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Subject: Tigris & Euphrates - the perfect game? rss

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Nicholas Hjelmberg
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Is it possible to fall in love with a game before even playing it? It all started when I casually browsed around the Boardgamegeek top list one day. I had no intentions to find a new game - I already had more games than time. Besides, reading the negative critics (which is a best way to judge a game, second only to actually play it), they all seemed to be too much of something. Agricola was too solitaire, Through the Ages was too long, Terra Mystica was too much of a counting exercise, Puerto Rico had too little interaction, Eclipse was too random and so on.

But then I found a game that seemed to balance everything. Here was an element of go, where you woud place tile to create kingdoms and score points from them. Here was an element from chess, where you would maneuver your pieces for attack and/or defense. Here was an element of the classical civilization building, where you would improve your kingdom through monuments and buildings.

However, this was not a peaceful game without player interaction. Conflicts came in two interesting shapes. In internal conflicts you would plant your dynasty members in your opponents' kingdoms with the objective of overthrowing them and reap the benefits for yourself. In external conflicts the clashes of expanding borders might form one stronger kingdom for a winner or leave the two kingdoms weaker after the fierce strife.

But it did not end there. There was no such thing as "your" kingdom, they were only there to serve your dynasty's interests (i.e. generate victory points) and might (should!) be abandoned when they no longer served any purpose.

Finally, in this chaos of rising and falling civilizations you would need to find a balanced growth because it was not your strongest area that awarded you the victory, it was your weakest area. The game seemed to be so simple and yet the depth of the gameplay so immense.

I am of course talking about Tigris & Euphrates.

But let us start with an overview of the rules. You are a leader of a dynasty in the Ancient Fertile Crescent. At your disposal, you have a king (black), a priest (red), a trader (green) and a farmer (blue). The land is represented by a checkered map and the kingdoms by adjacent tiles in the same colors as your leaders. The objective of the game is to score victory points, again in the same colors as your leaders. You start with six tiles (which are replenished at the end of each turn) and may carry out two of the following actions:

1. Place, move or remove a leader. Leaders are necessary to earn victory points
2. Place a tile. Placed tiles earn victory points to the leader in the same kingdom
3. Place a catastrophe tile. Catastrophe tiles permanently destroys a square.
4. Swap up to six tiles.



This is the peaceful part of the game where you build kingdoms. The aggressive part is when leaders of the same color end up in the same kingdom. Leaders of different colors can co-exist in a kingdom, even if belonging to different players, but leaders of the same color results in a conflict. Internal conflicts take place when leaders are placed and are fought with red tiles. The leaders gain strength from adjacent red tiles and may add tiles from their hand. External conflicts take place when tiles are placed so that kingdoms merge. The leaders gain strength from tiles of their color in their "half" of the kingdom and may add tiles from their hand. The loser is removed (and, in the external conflict, all supporting tiles), and the winner gets victory points for each removed leader and tile.

Each of the four colors have special abilities:

* The black leader earns victory points for placing tiles of all colors if the leader of the tile's color is not present
* Leaders must be placed adjacent to red tiles and red tiles are also used in internal conflicts
* The green leader can earn treasury ("wild card" victory points) if a kingdom connects two or more tiles with treasury
* The blue tile is the only tile that may be placed on rivers (and nowhere else)

Victory points may also be earned from monuments (and, in the advanced rules, from buildings and the ziggurat). Those can be built when tiles of the same colors are grouped in certain ways (in a square of four to build monuments etc.) and earn points to the leader or leaders of that color. At the end of the game, the player with the most victory points in his or her worst color (i.e. the player with the most balanced score) wins!

Let us now continue to see how those rules make Tigris & Euphrates so special. The list is based on the criteria for a fun game listed by Wolfgang Kramer, designer of El Grande among others (http://www.thegamesjournal.com/articles/WhatMakesaGame.shtml).

* Originality: To my knowledge, there is no game that combine tile-laying and civilization building with internal and external conflicts the way Tigris & Euphrates does
* Replayability: The possible combinations of kingdoms and conflicts are unlimited, making each game unique
* Surprise: The available actions may be few but their effects may overturn the entire board
* Equal opportunity: The players start with equal and symmetric conditions and although the first-mover may have an early benefit, her kingdom will also attract early enemies
* Winning chances: The unique balanced scoring prevents players from racing to victory as victory points of all four colors are required
* No "kingmaker" effect: The limit of one leader of each color in a kingdom makes it difficult to cooperate with the winner and weak attacks may even benefit the runner-up
* No early elimination: Leaders never die, they may re-enter the game board next turn
* Reasonable waiting times: With two actions per turn, the downtime is short and often a player's action affect other players as well (positively or negatively)
* Creative control: Everything that happens in the game is because of the players' actions
* Uniformity: The theme may be pasted on but the story of rising and falling kingdoms fits very well in the Ancient Fertile Crescent and, as other reviewers have said, the game looks almost like it was dug out from an old ziggurat
* Quality of components: My edition (Mayfair revised 2-sided board edition) come with linen-textured board and tiles and the sturdy wooden monuments give a nice 3D-feeling to the rising and falling kingdoms
* Consistency of elements: Tigris & Euphrates is tactical and although tiles are randomly drawn, tactics is required to use them well
* Tension: The fact that leaders may move freely and kingdoms expand rapidly makes conflicts a constant threat
* Learning and mastering: Tigris & Euphrates is quickly learnt and mastering the game is about assessing the open board, not memorizing hidden cards with special abilities
* Complexity and influence: Tigris & Euphrates is not complex and the players have full influence on the course of the game

