Board Game Review: Sid Meier’s Civilization: A New Dawn

Civilization: A New Dawn is wonderful, fast-paced board game that successfully captures the essence of Sid Meier’s prestigious PC gaming series.

Sid Meier’s Civilization: A New Dawn is a strategy board game based on the Civilization VI video game. Developed by Fantasy Flight Games, A New Dawn isn’t the first game in Sid Meier’s celebrated franchise that the company has created for tabletops. But it does aim to be a more streamlined version of the same formula, playable within two hours. That begs the question: how well can Civilization translate into a tighter package? As it turns out, incredibly well. Civilization: A New Dawn is an absolute joy to play, delivering the same thoughtful mechanics that makes the PC series so addicting.

Civilization: A New Dawn, as with its electronic brethren, is a game about efficiency and expansion. Players are constantly faced with meaningful decisions regarding their civilization’s development, ultimately leading a nation from the humble origins of a single city to a sprawling empire of wonders and advanced technology. At least, that’s what every player wants to accomplish. Plans crumble and shift in response to the actions of neighbors, the movements of barbarian hordes, or the rolling of dice.  That’s all part of what makes A New Dawn so engaging.

Of course, the game looks just as much as it feels like Civilization. The box contains loads of different tokens, plastic city and caravan figures, tiles, cards, and dials. The production values of all these pieces are high, and the art on many of the cards is wonderfully evocative of the PC game series. In fact, the leaders on the faction sheets are pulled straight from Civilization VI. The map itself is hex-based, constructed using dual-sided tiles that can be randomized to create relatively unique boards. Resources, natural wonders, barbarians, and city states take the form of tokens placed on the map. Decks of cards represent technologies to develop, world wonders to build, victory conditions to complete, and diplomacy bonuses to earn.

There are lots of little pieces to set up (I recommend liberal use of snack bags), but A New Dawn isn’t a difficult game to learn. It can be taught in under ten minutes, especially once a round is demonstrated. Every player starts out with the same set of five cards. These cards symbolize various aspects of your civilization: culture, science, economy, industry, and military. They’re essentially your actions, and you can only play one per turn. But the decision-making process doesn’t just involve what card is being played. There’s an additional emphasis on when it’s being used, as well. Therein lies the fun.

You see, the cards are placed under what’s referred to as a focus bar. The bar consists of five slots, one for each card, which are both numbered and reference specific terrain types. Where a focus card is in the row determines its strength. This results in either a flat value or dictates where on the map an action can be made.

For example, if you want to expand your borders and claim resources by placing control tokens around friendly cities, send caravans to distant rivals to earn consumable trade goods and diplomacy cards for the potent buffs they can provide, or build new cities entirely, where all those tokens and plastic figures can be placed is governed by the terrain indicated on a focus bar slot for culture, economy, and industry cards. Meanwhile, the slot number stipulates how far to advance a technology dial to unlock new focus cards that then replace existing ones, how much production you have toward constructing wonders, and how many control tokens can be reinforced or the base attack value you have when performing strikes with science, industry, and military cards respectively.

What makes all of this so compelling is that once a card is used, is moves back into the very first slot under the focus bar while all the rest move forward. That creates dilemmas. But it also creates opportunities develop with and execute plans. It’s intellectually satisfying to see a path forward for your civilization, carry it out in a number of steps, and reap the rewards before another player can reach a resource or build a particular wonder that you want. When someone yells out, “I was going to build that!” you can’t help but smile.

Naturally, plans don’t always succeed. Circumstances change. And reacting to your own failures and concerns is equally enjoyable. Civilization: A New Dawn challenges you re-evaluate your civilization’s focus each turn. Do I expand my technology? Do I wait and take care of the barbarian that spawned near my city instead? That juggling of priorities while trying to keep up with the drum of progress around you is quintessentially Civilization.

Turns are completed at a rather brisk pace, too. Civilization: A New Dawn moves. There’s very little downtime even in larger groups, and Fantasy Flight’s two-hour estimate isn’t far from the mark.

The only part of the game I was initially cool on was combat with other players. Attacks are made from friendly, static spaces – your cities or control tokens – and how strong they are is dependent on the military card’s focus row position, any bonuses provided by trade tokens or other cards, and then a dice roll. If you have a higher number, you win. It may not seem particularly exciting, but Civilization: A New Dawn isn’t necessarily a game of prolonged military encounters. Rather, battles tend to about limited strikes thanks to the focus bar system. Attacks can be launched to throw a wrench in a rival’s plan, slow them down, or capture a natural resource or wonder needed for completing victory conditions. When approaching combat from that tactical point of view, the mechanics become a lot more interesting.

This leads to some great, tense moments as the game progresses. I’ve had numerous Cold War-like situations form across the map as borders expanded close to each other and resources dwindled. Everyone was waiting for the first strike until all hell broke loose. But it’s always still a game of strategy, because once the military card is used, its power is reduced for the next turn. It’s fun problem to work around.

Not everyone wants to draw blood, however. Some people enjoy the simple act of building something and watching it grow. Full admission: that’s often how I like to play Civilization and other 4X strategy games on the PC. Destruction can be a nuisance when all you want to do is create. Civilization: A New Dawn’s multiple victory conditions allow for friendlier playstyles, and I appreciate the game all the more for their inclusion.

Winning is all about completing objectives. Typically, you’ll randomly draw three out of five victory cards. Every card has two agendas on it, and the goal is to complete one from each. Most aren’t inherently violent, with the exception of the Warmonger agenda (“Defeat 1 rival capital city or control 2 conquered city-states”). The rest largely consist of controlling a number of wonders, developed cities, and spaces. Another condition is to reach the 24th number on your technology dial. Eventually, neighbors do brush up against each other and certain agendas become impossible to complete without some aggression, but I haven’t run into a situation yet where I was forced to fire shots at competing players. That said, if the map does become cramped, a few house rules can alleviate the pressure without screwing with the game too much. You could simply choose easier to obtain victory conditions, or use additional tiles than the manual recommends for player counts less than four.

Civilization: A New Dawn’s replayability is high, and the numerous agendas are only part of it. As previously mentioned, there are 16 dual-sided map tiles. An event dial and direction token randomize the movement of barbarians. Eight leaders are included in the box, from Rome’s Trajan to America’s Teddy Roosevelt, each with different abilities. And by the end of game, every player will have different combinations of world wonders and bonuses. No two games played exactly the same.

No matter who I brought to the table – seasoned board gamers, fans of the PC series, or those unfamiliar with either – nearly everyone left wanting “just one more turn.” Civilization: A New Dawn successfully delivers a fast-paced, strategy experience while still retaining the core essence of Sid Meier’s PC Civilization series. I adore this game, and I cannot wait to conquer its hexes again. Sid Meier’s Civilization: A New Dawn should be hitting shelves this Thanksgiving or soon after with an MSRP of $49.95.

Full disclosure: a sample was provided for this review.