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Ben
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What You're Missing: Assyria

This is my first-ever review of a board game, so please be gentle. My hope is that this will be the first in a series of reviews focusing on under-the-radar games that I find unique or particularly enjoyable. Although I won't purport to have regurgitated the rulebook, I have written the review assuming my audience has not played the game and I have explained rules to the extent needed for the strategy discussions to be coherent. Enjoy!


Overview:


Photo by stagger lee.

Assyria, Ystari's Essen 2009 release, chronicles the rise and fall of competing tribal civilizations in ancient Iraq. The game extends over three reigns, comprised of eight total rounds (2 rounds, 3 rounds, 3 rounds). Each round, players compete for food, territory, influence in the distant capitol of Assur, and favor with the Gods. At the end of each reign, the rivers flood, destroying any huts built along them, and then civilizations score points for their political cache and piety.

Designed by Emanuele Ornella, perhaps best-known for his Bohnanzaesque nautical-themed card game Oltre Mare, Assyria is arguably Ornella's best work. It manages to comfortably accommodate the designer's clean, minimalist aesthetic within Ystari's now-signature thematic world (artwork by Arnaud Demaegd helps considerably here). Although the game initially appears straightforward (almost solvable), the depth of strategy emerges with repeated plays. Similarly, the seemingly low level of player interaction is a mirage; it masks an ephemeral organic strategy space in which players can (and should) be quite ruthless.


Gameplay:

a. Synopsis


Photo by henk.rolleman.

Each round begins by revealing an expansion card (numbered 2-4, above) and food cards (each containing 1-3 food symbols). The expansion card simply dictates the number of new huts that each tribe may place this round. A number of food cards are revealed and organized into pairs, which players take turns picking. This sets the turn order for the remainder of the round (generally, less food means going earlier).

Players take turns expanding their civilization in three steps: First, they place new huts on the board adjacent to their old huts or to their ziggurats (one hut or ziggurat per hex, with an upper limit set by that round's expansion card). Huts (but not ziggurats) must then be fed by spending food cards that match the symbol on the occupied hexes. Huts that a player can't, or doesn't wish to, feed are removed, and the player collects camels (money) and victory points depending on the configuration of his remaining huts and the size and number of his ziggurats. Then the next player expands, following the same steps.

After all players have completed the expansion phase, players take turns taking actions: spending camels to construct a new ziggurat over an existing hut, buy food cards, improve existing ziggurats, gain political capital in the capitol, or make offerings to the Gods. Rinse and repeat.

At the end of each reign, all huts on river hexes are destroyed, players receive victory points for their political influence in Assur (as well as other benefits from particular dignitaries), and receive the favor of the Gods (victory points) based on their number of ziggurats and their number of offerings to date. After three reigns, players gain a final few points for the size of their ziggurats and for any leftover camels or plow cards (essentially a species of food card).

Most points wins! whistle


Okay, so the devil is in the details...

b. Food cards (are awesome)


Photo by LucyJo.

Each Food card contains one, two, or three symbols of a single Food type (Grapes, Barley, Salt, Figs, & Fern). There are also a few Wild cards that may be used as one of any food type. Food cards are spent to "feed" your tribe. Each symbol can feed a single Hut that is located on a corresponding board space (more on this later). Thus, a single card with three symbols can feed three Huts. The Food cards are ordered to establish several pairs of cards (the number of pairs is always one more than the number of players), and, in turn order, players choose one pair of Food cards.

Wisely selecting food cards is fundamental to one's success in the game.

First, Food card selection determines turn order for the remainder of the round (including the order for selecting Food cards next round). In general terms, the most-desirable pair of Food cards will put you last in turn order, and vice versa. Since the amount and quantity of food you possess will dictate what you can do in the rest of the game, you are, in essence, trading ability (or perhaps flexibility) for opportunity. Both are important, and the decision is a hard one.

Second, players can't "make change." The use of cards here, rather than wooden bits, adds much. Rather than merely seeking to maximize Food income, or to balance Food against turn order advantage, players must consider whether they will be able to make use of a full card of Food, or whether they are willing to "overspend" to feed a particularly important hut.

Third, Food cards are the primary source of randomness in the game. Careful food selection can mitigate the impact of randomness, but usually at a cost. For example, a player who chooses two Salt cards can use one this round and save one for the next round, ensuring some measure of territorial stability. As one consequence, she must spend less food this round. As another consequence, a commitment to salt may mean a fragmented empire (no two adjacent spaces on the board require the same resource to occupy).

