Date: January 17, 2023
Recently, the developers at Baby Marsupial Games reached out and asked me to try out the preview build of PocketCiv before the game’s launch into Early Access. It is an adaptation of a popular print-and-play game from 2008 which describes itself as a “Solitaire Civilization” game, wherein you attempt to grow a civilization in a randomly-generated scenario and keep it from burning out due to all manner of threats. In its role, it is a faithful adaptation, but that does not guarantee success. And so, I dove deep into PocketCiv in order to see what’s going on with this charming indie adaptation of a charming indie board game, and to see how it stacks up in 2022.
Let’s begin with a statement of fact: board games don’t always make the digital leap very well. They tend to be incredibly slow (even for the strategy genre most fall into), don’t utilize a computer’s abilities to their fullest, and lack the tactile aspect of a physical game board that is part of board gaming’s appeal. Oh, and they typically require more than one person to play, or at least to make fun. And, when there is a good board game adaptation, it is either because the rules were complex enough to make a better video game anyway (like Gloomhaven), or it is simply because it is being played using Tabletop Simulator and a group of friends.
In steps PocketCiv. Why is this different? It is fast, clever, and — most importantly — the original game is single-player (even being described as a “Solitaire Civilization” game). The concept of the original print-and-play game (yes, that means you could download the assets, print and cut them out, and then simply play it) was to create a challenging game that one could “play on a plane.” That doesn’t just refer to the amount of space it takes up, but also the time it takes. Once you’ve set up the board, moves happen quickly and tactically (like a game of classic Solitaire or a chess puzzle), and so it flies right by as you try to discover the best way to spread your civilization and win any given scenario.
Board games with a solo-play version are not uncommon, though you’d be hard-pressed to find one that is designed for that. And you’d be even more hard-pressed to find a single-player game like this that can be described with the ol’ “simple to learn, difficult to master” descriptor. In that way, the game is already structured a lot like a puzzle game, with discrete scenarios, new mechanics being introduced every few levels (including a fairly complicated tech tree), and an essentially limitless amount of potential scenarios. Is it any wonder, then, that PocketCiv makes an amazing video game?
No, not at all. The game is deep, and its scenarios are clever and challenging (sometimes very challenging). It is based on tried and true mechanics that are already designed for solo-play, and its surface simplicity is made fractally more complex due to the unique interactions that various “Advance” cards have with the resources at your disposal, as well as the dangerous “Event” cards. And now we begin to see how the digital format improves upon the excellent formula. There are two types of cards in the game, Event cards and Advance cards, and these are all unique, with Event cards causing usually devastating effects every turn and Advance cards being akin to new buildings or technologies in 4X games like Civilization.
By digitizing PocketCiv, then, you get a quick and immediate reference for those, instead of having to dig through rulebooks and reference material to find what “Philosophy” does. And, similarly, you see immediate consequences, calculated for you, when an Event inevitably causes your civilization to crumble. By having everything calculated for you, it takes the mental strain away from just keeping up with the game, so that you can focus entirely on actually playing it. In theory, this should be the case with any board game adapted into a video game. In practice, this is the best execution of the idea I’ve seen.
However, the preview I played has some undeniable issues. First of all, let’s not beat around the bush, it’s a bit ugly. Or, at least, it feels like it belongs in 2008, when the original game was released. There is a charm to that, and to the indie-board-game-from-the-aughts design sensibilities for the cards and pieces, but it does make for a hard sell against games with more polish. Similarly, there are so odd controls, like an extremely woozy camera and lots of giant buttons that scream “mobile-friendly,” even though this game is not coming to mobile platforms.
In short, it takes getting used to. What takes even more getting used to (but is much more worth it for the modern gamer) is the brutal difficulty. That’s right. This game is hard. You might think “oh, how much difficulty can there really be in a Solitaire board game designed to be played on a plane.” A lot, dear reader. A lot. Even after I got the hang of it, efficiently using my resources and building according to what I learned worked, there were more than a few times when my burgeoning civilization collapsed within the first couple eras. This makes doing well immensely enjoyable but does mean that you will have to deal with the frustration of failing many times before you succeed. Dark Souls players apply here.
All-in-all, PocketCiv has a lot to offer, once you get past some indie jank. I will say, though, that I do hope one of the big priorities for the developers in the coming months before the game is fully released is polish. If this game gets a fresh coat of paint and some more modern art and UI design, then I could easily see this game taking off with people who like calm, tactical puzzle games like Dorfromantik or Islanders (which both, honestly, may have taken some inspiration from the original PocketCiv. Ouroboros, anyone?).
Either way: if you want a digital, solitaire version of Settlers of Catan (or a Board Game Puzzle version of Civilization), then this is the game for you. If you like games like the aforementioned Islanders or Dorfromantik, this game is for you. If you get obsessed with puzzle games like Hexcells or get wrapped up in chess puzzles and Suduko, then this is for you. Like the physical print-and-play version before it, this little gem has wider appeal than it first seems, only with the added benefit of digitization such as quick scenario set-up, easy reference, and automatic calculations. And, rest assured, this Early Access version is feature-complete, so you will have full access to everything that makes it fun.
Once you get past the unpolished look and slightly janky feel, it is truly challenging and engaging, and you can easily sink hours into it while exercising your brain at the same time. Especially for those who want a throwback to 2008-era board gaming, where experimentation was rife, but complexity hadn’t yet superseded clarity, PocketCiv is a game that should already be in your library. You can PocketCiv on Steam here, in early access.