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Mesopotamia - My Impression after back to back playings
Important note: This review is based upon 2 playings of the game at the 4 player scale. As such, it is not going to be able to speak about scalability. Some people also feel that 2 playings is not enough to warrant a review, if you are one of those people, this review will obviously not be of use to you.
Mesopotamia is a game designed by Klaus Jurgen Wrede of Carc fame. The basic gist of the game is that each player represents a tribe of people wandering around the fertile crescent. You start with a hut and 3 pieces, and from that beginning, you need to create holy sites to generate mana, create huts to reproduce, and finally, tithe mana and offerings (created in the huts) to the temple in the centre of the board.
The game system is loosely based on the action point games of Kramer and Kiesling mixed with Splotter's Roads & Boats. Each player's turn is broken down into 2 sections. First, they can move up to 5 spaces. Within this allotment players can pick up resources at will, steal resources from other player's (if they outnumber them on that hex), or explore by stepping off the board and drawing a tile. After they have moved, they can then execute one special action. These consist of either drawing a card (which breaks the rules in some way), creating a hut, creating a holy site, or reproducing. The latter 3 options can be executed in multiple spots on the board with the action if you have prepared properly though. So, for instance, reproducing requires having 2 people and a hut on the same hex. When you take the action, you get one new person. But if you have multiple pairs of people next to multiple huts, then you can create extra pieces with that same single action.
So what is the basic flow of the game like? Essentially, the needs of Mesopotamia are exactly the same from game to game. Players will need to do all of these things to win:
- Build 4 huts (each hut has an offering put underneath it which needs to be taken to the central temple. This is the winning condition)
- Take at least 4 rocks to the centre temple to tithe (doing this increases the maximum amount of mana you can store, and you must have a limit of 7 to deliver the highest offering token and your limit starts at 3)
- Build at least 1 holy site, but probably 2 or 3, so that you can regenerate your mana (mana is spent when you take an offering to the centre temple, and having people at holy sites is the only way to create more)
So how does this work in practice? Well, the game system seems to be well-crafted in the sense that it locks together nicely, but in my 2 playings, I already have concerns about the replayability of the game, and that is largely because of the grocery list that I've shown you up above. Mesopotamia requires you to do a large number of things, and the entire key to playing it well seems to be doing those things in a slightly more efficient fashion than the other players. The problem, is that there is almost no variability in the game, and no change in the options from outing to outing. You need to put 4 huts down, you need to send 4 rocks to the centre temple. This would be OK, if there were more to the system, but there really isn't. What the game is then left with is the uniqueness that the cards inject into the system, and the battle for scarce resources.
The cards are decent. They are one of the special actions options at the end of your turn, and tend to be the go-to option by about the middle of the game. They allow you to break the rules in some way...by moving a little further, generating a little more mana, or hindering your opponent in some way (stealing their mana, moving one of their huts, &c.) The cards are one of the better ways to save some time (i.e.: by moving a person further than they should be able to on a given turn) so they definitely have value, but they are also a fairly random factor because some of them are only good early, and others are only good late. So if you draw the right card at the right time, nice, you probably just saved yourself some effort. But the wrong card late will be completely useless.
The battle for scarce resources, in contrast, doesn't really work that well at all. Mesopotamia uses a simple system for stealing things...if you have more guys present than the other player in that hex, then you can steal things that they are carrying. This is well and good in the very early game where no one has that many guys, but once a couple of rounds have passed it is almost impossible to steal goods from players because they can easily protect any resources they have by surrounding them with a gang of pieces. This is exacerbated by the nature of exploring, where you step off the board, draw a tile, and then place it in that spot. Players seem to be able to effectively corner themselves in a given area, generate a lot of pieces, and then protect any resources that they happen to draw. This means that for the most part, the battle for scarce resources seems to be relegated to luck of the tile draw. If you get the stone pit when you need it, especially early, you're probably going to be in very good shape. If your opponents get all of those tiles, well, you're probably in trouble because stealing them is a huge amount of work and going to the effort will probably cost you valuable time...and saving time is the key to winning games like Mesopotamia.
The bottom line: I want to like Mesopotamia more than I actually do. The game reminds me of a much, much faster Roads & Boats because of the building system, but unfortunately, takes the limited paths to victory from that title, and puts an even tighter straight jacket on the players. To me, Mesopotamia is a game that preys upon the tendency of Euro gamers to only play a title once in a while. If you do only plan to put this on the table once a year or so, you would probably not be bothered very much by the restraints of the system. Back to back playings seem to show that this is a game that is very similar from outing to outing though, and one that would probably lose ratings points for me with each subsequent play.
Nice components, well designed tiles, and a workable system, but not something that is worthy of shelf space.