Gamer's Note: Many reviewers comment that this mechanic is "fair" or "balanced," but that is more-than-a-little misleading. Unlike Brass or Steam, to give two examples, where turn order is important but is (almost) entirely within the control of a player who is willing to pay enough for it, your turn order in Assyria will be dictated by the choices of others (unless you go first each round and starve yourself). At various times, and depending on your strategy, being in front or in back of particular opponents will be crucial. That these decisions (yours and your opponents') also decide your food type and quantity, which in turn has significant consequences for what you are able to do each turn, make the game brilliantly brutal if played with the right sort of player. This one of the primary areas of player interaction in Assyria, and, when done right, it can often feel less like "jockeying for position" and more like taking "a hard shove" into the corner followed by a "slow strangulation." Do you have to play this way? No. The game is perfectly "significant-other friendly." But it sure is fun to. devil


c. Expansion: a little something different


Photo by cymric.

As pictured above, the board is a series of hexes, each of which may accommodate one (and only one, for the logic nerds) hut or ziggurat. Each player starts with one ziggurat tile that serves as his central base. Since Ziggurats do not need to be fed, this can never be lost. Every hut subsequently placed must adjoin another hut or a ziggurat. But not every hut placed must be fed. Every turn, a player has the option of feeding any of his existing huts, both newly-placed and those remaining from the previous round. Fed huts on the river provide camels to be spent in the action round. Fed huts between the rivers provide two victory points per turn, and fed huts outside of the rivers provide one (but are useful for wells, discussed below). Any unfed huts are removed before the next player places their huts.

Understanding when and why to sacrifice huts unlocks Assyria's depth of strategy.

Assyria is not a game about civilization-building. Your first game (as mine), you will probably be tempted to place every hut you have, and to feed every hut you place. This is usually a mistake. Consider the Power Grid analogy. Most first-time Power Grid players upgrade too frequently, build steadily to meet their capacity, and power every plant every round. At that stage of play, the game appears to entirely lack meaningful decisions in the early- or mid-game, and, while fun, is a little straightforward (dull, even).

One of the things that is hard to wrap your head around initially in Assyria is that you are paying for every hut, every round. The huts, however, produce next-to-nothing for you (don't be distracted by the shiny, shiny victory points). Nor are the locations significant in themselves. Your fed huts, therefore, are just a means to an end - either to camels, wells, or as placeholders for new ziggurats. If you have no plan for a hut other than for the current round's victory points, you should probably not feed it. If you are placing a hut this round in hopes of doing something with it next round, you might want to reconsider. In Assyria, huts don't live long.

Between the adjacency restrictions, the limited number of new huts per round, and the dearth of food, your tribe will already be expanding in fits and starts, extending in odd shapes or splintering into dispersed factions. You should embrace this fluidity, and recognize the opportunities it presents. For example, an early sacrifice of several huts to send a single hut across the board might be worthwhile to establish a roaming second tribe, or to build a ziggurat that secures a foothold near the opposite river. In this regard, it is useful if not essential to develop a full-game strategy early (although you must to be able and willing to adjust it as needed). In later reigns, space on the board grows tight. By understanding your opponents' goals and monitoring their available food, you can predict the opening of important hexes (and attempt to situate yourself properly within the turn order) or occupy choke-points, foreclosing opponents' paths with a single well-placed hut. Here, again, Assyria can be as cutthroat as you want it to be. arrrh


d. Wells, Ziggurats, Offerings, and Dignitaries: a brief word on strategy in the action phase

The placement of wells technically occurs during the expansion phase, but it makes sense to talk about them alongside the other primary sources of victory points: ziggurats, offerings, and dignitaries. I've not logged enough plays of the game yet to write a strategy article (more than five, less than ten), and I'm not attempting to. So when I say "brief," I mean brief. (And when I say "thoughts" I mean epinion.)

Wells:


Photo by henk.rolleman.

A player may place a well at the intersection of any three of his huts (not ziggurats), provided that the intersection lies outside of the two rivers. Wells are a one-time infusion of victory points, and are worth more when built in earlier reigns (6 points, 5 points, 4 points). A ziggurat may not be built next to a well, however, so a well-heavy strategy requires some countervailing considerations (like building wells near opponents to hinder their expansion plans).