Some reviewers warn that Tigris & Euphrates require some sessions to reveal its secrets but either my first session proves the opposite or there is much more to discover. The session started quietly with the Lion settling in the Northeast corner and the Archer in the Northwest while the Potter and the Bull got into an early fight for the South. The Lion took advantage of the fight and built a serpent-like kingdom in the East, claiming two treasures and building the first temple. So far, it was a standard civilization game with a first- mover advantage. But then came a series of conflicts, culminating in devastating external conflicts that stretched from the Northeast to the Southwest, swept away three leaders and left the Lion kingdom scattered and the monument abandoned in a desolated land. Never before in my gaming experience have I seen such a turn of events. Survivors fled to the prospering Arrow kingdom in the Northwest and dynasties replaced each other but in the end, the Arrow dynasty emerged as the winner.

1. Archer: 10-10-11-13
2. Potter: 8-9-9-9
3. Bull: 8-8-9-14
4. Lion: 7-8-8-9


Note that the end position contains a newbie error - can you spot it?

To sum up, Tigris & Euphrates satisfies all criteria for a fun game. Each session is unique as tiles are placed and removed on the game board. Leaders will come and go and kingdoms will carefully expand until the time is ripe for a confrontation. Players will be veering between hope and despair as the kingdoms rise and fall in the Ancient Fertile Crescent. There are few games that give such a complete gaming experience like Tigris & Euphrates and in my opinion it is truly the perfect game.

This review was also published at The Quest for the Perfect Game - Reviews by Gamers for Gamers.
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David B
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If you have 4 players, it does not get much better than this in my opinion. If it were better at the 2 player count, I would be more inclined to call it perfect.
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Clyde W
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Quote:
Agricola was too solitaire, Through the Ages was too long, Terra Mystica was too much of a counting exercise, Puerto Rico had too little interaction, Eclipse was too random and so on.
Not to harp on something beside the point, but Agricola has HUGE amounts of player interaction. You can really be mean to each other in that game.
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P B
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Yep, this is in the Top 10 of best games of all time. Best combat mechanism ever.

Unfortunately, the vicious nature of this gem keeps it from getting on the table.
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Clyde W
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Kimball Bent wrote:
clydeiii wrote:
Quote:
Agricola was too solitaire, Through the Ages was too long, Terra Mystica was too much of a counting exercise, Puerto Rico had too little interaction, Eclipse was too random and so on.
Not to harp on something beside the point, but Agricola has HUGE amounts of player interaction. You can really be mean to each other in that game.


Agricola lacks any elegance. Every card is random and tweaks the game just a bit whereas in T&E, the information is clearly defined. More time is spent managing the game than actually playing it.
Not as elegant as T&E? Sure. Lacks ANY elegance? Compare to tons of Ameritrash and it comes out as quite elegant. Lacking player interaction? Never true.

The "family" version of the game has no cards (ie, super elegant?) and massive player interaction.
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Stephen Glenn
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Euphrat & Tigris is my favorite board game, and that doesn't seem likely to change any time soon. I learn something new about it every time I play it, and I've been playing it since 1997.
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Brad Miller
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Yes
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David Janik-Jones
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Up Front fan, Cats were once worshipped as gods and they haven't forgotten this, Combat Commander series fan, The Raven King (game publisher) ... that's me!, Fields of Fire fan
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The perfect game? Not for me, that'd be Up Front. But T&E right up there with the very best, certainly.
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T. Nomad
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Windopaene wrote:
Yes

I came to post that very sentiment.
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David B
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I hope Dr K finds another publisher to keep this game alive.
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Martin G
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The only thing wrong with the title of this review is the question mark
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Bill Eldard
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nhjelmberg wrote:
. . . Here was an element of the classical civilization building, where you would improve your kingdom through monuments and buildings.


And I would say that element is very, very thin.

This is an excellent Knizia design and well-deserved of its rating, but it's not a traditional "civ" game. It's an abstract strategy game, and on eof the best.

Thanks for your excellent review.
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Paul Marshall
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A great review of the Best Game Ever!
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Miguel
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Fantastic game. I find it very striking how easily this game flows once you get to know it. Always engaging and fun! Fairly abstract, but the theme of growing and shrinking kingdoms works well with the mechanics, so for me it works.

If they ever reprint it, I hope they improve the art and eliminate the need to make change (for a game with hidden points, where. It's pretty crucial that those points stay hidden, it's very weird to force people to make change!)
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Nicholas Hjelmberg
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Eldard wrote:
nhjelmberg wrote:
. . . Here was an element of the classical civilization building, where you would improve your kingdom through monuments and buildings.


