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Subject: Through the Desert - What's Not To Like? rss

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Joe Grundy
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I'll play almost anything, once. How much further play the game sees is largely about how much I don't like it. When it comes down to it most games are at least playable. So this review will start with a game description, move to what I don't like, and finish with whatever I think is outstanding.

So...


Through the Desert
Play more camels next to your existing camels to form camel trains marking borders of territory to annex. Before someone else does. No, it's really not Go... you can also score other ways.


If you reckon you know your way around how Through the Desert works, you can skip the dry boring Contents and Rules Overview bits, and go down to the guts of What's Not To Like, and What Stands Out.


Contents

Many (highly edible looking) camels in five pastel colours plus a few more
Six caravan leaders / riders each in five player colours
Five grey camels, to use to hold a rider each so we can see which player owns which colour
A board
Plastic palm trees
Full colour glossy rulebook in multiple languages
Various cardboard chits to randomize the scores of specific locations on the board, and also as victory point trackers in general.


The famous/infamous Camels. They're actually quite small ... maybe thumb-tip size.

The camels are very cute, and almost as well molded as various photos will suggest to you. (We DO like to photograph their best sides.) The cardboard chit stock and board are plenty sturdy enough. The printing on the chits and board is middling quality. (Not photo quality but certainly does the job.)

So what are my component gripes? As with most games they're only minor for most of us...
In some light, the pastel camel colours are hard to tell apart.
They really should have included five ziplock bags in the box so you can store the camels sorted.


Through the Desert Rules Overview (You can of course skip this bit.)

The rules are available online from Fantasy Flight Games.

Objective Surround as much area as you can with your camels, plus touch as many oases (palm trees) and claim as many waterholes as you can. Long camel caravans may also score bonus points.

Note that players share all five camel colours. Players own camels are linked in caravans and marked by their own leaders. Players are distinguished by their leader colour, not the camel colours.

Setup
The game ends when the camels run out in a colour, so it's appropriate to make sure the five camel colours are sorted to start with. Fortunately it's not too hard to sort them when packing up... though you'll need to byo camel bags.
The waterholes are worth various points. The waterhole score chits are shuffled and placed on the waterholes.
The palm trees are placed on oases locations. There are fewer palm trees than designated locations, so the setup can be slightly different for a little game variety.


Each player is represented by their leader colour (eg blue).


Players Seed The Board
Through the Desert starts with several (usually five) rounds of players choosing their starting positions. In turn, until all the caravan leaders are placed, each player places one of their caravan leaders on the board. (They have one leader per camel colour.) Needless to say (almost needless) this stage of the game sets the scene for the rest of the play, and poor play here will see a player locked out early.


A Player Turn...
During the rest of the game, a player turn consists of placing two more camels on the board, extending (by the same colour) one or two of the camel caravan trains that are marked by their own leaders.

Camel trails may never merge and can't cross.

Players score points for having their camel trails reach an oasis or cross the waterholes, but also for having any one of their camel caravans section off an entire region of the board so that no other camel trail can reach it (including camels from the same player). In this case they score one point per sectioned off space, and also score as though they touched any oases and waterholes inside their area. The borders of an "enclosed" area may include one player's camels of only one colour, but may include the edge of the board or the edge of the mountain regions of the board.


There are some unplayable "mountain" regions of the board.


Notes On Play Feel
We found this very much an exercise in counting other player's reach, and the points they would score from that reach, and hence trying to numerically optimise the situation. Which makes it absolutely ripe for analysis paralysis.

Much of the play is (therefore) about assessing everyone's scoring position. Who is a potential challenge/threat and how can you cut them off? I don't see a way to play this game "nicely" and get anything like the full game out of it.


Rules Complexity
I assess in order to play Through the Desert you need to learn about 11 basic pieces of info before you start, with about 17 in total to really get up to speed.

For comparison:
Ra: 10 .. 14
Chess: 9 .. 12
Settlers of Catan: 12 .. 19
Puerto Rico: 20 .. 31
Ticket to Ride: 11 .. 11
Bohnanza: 9 .. 9
Carcassonne (H&G): 8 .. 11



It all comes packed in an easy-to-carry handy-bag-size box.


So What's Not To Like?

So after all the "irrelevant" waffle above that I hope you skipped if you weren't interested, here's the juicy bits...

Not social. This game provides no excuses for verbal interaction. There doesn't even seem to be any "d'oh" factor, since you can see things coming several turns away so by the time they actually hit you you've already mulled over it, plotted your revenge six ways, and called the hit man for later.

No luck. Everything's laid out for all to see at the start. If there's enough game there to be repeatedly interesting, then there's too much game for the casual player. (I think, like many no-luck abstract games, it's too much for a casual player.)

