Comparing Mobile Civ-Style 4x Games

Brant Guillory, 22 October 2020

With the ginormous increases in computing power available in the palm of your hand these days, there’s finally a capability of playing a real 4X game on a mobile device. There are a bunch of options, each with different reasons to pick them up.

Note that these were tested on Android devices, but some also exist on iOS, and they are functionally identical.  Some of these are not on iOS, as Apple’s more restrictive app store rules will weed out several of these ‘clones’ – especially the ‘free’ ones that are pretty blatant rip-offs.

These games were all tested on a Pixel 2, and an 8-in Samsung Tab A.

click images to enlarge

FreeCiv

Schtick? Play a full 4x civ-builder in the palm of your hand.

Cost?  I mean, it’s called FreeCiv.  You do the math.

FreeCiv is one of the original ‘reverse-engineered’ Civ games that snuck out into the public domain.  It’s largely based on Civ II graphics with an underlying Civ I tech tree and politics engine, but for anyone who grew up playing the Civ-series of games, there’s nothing unfamiliar about the game or its interface. If you didn’t start playing Civ games until IV or later, you’re going to look at this one as an extra-credit project by a bunch of 6thgraders who really needed to make up for the fact that they spent most of their computer class playing Minecraft instead of doing their schoolwork.

MobCiv-Freeciv

As you’re starting up, you get the traditional ‘pick your civilization’ screen.  Again, if you’ve playing Civ I or II at any point in your life, you recognize what’s going on here.  You’re opening up with some settlers and a few techs and you need to start building & expanding from there.  It’s an orthogonal square grid, so it looks ‘diamond’-shaped, like the old Civ II & III maps did.  Get that first city built and start roaming the land.

You develop the cities in the classic “fat-X” city map, and managing your city screens is just like classic Civ II.  You can individually assign citizens to work, and set up a limited production queue.  Gameplay proceeds as you’d expect from there.  Try to conquer the world.  Don’t fall too far behind on anything.  Do that whole ‘explorminate’ thing.

The graphics are straight outta 1997, yo.  They’re choppy.  They’re pixilated.  And they’re on a small mobile screen that you have to be very precise about where you touch or your settler just charged an enemy phalanx.

Who is this game for? Nostalgists, and cheapskates. That said, even nostalgic cheapskates will likely be underwhelmed by the performance of this game.  Look, it’s a masterful recreation of the classic early Civ games, but that’s the problem: it’s the early Civ games. And frankly, they don’t hold up that well, and when the graphics are this garish?  Ouch.

Overall, it’s… there.  But we can do better.

 

Unciv

Schtick? As above, a full 4x civ-builder on your mini-screen

Cost?  Also free

Another freeware Civ-series clone, this one is truly baffling.  This one is a straight-up Civ5 ripo… uh, ‘reverse engineered’ game with low-res graphics.

The gameplay, tech tree, civ choices, units, everything – straight-up vanilla Civ5.  There are some things pared down.  The only victory conditions are Cultural, Domination, and Scientific, so there’s no way to take over the UN and win a diplomatic victory.

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The startup screen is, again, a clone of Civ5, where you can choose your city-states, a variety of map options (including the choice of hex/rectangle for the spaces), a one-city challenge, and an online multiplayer option that I’ve never explored. Even the Advanced settings for the map are pretty numerous for a compact mobile game like this.  You almost want to fire this thing up on a Chromebook and just see how it looks.

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Gameplay is Civ5. Seriously.  It’s straight Civ5, with the nerfed-out bits you’d expect from not having the Gods + Kings expansion or a diplomacy track. There’s not much more to say about the gameplay than that.

The graphics are not great.  While they’re better than FreeCiv , it’s only a marginal improvement, as they’re still very 8-bit-inspired and look like an NES game from around 1998 or so.  The color palette is not particularly inspired, and the terrain could be more muted across the board to make it easier to see the foreground.  And while the unit icons are better on Unciv than FreeCiv , they’re still icons instead of counters, which would’ve made a huge difference on this map.

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The key benefit on this one, and the players most likely to enjoy it, are Civ5 fans who prefer playing on hex maps, and with a relatively newer implementation of the Civ-series engine.  Overall, this one is going to appeal to folks that want that Civ5 experience on-the-go and are willing to overlook the graphical compromises made by the designers, and the fact that it’s pretty much ripping off Sid Meier’s IP.

 

7 Wonders

Schtick? Mobile version of the tabletop game.

