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Subject: 2 new players travel to Antiquity: impressions & missteps rss

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T. Hedden
United States
Cambridge
Massachusetts
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This session report describes the first play of this very involved game by two complete novices, and attempts to provide both a first impression of the game and a bit of a strategic guide for new players (see italicized notes), mostly through the admission of mistakes and the detailing of wrong turns.

The players: Myself (blue) and K.G. (yellow).

Getting ready:
After failing to get the game to the table after a very thorough read-through of the rules two weeks ago, I had to spend some time rereading to refresh my memory. The board is set up for a two-player face-off, and we sit down at about 9:30pm. It takes about 45 minutes to get through an explanation of the concepts and phase rules, but everything seems relatively clear and we have the rules book handy for reference. We go through the strategic hints provided in the back of the rulebook. We both agree that the game hinges on management of pollution, so we ignore the advice to play without pollution and famine during the first game. We choose starting cities – both within reach of an exploration hex – blue builds in the middle of a large forest (figuring the woodcutters will clear it before long) and beside two small lakes with some small mountain ranges not far away; yellow chooses what I later realize is a really prime location, with access to a large mountain range, forest, fields, and adjacent to two larger lakes. The game begins in earnest at about 10:15pm.

The early game:
[Note: this is a reconstructed sequence.]
In the first round, we both begin with 4 free houses, 2 carts, an explorer, and a storage unit (blue builds a 2-tile store, yellow uses all 4 tiles). We each set up a large woodcutter and a 4-hex fishery. (Hmm, this could be boring if we just keep doing the same thing…) We each harvest a fish and a wood, and two olives are turned up during exploration. We avoid graves the first round, but the famine level is already up to 3, and pollution gets placed. I can see how it will be a treadmill in trying to say ahead of famine and pollution. In the second round, our paths begin to diverge. Blue builds a brewery to enable expansion through inns; yellow builds a fifth house. Blue sets up his inn, while yellow expands, putting up an olive farm and a second woodcutter. Yellow is out-producing blue two to one at this point, but blue and yellow each take on one grave. In the third round, blue expands his food production and explores again, finding wine (whew, no additional famine). Yellow adds another house, and continues to add to her production in the countryside. With the famine level at 4, blue takes on two graves, but yellow avoids them entirely. This is the beginning of a trend, as blue is a grim leader and his gravediggers work busily throughout the game, while yellow is much kinder to her citizens, saving them from starvation. The fourth round sees both players setting up stone mines, and the largest mountain range in the game is committed to stone.

The saints come marching in:
With stone now available to both players, the two cathedrals were built next. Blue adopted San Nicolo as his patron, while yellow makes what I consider a bold move, choosing to adore the powerful Santa Maria. (I had originally settled on San Nicolo thinking that adding a Philosophy faculty and its power to ignore “D” meant that you didn’t have to pay those costs at all, which would make many of the high-value houses totally free. Fortunately, I realized the mistake before building the cathedral, but I liked that the special ability of Nicolo directly supports his victory condition and had already begun to plan my strategy in terms of San Nicolo enough that I decided to just go ahead and choose that patron, although it seemed that this choice would require a rather long route toward the endgame.) With two cathedrals built in the turn, yellow received two fish and now had unlimited storage capacity available. I noted that she probably didn’t need to build such a large storage facility earlier, given her saint choice. She did so because she didn’t know that she would choose Santa Maria and also didn’t want to run out of storage room or have to commit more than one man to a storage facility. She’s also in a nice position now, with all of the special powers of the saints available to her. I’m uncertain of which two victory conditions she might try to meet.

The mid-game:
Before long, we’ve each built a second city. Before doing so, blue builds a dump to avoid future pollution. Blue also builds a faculty of Biology to be able to build farms with no seed. Yellow adopts a strategy of rapidly building up and producing lots of goods. She simultaneously starts a faculty of Biology and of Alchemy, which proves to be a powerful combo, allowing her to clear land and then start a seedless farm on that land. So the game continues, with yellow out-producing (often with 8-10 men in the fields) and building rapidly. Blue concentrates on adding houses, but takes on more and more graves. Blue adds an Alchemy faculty, copying off of yellow’s success. Yellow builds a third city, and blue becomes worried that she is pursuing the San Giorgio “enclosure” victory condition. To counter this, blue begins expanding in several directions with inns. Distracted by this strategy, and failing to build a hospital at a crucial point, the two blue cities become completely full, and graves have to be placed on top of buildings (I placed them on the explorer to begin, thinking that further exploration would just hasten my doom. The explorer stayed buried for the rest of the game, although yellow continued to explore just to push up the famine level.) Blue builds a third city just to be able to place a hospital and more houses. Blue finally puts up Nicolo’s recommended faculty of Philosophy, although I didn’t have much trouble meeting the different resources requirement throughout the game (I paid in all different resources for the 20 house, for example). It is now getting quite late, and we call a temporary halt to the game just after 2am, leaving it set up for the next evening.

