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In Stone Age, when you build a boat you receive a Civilization card. This card gives you an immediate bonus, as well as some form of additional points to be calculated at the end of the game. I've always played that when these cards are purchased, they are placed face down on the player's individual board.
I recently saw a game played where the cards are placed face-up in front of each player. This changed the dynamic of the game as players could immediately see which cards where more beneficial to certain people.

What is the correct placement for these cards and are other players allowed to look at previous cards you've purchased?

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You're playing it right. From the rules (page 6):

Each player places their [Civilization] cards face-down on the corresponding space of their player board.

In other words, no one can see which cards you have. The only exceptions to this rule are the one-use tool cards. They are kept open until they are used.

one-use tool cards
One-use tool cards

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    It is worth noting that with the exception of the card that gives you an immediate bonus of the top card in the pile, all cards gotten are seen at some point, so it is trackable who has which cards, and being able to memorize this information is useful. – GendoIkari Aug 12 '15 at 14:44
  • @GendoIkari You could even way that playing with open cards is a way to disadvantage those with good memory, or those whose strategy involves collecting a lot of cards. I'd edit all this in, but I really prefer short and simple. – freekvd Aug 12 '15 at 15:37

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