Many folks complain that the theme of most European-style games is thinner than Don Knots. Often, I agree with this assessment. However, Jenseits von Theben from designer Peter Prinz is a notable exception. Indeed, the theme here is closely mirrored to the mechanisms, more so than just about any other European-style game I’ve played.
I originally passed on the game when it was first released at the Spiel in Essen. I regretted this oversight, as subsequent reports were very favorable. I had the opportunity to play it months later and while I enjoyed it, I didn’t think it was as good as many were claiming. Still, the unique mechanisms and strong theme were enough to entice me to secure a copy of the second edition. Now, I hear that the new Queen edition is top quality and a huge improvement over the original. I guess I’ll be securing that copy and parting with my Prinze Spiele version.
Players are late 19th century archeologists searching for artifacts of ancient cultures and civilizations. These searches will center on the ancient cities of Greece, Mesopotamia, Crete, Egypt and Palestine, but first players must traverse Europe to acquire the necessary knowledge, equipment and assistants in order to increase their chances of success. The more knowledge and assistance a player acquires, the greater his chances for successfully uncovering artifacts when he begins to excavate.
Each turn, players will have the option of traveling to various cities in order to obtain these beneficial cards. Four cards are always available, and the cards list the benefits they provide and the time required to obtain them. There are cards giving specific knowledge in one of the five particular civilizations, as well as cards giving general knowledge that helps in all digs. Other cards will provide enhanced transportation, more digging potential, and even forged excavation permits!
The timeline of the game is very unique, as players determine on each turn how many “weeks” they will spend traveling, and either acquiring knowledge or equipment, or digging for artifacts. For example, a player’s pawn is currently in Berlin. He desires to acquire the card granting specific knowledge with a value of “2” in the Mesopotamian culture. According to the card, it takes four weeks to acquire. The player must first travel to Moscow, which is two cities away, and then spend four weeks in Moscow studying. Thus, the player will spend a total of six weeks on this turn. The player who is now last on the timeline will then take his turn.
Digging is the fun part of the game – and the aspect most laden with luck. There is a separate deck of cards for each civilization, each containing a mix of artifacts of various values and a wagonload of dirt. Once they arrive in one of the five key cities, a player will declare how many weeks he plans to dig. He will then draw – one at a time – a number of cards based on the number of weeks spent digging and his knowledge of that culture. This number may be increased by general knowledge, shovels and assistants that the player possesses. Any artifacts uncovered are kept by the player, while dirt is shuffled back into the deck after the dig is complete. Each artifact is either historical in nature, such as the Mask of Sargon, or legendary, such as the Ark of the Covenant. A large degree of the fun is the joy in uncovering artifacts – especially the valuable ones – and the agony of uncovering nothing but dirt.
Players cannot simply concentrate on one civilization, as each player may only dig in a city once per year – unless, of course, they are able to obtain forged permission documents! Still, points are awarded at the end of the game for having a wide range of knowledge, so players will want to diversify.
During the course of the game, cards will surface announcing artifact exhibitions at specific cities at a certain time in the future. Any players located on those cities at the time of the exhibition may display the corresponding artifacts and attempt to win top honors at the show. A die roll is added to the number of artifacts a player displayed, and the player with the greatest value wins the number of points depicted on the exhibition card.
Depending upon the number of players, the game will run two to three “years”. The length will be determined by how fast players use the allotted game time, but my experience has been that a typical game takes from 90 minutes – 2 hours to complete. At game’s end, players tally the following:
• Value of artifacts uncovered
• Value of exhibitions won
• Points earned from Congress cards (points increase exponentially with the number of cards collected)
• Final conference points, which is earned by having the most specific knowledge in the cultures, AND by having the most knowledge of all players when comparing their weakest field of knowledge.
The ability to earn victory points by methods other than the actual excavations does help mitigate some of the luck involved in the actual digs. Folks wishing for even less luck can play with several suggested variants, some of which remove some of the dirt cards from the deck and/or add more artifacts.
I understand the Queen version has changed the exhibition rules, and the civilization decks have been replaced with chits drawn from a bag. I’ve not yet played the new version, so cannot comment upon which version I prefer.
Jenseits von Theben has a wonderful theme that is tied very closely to the game’s mechanisms. It truly is a unique game, and one does get the feel of being archeologists pursuing knowledge and fabulous artifacts. While the luck factor can be high in terms of the actual excavations, there are mitigating factors, and the fun derived from playing the game trumps the concerns I have over the luck factor. I’m happy to see the game get a professional treatment and wider distribution. Who knew digging in dirt could be so much fun?
Fred, Bo, Gail and I spent the first several weeks traveling Europe in a quest for knowledge, assistants and equipment. Fred concentrated on shovels and equipment, gathering several assistants, a horse and even an airship. Bo was our knowledge expert, and sought to increase his knowledge of all civilizations.
Exhibitions appeared early, but we had to bypass several of them since none of us had yet acquired the requested artifacts. Eventually the digging began, and I had great success in Greece, finding four artifacts in the first four cards selected! Fred had far less success, only finding one artifact on one excavation, and coming-up empty-handed on another. He luck did change later, and he succeeded in finding the Holy Grail!
Gail’s digs were also proving successful, but her true bonanza came near the end of the game when she was able to acquire several Congress cards in quick succession. This was enough to earn her 15 points in this category, helping her achieve an impressive victory.
Artifacts Exhibitions Congress Knowledge Total
Gail: 27 5 15 2 49
Bo: 22 6 1 10 39
Greg: 37 5 0 4 37
Fred: 22 0 3 11 36
Ratings: Bo 8, Gail 7.5, Fred 7.5, Greg 7