Crossposted from the Design and Effect blog on GameSquad.

One of the problems with a physical game is that the components are inherently limited. There’s only so many counters you can fit into a sheet of cardboard. There’s only so many sheets or little plastic minis that you can fit into the box. No matter how big, or expensive, a physical game is, there is a limit to the number of moving parts it has. Early computer games had a similar degree of constraint (it is no accident that Starweb features 255 worlds), but modern ones have no real worries in this regard. They have other constraints to be sure, but number of active objects the system can keep in memory is generally not one of them (displaying them may be…).

Many wargames don’t have too many worries about this. The number of units that show up in the game is fixed, so all that needs to be done is to figure out a way to include enough informational counters, and all will be well. Some games have a bigger challenge. Any game that relies on strength points (like the GCACW series) will need to have counters for each different strength point, times enough for all the units in the game. Some games have free-form production, and providing counters for everything becomes a real challenge (Federation & Empire is the classic disaster of this syndrome, where the original edition could not fit in enough counters for a complete initial setup, partially thanks to the need for different counters for most later production ships).

However, it is possible to use the limitation on the number of counters as part of how the game works. The most successful of these is Francis Tresham’s classic Civilization. The original civilization-building game, it has a map of the bulk of Europe plus North Africa and the Near East. Players have tokens that get used for population as they grow, and move, and fight across the map. Since these are physical pieces there is a hard limit of 55 tokens provided for each player, sharply limiting how far he could grow.

And that’s the least of your troubles with them.

There’s actually three states that these tokens can be in, and shuffling the 55 pieces between them every turn is one of the most important activities in the game. The two ‘in use’ states are on the board as population or flipped over and in the Treasury as taxes. Otherwise, they’re in the Stock, ready for use as either of the other two.

Yes, collecting taxes reduces the amount of population you can have. This is an extremely odd quirk of the game, but the only thing I can really say is that it is part of a mechanic that works really well, and powers some very interesting dynamics that the player must struggle with for most of the game.

The Limits of Growth

The game begins with everyone having one population marker on the board, and 54 tokens in stock (possibly less, the available number of tokens is reduced for some numbers of players to restrict civilizations to a proper ‘size’ for the amount of board available to everyone). The first thing that happens is the population increases. With proper management, it is possible for the population to double every turn, so at the beginning of turn 6, it would be possible for the population to go from 32 to 64—past the limit of what the Stock provides. At that point the player chooses which areas get population growth until out of tokens. (Population growth is not voluntary other than this choice.)

Getting tokens back into Stock occurs through a number of mechanisms. The first one is starvation. Each area has a maximum limit on the population it can support (from 1-5, usually around 2), and once everything else on the board is done, excess population is removed back to the Stock. Related to this is conflict. When two different powers have population in the same area, they are reduced down to the population limit, or until only one player has population left in the area (that clause is important). As Civilization is not a game of direct conflict, this is not a way to wage war, instead populations slowly ebb and flow, largely determined by how the Stock is acting. At any rate, conflict is strictly attritional with the smaller population in the area removing first, followed by the larger. If both populations are tied, both remove at once. It is very common in play to see a player moving excess population into his neighbors; it cycles his tokens back into Stock, and reduces his neighbor’s influence in the region.

The Art of Living in Cities

Next, is constructing cities. Cities are the prime mover of progress in the game, and in fact, early on progress towards the end goal is checked by the need to have two cities on the board. Cities are constructed by gathering six population into one area and replacing them with a city if there is a ‘city site’ in the area, or twelve population if there is no city site. During turns four through ten, this is a common and easy way to get population back into Stock for re-use.

It also generates the prime cause of strain on the system, and what becomes a prime focus for many players as their civilization matures, attempting to find a more regular cycle: taxes. At the beginning of each turn, taxes are raised. This consists of taking two tokens out of Stock and into the Treasury for each city the player owns. If there are not enough tokens available for this, the cities go into revolt, and will change sides to someone who does have enough tokens.

Because this happens first thing in the turn, cities further limit the amount of population growth a player can have because some tokens will always be in the Treasury at that point. It also means that players must find ways to put tokens back into the Stock during the turn.

Cities themselves are limited in the counter mix to nine per player. Again, this plays against other elements of the game design, as the primary purpose of cities is to generate trade cards, and there are nine decks of trade cards (each with a face value from 1 to 9, and you get one of each type up to the number cities you have). It isn’t a bad practical limit either, as the number of calamities that start appearing at that point make it hard to maintain nine cites.

In the Navy…

A minor way of returning tokens to Stock is building and maintaining ships for the transport of population. They cost two to build, or one to maintain. One or two population [I]or[/I] taxes, that is. Usually, this is merely a way to spread influence to under-populated areas, as well as a way to bleed off a little excess Treasury. It is more important for Crete, however, as they have to expand off the island of Crete before civilization building really starts. At any rate, all players usually build/maintain some ships just to have a way to spend Treasury.

There’s Gold In Them Thar Tokens!

The last two ways of cycling tokens are purely ways to get them back out of the Treasury. The first is to ‘buy’ a ‘9’ trade card (Gold—or a calamity) for 18 tokens (the same as the taxes on 9 cities…). The other is to spend them on civilization cards.

Civilization cards are in many ways the ultimate end goal of everything you do in Civilization.  They are advances that give abilities and advantages, and the collection of them is required to hit the ending parts of the game. They are purchased with any combination of trade cards and taxes. Only trade cards can get up to the values needed to buy these, but they are also inflexible—it is difficult to hit exactly the number needed for a purchase. So taxes are handy to round off the spare numbers.

Buying a gold trade card seems like a poor deal; 18 tokens for a card with a face value of 9. However, it does allow you to empty the Treasury on a turn where you may not be able to purchase anything. And, trade cards increase in value geometrically, with a set being worth the square of the cards in the set times the face value. So, two gold cards are worth (2*2*9 = ) 36, the same as their purchase price. Also, if you have nine cities, you are (or should be) getting another gold card that turn anyway, and can immediately get a profit on the deal.


This may sound like it is a fairly complete description of the game. It is. The 55 tokens, and the actions that manipulate them, are truly at the center of the game, and there is very little that is not directly impacted by the decision to make the limited number of tokens that can be provided one of the central motivators of the game.

Things that I haven’t looked at include the trade cards (acquisition, trading, and spending), calamities (related to the trade cards), and the civilization cards (which do include things that can affect the tokens, such as Coinage, which allows you to change the tax rate of your cities), and what is needed to actually achieve victory. These are fairly major parts of the game that are not directly impacted by the tokens most of the time. They are well worth study, but do not reach into as many different aspects of the game as the tokens do.