Because there are a limited number of wells (4 per player), players often race for wells early in the game. Although a rational actor in isolation might note that the diminishing victory points for wells probably doesn't justify their early game opportunity cost, competition for the scarce resource may force your hand. If all players go well-heavy, they split the pot. At that point, the incentives are probably for a player to invest his camels elsewhere for an uncontested return.

Ziggurats:


Photo by lacxox.

During the action phase, a player may also choose to build a new ziggurat over an existing hut (except on a river or next to a well), or add a level to existing ziggurats. Each tier of each ziggurat is worth one point per turn for the rest of the game, so, like wells, ziggurats encourage an early commitment.

Offerings:


Photo by LucyJo.

To make an offering, a player can sacrifice between 1-3 Camels per turn and move that many spaces on the offering track. At the end of each reign, players will receive between 0-4 victory points per ziggurat (not per ziggurat tile!) depending on their offering track position.

The offering track is unique among Assyria's point-generating mechanisms. It requires a steady commitment and provides diminishing, rather than increasing, marginal returns. As a result, everyone makes at least a small offering every game. It also provides a cross-incentive to those already on a ziggurat-heavy path: since each new tier of a ziggurat is cheaper (in camels) than the level before it, the most efficient strategy would be to build a few complete ziggurats rather than several partial ones. But, for the cost of a few Camels, a player can off-set the added cost of new ziggurat bases through the offering track scoring. As a ziggurat does not require food, adding additional ziggurats also provides players with more turn-order and hut-placement flexibility.

Dignitaries:


Photo by henk.rolleman.

Paying camels to influence Assur is almost its own side-game. Assur has three dignities of varying prestige and a commensurate cost to influence them. At the end of each reign (minor exception for the first, but I'm ignoring it), all players with at least some influence in Assur will get victory points based on their level of influence. Then each dignitary provides additional benefits to his particular followers (in the form of camels, a plow card, or more victory points). The tiebreaker generally rewards the player who got there first. The best dignitary has very limited spaces and handsomely rewards a monopoly, so players must consider the value of acting early and defensively to foreclose competition. Letting a single player run away with Assur is suicide, but the rewards diminish quickly in a crowded marketplace.

These are a few of my favorite things...

One of my favorite things about Assyria is the organic strategy space it creates. Because each of the primary points-generating mechanics has a calculable cost and benefit, the game feels like it should be solveable, even before play begins. But certain exterior constraints (the number of wells, the zigguraut placement rules, the limited river hexes, and the dignitary structure) create artificial scarcity, which tips your cost-benefit analysis with each other player's move. While players' moves don't synergize in quite the same way as an economic game, such as Brass: Lancashire or, say, Container, for me, Assyria plays much more like those games than like the generic cube-pushing, resource management game it superficially appears to be.


Theme

The theme of the game is, as you know by now, Assyrian tribal expansion. The artwork, especially the front box cover (in person = surprise ), does a nice job of evoking that theme. The ziggurat tiles are fun to fiddle with and look quite nice when fully built. The hut tokens are awesome. Everything was actually much more attractive in person than I was expecting.

My one minor complaint was that the food symbols on the board are a little too realistic and slightly jarring. They continue to remind me that I'm playing a game. For what it's worth, my wife also complained that the game utilizes a camel track rather than providing camel meeples.

But the theme of a game is a different inquiry than whether the game is thematic. To me, at least, a thematic game is one in which a player's choices and strategies flow intuitively from the story that the game is telling, and each component or mechanic makes sense within that story. In this regard, Assyria largely fails. While far from an abstract, the game falls somewhere between one of Reiner Knizia's better games (T&E? E&T?) and Catan. For example, the food card selection phase is technically called "Farming," but it seems to be precisely the opposite. Rather than growing food as a result of my settlements in certain regions, I get to choose odd combinations of food that I never planted, but can only feed them to huts in certain spots. Of course, if the play weren't so counter-intuitive, it wouldn't be so engrossing.

There are a few moments of inspiration, however. The risk/reward associated with life along the rivers is certainly appropriately thematic. The growth and decline of civilizations, the migration of semi-nomadic desert tribes, and the gradual erection of ziggurats are all much more obvious, and therefore more satisfying to watch, than in many civilization-themed games. And the designer's post-postmodern comment on the rewards of faith and planning (through his equation of piety and politics as both pay now, benefit later) as juxtaposed with the instant, but ephemeral rewards of the material (wells, huts) is downright sublime.


