Its been another busy year for designer Uwe Rosenberg. In addition to his seemingly annual 'Bohnanza' expansion or spin-off (High Bohn and Al Cabohne), he has also released Titus (ehh) and Babel. I had watched a match of Babel between my good friends Mark Jackson and Ted Cheatham, and it was fascinating. So, when the opportunity arose for a two player game, I quickly roped Lenny into giving it our inaugural playing.
The game has a physical appearance similar to Lost Cities, but that is where the similarities cease. Players each attempt to maneuver ancient peoples and construct great temples ... hopefully, greater and larger than their opponent across the river. It's a game of luck, hand management, proper timing, nastiness and wild fluctuations on the 'leader' board.
There are five tribes in the game, represented by 12 cards each. Further, there are 45 temple cards (square in shape), with values ranging from 1 - 6. The number of cards in each value decreases as the value of the temple increases.
Players are dealt an initial hand of five tribe cards (known in the rules as 'personnel cards') and one '1' value temple. The remaining temple cards are shuffled and placed face-down to the left side of the board, while the remaining tribal cards are shuffled and placed face-down to the right of the board. Each player also receives a sandstone marker, which is initially placed to the side.
A player begins each turn by drawing three personnel cards and adding them to his hand. He may then execute any of the following five actions, in any combination and as often as he desires. Only the 'Migration' action is limited to once per turn.
1) Travel - The player discards a personnel card and moves his marker to the location on the board which matches the color of the personnel card discarded. This 'activates' that location, allowing further actions to be performed there.
2) Settling - The player places a personnel card at the 'activated' location. The personnel card played does NOT need to match the color of the activated location.
3) Temple Building - The player lays a temple card onto the activated location. There are some restrictions, however:
a) The numerical sequence of temples must be followed. In other words, a '1' value temple must be constructed first, followed by a '2' value temple, and so on. Levels cannot be skipped (unless executing a tribal special power ... more on that later).
b) There must be as many personnel cards at the location as there are building levels. For example, to construct a '3' value temple, there must be at least three personnel cards present at the location. This requirement is only necessary when constructing a temple. Once a level is achieved, personnel cards may be moved elsewhere or removed.
Players may take temple cards from the two rows which are being built as the game progresses. I'll explain this a bit further when I describe the final action of a player's turn.
4) Migration - Once per turn, a player may move three personnel cards from one location to a different location. These cards must be the last placed at a location and must be moved together ... no splitting or altering the order of the group. The location of the player's marker does not impact this action.
5) Use National Ability - Here's the tricky part. Each nation has a special ability which it may utilize when three or more cards of that tribe are in sequence (uninterrupted) at a location. In order to utilize the ability, the player's marker must be at that location. The player then discards one of these 'sequenced' personnel cards and executes the appropriate action.
Here is a description of these special actions:
a) Assyrer: Temple Destruction. At this location, your opponent's temple is destroyed ... ALL of it! Even if it had achieved a lofty height, the whole thing is demolished. This is nasty, nasty, nasty. This is also the main cause of the wildly fluctuating scores during the course of the game. Beware the three blue cards!
b) Hethiter: Steal a Temple Level. The top temple level is taken from your opponent's temple at this location and placed on your temple. You must have the personnel cards present in order to execute this action. This is the weakest of the special powers as the opportunities to utilize it are few and far between.
c) Meder: Wander Away. You force one tribe to be discarded from your opponent's location. You simply choose the tribe and all of your opponent's cards of that tribe at that location run away ... well, at least wander away. Ouch.
d) Sumerer: Change sides. Even more vicious. All tribal cards of your opponent which match the last tribal card you played at that location switch to your side. Defectors!
e) Perser: Skip a Building Level. You may skip one level at this location provided you have the necessary personnel cards present at that location.
Further, you may utilize a generic power instead of those listed above. This power allows you to force your opponent to discard half of his hand, rounded in his favor. This, too, can be quite nasty and usually upsets your opponent's plans for at least a turn or two.