Interim thoughts:
I leave the game feeling like I’ve been treading water for four hours, trying to stay afloat while tied to an anchor. If I rest at all, I’ll drown. As I survey the board, it seems almost humorous how our cities are completely surrounded by pollution, and there are only a few areas of the board left to exploit. At times, I feel completely hopeless, and San Nicolo is not a compassionate patron, demanding that I simply continue to expand my population, even though those people have no buildings or fields to man. On the other hand, I watch Santa Maria beneficently bestow her blessings on my opponent. It seems so easy for her to expand while avoiding famine. She doesn’t worry about pollution, simply expanding her zone of control and dumping pollution in the new areas. I can tell that the endgame is approaching, as I only have 7 more houses to build, but I’m still unsure of which victory conditions Santa Maria will pursue. I worry that she will gain San Christofori’s hoard, but I notice that she hasn’t been producing all of the luxuries (notably absent is gold, and she isn’t close enough to any gold-producing mountain ranges). Although she has built many buildings, she has no room to place at least two of the remaining buildings she needs to achieve Santa Barbara’s favor.

The end-game:
The next night, we resume, and blue continues to churn out his populace. I build the highest number houses that I can, using my available resources for the most expensive one that I can afford, and taking other high value houses for free (for instance, I build 20 and take 19 for free before building 13 and taking 10). Yellow begins to increase her build rate for houses and then founds her fourth and last city – it is near her starting city and will not enable her to encircle my zone of control. I can now tell that she is aiming for the San Nicolo and Santa Barbara victory conditions. Yellow builds her last building, a forced labor camp, and now needs only to fulfill one more condition. However, I now begin to think that I will win, because I need only two more turns to build my last houses, while she has many more to build. I underestimate her hoard of goods, however, and we finish building our houses on the same turn, pushing us into a fight for the tiebreaker (largest number of unpolluted hexes in your zone of control). We take a brief break to consult the BGG oracles, and find a welcome post by the designer that answers our very question – only totally free hexes count as unpolluted. It seems hopeless for blue, as yellow’s large zone of control (thanks to more cities and an active stables) should provide plenty of unpolluted hexes. However, I have manned three carts, and during the fields phase, I build three inns to extend my zone of control, gaining 7 unpolluted hexes. Yellow chooses to build a farm, removing one unpolluted hex from our joint zone of control. She must then dump 7 pollution counters into areas that only she controls, while I generate 5 pollution, reducing her lead by another 2 unpolluted hexes. When the final tally is taken, I’m surprised to find that I have 17 uniquely-controlled unpolluted hexes to her 13, giving me a narrow and hard-fought victory. I noted that had she built an inn instead of the farm, she could have placed the inn next to a lake, giving her access to six unpolluted hexes over which I had sole control. This would have given her the edge by 2 hexes. To win the tie-breaker, you need to have more uniquely-controlled unpolluted hexes than your opponent, which can be achieved both by gaining your own unique hexes and by taking away your opponent’s unique hexes. It was extremely close, and I was impressed by how well she had managed her resources and her goals during our initial game. The famine level was up to 15 at the end, and she only took on 5 graves, with plenty of space remaining to place them (I took on 7 graves in the last turn).

Strategic missteps:
In retrospect, there were a number of things we could have done differently. We both took a relatively long time to build our cathedrals, which delayed the benefits derived from our chosen saints. We were too highly focused on avoiding famine and pollution in the early game (although I still didn’t manage this particularly well), to the exclusion of building more useful buildings and getting luxury and stone production up. Especially in the early game, we often seemed to need more men than we had available, and an occasional resource was wasted – building smaller production areas for certain goods would likely have abated this problem. Stone, especially, didn’t seem that useful once you had built several important buildings (e.g., the faculties and the cathedral), and the larger mountain range should have perhaps been dedicated to gold. I waited to build new houses (starting with #6) until after choosing my saint, so that I could get more for free, but failed to notice that I had an odd number, and so still had to pay for one without getting a free house late in the game – I could have used that house a lot earlier.


Summary thoughts:
In the end, it was a 5 and ½ hour struggle, extending over two nights, against both a clever opponent and a very harsh game system. At times, I worried that I would perish from famine, desperately wallowing through polluted lands to seek out suitable areas for exploitation. Hard work, agonizing decisions, and planning several turns in advance were required throughout – that equals 5 ½ hours of serious thinky fun in my book! The game will clearly not be for everyone, but I really enjoyed the struggle against the game system – at times it almost seems that the game itself is another player (with a different set of options and goals) that you have to keep a constant eye on. And despite the fact that you’re largely building your own cities, and there’s nothing another player can do to stop you from erecting certain structures or from achieving certain goals, it feels as though there is a lot of player interaction and a tense sense of combativeness. We constantly wanted to know what resources the other player had available in their store and harvest box, so that we could track and plan for what they were likely to do. From the mid-game on, we were colliding during the fields phase, and several times I saw her grab the fertile farmlands for which I was yearning, and had to take a less desirable plot of land or wait another turn to build my farm. Back-up plans often came in handy during this phase. We were tossing pollution into shared zones of control whenever one of us failed to man our dump. Drawbacks (which were minor) included a lot of bits-pushing – some of the chits are quite small and difficult to handle (especially when you’re getting tired) – and the long play time. Even though we both enjoyed the game (she mentioned several times throughout how much she liked it, saying at one point that she thinks it reminiscent of Puerto Rico but that she enjoys it more than PR), the long play time is certainly a mild deterrent for future plays. I expect that to drop drastically (perhaps by 1/3 to 1/2) without constant rules-consultation, but we’re both highly analytical players, so I’d guess our games will continue to be longish by most standards. I will also note that the rules in general seemed very clear, with good examples – we needed only 2 BGG consults, and both times, Jeroen had helpfully provided clear answers to our already-asked questions. All in all, a highly enjoyable way to spend two gaming evenings – thanks Splotter!