Not particularly approachable. You need some idea how the game will play out before placing your initial leaders, so a player's first game is likely to have that "I have no idea what I'm doing" feel. Which puts off a lot of non-gamers I know fairly quickly. I like to see a game provide a sense of structured purpose from the outset. (Even if it's a false sense of purpose.)

It's not quite a gateway game. I would have liked it to be, but it isn't. The two points above, plus a bad starting spot selection will likely see a new player totally caned.

It's dry. Well, after all it's the desert. But although Through the Desert certainly isn't Go, it has the same sense of abstract dryness to it. Nice to look at, sure. (Well, not everyone thinks even that.)

Analysis Paralysis. With limited capacity to do things each turn but plenty of scope to See What's Coming, this is a game to Ponder over as you (or someone) tries to assess what everyone will be doing for the next few turns or even from here to the end of the game. Me, I like pondering. But not everyone likes people at the table to ponder.

Many legal plays, few options. While each turn provides many (many) possible legal plays, just a little forsight leaves most of the time a feeling of few options as you move to maximise/minimise the scoring differentials at the table.

Hey! That was MINE! This is one of those games where a player can often be left feeling like they've Totally Wasted Their Time as they'll spend several turns developing a camel caravan only to have some other player deviate toward the waterhole / cut off the oasis from their access, or some other camel caravan amble into the space they were going to enclose.

Long setup or packup time. The camels should be sorted at the beginning of the game. (I really don't know why they don't provide five bags in the box.)

The colours. The pastel colours are hard to distinguish and you may feel the board and chits are harsh.
Though many people love the pastel camel colours and/or have no trouble with the board.

No "AHA" / "Gotcha" moments. The camel capabilities are very specific and predictable. While it's true you spend turns wishing you could do more, there are few / no surprise moves in this game.



Click through to see the finish on the chits.


So What Stands Out?

Playing time. You can probably play in under an hour. I've seen people saying they can play in half an hour.

Simple to grasp. (Almost.) On your turn you ... Place Two Camels. It's pretty simple in that respect. The various restrictions and objectives fall into place reasonably well.

The camels! I mean look: caravanmintcamellimecamelgrapecamellemoncamelorangecamelgoldencamel BGG even has special Camel emoticons! They must be good.

Decision angst. Your paltry two camels are never enough! Almost every turn you wish you could do a little more.

No luck. There's enough real game to develop skill over repeated plays.

Many possible plays. Your turns, and especially the initial "seeding" rounds, provide many options to consider... plenty of strategical and tactical contemplation to be had.

Portable. The box is pleasantly small(ish) and pretty full. You're not buying a lot of air here.



A board full of camels.


Overall Through the Desert ended up sitting in our cupboard and rarely getting out to see the sun. Eventually it ended up traded away! (I've traded less than 10% of my games.) The no-luck ponder-the-future element is something many players will enjoy, but around our place the gaming space is a social space frequently occupied by mathematicians and scientists... the "you can get it right if you think hard enough" aspect of Through the Desert just didn't work out... we didn't want to become experts anyway, and most of our gaming is with casual players. Our experiences with casual players and this game did not work well. Obviously in these respects your own mileage may vary.
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Joseph
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Same experience as my wife and I. A light game with some thought required, but ultimately dry and boring. At it's heart, TtD straddles theme and abstraction without coming down solidly on either side. It's rather vaporous when considered as an abstract, and uninteresting if considered as a themed game.

We've much more enjoyable games waiting in the wings.

As a gateway game - pointless. While easy to learn, there's no substance to draw people back for another round. New recruits would be "bored away" by the experience.

It's like dropping a piece of candy at the beach. Do I really want to go through the trouble of cleaning it up to eat what's left?
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Billy McBoatface
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Just to toss in a contrarian opinion - I love TTD! Yes, it's abstract with pretty pieces and not really themed, but working towards your goals (one more palm tree! That #2 puddle!), then achieving them, is always satisfying. In my experience, although things seem very calculable, there's so many calculable things around that everybody overlooks something, so the end game scoring can be a surprise.

And, on top of that, my 6 year old daughter has been enjoying it since she was in her late 3's.
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Wouter Wolfslag
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A nice review,Ireally like how you are honest about reviewing: there is nothing really wrong with the game, it just delivers in the wrong places for you and your gaming group.

In my gaming group, we generally play a VERY light gamewhen we are in the mood for talking. Even when it seems there is just a little room for strategy we already go into thinking mode. That makes this a nice game, because it is fully non-luck, and leaves quite some room for tactics and strategy (although sometimes it is a bit too calculating in nature). So in our group this game is liked, and played with some frequency.

There is one other nice point about this game: you can really put pressure/hurt your opponents by making plays that damage them a lot. This
is perhaps the good side of the "frustration" you mentioned. Again, just goes to say how some people like certain things, and some don't.
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Yoki Erdtman
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Great review Joe. I really like the review format and will check your profile for more.

