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A Derk appears from the mists...
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This Reiner Knizia title is the first German game that I truly lusted after. I’d heard so many good things about the game that I simply had to find it and buy it. On a quest, I departed for the local game shop to find it and buy it. I was to be disappointed, because they were out and wouldn’t be getting any new ones until the supplier had reprinted some new ones. Sigh. “Fine, I’ll just buy this ‘El Grande’ game instead…” But that’s a different review. I ended up buying the game from Funagain.

When I finally got the shipment (after wondering if perhaps they had sent the games from Oregon to Texas via Nepal), I removed the wrapping and a metric buttload of pretty wooden pieces came tumbling out of the box. There were lots of those little wooden blocks of various colors (I’m beginning to think that there’s a law in Germany requiring game manufactures to include these little wooden blocks). Plus there are these large-ish wooden disks with silk-screened images in various colors on them, and a bunch of hefty cardboard tiles with delightful illustrations. And if that wasn’t enough for you fabulous bits fans out there, there are these neat temples constructed of two different colored wooden shapes. Classy.

The game purports to be about the rise and fall of ancient civilizations in the Euphrates and Tigris river basin, but in typical Knizia fashion, the game is little more than a multi-player abstract strategy game. Not that that is a bad thing. And of the Knizia ‘tile trilogy,’ this is easily the deepest. But on to the game mechanics. The goal is acquire four different types (colors) of victory points: Farming (blue), Religion (red), Government (black), and Trading (green). To do this each player uses four different leaders: Farmer, Priest, King, and Trader. By attaching a leader to a ‘kingdom,’ the leader will give its owner one victory point for each like colored tile that is subsequently added to the ‘kingdom.’ But what’s a kingdom?

Now, I don’t really want to get deep into the mechanics of this game because some of the rules are fairly difficult to understand (at least initially), and they aren’t needed to understand the game in a review sense. Basically, tiles are placed on the board and when several tiles are laid together with one or more leaders (anybody’s), that’s a kingdom. But the important thing to establish is that a kingdom doesn’t belong to anyone in particular. If I add a tile to a kingdom, then the leader with matching the tile type will receive a victory point of that color, regardless of the leader’s owner. Leaders of any number of players can be attached to the same kingdom, with the only restriction being that two leaders of the same type (Priest, Trader, etc.) can never be in the same kingdom at the same. If this situation arises, then conflict ensues.

There are two different ways that conflict can happen: either someone adds a leader to a kingdom that has a like-colored leader there already, or two kingdoms have grown together through play of a joining tile. And these conflicts are resolved in entirely different ways. The first one is resolved through religious influence. Each leader must always be placed next to a temple tile, and the strength of that leader’s influence on a kingdom is based on the number of temple tiles that are orthogonal to the leader. Each player counts the number of temple tiles adjacent to the leaders in question, and then adds any number of temples from the six tile hand that each player has. The highest total wins the right to remain in control of that aspect of the kingdom and one red victory point, while the loser’s leader is removed from the board.

The one distressing aspect of this type of conflict is that it tends to be the most common. And because of that, having an ample supply of temple tiles in your hand at all times is a requirement if you wish to retain control of choice locations. This seems to put too much emphasis on the importance of one type of tile, something that’s a source of consternation for gamers that don’t like chance to play such a large role in a mostly ‘brain’ intensive game. I would agree that it isn’t my favorite part of the game, but it isn’t enough of a detractor to stop playing the game. Because there certainly are ways of overcoming the problem.

The other type of conflict has the potential to be much more devastating. This happens when two different kingdoms are joined through the laying of a tile, and the new ‘super-kingdom’ has like leaders. The leaders of the rival kingdoms count the number of tiles of the particular discipline being disputed (warring traders would count the number of market tiles in each kingdom), and then add any number of like tiles from their hands. The leader with the highest total removes all the opposing leader’s tiles as well as the opposing leader, and then receives one victory point in the color being decided for each tile and leader so removed. This can be huge. It can make one player suddenly gain vast quantities of points; it can break large kingdoms into smaller ones.

So that’s the basics of the game. Then Herr Knizia adds incentive for players to squabble. The board is setup at the beginning with an assortment of evenly spaced temples, which help players setup their initial kingdoms by giving their leaders temple tiles to attach to. However on each initial temple, there is also a treasure. Treasures function as wild victory points, and tend to be very valuable and highly sought after by players. But to capture them is kind of tricky. If two or more treasures are connected (the temple tiles on which they reside are connected in one kingdom), then the player with his Trader leader attached to the kingdom gets to take all treasures except for one. The game can end two ways: all but one or two of the treasures are captured or a player needs to re-draw up to the six tile hand-limit and there aren’t any cards to draw.

Treasures are a nice resource of flexible victory points, but the best source of consistent victory points are monuments. Getting victory points usually involves spending one of your two actions per turn to lay a tile and receive a matching victory point (assuming you lay a tile on a kingdom with one of your matching leaders). But monuments give you up to two victory points every turn for each turn you control them. Monuments are formed when four tiles of the same type are laid out to form a square. The tiles are turned over, and no longer function as tiles of that type. However, you must chose a monument that has one of the colors of the original tiles that formed the temple. Then each subsequent turn, the leaders corresponding to the colors of the temple will earn another victory point of that type. This is only source of victory points that is passive; that is, players won’t need to continue laying tiles of a certain type to generate victory points. Therefore, controlling (or assuring someone else doesn’t control one) monuments is a very important part of the game, especially in the latter stages of the game.

So how does a player win? There is a very novel way of determining victory. Once the game is over (through either lack of treasures or lack of tiles), players count their victory points of each type. Your score is the number of victory points that you have the least. So if you have 15 red, 15 black, 15 blue, but only 3 green; then your score is three. And if I have 4 red, 4 black, 4 blue, and 4 green; then I’d win with a score of four. And the winner is the player who has the most of their particular least type. This makes for some interesting results. Because to win, you need a balanced source of victory points.

I really like this game. It definitely lives up to its reputation as a great game. And the game bits are awesome. If I had one complaint about the game, it’s that it’s got a fairly nasty learning curve. Meaning, if you try to induct new players, chances are very good that they’ll do something horribly wrong the first couple of games. And because the game is basically about taking advantages of mistakes such as these, the new player will lose miserably and the ‘opportunist’ will be rolling in victory points. This has a very unbalancing effect on the game. But on the whole, I can heartily recommend this game for more serious groups of gamers seeking an intense ninety-minute brain-blaster.

***Update*** I originally wrote this review more than two years ago. In the span of two years, I still haven't degraded my overall opinion of the game. Yes, it can be a tad random, but I think part of the fun for me in this game is trying to overcome the randomness. Plus, since it's been around the table for a long, long time, we almost never have to re-explain the rules, which means we can play the game in about an hour (depends greatly on what kinda game it turns into). Still as dependent as ever on thoughtful play by all players. And I truly don't like the Mayfair version of the game. Too busy to suit me. When I see a Mayfair board mid-game, I just get seasick. ???
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Gareth Russell
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Useful review.
 
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Philip Thomas
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Yes, pretty useful. For some reason I always end up playing this with 3... and it is very good like that. Anyone know about how good it is with 4 or 2, and how the game changes in those conditions?
 
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