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Grzegorz Kobiela
Germany
Hanover
Lower Saxony
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Wonderful session report, nice to read.

I admire you for having played the first game of yours that well. My first game with my girl-friend was great, too, but not like yours. We did several more mistakes and even played many rules wrong - e.g. we placed pollution markers under wood (more pollution than intended), we did not use the man on the cart shop to build something but an additional man (even less people to work with) and we removed graves when getting them (i.e. in phase 8). My girl-friend won with Barbara while I missed to built one last house as I've chosen Maria and tried to fulfill Barbara's and Nicholo's condition.
 
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Roger Yim
United States
Austin
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Excellent report! There have been some complaints that the game is too bleak and unforgiving, and I have to admit that when I played my first game (also 2 players), we were a bit shocked at how hopeless our situation seemed. Our cities were becoming graveyards and the land was being swallowed up by pollution. We were starting to get depressed until at one point our moods turned the corner and everything seemed comical. We realized that 1) that's just the way the board looks in the game (it doesn't help that pollution is represented by a skull), and 2) managing pollution and staving off famine is what the game is all about. We aborted our first game, which was doomed to failure, and started another, and things went much better.
 
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Dave Eisen
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Menlo Park
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Re: 2 new players travel to Antiquity: impressions & misstep
hedden wrote:

The early game:
[Note: this is a reconstructed sequence.]
In the first round, we both begin with 4 free houses, 2 carts, an explorer, and a storage unit (blue builds a 2-tile store, yellow uses all 4 tiles).



Excellent report. Yes.

Just to note, players are not limited to 4 tiles of storage. They can build as many as there are in the game up to a limit of 16.

Buildings that there are 4 of in the tile mix can be built only 1 per player. Buildings that there are more of (fountains, cart shops, storage), players can build as many as they want of, the limit is only that the players as a group are limited by how many are provided in the tile mix.
 
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oystein eker
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My advice to newbies, is to never use the explorer -go for Biology F. instead. Game seems to be much easier.

Once a player ignored this and picked explorer. We all struggled rest of the game.

 
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T. Hedden
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Re: 2 new players travel to Antiquity: impressions & misstep
Thanks for the thoughts, and glad you enjoyed the recounting.

Roger Yim wrote:
There have been some complaints that the game is too bleak and unforgiving, and I have to admit that when I played my first game (also 2 players), we were a bit shocked at how hopeless our situation seemed. Our cities were becoming graveyards and the land was being swallowed up by pollution.


I agree that the game system can seem harsh, but I should make clear that I actually really enjoyed this aspect of the game. It provided a highly satisfying feel of working (and thinking) hard to overcome long odds, and gave the game an almost epic feel. One of the things that makes this game seem unique is that you're trying to manage what at times seems an unmanageable waste problem - it is unusual to find an economic system in a game that involves both affording the inputs and managing (i.e., cleaning up) the outputs. (For example, compare it to Power Grid, where the "unclean" power plants simply need more resources to achieve the same output, but you enjoy the same output effect whether you have a coal or a green plant.) This was partly why finding certain synergies between building effects, like the Alchemy and Biology faculties, was both interesting and enjoyably surprising. It also gives you a real feeling of accomplishment when you're able to survive the famine/pollution cycle, regardless of who wins.

dkeisen wrote:
Just to note, players are not limited to 4 tiles of storage. They can build as many as there are in the game up to a limit of 16.


Dave, thanks for the clarification - that could open up some interesting possibilities for blocking strategies by trying to build certain buildings before others who need them, at the expense of space in your own cities. This didn't have an effect on our game, as we always had plenty of these buildings available, even limiting ourselves to 4 of a type (or 3 fisheries). I think this would be more of an issue in a 4-player game (with 2-players, 16 of a type may as well be unlimited - I wonder if limiting it to 8 of a type would add this aspect into the 2-player game). I know that you really enjoy this game, and now I see why.

eker wrote:
My advice to newbies, is to never use the explorer -go for Biology F. instead. Game seems to be much easier.


This is a very helpful piece of advice, but of course requires cooperation by all players. We didn't anticipate the usefulness of Biology in the earliest stages of the game, thinking we'd need the explorers for seeds. I could also see one or more players using exploration just to push up the famine for players who are in a weaker position (as I had done to me!).

 
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