OK ... let's take stock: five possible actions, five unique national abilities and one generic ability. Curses to the powers that be for not including player aid cards. It's simply too much to remember, especially for new players. Fortunately, Craig Berg (of Kitchen Table Gamers fame) designed some simple player aid charts, which have helped tremendously. (OK, Craig ... be prepared to be inundated with requests for these cards!).
As mentioned, a player may perform as many actions as he desired and as often as he wishes (except Migration). It is quite possible to accomplish a wide variety of creative actions on a turn, and it is really sweet to execute a series of maneuvers which result in beau coup points, and/or slam your opponent in the process. The danger of performing a multitude of actions on a turn, however, is that this usually depletes your hand of cards. It can take several more turns before you amass enough cards to accomplish anything substantial on a turn. Thus, one would normally tend to hoard cards until a series of actions would result in massive scoring. The problem with this is the ever-present danger that your opponent can force you to discard half of your hand in an instant. Tough choice, to be sure.
When a player no longer wishes to perform any actions on a turn, he concludes his turn by drawing two temple cards from the face down deck and placing them in sequential order on his side of the temple deck. Thus, there will be two rows of revealed temple cards forming during the course of the game. When constructing temples, players may grab temple cards from either of these two rows, but MUST take them from the face of the rows and cannot dive into the middle of the rows to retrieve the needed levels. This is one area of the game which I have found to be problematic. Games can, and do stagnate due to this rule. Often, a player needs a certain level to continue his temple constructions, but that level is buried in the middle of the rows. His only choices are to hope that the required level surfaces when the temple cards are revealed each turn, or to attempt to destroy or steal an opponent's temple. However, this requires that the opponent's temple be at the proper levels. Even in the case of destruction, these destroyed levels are returned to the top of the face-down deck in sequential order. So, if you are seeking a mid-value level, it will still be a few turns before you have the opportunity to grab the level that you need.
Play continues in this vicious, fast-paced manner until a victor is determined. There are three manners in which the game can end:
1) If a player reaches 15 or more points in temples built and his opponent has less than 10 points, he is victorious. If the opponent has 10 points or more, however, the game enters the 'end' phase.
2) In the end phase, play continues until one player reaches 20 points ... OR if condition one is achieved by reducing an opponent score to less than 10 while possessing 15 or more points yourself.
3) Finally, a game can end if the last temple card is drawn and placed in the rows. In this rare case, the player with the highest temple value is victorious.
Victory condition one is a teaser. Often, a player comes perilously close to achieving 15 points, but then is completely smashed by his opponent on the very next turn. I've seen wild fluctuations wherein a player is within a point or two of victory, only to have temples destroyed and levels stolen on the next turn, reducing his score to less than 10 while his opponent leaps beyond 15 and claims the victory. It can be quite frustrating.
This game is NOT for the squeamish. Those who balk at quick changes of fate or demand static, slowly changing situations will be outraged by Babel. It has a similar feel to such chaotic games as Svea Rike or Kohle, Kies & Knete. If you have tried those games and found them not to your liking, you probably won't be too enamored with this one either.
I am a bit troubled at how fast things can change in this game ... but not enough to crush my desire to play. Although I readily see the heavy hand of fate present, I still have the feeling that the game system rewards careful hand management and clever utilization of the actions in proper sequence. I sort of have the feeling of solving a puzzle: if I do A, followed by C and D, then coupled with another A, then I'll be able to accomplish this, that and this again. I enjoy putting all the pieces together in the proper sequence to dramatically alter the developing picture.
I will say that Lenny and I's game lasted longer than it should have. I certainly attribute this to the fact that we were both learning the system and getting used to various actions, special powers and sequential logic. My second game, played the following weekend, went MUCH faster (probably since I was completely smashed by my opponent!). Still, we had a fierce battle, with each of threatening victory several times. Eventually, I managed to achieve the victory, climbing atop Lenny's smoldering temples and praising the gods!
Greg 16, Lenny 9
Initial rating: Greg 7, Lenny 7