A small note on components


Photo by hatemachine.

There's not a lot in the box, but I knew that going in. This is a very clean, elegant design. And the bits were all great. I'm a component junkie, however, and I couldn't help but be a little disheartened with the size and quality of the board. My board is ever-so-slightly warped, so it doesn't lay flat, especially along the seam. And it just feels a little smaller than that of other comparable games. There's no need for it to be any larger, but it is hardly impressive.


The Section Where I Make A Bunch of Unfounded Analogies

If it weren't for the few issues that I've mentioned above, Assyria would likely be a solid 8 (which, for me, is very good). As it stands, it's one my highest 7s, and one of the few with upward mobility. I still haven't played with 4 players, which is the ideal number (although the gameboard scales well, the dignitaries come one-size-fits-all).

I find Assyria most similar to Brass and Hansa Teutonica. The lack of identifiable goals (outside of crushing your opponents in victory points) makes the experience dependant on the skill and attitude of its players. It can be played straightforwardly, mildly, and peacefully. But it can also be a cutthroat, if primarily tactical, gamer's game.

Of course, Assyria's certainly lighter and dryer than Brass (which is to be expected in a 60-minute game). So perhaps another apropos comparison is to say that Assyria is fluid, dynamic, and fully realized Attika, with an integrated side-game of Aton. If that sounds vaguely intriguing, you owe it to yourself to give this game a shot.

I've found myself coming back to Assyria again and again over the last month, even at the expense of games that I objectively like better and have played less, to more fully explore its subtle strategies. Something about it is simply captivating.


What You're Missing

So what, exactly, sets Assyria apart?

Within the current gaming climate, it seems almost impossible to get through a review without reading the words "efficiency engine" or that sum up with "the fun of the game is that there is not enough time to do what you want to do." Of course, then you can't look through the comments without hearing the "multiplayer solitaire" critique that inevitably follows.

Assyria is not that game. Solitaire Assyria no more sensical than solitaire Tigris & Euphrates. Nor do you build anything more meaningful than your growing victory point lead. In many ways, Assyria feels a bit like a throwback. And I'm inclined to think that it might have gained a bit more traction post-Essen had it not been overshadowed by Hansa Teutonica, which does many of the same things better and more obviously (but that lacks a bit of Assyria's charm).

For gamers looking for something more tactical than strategic; something interactive without being combative; something with player-driven strategies, but that is not unforgiving; and something that works as a gateway, but that goes (almost) as deep as you want to; Assyria is what you've been missing.



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Jordan K
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Wow! This is a thorough and very well-written first review!

I expect Assyria to get a lot of respect once it gets more exposure, and your review - ably capturing its merits and charm - is another step in that direction. Well done!
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Jaime Lawrence
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Looks exciting and is now on my want list.
Cheers!
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Manuel Pasi
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Very nice, thorough reviewthumbsup

Just bought that gem a few weeks ago and completely agree that this is one of the overlooked ones.
I like the way you point out the way the decisions have to be approached and strategies worked out.

My one minor quibble is the board, where the border between the 2-, 3- and 4-player board is hardly visible (I even expanded over its border onceshake).

But definitely one in the mold of T&E though much more easy to understand for non-gamers...
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Bradley Keen
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PasiMax wrote:
My one minor quibble is the board, where the border between the 2-, 3- and 4-player board is hardly visible (I even expanded over its border onceshake).


I always have issues with "player count imposed borders" in games. In Assyria, and other games with a reduced board size, I always use the extra player pieces to wall off the unplayable areas.
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Brian Forsythe
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This is one of the best reviews I've read. Whereas many simply 'regurgitate' the rules, thus being more synopsis than review, you give your take on them. Looking forward to more! thumbsup
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Fran Molinero Diez
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Great review about a great game. I have played only one time but impressions can't be better. Assyria is a game that I want to repeat as soon as posible.
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David Larkin
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punkzter wrote:

I always have issues with "player count imposed borders" in games. In Assyria, and other games with a reduced board size, I always use the extra player pieces to wall off the unplayable areas.


Best solution I can think of is the one used in Evo where the board comes in two halves each of which is double sided so gives 3, 4 or 5 player options depending on which way up each half is.

