In the mind of a game designer

What is a good game? What is the history behind a good game? What does it take to design a good game yourself? With the intention to find answers to those questions, I set out on an exciting journey in the world of game design. The more I travel, the more I learn how much that remains to discover, and I cannot claim that I have found the answers yet. Nevertheless, I would like to send small post cards along the way, sharing my experience both with you and with my future self. All comments will help me on my journey because there is one thing I have learnt: no game is better than its players.
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The Quest for the Holy (Civilization) Grail Part 1 - What is a Civilization Game?

Nicholas Hjelmberg
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Many gamers talk about the Holy Grail of a light civilization game, a game that will encompass the epic feeling of a timeless civilization in a limited playing time. Many games claim to have succeeded in this quest but none of them have been universally accepted as a true civilization game by the gamer community. Can such a game exist at all?

In this designer diary I take on the challenge not to find such a game but even to design it myself. Why do I think I will succeed where even the best designers have failed? The simple answer is: I don't. But what I do expect is an interesting journey where I will learn a lot, both about game design and about my gaming preferences. I will do this by discussing which elements that should be part of a civilization game and which mechanisms that could support them. You are more than welcome to join me on the journey and give me advice and criticism on the way. But be warned, I have no idea when and where the way will end.

Let us start by looking into the concept of civilization. According to Wikipedia (, a civilization is a complex society characterized by urban development, social stratification, symbolic communication forms (typically, writing systems), and a perceived separation from and domination over the natural environment by a cultural elite.

Translated into game elements, this could be covered by city building, worker placement, a technology tree and management of natural resources and calamities. I would also like to add the interaction with other civilizations, either peacefully through trade or aggressively through warfare. Not surprisingly, Francis Tresham's pioneering game Civilization has all those elements.

A related game category is 4X games with its elements of expand, explore, exploit, exterminate. Those elements are not enough to make a civilization game but for a civilization game they are important to provide an epic feeling. (But don't take my word for it - for some reason Civilization is not listed as a 4X game.)

So is there really no other game than Civilization that has all those elements? Many other authors have examined this question, such as BlogSpot user Melissa ( and BGG user EndersGame ( Note the many good comments, among them one by the renowned designer Lewis Pulsipher, who states that he also pursued this Holy Grail but "but concluded that the people who want civ lite don't want to sacrifice any significant aspect of Civ". Here is my own short opinion on some of the candidates:

* 7 Ages: A strong candidate with its ebb and flow of rising and falling civilizations but way too long to be called light.
* Through the Ages, Nations: Clever gameplay but without a map I feel like I'm building card combinations rather than a civilization.
* Mare Nostrum: Reminds a lot about Civilization with one crucial exception - no tech tree.
Historia: An interesting tech tree where you choose between technology and military but few other civilization elements.
* Tempus, The Golden Ages: Two games that I haven't played but that look promising. However, critics argue that they are too light. (But I do recommend the Golden Ages designer diary.)
* Small World: I cannot understand why this is invasion game is called a civilization light game. It has very few of the civilization elements listed above.
* Catan: I cannot understand why this settlement game is NOT called a civilization light game. But it does lack the epic feeling and historical flavor.
* 7 Wonders: It's light but it's a card game, not a civilization game.

The task seems daunting so far. A civilization game will either miss critical elements or simply be too light. But what if we switch focus and look not on the elements but rather on the feeling those elements should convey. This is more in line with my favorite designer Reiner Knizia's philosophy that a game should not "try to model a specific environment, but instead try to invoke the thought and decision-making processes that are key to the theme". This is how my favorite game Tigris & Euphrates work: rather than micro managing the rise and fall of the empires of Mesopotamia, I focus on how my dynasty can influence the civilization development and benefit the most from it. Perhaps this is the way to go (so if you think that Reiner Knizia's games are too dry, this is probably the time to excuse yourself from my journey).

If you're still with me, let's look into the decision-making processes of a civilization. How to grow a small tribe into an empire that stands the test of time is one. How to make use of the geographical surroundings is another. How to adapt to external forces (natural events, historical events, other civilizations etc.) is a third. A game with all of our civilization elements will provide the player those decision-making processes but are all of them necessary and to which degree? Well, the only answer to this question is to start the game design!

To be continued...
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