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The Civilization board game pioneered epic strategy a decade before Sid Meier

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tech tree.

For gamers of both the paper and pixel variety, it’s hard to think of Civilization without the name Sid Meier attached. What Madden is to (American) football, Tolkien is to fantasy or Hoover is to vacuum cleaners, Meier has become to playable recreations of humanity’s progression from inventing the wheel to venturing into the stars.

Since Sid Meier’s Civilization was first released 30 years ago, the titular series of computer games bearing their creator’s name has become one of the most widely recognisable and influential strategy franchises of all time. Over 40 million copies of the six numbered mainline entries and their spin-offs have been shipped as of 2017, with countless other video and board games taking inspiration from Civ’s combination of time-vanishing turn-based strategy, remixing of historical events and pioneering of the ‘4X’ genre - in which players explore, expand, exploit and exterminate.

While Meier has become synonymous with Civilization and the mixture of dense gameplay and historical theming it represents, his original Civilization and its predecessors owe a significant debt to a lesser-known board game of the same name released by a largely overlooked British inventor over a decade earlier.

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Civilization was designed by former RAF radio instructor Francis Tresham, who first mused over the idea of a board game that would trace the length and breadth of human history while browsing a historical atlas in his Welsh station’s library.

Tresham was also inspired by his time playing strategy classic Risk and 1950s wargame Diplomacy - the game of alliance, betrayal and domination advertised as being the favourite board game of US politicians John F. Kennedy and Henry Kissinger. Not enjoying his own time with Allan B. Calhamer’s infamous friendship-breaking simulation of European conflict, Tresham opted to create a game where players strove to achieve victory through cultural and technological progression, rather than direct warfare.

Players exchange resources - and calamities - during a hectic timed trading round.

The designer was no stranger to innovative tabletop experiences, having previously created the hardcore train game 1829 in the early 1970s. 1829 would go on to spawn an entire genre of tabletop games combining management of railroad companies with stock trading, known as 18xx in recognition of Tresham’s seminal design. (By coincidence, Avalon Hill developer Bruce Campbell Shelly would create 1829 successor 1830: The Game of Railroads and Robber Barons for the board game company, before joining Meier to co-design computer games including the 18xx-inspired Railroad Tycoon and Meier’s Civilization.)

Tresham combined his fascination with human history as the theme for a board game with his drive to offer players a unique gameplay experience. The result was Civilization, a board game that retold eight millennia of human development in culture, technology, politics and economics in half-a-dozen hours - if you were playing relatively quickly, that is.

Civilization was first released in 1980, 11 years before Sid Meier's computer game. Image: Gibsons Games

Unlike Meier’s later namesake, which would span from before the Bronze Age to the planet colonisation of the future, Tresham’s game opened with the emergence of early farmers in 8,000 BC (approximately the start of recorded human history) and closed as Rome rose to prominence in 250 BC. Players controlled different real-life civilisations around the Mediterranean Sea, each with a unique starting position. As the ages passed, players’ early settlements would grow, eventually spilling out into neighbouring regions and gathering them additional resources.

While Civilization steered away from combat as a focus (although players’ asymmetric empires could wage war using a basic conflict system to claim contested territory), the board game was far from toothless. Each turn was built around a bustling trading round, during which players could freely swap cards representing basic and valuable resources, from iron and salt to spice and gold. Hidden among essential goods, though, could be various calamities, which would inflict both natural disasters and societal collapse on the player left holding them at the end of the trading period - to devastating effect. With players only having to reveal a single card and the combined value of their cards offered for trade, trading was a raucous and risky affair - further fuelled by the freeform, vocal nature of trading sessions, with players able to openly swap until time ran out.

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Collecting sets of resource cards allowed players to discover new technology and advance their civilisation along a track dubbed the Archaeological Succession Table, with the first player reaching the end of the AST claiming overall victory through their advanced cultural and technological progression.

Here lay another of Tresham’s most groundbreaking ideas: the technology tree. Technology cards acquired by players would unlock helpful abilities and the opportunity to acquire later cards, mimicking the progression of technology over the ages. After all, you need to invent the wheel before you can attach it to a wagon. Even in a rudimentary form, it was the first time that a branching tree of unlockable skills had been included in a game of any kind. Four decades later, it’s rare to see a modern video game without a skill or technology tree of some kind - although few players today realise how far back the roots go.

