Ancient Civilizations Of The Middle East Review
Ancient Civilizations of the Middle East (ACME from hereon in) is a civilisation game with big ideas, and for the most part, it succeeds in them. At its heart, it’s a card-driven game of swarming your growing civilisation out and destroying those who stand in your way. It’s not easy though. There are a lot of bumps in your road to victory, not to mention the tar, broken bottles, and caltrops thrown by your enemies, all intent on taking the wheels off your war machine. ACME is a brilliant game with a huge amount of replay value, but it might not be a hit with your group.
Bear with me, I can explain.
Evolution crawling from the sea
ACME is the second game in this series, following on from 2019’s Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea. It builds on the original with the same system, but some changes. In ACIS there are 10 civilisations, each with their own homeland, but those numbers jump to 17 civilisations and 22 different homelands in ACME.
Let that number sink in. 17 civilisations to choose from. How many games can you think of that come with anything even like that number of different factions, even with expansions? I’ll concede that there are small differences between the civilizations. Usually, it’s just a change or addition to a standard rule which fits with that civilisation, thematically, but combined with the location(s) of their homeland, it results in some really nice asymmetric play.
On top of the bigger numbers, the board itself is different. Land in ACIS is all of one type, whereas in ACME there are four different types, and the types are important. Having settlements in different terrain types adds to the number of ‘Discs for Growth’ you get as income at the start of a turn, and mountains can gain strongholds to bolster your defenses. Turns in ACME represent hundreds of years (500 in the first epoch, 100 in the fourth epoch) and the growth represents your people spreading out across the Middle East. Sometimes into untouched lands, sometimes butting heads against your neighbours, which is where the fun begins.
The other big change is with Wonders from the original game making way for Deities. Deities in this case shouldn’t give religious people much cause for concern as they don’t attempt to use any real ones, to the best of my knowledge. As the design notes in the rulebook state, during the epochs the game takes place in there were thousands of gods worshipped. ACME makes an attempt to distil them down to seven generic deities such as God of War, God of the Skies, God of the Dead, etc.
If you’re new to this series, once you ‘invest’ in a deity you can use its power on every turn, as long as its temple remains in play in your homeland. Some of these powers are really powerful, so choosing when to claim one, and which one you claim, can have a big impact. If you’re coming from ACIS, the biggest differences between Wonders and deities is that each person can only have a single deity, and they get to use it on every turn, not just when placing a disc on it.
There are no dice to worry about in Ancient Civilizations of the Middle East, but there’s a whole bunch of cards. Cards drive the majority of what happens in ACME, and they come in a variety of different flavours. Some get played during the aptly named Card Phase and do things like adding and removing discs to and from the board, changing the balance of the power. Some are investment cards, allowing you to add them to your play area with a few discs on. You get to trade those discs in at different times for different benefits. I particularly like the few Religion cards that turn up, which can only be used if you establish a deity first.
The juiciest cards of the bunch are the competition cards. During the competition phase of each turn each contested area gets resolved. If there are stacks of discs from different civs they duke it out, but each player can choose to play any number of competition cards face-down before they’re resolved. They grant you any number of benefits to help swing things in your favour, and balancing how many you use, and for which areas – that’s where the heart of the strategy lies. You’ve no way of knowing whether the cards someone has in hand are competition cards waiting to trip you up, or just cards they’re hanging onto. They might even be holding a Negate card, which as the name suggests, allows you to negate certain effects too. There’s no denying that combat can be a tense and cagey affair.
Luckily, interaction between players is encouraged. Not happy about the way a situation is developing along your western borders? Make a mutually beneficial deal with someone else. You’re meant to be representing great civilisations after all, so seeing this kind of back-and-forth is the game is great. It can be tempting to try to crush all before you early on, taking what feels like an unassailable position at the top of the pecking order, but it often doesn’t work out like that. It’s one thing to become dominant among the other civilisations, and a very different one to stay in that position. ‘Kill the king’ is alive and well in ACME, and I’m here for it.