And I would say that element is very, very thin.

This is an excellent Knizia design and well-deserved of its rating, but it's not a traditional "civ" game. It's an abstract strategy game, and on eof the best.

Thanks for your excellent review.


Maybe it's my imagination but to me, playing Tigris & Euphrates gives a sense of ages passing by with kingdoms rising from nowhere and then turning into dust again.

But I agree, it's the abstract qualities that really make the game stand out.
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Nicholas Hjelmberg
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clydeiii wrote:
Kimball Bent wrote:
clydeiii wrote:
Quote:
Agricola was too solitaire, Through the Ages was too long, Terra Mystica was too much of a counting exercise, Puerto Rico had too little interaction, Eclipse was too random and so on.
Not to harp on something beside the point, but Agricola has HUGE amounts of player interaction. You can really be mean to each other in that game.


Agricola lacks any elegance. Every card is random and tweaks the game just a bit whereas in T&E, the information is clearly defined. More time is spent managing the game than actually playing it.
Not as elegant as T&E? Sure. Lacks ANY elegance? Compare to tons of Ameritrash and it comes out as quite elegant. Lacking player interaction? Never true.

The "family" version of the game has no cards (ie, super elegant?) and massive player interaction.


I'd say there is a distinction between the subtle interaction of Agricola and the more confrontational interaction of Tigris & Euphrates. (I haven't played Agricola, I merely referred to the negative comments, but there is a reason why the game holds a top position.)

As an old chess player, I appreciate having a game with clearly defined information where the board can change dramatically. My wife on the other hand dislikes the game for the very same reason and prefers games like Mahjong, where you slowly build a hand while trying to remember the other players' hands. It's a matter of personal tastes.
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Eldard wrote:
This is an excellent Knizia design and well-deserved of its rating, but it's not a traditional "civ" game. It's an abstract strategy game, and on eof the best.

Being a traditional civ game does not make it more thematic. It just means the designers used a conventional approach.

Using a non-conventional approach does not make a game non-thematic. But it can allow the designer to highlight aspects of the rise and fall of civilizations that a traditional approach is unable to do. And that is exactly what Knizia does with T&E.
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Chris Handy
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My favorite game for the last 8 years!

It's flawless.

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Fraser
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A wonderful, wonderful game. One of my few 10s.
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Bryan McNeely
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Going to the grocery store to buy a flank of Cajun catfish, but finding that someone else had bought it first. That's more or less player interaction in Agricola.
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nhjelmberg wrote:


But then I found a game that seemed to balance everything. Here was an element of go, where you woud place tile to create kingdoms and score points from them. Here was an element from chess, where you would maneuver your pieces for attack and/or defense. Here was an element of the classical civilization building, where you would improve your kingdom through monuments and buildings.



I couldn't agree more. I love the chess/go/civ/risk mixture that is T&E. I understand why people who love more theme would not like this game and prefer Agricola, but I love this type of abstracted strategy with some theme. I think the theme goes through in the playing of the game and the imagination that goes with different strategies. Puerto Rico, to my mind, has the same great strategy elements (with a lot of interaction when you've played a lot - but yes, very little when you start playing - and it is subtle interactions). The point is that it has the slight theme that gets deeper as you develop strategies. All that being said, I still understand why massive themed games are fun and rewarding also.
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Miguel (working on TENNISmind...)
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Ldayjones wrote:
nhjelmberg wrote:
But then I found a game that seemed to balance everything. Here was an element of go, where you woud place tile to create kingdoms and score points from them. Here was an element from chess, where you would maneuver your pieces for attack and/or defense. Here was an element of the classical civilization building, where you would improve your kingdom through monuments and buildings.
I couldn't agree more. I love the chess/go/civ/risk mixture that is T&E.

And to make the design even better, it does with very few elements: no cards, no dice, no special powers nor exceptions. Just a thin screen.
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Caleb
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franchi wrote:

And to make the design even better, it does with very few elements: no cards, no dice, no special powers nor exceptions. Just a thin screen.


Don't forget the invisible little man included in every game that lives in the bag and ensures I don't draw the tiles I want
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Luke
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Mechanically this game is amazing. It's just the leanest smoothest thing.

The theme is there, but kind of baked in. Like Knizia marinaded T&E in theme for a few days and then slung it in the oven. The flavour doesn't always jump out at you in the act of playing the game, but it pervades the meat.
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Christopher Dearlove
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toblerdrone wrote:
The theme is there, but kind of baked in. Like Knizia marinaded T&E in theme for a few days and then slung it in the oven.


The process you see here is really the opposite of that. In some games it's harder to tell, but here it's really hard to imagine a theme being added to mechanisms that has the relationship that exists. But you don't need to. Rather this (like many Knizia designs - actually not unique to him either) it's a process of abstraction. Start with the theme, decide what you think is important, keep that and just that. Even the most theme rich game you could choose (a specific wargame for example) does that, just designers differ on what's considered important to keep. Of course there are games that don't have that pattern, but not as many as is often thought.
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