A FIRST LOOK AT ENSI (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

Ensi is my solitaire civilization-building game set in the fertile crescent during the Bronze Age. It was originally envisioned as a legacy style game of sorts, only without all the stickers and torn up cards and writing on the board. So, more like a campaign game, where certain things carry over from session to session, with each subsequent session adding new challenges and wrinkles. Each time you would build a new civilization, rising from the ashes of what had come before. 

It sounded like a neat idea at the time - summer of twenty-seventeen if I recall correctly, though it might have been earlier - but I didn't really know what to do with it, how to execute it. For about a year I banged my head against the wall trying to make some progress on it, and it wasn't until I abandoned the legacy/campaign idea that I made any headway. The core idea of building up your city-state, watching it fall, and then building anew atop of it remained, but it was now in the context of a single ninety-minute session spanning multiple eras. This format better served both the idea and my creative process, and in the autumn of twenty-eighteen I was putting together my first prototype.

There were three primary and interrelated points of focus around which I centered the design, all of which exist somewhat counter to the prevailing models common in civ-building games. In most civ-building games, you are a sort of perfect autocrat, directing the growth of a homogenous empire in a single long and uninterrupted arc over thousands of years. (This isn't to say that the common features of civ games don't have value, or that every game mechanism needs to literally correspond one-to-one with reality. But those specific features do sometimes reinforce toxic nostalgia for an idealized, factionless past that never was and never could be.) 

Civilizations do not just keep growing; they always reach a point at which they stagnate. There is a natural rise and fall, and civ games as a whole seem very interested in the rise and not particularly interested in the fall. Or the fall is seen as a defeat, instead of as a natural part of the life cycle of any human power structure. This is what got me thinking about the multi-era, build-it-back-up-again approach in the first place. 

Civilizations are not homogenous; factionalism is not only a part of almost every human endeavor, but good rule requires someone who is able to navigate these internal pressures. I felt that my game would have to replicate this - more than that, it would have to literalize it, find a metaphor for factional strife. 

Civilizations cannot plan thousands of years in advance, and no one in human history has access to a "tech tree"; no one can have confidence that putting "research points" into an area of study will yield results down the road. And so my game would make it significantly more difficult to anticipate what would become available when. Instead of building branches of a tree, you would be taking advantage of what new discoveries and ideas emerged independent of your desires. In other words, there would be no tech tree or research points. 

These then were the three lenses through which I wanted to view the subject: rise-and-fall-and-rise-again, the internal pressures of factionalism, and the unpredictability of progress and invention. Cards seemed to be a natural component, and it was while thinking about the cards, how they would be acquired, and how they would function that I returned to one of my unpublished designs from my euro days. 

This was an engine-building business game in which players bought and placed companies in a three-by-three grid. There were activation spaces corresponding to the first two rows and the first two columns (but not the third), and by placing their worker there, the player could activate all the cards in that row or column. Players would build up an engine for money using combinations of cards, but before the end of the game they would dismantle that engine, cannibalizing it in order to get VPs. Do that too soon or too recklessly of course and you would be left with an engine that didn't run.

That game never went anywhere, but I thought the three-by-three grid with two-by-two activation spaces could port over rather nicely to what I wanted to do with my civ game. I added the pressures of factionalism to the mix by using two colors of pawns: red pawns only activate red cards in their row or column, blue pawns only blues. New cards can be "built over" old ones to replace them, but only if they match the color or the action type of the previous card. With only nine spaces, these two factions are immediately in conflict, and where you place a card in the grid has a tremendous amount of importance.

The cards themselves enter the game from the deck into a display of five cards. At the end of each round - after you've activated your cards with your pawns - you must discard at least one card from the display, and then build one card. If you can't or won't - if your city-state stops growing - it collapses. The era ends, you score some points, and you determine whether you go onto the next era or not. You get to take two of your previous cards with you into the next era, but they remain in the exact space in which you built them. Even though the civilization you build for each era is distinct, they are still burdened or buoyed by what has come before.

Cards are built by expending materials - clay, stone, and metal - which in addition to food are gathered from hex tiles in your domain. These resources may also be crafted into trade goods, which can be sold to rival cities for money. Money serves as a wild resource, giving the player more flexibility when it comes time to build. Additionally, after discarding the mandatory card in the display, the player can discard additional cards for a coin apiece, but at the price of speeding up the pace of the game.

Basic cards are useful - they expand your territory, gather resources, craft and trade goods - but generally don't contribute much in way of victory points. Other cards are more valuable in terms of scoring but less utilitarian. The onus to build a new card each round - even if it means replacing a card you were getting a lot of use out of - means that each of your civilizations becomes less flexible as they gain and exercise more economic, military, and cultural power. Rigidity sets in, and the process of collapse begins sometimes long before you find yourself dominated by rivals or unable to continue growing.

Getting the card mix right was a pain in the neck - there were actual mathematical formulas involved, a rarity for my designs, and perhaps the subject for a future blog-thing - but the latest cycle of testing seems to indicate that if I'm not quite there yet, I'm certainly on the right track. I would anticipate the design to be finalized and testing completed well before the end of this year, but given what we have on the schedule already, this will probably be a 2020 release.


  • Tom, please, make it happen in 2019! Very interesting concepts!


  • I’ve never been very happy with the standard Civ format. The immortal autocrat and eternal civilization have never occurred. I like your fresh concept. Seems to me AH had one back in the 90s that used the multiple div format.

    Mike Strand

  • Tom, I’ve said this before… but you are very clever!

    brian train

  • Now THIS sounds really interesting!


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