Time flies when you’re having fun
ACME is an odd duck in some respects. There’s a maximum of four epochs to play, each with four turns. 16 turns doesn’t sound extraordinarily long, but those 16 turns could quite easily keep you playing for in excess of four hours, especially with the maximum quota of six players. It’s so much fun exploring the game’s systems though, and seeing how the shape of that part of the world changes as the years march on, that it really doesn’t feel like that long. Much in the same way as Sid Meier’s Civilization video games erased hours and hours of my life in the blink of an eye, time just zips along.
The game offers a fairly unique sandbox approach to games. There are a bunch of historically-inspired scenarios in the included Playbook if that’s your thing, but you’re encouraged to decide how you want to play. Don’t have four hours spare? Agree to play just the first two epochs. Only three of you are playing, and you want to keep things tight and aggressive? Add the border discs to carve a usable piece of the map out, leaving the rest forbidden. Maybe there are only two of you but you want to avoid the knife fight in a phone booth feel of just using a small part of the board. So pick a couple of civilisations each, or throw in a few Non-Player civs too. This open-ended feeling will feel like a joy to some and a real sticking point to others.
Some people like to have their game prescribed. The map is a certain size, x civilisations will play, and it will last y turns. There’s a lot to be said for that kind of structure being placed around a game. If that’s what you’re coming from, and that’s what you enjoy, then ACME can feel alienating. It’s the difference between being given a Lego kit and following the instructions to make a car and being given a box of Lego pieces and being told to come up with your own design. Some people love that, some don’t. Just be aware of that going into the game. As I mentioned above, there are preset scenarios, and there are guidelines on how to create your own, but ACME is a game that’s meant to be explored and played with, and you’ll get the most from it if you have a regular group who’ll enjoy that.
Ancient Civilizations of the Middle East is a pretty unique game. The grand scale of nations rising and falling over the course of thousands of years is somehow contained within a game with a basic ruleset. Trust me, it won’t take long to learn how to play the game. It means that the rules do the most important of things with a game like this though – they just disappear. You don’t have to think too hard about what you can do, or how you do it. You just think about what you want to do. In fact, the only time you ever really need even the player aid, let alone the rulebook, is checking how many growth discs you’re awarded for what areas during the expansion phase.
The cards need a special mention. The artwork on each of them is gorgeous, without exception, and each has a quote from the King James version of the Bible’s Old Testament. The truly remarkable thing is that designer Mark McLaughlin has managed to find a quote for each of the game’s 103 fate cards which matches what the card describes. If you know the King James version, you know how expressive and poetic the text is, and you’ll find yourself quoting the text on the cards as you lay waste to your opponents.
The rest of the components are pretty standard GMT fare. Coloured cubes and discs, a nice board, and thin, card player boards and player aids. Nothing fancy, but it gets the job done. The coloured discs make it really easy to read the board state at a glance.
One other thing I really, really like about ACME, is the way it gives players who don’t get started well a chance to turn things around. If you find yourself eradicated from the map, or more than 5VPs behind everybody else, you can invoke the Gilgamesh rule. The Gilgamesh rule lets you start afresh with a new civilisation, a new set of discs, and a chance to take vengeance on those who wiped your predecessors from the face of the globe. It’s a really cool thing to do to fight needless player elimination, and I think it’s great.
If you like the idea of a sandbox civ game with a ton of ways to play, Ancient Civilisations of the Middle East is absolutely fantastic. Simple rules, easy cardplay, and enough strategy to keep everyone happy.
Review copy kindly provided by GMT Games. Thoughts and opinions are my own.
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Ancient Civilizations of the Middle East (2023)
Design: Mark McLaughlin, Chris Vorder Bruegge, Fred Schacter
Publisher: GMT Games
Art: Mark Mahaffey
Playing time: 120-420 mins