Cost? The base game is $4.99 thru the Google Play store, and the add-ons are $2.99 each.

This is the mobile implementation of the award-winning tabletop game where players vie to build the best city around a specific ancient wonder.  Although the title is “7 Wonders” there are actually about 9 available in the game.  The base game is supplemented with 2 purchasable DLC’s in the form of the first 2 expansions: Leaders and Cities .  The former is absolute crap and should never be spoken of again on this planet. The second is fantastic and you probably shouldn’t even consider playing the game without it.

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We’ve covered the mobile implementation of the original 7 Wonders game before in a reprinted Classic Reviews article, so this will be a little lighter on the details.

Because this is primarily a city-builder, the startup is very quick: pick the wonder you’re building around, and the number of opponents.  You can even pick what the opponents are building, and what side of the board everyone’s using (A/B).

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The turn-by-turn play is just like the board game: play a card, pass your hand.  The cards you play are based on the resources you have, and then combat happens between each round.  Again, this is straight out of the tabletop game, and nothing overly fancy.

The graphics are direct implementations of the original cards.  This is relevant in that there’s a big graphic reboot coming from Repos (the publisher) in September for the tabletop game.  The card layouts are changing, the color palette is being tweaked.  The A/B sides of the boards are going to be day/night.  What’s unknown at this time is whether or not the digital implementation will also be changing to match, so there’s a chance there’s a major graphic overhaul before too long.

The key limiting factor in 7 Wonders is that it’s a short, fast game, and that doesn’t always appeal to folks that want to spend time digging into the nuances and expansiveness of a true 4x game. There’s not a lot of “explore” in this game.  The other 3 Xs are all present, although you’re not eXterminating  too much, just beating them up a bit.

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This one is mainly aimed at (1) fans of the boardgame, and (2) people with short attention spans. You can get a lot of ‘oomph’ out of a couple of games of 7 Wonders , but you’re not playing long games.  In the time it takes for one late-game turn in a full Civ5 or Civ6 game, you could play 3 full games of 7 Wonders .  That’s not a bad thing, just different.

 

Age of Rivals

Schtick? Age of Rivals aims to fit somewhere between 7 Wonders and Dominion in that there’s a pass-and-play mechanic, but you’re not just playing cards as a one-shot, but rather building a small deck that becomes the city you’ll use throughout the game.

Cost?  The game is $3.99, and as of now there are no subscriptions or DLCs.

When the game starts, you’ll have a choice of a handful of leaders to play.  Each leader has at least one unique card that’s only available to that character in the game, and as you ‘level up’ from playing and winning more games, you unlock more leaders to play, and play against. There are also achievements that you can unlock as you play, such as winning games vs specific opponents, with particular score differentials, or consecutive wins.  Checking off these achievements also unlocks more of the game.  So there is some scaffolding to help new players get started, and its disguised as an achievement ladder.

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Each turn, players are purchasing one card from a bank of 4, then exchange the remaining 3 with the opponent, and you can see what your opponent is choosing from.  Some cards have resource costs, other are gold costs.  Some have immediate effects, and others matter once later stages of the turn are reached. There’s 2 kinds of combat: snarfing up outlying towns and then directly attacking your opponent.  After each round, part of your existing deck gets shuffled back in and used for the next round, so you’re building your city through each round as you add to the cards that only you will use.

The graphics are basic, but attractive.  They’re better than the early-90s NES graphics of the Civ ripoffs above, but not nearly as elegant as the 7 Wonders card artwork.  They are loosely classically Greek-inspired, but not overly so. The resource icons aren’t always easy to make out, especially on smaller screen.  This game almost needs to be played on a tablet instead of a phone, even a large one.

MobCiv-Age-of-Rivals-1

There are more Xs of the 4X world present in this one than in 7 Wonders, but overall this game feels a little gimmicky.  The hybrid of 7 Wonders and Dominion, along with the external-facing conquest of local towns, and the oddball way of assigning damage during combat really feel like the designers were putting in something different just to be different, rather than as intrinsically necessary for the vision they had of the game.

Age of Rivals is going to appeal primarily to folks who think 7 Wonders goes by too fast, or that Dominion doesn’t give you enough variety of cards within a single game. 4X players looking for more depth or nuance than those 2 games are likely to be left flat by Age of Rivals, however, as the ways in which it expands the mechanics of those other 2 classics don’t feel like they offer enough depth of gameplay to justify learning a new game.

