I confess to being a sucker for packaging and components. Since I was primed for an "impulse" buy in the games shop, there were a number of factors that led me to settle on this title ahead of various others on the same shelf, despite doing no research ahead of purchase:
1. The title and the box cover art. Looks nice, sounds nice. Successful publishers like Queen wouldn't bother even printing a game, let alone putting significant effort into the box art if it wasn't any good.
2. The theme - building Roman aqueducts. Very cool. Perhaps this has been done before somewhere, but I can't think of any examples where it is the central theme of the game.
3. The publisher. Queen: They did (are doing) the [gameid=6249Alhambra] franchise, and although I've only played the original from this line, it is a worthy title.
4. The newness. This is hard to explain, but no doubt it is a well-studied consumer behaviour. I hadn't seen it before, so the newness factor gets bonus points.
5. The weight of the box. Almost always equates to game quality, as everyone knows ;-). Martin Wallace's [gameid=17710Conquest of the Empire] is perhaps the heaviest game I own, and it's certainly one of my favourites...
I won't say I was disappointed upon opening the box, but certainly the contents weren't all that I expected. The box weight comes from three main components, namely the board, the aqueduct tiles, and the funky wooden master builder pieces, which shuffle themselves in a slow dance around the outer edge of the board like ducks in a shooting gallery. There are also the player pieces (4 x 4), and - what's this? Enough pages of rules for quarto monograph...?
Hang on - ok, its one set in English, one in French, one in Spanish, and (for some reason) zwei auf Deutsche. Actually the rules were laid out well and, with one notable exception, very quick and easy to digest. More on this in a moment...
So overall the components were fine, and reflected the quality of the packaging from the outside. I will say that the board scale and theming bothers me a little. As aqueduct builders presumably we are building pipelines across ancient Rome, snaking over the countryside and back again. In fact, the individual tiles depict aqueduct segments towering over what appear to be bushes and treetops. Yet the game board on which the tiles are laid seems to represent a town centre with dimensions a few hundred metres squared.
But of course despite the theme the game is abstract, and so the veneer of theme adds some flavour that needn't be taken too seriously.
On the game itself, as described previously I found the rules both simple and quick to absorb and recite. The one exception being of course the infamous compulsory turn paragraph, that had me baffled and almost caused an argument between my wife and me. Much has already been written about this elsewhere and the issue itself has been resolved so I don't need to comment further. Fortunately, we had taken a "minimalist" interpretation of the rules as written and ended up playing as intended by the creator. There is one other (resolved) rules problem, which I'll get to in another moment.
The game play is dead simple, and I would describe it almost as a cross between [gameid=822Carcassonne] and [gameid=171Chess]. (I also think of [gameid=19Drunter und Drüber], although I've played this neither often nor recently, so this may not be a fair comparison.) Each player has a number of dudes that start from a base resevoir, and their aqueduct path is extended by having them line up with one of the shuffling master builders. Lay the tile, extend your worker dude to end of the new aqueduct segment, then shuffle the master builder marker one space around the outside. If you're clever you will have built the aqueduct so that your dude is now lined up with one or more master builders for later turns. Simple as that. Once an aqueduct has been cut off, remove its dude from play and score - the longer the continuous path the better.
Chess-like strategy enters as you line up the master builders, and when you get to place bonus tiles, positioning these so that you might easily join up to them in later turns, or maybe make things difficult for your opponents.
Despite the simplicity of the play, the complexity of the patterns that form is much richer than I anticipated before the first playing, and it is this aspect that takes the game from mildly interesting to highly compelling.
There is another trick in the scoring, which is that for most score track spaces, only one dude can score that value. So if you complete an aqueduct worth 6, but someone has already scored a 6, your dude falls back to 5 (or possibly even lower). Actually this is one rule that we did mis-read, and as a consequence played wrong. The English rules state "if the podium is already occupied, the workman is placed on the podium with the next highest number of points." For me the meaning was clear: place your scoring dude one spot higher if its score space is already occupied (ie; an 8 would move to a 9). Of course the intended meaning is the opposite, a simple mistake resolved by looking at the example in the rules.
Those that know me know this is not my favourite type of game - I'm more of an empire building, micro-resource managing control freak (I didn't say a good one), rather than a geospatial pattern optimiser. And frankly, if I'd taken the time to learn that this is what the game was really about, I would not have spent AUD$100 on it.
However, it is an absorbing and visually- appealing 60-90 minutes, simple enough I expect even for my mother to play (she beat me in Alhambra in her only playing of that one).
Six stars out of 10 from me.
(This review was originally posted at themineshaftgap.com, July 2006.)