A Love Letter to Progress – Clash of Cultures: Monumental Edition in Review

Christian Marcussen is mystifying. Between 2010-2012, two prolific titles with this Dane’s name on the box were released. Each in turn domesticated their respective genres and remain to this day pinnacles of exemplary design.

Merchants & Marauders came first, the definitive high-concept pirate game that remains relevant and exciting. It’s one of my favorite experiences and I don’t play it enough. Clash of Cultures was the follow-up, wasting no time in establishing itself on arrival as the dominant civilization game. It took more complex concepts and pared them down into a relatively streamlined yet expansive design. My relationship with this game requires more nuanced discourse and some introspection. We will circle back around to that in round VI.

But we’re here now celebrating both of these releases because Clash of Cultures is back with an updated Monumental edition courtesy of Wizkids Games. It had gone out of print years ago, becoming quite expensive on the second-hand market. However, it’s price was peanuts compared to the 2014 Civilizations expansion, a box that greatly improved the base offering and was universally recommended. This Monumental Edition includes the Civilizations expansion of course.

I’m fairly confident a soulless cynic is sitting on a warehouse of expansions right now, and they’re shattered and disillusioned at this realignment of moral justice.

It’s one impressive box, packed to the limits of physics with trays of plastic and cardboard. Everything here is brand new materially, with all new illustrations, graphic design, and 3D sculpting. A side-by-side comparison with the original presentation yields admiration. There is no doubt in my mind that this is an improvement as a product in every way from the previous edition.

In truth, this is unexpectedly the story of this release. It’s a shame to relegate the validity and accomplishments of the design itself second-chair to the topic I’m about to discuss, but it’s necessary if we want a wider view of this game and its impact.

What I’m dancing around is Wizkids’ reputation. For years this publisher has struggled to produce games in tip-top physical shape. While most of the big players in the industry increased production values to parallel the rising quality of games in the Kickstarter environment, Wizkids has unfortunately lagged behind. Zev Schlasinger, previous owner and founder of Z-Man games, joined Wizkids several years ago. Along with Zev’s creativity and eye for exceptional potential, he came with a promise of improved product design. That’s been slow coming.

At best we’ve had baby steps. I’ve enjoyed many of the games coming from Wizkids over the years, but none have really wowed me as an artifact. As a point of example, you can toss a metaphorical stone in any direction on the internet and find people complaining about inconsistencies in 2018’s Mage Knight: Ultimate Edition.

No one will be complaining about Clash of Cultures: Monumental Edition.

This thing is beautiful and forged with intelligent design. It’s complete and whole and the only missive I can gather is that some will not be pleased with the advancement boards due to their new smaller size. But even this is an improvement as Marcussen professes to realigning these components to focus the visual presentation of the experience on the central board itself. That’s the kind of thoughtful touch we should want.

Not much has changed from the base game, at least in overall feel. I believe there was a great deal of work in lightly touching up advancements and civilization powers. The combat system is refreshed with custom dice and feels like a step forward. The event system mirrors the physical attributes of the game achieving a more elegant and refined state. But if you’ve played Clash of Cultures before you will not find anything fundamentally different in this release. And that’s overall, a very good thing.

So, there it is. I could end this article here and be minimally satisfied on imparting the most basic yet significant points of this release. But let’s keep going. Let’s dig a little deeper.

I alluded to a strained relationship with this game. In truth, this design has done nothing wrong. My issues are with the civilization genre as a single entity.

In re-experiencing this game I found the answer to some vague notions that been tumbling around in my consciousness. I’ve long felt that my gaming interests did not perfectly align with the design goals of these style of games. I’ve played many of them, and none have sat particularly well. Internally I struggle with the fact that I’d much rather spend my time playing a 4X space conquest game like Eclipse or Twilight Imperium. I couldn’t quite place my finger on why. But now I can.

Civilization games such as this spend much of their time and energy focusing inward. Culture is often significant. You don’t know how to read and write unless you spend an action and place a cube. Now you know how to read and write. Same with myths, and government, and philosophy.