It’s clear to see what the designers were going for, but it’s not clear that they succeeded in achieving it.  In that respect, this almost feels like an intermediate step in the evolution of a design from “let’s cross 7 Wonders with Dominion ” to “hey, we’ve got a decent new kind of game here”

 

Idle Civilization

Schtick?  It’s a globe-spanning civ-builder with no map, if you can buy that

Cost?  You don’t actually have to buy it; it’s free

This freebie from a Russian design team is a real oddball.  It’s not ever going to become your new favorite, or go-to game, but some of the ideas they put in front of you definitely make you tilt your head a bit and think “hmmmm, that’s interesting.”

When you start the game, you’ve got a small tribe on an earthlike planet, and you’re developing “product”.  That’s it – there’s one stat that grows as the game goes on.  Now, you can spend that “product” to either develop your industries like gathering, hunting, crafting, agriculture, stonework, factories, etc (as you unlock them), or to ‘increase concentration’ which acts in a similar manner to governmental/civic changes in the Civ games, or to unlock different technological advances.

The game runs in real time, with some speed multipliers that are handy later in the game, so you need to make decisions about where to commit your product surplus as the game chugs on.  There is one screen with your industries and ‘concentration’ and another with your ‘improvements’ (scientific advancements).  Investments in industries crank up the rate of production, and technological improvements unlock additional industry options or product concentration changes. Once you max out at the end, you get the option to launch to a new planet and start over.

Note that while the game is free, you’ll occasionally get pop-up screens that require you to watch a 15- or 30-second ad to continue.  Go refill your drink and close it when you come back to the screen.

The graphics are an interesting watercolor pastiche with some repeating motifs for technological similarities. Again, they make complete sense within the context of this game, but they’re not the same kind of western-civ-influenced ‘obvious’ iconography that you’re probably used to.

There’s no map to work with in this game, so the ‘explore’ option is kind of off the table. Additionally, you’re not chasing around other civilizations, so there’s not a lot of combat options, but there are some ‘war’ actions that you might run into.  So while it’s not the same kind of map-unveiling 4X game that most folks are used to, it is undeniably a civ-builder in an off-the-wall real-time package.

There are some translation gaffes here and there, but overall, the English-language support is quite good, and better than some native-English games you’ll see rushed to market.  Some of the technical terminology can be a little headscratching, such as the technology development of the “Nipkow Disk”.

Folks who don’t want to micromanage a lot of card options, but still want to watch a history-sweeping scope unfold will find this intriguing, but the ‘forks in the road’ (especially technologically) are few enough that long-term replay value might suffer somewhat.  Nonetheless, this is a game that 4X players should play through at least once, if not 2-3 times, just to get a flavor of how a different culture views things like industries and technology advancements.  As noted above, it’s enough to make you look twice and think “huh, never saw it that way before”.

 

Eight Minute Empire

Schtick? This is another digital implementation of a tabletop game – in this case, the very well-balanced and insanely fast-moving Eight Minute Empire .

Cost?  $3.99 to $5.99 depending on the sale price, and which store you get it through’ some DLCs

You start by picking which map you’ll play on, and the game includes the 2 out of the box, and you can purchase others.  You’ll pick a number of opponents and their AI difficulty level.  Nothing too weird.

Each turn, you’re picking & purchasing the card you’ll play that turn.  See our classic review for the full run-down of gameplay. The interface isn’t difficult – tap to move things, and confirm once you’re done.  If you have actions left that you didn’t take, the game will warn you.

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The graphics are simplistic, but appropriately evocative of the boardgame.  Instead of cubes you have small people icons, but they aren’t heavily animated to cause your processor to choke on the game. The maps aren’t fancy, but again, are reflective of what you get on the tabletop.

This is not a long-running game, in case the title didn’t give it away.  You’re not building a grand sweeping empire of technological brilliance to last a thousand years.  You’re grabbing control of as much of the map as you can before time runs out.  But, it’s a satisfying little conquest you can finish while waiting the folks at Chik-Fil-A to finally get your food out to the pick-up space.

Fans of the boardgame will enjoy this game, as will folks looking for a quick conquest game to play during what passes for a water-cooler break in this post-pandemic world.

 

So there’s six different kinds of on-the-go civ-builders for you to explore, from the original and eclectic to the straight-up rip-offs, but all of which will run on those spiffy little hand-held toys you have tethered to you all day long.

 


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Comparing Mobile Civ-Style 4x Games

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