Civilization's technology tree was basic, allowing players to unlock cards as they grew their empire, but it would go on to become a fixture of modern video games.

Civilization was released by Tresham’s own board game company Hartland Trefoil in 1980, gathering attention in the UK before it broke the US with a 1982 second edition from wargaming giant Avalon Hill. Two years later, Avalon Hill released the first digital adaptation of Civilization, Incunabula, predating Meier’s Civilization by a number of years.

Sid Meier’s Civilization was released for MS-DOS computers in 1991, the same year that a major expansion to Tresham’s board game, Advanced Civilization, hit tabletops. Advanced Civilization’s simplified trading and less punishing progression - offering trailing players more chances to catch up in later rounds - divided opinion among Civilization fans. It also failed to impress the game’s original designer, who didn’t contribute to the changes and considered it an unnecessary tinkering. (Avalon Hill would bring the revised game to PC in 1995.)

Civilization designer Francis Tresham in 2018, the year the board game was re-released after almost three decades out-of-print. Image: Gibsons Games

Despite the close similarities between Tresham and Meier’s Civilizations - including the general premise of leading an empire through the ages and inclusion of a tech tree - the developer insisted that the board game had not had as great an influence as Risk and other computer games such as SimCity. (Meier would claim he hadn’t even played Tresham’s Civilization before starting development, while experienced fan Shelley recalled Meier owning a copy.)

Nevertheless, Meier’s studio MicroProse licensed the Civilization name from Avalon Hill. This would later culminate in a legal battle over the second instalment in Meier’s series - with Avalon Hill claiming that MicroProse only held the rights to use the name for the original Sid Meier’s Civilization, not its 1996 sequel. In 1997, MicroProse acquired Hartland Trefoil in a move to secure the Civilization name, only for board game giant Hasbro to acquire both MicroProse and Avalon Hill in 1999, bringing the feuding companies - which had settled out of court a month earlier - under the same umbrella. In the meantime, Meier had left MicroProse to form Firaxis Games, which has published Meier’s Civilization from 2001’s Civilization III through to its most recent entry, 2016’s Civ VI.

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While Sid Meier’s Civilization thrived on the back of the growing video games market, Tresham’s board game fell into relative obscurity. Hartland Trefoil’s sale to MicroProse and Avalon Hill’s fold into Hasbro saw Civilization become out-of-print for almost three decades, with a 1993 Spanish localisation the last available edition until classic games publisher Gibsons Games revived the English-language original for an almost untouched 2018 re-release. Advanced Civilization’s 1991 release remains the only available printing of the expansion to date, with a direct follow-up to the board game designed by Tresham - referred to as his own Civilization II in a 2018 interview - going unpublished.

Despite the difficulty in obtaining a copy of Tresham’s Civilization for so long, its influence continued to persist. Tabletop successors ranged from titles that took Tresham’s vision of a history-spanning game night in brand new directions - from the card-drafting of Through the Ages to the slick, sub-hour civ-building of 7 Wonders - to more direct attempts to build on the inventor’s already grand design, such as the enormous 18-player, 12-hour spiritual successor Mega Civilization.

Sid Meier's Civilization has seen a number of board game adaptations, including the recent A New Dawn - based on Civilization VI.

In the absence of its namesake, the success of Sid Meier’s Civilization eventually saw it become the de facto Civilization on the tabletop, with board game adaptations in 2002, 2010 and 2017, along with various expansions and a mostly forgotten card game released in 2006. Fantasy Flight Games’ second spin on the series, the recent Sid Meier’s Civilization: A New Dawn, smoothed the at-times impenetrable gameplay of overly-faithful predecessors into a more accessible card-driven take on Civilization VI, with its first expansion - last year’s Terra Incognita - sprinkling some of the computer game’s crunchier aspects on top.

Tresham passed away in late 2019, leaving the widespread - yet mostly overlooked - influence of 1829 and Civilization as his legacy. While both board games and their creator have largely become footnotes in the history of more recognisable tabletop and video games, their impact on modern gaming is indisputable. Sid Meier may have become synonymous with Civilization by taking the idea of a grand historical strategy game into the mainstream, but Francis Tresham’s Civilization still serves as the roots that underpin so many games and creators today - even if you have to dig a little to discover them.

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