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Ben
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Thanks to everyone for the support. My wife thought it was odd that I would review Assyria, of all games. But it's a game that I've really become passionate about once the depth of the player-driven strategies started to become clear.

PasiMax wrote:

But definitely one in the mold of T&E though much more easy to understand for non-gamers...

My first few games, I approached it like a generic, modern Euro (building my own things, largely ignoring my opponents). While it is very accessible when played that way (and thus can be used effectively with "gateway" gamers, it misses the soul of the game (like playing T&E as a points-generating race by building individual kingdoms in separate corners of the board).

I feel disheartened to see this game written off as bland after one play on so many convention Geeklists. I guess that was what motivated the review.


PasiMax wrote:
My one minor quibble is the board, where the border between the 2-, 3- and 4-player board is hardly visible (I even expanded over its border onceshake ).

punkzter wrote:

I always have issues with "player count imposed borders" in games. In Assyria, and other games with a reduced board size, I always use the extra player pieces to wall off the unplayable areas.

I agree that walling it off with ziggurat tiles is best (we use brown, alternating large, medium, large). It looks pretty nice.

My larger quibble, which I forgot to add to the review, is that the designers chose to remove spaces from the right side of the board. This creates an awkward gap between the playing area and Assur and the Camel track. If they had just flipped the board layout, so that I was cutting off space to the left, the two- and three-player board would feel a lot more cohesive.

Sometimes its the small things.


Zark wrote:

Best solution I can think of is the one used in Evo where the board comes in two halves each of which is double sided so gives 3, 4 or 5 player options depending on which way up each half is.

I love this idea. I wish more games employed it.



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Jim Leesch
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Excellent review. You've put this game on my radar.
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Kevin B. Smith
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Very nice review!

One minor nit: I had no idea what a ziggurat was. Since it is an unusual word, it would have been nice to define it early on. (I looked it up, and it is a monument in the form of a step pyramid).
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Jimmy Okolica
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One quibble: you seem to suggest that resupplying huts is optional, i.e. you can decide whether to let huts starve or not. However, if you've got the means to resupply them, you are required to. Which adds yet another factor in deciding what food cards (or plow) to pick up if you're trying to stockpile cards for later expansion.

Wit that said, I picked this game up based on this review and after a single play I'm glad I did. This is the first game that I've played that I can't classify. My only classification is that it's irritating, which means it will be getting a bunch more plays until I can figure it out.

Thanks for the review and keep them coming!
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Ben
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Butterfly0038 wrote:
One quibble: you seem to suggest that resupplying huts is optional, i.e. you can decide whether to let huts starve or not. However, if you've got the means to resupply them, you are required to. Which adds yet another factor in deciding what food cards (or plow) to pick up if you're trying to stockpile cards for later expansion.

I didn't intend to imply that you can save a food card and starve a hut that would have been fed with that card (in retrospect, I certainly see how that can be inferred, however).

What I was hoping to emphasize was that, with practice, one can become skilled at selecting the right hexes for new huts and/or feeding huts in the right order so as to conserve food from round to round. Conserving food is an essential skill that takes some developing, and is usually not understood by first-time players. Although the rules say that you cannot keep a food card if it can feed a hut that has not yet been fed, the rules do allow you to feed huts in any order you choose. For example, a player may want to use a plow to feed a salt hut this round, allowing him/her to keep a salt card for the next round while letting a useless fern hut starve (instead of feeding the salt hut with the salt card and then using the plow to feed the useless fern hut).

Thank you for the positive feedback, and I'm glad that you're enjoying the game. It really is its own unique design.
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Geoff Burkman
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JimmyO just introduced me to this game, and I found it quite interesting despite the frustration of flailing about that first game, trying to figure out what the heck I was doing. Fine review of a challenging game, sir, and I'll be checking out whatever other reviews you write as well.
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Andy Andersen
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Excellent work on this review - you helped me decide to try and pick this up.
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Clinton Sattler
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Thanks for these reviews. Your content and insight do a much better job of conveying the feel of a game that I can determine if I would like it more readily from your reviews than I can from even video run-throughs.

Based on your reviews alone, I have traded for or purchased both this and Archipelago, and am delighted with both. Now I just need to find a willing trade partner to part with Cavum.
 
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Excellent review of a well designed but underrated game. Your review style is spot on. Thank you for doing this.
 
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Nicholas Hjelmberg
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This review not only got my thumb but also added you to my geek buddy list. Now I just have to find the game...
 
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