomes part score tracking and part logic puzzle.
These are subtle effects. Nuanced effects. And I think where CIV suffers most is not in its design but rather in its onboarding. This is a common flaw in games that are this simple and straightforward – they sometimes have depths that aren’t obvious from their first impressions.
Consider the game Go. It’s one of the most complex games in existence, not because its rules are difficult but because the sophistication of each stage of the game state is immense. We’ve had computers that could defeat the best Chess grandmasters for decades. We’ve only comparatively recently gotten computers to the stage they could put up a decent fight against a Go master. When you sit down to your first session of Go, it’s common to think ‘This doesn’t seem so hard’ and end that same session thinking ‘I could spend years trying to master this’. Go doesn’t reveal its intricacies to you in its rules, but it also doesn’t hide its depths where you can’t see them.
CIV on the other hand is as smooth as a marble – it gives no obvious place in which you can stick your fingers to get a grip on what it’s trying to do. Most of the elements that I’ve come to like about CIV requires everyone to have a certain familiarity with the game. it only takes one player to treat the thing like a race before everyone, to a greater or lesser extent, has to do the same. There is though a smarter game than that locked within its grain.
The real problem here is that CIV doesn’t really do much to get you into the right frame of mind for playing. Whenever I come out of a game session thinking ‘I don’t like that even a little bit’ I will always ask myself the question ‘So, what am I missing?’. It’s pretty trendy these days to say that games are getting worse, or more and more mediocre games are getting released. That though is only true in relative terms. The best games are getting much better. They’re getting more sophisticated. They’re encompassing ever greater production values. But if we’re not grading on a curve, the simple pressures on a publisher mean that they rarely release a bad game. The average rating of a game on Meeple Like Us is three and a half stars. Sure, our reviews are biased towards the BGG Top 500 but nonetheless if you picked a game at average from our review list you’d have a damn good chance of finding something good. And if you picked a game at random from this year’s releases, you’d likewise be in with a good chance of finding something enjoyable.
The amount of effort and polish that goes into a game these days pretty much guarantees, in all but the most unusual circumstances, it will be competent at a minimum. So when I play a game that isn’t I have to spend a bit of time thinking about what it is that I just didn’t pick up on. Sometimes that involves some research. More often it involves thinking through the relationship between mechanisms and incentives to see where I failed to see an important connection.
The issue is that there isn’t anything in CIV that I missed. I got it all right the first time – something vanishingly rare when I play games. The interplay of cards that I discussed above though only comes about when you realise it’s not a race game at all despite what everything about it suggests. It’s a tug-of-war where the teams change constantly and unpredictably. But the thing is – a tug-of-war only works if everyone pulls. If someone says ‘First to the finish line wins’ and starts running, the whole event becomes futile. CIV unfortunately is a tug-of-war where almost every mechanism is implying it’s a sprint. The best it does is vaguely gesture to a rope and then leave you to get on with it.
Look at the special powers. The religion domain lets you increase your hand limit, letting you draw a larger number of cards. The Economy card lets you cycle cards out of your hand and into your tableau. The science card lets you replace one card in the tableau with one from your hand. All of those powers are about building efficiency in locating and playing the cards you need for a domain. They’re sprinting cards. The military card, in this context, looks more like a chance to stick your hands in the back of the pack-leaders shorts and haul them back a place.
And the more you think about the systems, the less it seems about the military and the more it seems about the race. But then… someone uses a military card in an unexpected way. They sacrifice their all but insignificant religion to hamstring the hand limit of everyone around the table even though that’s not a domain anyone is looking to win. Suddenly everyone is stuck with the hand they have with no option to draw unless they sacrifice other cards. Their efficient engine for card selection just had a handful of sand thrown into the fuel tank. So a second player decides ‘Well, I lost my passive bonus anyway so now I’m going to steal someone else’s best cards’.
‘Well, screw you’, says that player. ‘I’m discarding an economy card so that you can’t advance your military’. And suddenly, everyone is at everyone else’s throat.
Then someone lays down a science card to take them up to their second-tier benefit and right before your eyes they’re suddenly restructuring and recontextualising their entire empire. First they do this in defense against aggression and then, when the benefits of this agility becomes clear – to meet immediate situational needs. As soon as the Utopia cards start coming into play, along with their ability to rifle through the discard trash like an unusually civic minded raccoon, you start to see the depth in the design.
It takes someone doing something transgressive, when there’s no obvious gameplay reason to do it, to bring out the best in a game of CIV. It never tells you this is the game you should be playing. It just hopes you’ll work it out at some point. It turns out that the rope it showed you was there to remind players that they always have an option to throttle each other. The self-sacrifice of military engagement ends up being a piece of simple game theory – a calculation of how much it hurts you versus how much it hurts other people. If it’s in your favour, then let rip.
It takes a certain amount of praxis before the game opens up, but when it does it brings about an interestingly pure form of nervous, paranoid energy.
When you get into this mindset, CIV is a decent little game. It’s far from the best thing I’ve ever played, but it’s quick, elegant and with a solid interaction design that suffers from being unnecessarily obscure. It didn’t last long in my collection, but I’m certainly glad I gave it the consideration of multiple plays before deciding to get rid of it.