The expression of these achievements, while not inconsequential at all, is very abstract and ephemeral. The way you utilize such advancements is incremental and small. By contrast, space civilization games tend to focus their development on technological improvements. This is more practical in every respect, reshaping your spacecraft with increased weapon arrays and more powerful drive cones. It’s explicit and the payout is more dramatic.

I’ve spent many hours in Sid Meier’s Civilization The Board Game sitting in a corner and building my technology pyramid. I’ve spent many more – over fewer sessions – mystified with my own society in Advanced Civilization. I’ve also spent time communing with tracks and doing…I’m not sure what, in Tapestry. I could keep going. There’s a lot of these games.

Clash of Cultures is the best of them all. I say this with all the firmness of my own subjective certainty, buttressed by the fact I’m not an advocate of the genre.

Even so, this design isn’t perfect.

Despite occupying a space that’s more detailed and expressive than a game like Civilization: A New Dawn, while also reigning in the excessive playtime of Advanced Civilization, this title is still too long. It starts off moving at a sprint but can fall to its knees late in the game. This is due to the fact that players have so many little modifiers, benefits, and effects to recall and fumble with on their turn.

In my last play I was swaggering through the fertile valley as a culture on the rise. My Persian elephant cavalry were patrolling a quarter of the map and my cities were overflowing with wealth. But each turn began with an accounting session.

I had to remember to trigger my civilization specific banking ability to gain gold or ideas, then assess all of my trade routes which offered more bennies. Often I would follow this up with a collect action, having to recall that I could gain one food from the adjacent ocean, but I could also gather from one land space up to two distance away. After sorting that, I would move on to recruit.

Just as I was adding up costs to make sure my prior planning of the turn was accurate, I’d recall that I could buy one of the infantry for a mood token instead because of my “drafting” advancement. Then, just as I was placing figures on the board I’d mumble a curse upon Ahriman, realizing I should have gotten a free idea point when collecting earlier. This of course was due to having both the “public education” advancement as well as an academy in the city I gained supplies at. None of this is abnormal when entering the late game.

This is an annoyance, one common to complex strategy games but it’s an annoyance nonetheless. It wouldn’t bother me quite as much if all of this intellectual juggling resulted in radically distinct civilization development. Unfortunately, by the third act most players will have advancement boards that are 75% identical. This general sharing of technologies creates a homogenous feel that undermines the texture of the game to a degree. That last 25% is meaningful if exploited properly, but it doesn’t offer as much observable impact as the experience warrants.

Despite those grievances and despite my own personal disquiet with the genre as a whole, I do find a level of satisfaction in this game that I readily recognize. The rotating turns of three discrete actions is relatively swift and downtime is tolerable for this sort of thing. The levers you can pull in terms of units you acquire and buildings you construct are satisfying.

It also pushes conflict more readily than its peers. It’s a contentious game with personal goals that offer both civil and hostile paths to pursue. Throwing dice in combat and ushering your characterized leaders into battle is joyful.

One of my favorite aspects is how generous it is with advancements. You can spend resources to attain them as one of your actions, but you’re also simply gifted one for free in the status phase of each round. This produces a sense of forward momentum to latch onto.

Finally, it’s not afraid of dramatic twists in the narrative due to the chaotic yet pleasing event deck. It can be sobering to have one of your cities snuffed out by a volcano or for a rampaging horde of barbarians to come stumbling towards your plentiful dwellings. But all of this constitutes a rich fabric the narrative is stitched upon, one fit for boisterous reflection.

And of course it’s gorgeous.

Not to close the circle, but I still find myself occasionally stopping and marveling at this product on the shelf.

 

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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  2 comments for “A Love Letter to Progress – Clash of Cultures: Monumental Edition in Review

  1. Darren
    October 15, 2021 at 3:43 pm

    Great, thanks for ruining the whole genre of Civilization games for me! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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