I've only played the game once, but enjoyed the session. On the other hand, the fact that it's been collecting dust since is perhaps not just due to my numerous game collection additions.
 
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William Crispin
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I really like this as a light/medium game. It plays well with 2-5 and I have never had any trouble introducing it to new players. It is a little heavy for people who have not played any abstracts or had similar exposure.

It is an abstract. Any pretense at being something else is coincidental. Several of your points made me think that you were expecting the game to be something other than what it is. I wonder if that may have decreased your enjoyment of it.
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Rob McFadden
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Another great review, Joe.

My experience with this game is unusual. My wife is a light gamer, and will give different games a try with me. Here is one she liked... THAT I DIDN'T!!! This was a first for us, and is still our only game in this catagory. We've played it a couple times... maybe my inability to win affects my enjoyment blush
 
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Kris Verbeeck
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the review was a good read.

It is not so mathematical as the OP suggests however. In a 2 P game all you have to do is make sure you have three biggest caravans. And make some points and stopping your opponent to make points from other scoring possibilities (waterholes,secluded area ,oasis) by placing your camels in these caravans.
By having the largest caravan in three colours you will have a twenty point advantage over your opponent (two biggest caravans). Score caravans will be 30 - 20 to you instead of 20 - 30.

While most games I play considerable slower than the game page suggest. I am able to have two plays in 90 minutes, with explanation to a non gamer who requests a second play because they see the possibilities.

I think much depends on whether you like the game yourself while teaching this to non gamers.

I much prefer the two player game. which I would rate a 10. Every extra player takes a point away of the score.

EDIT.
I missed the part that says the game ends immediately when one colour of camels isn't available anymore. This makes a huge difference in the way the game is played if you were to play all camels.
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Eric Nolan
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I found it does have a social element. As you said you can't do everything you want to do with just the two camels, you have to choose which direction to advance in and who to hurt. When I play this there is plenty of table talk - "why try to shut in my camels here when you could move to prevent the leader getting that enclosure?"

I really can't understand the comments about the lack of depth hurting reply. Perhaps this means that the game doesn't have a large variety of actions you can take? The difficulty in working out the optimal play is depth as far as I'm concerned. I also don't find the other players to always follow easy to determine optimal tactics what they choose to do can be a surprise.

I like this game a lot but unfortunately for me it doesn't get played very much with my group. I think they dislike it because if they end up in a poor position due to bad decisions they are probably doomed, there is no luck to help them out or hidden information that may turn out to be a benefit to them. I guess they might agree with this review more than I do.
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Patrick Riley
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Hivemind wrote:
Perhaps this means that the game doesn't have a large variety of actions you can take? The difficulty in working out the optimal play is depth as far as I'm concerned.


Exactly. See Go.

TtD is a bare-essentials example of a game here you always want/need more actions than you have. If you need to play green to cut off access to an oasis, then you might risk losing your longest caravan in blue, but if you play both green and blue, then may risk losing both or losing pink and cream all together. It is very tactical (reacting to what people do) as well as strategic (having a plan based on your initial placement, choosing which areas and colors to focus on, etc.).

But hey, if people want randomness to make it less "dry," then put all the camels in a bag and draw randomly. Or roll two dice to determine the colors of the two camels to pick (this makes it easier to see when the game should end without adding some other end-game condition).
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Ralph T
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I disagree with a number of your points. The game is very accessible, and there are fewer rules than Bohnanza. The setup time is very quick. There's truly no need to sort the camels. You can at any time look in the box and see how many camels are left of any color. The only sorting we do is to put ten of each color in one bag because most of our plays are two player. There is certainly not zero social interaction. When one player appears to be marking off a large amount of territory, other players cajole any player that can stop him to do so. There's a lot of backseat driving, but no analysis paralysis, except with the initial camel placement.

How many players did you play this game with?
 
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Joe Grundy
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ralpher wrote:
You can at any time look in the box and see how many camels are left of any color.
If you can distinguish the colours easily enough, and one isn't hiding in the corner. We wouldn't like this idea.

ralpher wrote:
... other players cajole any player that can stop him to do so. There's a lot of backseat driving, ...
As I said: "Obviously in these respects your own mileage may vary."

If you are the kind of player group that will suggest moves no matter what the game is, and your group don't get bugged by people suggesting their moves in no-luck abstract games, then sure you'll do that.

There's no in-game reason to interact.

ralpher wrote:
but no analysis paralysis, except with the initial camel placement.
... in your games, I guess. There was plenty in ours. Of course, your players don't have to mentally explore the possible moves multiple turns ahead. AP always depends who you are playing with.

ralpher wrote:
How many players did you play this game with?
Now we're getting a long time ago. If I recall correctly, 2, 3, and 4.

 
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