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Subject: September 26, 2004 rss

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Joe Gola
United States
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and everything under the sun is in tune
There were eight of us at Joe Lee's on Sunday night, a fine and auspicious number for an evening of gaming. The first two picks were Puerto Rico and Tichu, and, not quite feeling up to the mental strain of PR, I jumped in on the card game. The teams were me and Chris versus Marty McMartin and Eric Summerer.

This turned out to be a very enjoyable game, or at least it was for me and Chris. We leapt out to an absurd lead within the first four hands after scoring a tichu and twice going out one after the other. The score was exactly six hundred to two hundred, and in a couple more hands it was something like eight hundred to four hundred. Then, suddenly, we were going nowhere. In the rounds that followed, most of the ground we gained was negated by flubbed tichu attempts, and in the time it took us to eventually net ninety-five points the other team had clawed its way to eight hundred. Things were tense; if Martin and Eric pulled off a comeback then we would simply never hear the end of it. For the rest of our lives there would be e-mails, faxes, and singing candygrams arriving every day to remind us how we had choked at Tichu on September 26, 2004. Well, Martin saved us; he botched a tichu, sending Team Chump back to 705 points while Chris and I snuggled up to the finish line with 990. Final score: 1190 to 705.

Truth be told, however, the Tichu score was of secondary importance; the real focus of our attentions was the competition in the fine art of trash-talking. This was not a game for the faint-hearted; on these occasions the foulness and obscenity that habitually streams from Martin's mouth is concentrated into a focused beam of withering invective, and few are the gamers who have not cowered in fear when that frightful force is brought to bear upon them. Eric too contributed to the delivery of smack, tagging in whenever Martin had to stop for a breath of air or a drink of water. Some might assume that I was handicapped by being paired with the quiet, well-mannered Chris B. Not so. Chris's verbal kung-fu style is as deadly as that of his game-playing; he keeps a low profile to lull his prey into a false sense of security, and then, when they've finally rolled over to warm their bellies in the sun, in goes the knife, up behind the bone.

As the game wore on, the level of profanity progressed from Basic Barnyard to Advanced Longshoreman, and it eventually became so foul that Joe's left-hand neighbor called the fire department while the right-hand neighbor summoned a Catholic Priest to perform an exorcism on Martin. Naturally, the insults were not restricted to insinuations of ineptitude for game-playing but touched on such various topics as poor hygiene, out-of-date wardrobe, inexpensive education, uneven haircuts, childhood victimization by schoolyard toughs, claims of possession of photographs of sisters engaged in intimate congress and discounted sale of same, illegitimacy, impotence, brain damage, enuresis, and your mama so fat her Rascal got a towing motor.*

Eric and I also performed a stirring duet of "Down Mexico Way."

Both tables finished their games within five or ten minutes of each other, so we got ready to pick two new titles and shuffle players. Dave pulled Ra. Tempted I was to jump on that little honey, but I decided instead to take my own journey thru the past, back a mere five thousand years to the days when Gilgamesh and Enkidu were still pitching pennies behind the ziggurat, back when Enlil would still return your calls and Ishtar's good name had not yet been sullied by a bad road movie starring Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman. Yes, it was time for Euphrat & Tigris. Joe Lee was the lion, Eric Summerer the archer, Marty McMartin the potter and I was the Bull of Heaven.

Most of the game centered around three large kingdoms, one in the top left of the board, one in the top right, and one at bottom center. For purposes of brevity we'll call these Nippur, Lagash and Uruk. I began the game by putting my king down next to the square of river tiles to found the kingdom of Lagash; unfortunately Joe's trader built a house in the suburbs and the property values plummeted, so I switched my focus to the kingdom of Nippur, which Eric had founded. Over time I got my priest, trader and farmer in there and then expanded to the corner to snag a treasure.

I spent the early game strengthening my position while a few sloppy wars were being waged by Martin and/or Eric in the area around Uruk. However, as good as my situation was, I could not resist the pull to conquest and glory, and I began coveting Joe's placement of trader back in Lagash, as it was now backed up by many market tiles and was also on the verge of crossing the river and grabbing a treasure. Could I oust him? I started doing the math, but before I could come to a decision Martin resolved the difficulty for me; he caused a dinky kingdom in the bottom right of the board, one which harbored his farmer and his trader, to attack Lagash and Joe's trade leader. By the grace of Ishtar he pulled it off and booted Joe, but he might have been better served by consulting with Ninsun, the goddess of prudence. The connection between Martin's leaders and the bulk of the kingdom was but a thread; a disaster tile quickly snapped the tether and my trader settled into the spot that Joe had been so kindly warming for me. Martin had even done me the favor of kicking out the farmer, and so I could earn a blue cube through my black leader when I scooted across the river and snagged the treasure that I had been hankering after.

Still not satisfied with the booty in hand, I now began to lust after the poorly-guarded wild cube in Uruk. This would be a tricky treasurectomy, though, because the most direct route of attack would in all likelihood cause the ousting of leaders and so break my connection to the target kingdom before I got my reward. Once again, Martin was my earnest supporter and true friend; he went in first, softened the place up, but left the treasure where it was. I immediately strolled into the broken-and-entered store and walked off with the cashbox that the burglar forgot to take.

In acquiring my third treasure I also won an external conflict in black, giving me a total score of six. I was absolutely certain that I was in the lead at this point, and so I began to take stock of the situation. Because my scores in the various colors were mostly even, it would take me two whole turns to move my score up to seven. What sort of mischief might the other guys get into during that time? True, a nice external conflict might increase my rate of point-gathering, but even though I had excellent board position, things were such that there were no good opportunities; the enemy was either a little too far away or else he was behind a river, and blue was the one color in which I was weakest.

Wouldn't it be great if the game could end right now?

Hmm. The bag is pretty empty....

What if I just kept trading tiles and forced the end of the game?


I was halfway through a turn, and so I exchanged my remaining tiles, and passed the bag.

The other guys saw what I was up to, of course, and now a certain sense of urgency set in. Realizing he had to make a play now or forever hold his pieces, Eric launched a desperate external conflict against Joe; Joe won, but the resulting loss of tiles broke the connection between rival leaders and thus ended the fighting. My turn rolled around again and I cycled through twelve tiles, but, much to my agony, did not empty the bag. Joe, on his second free turn, effortlessly counterattacked the weakened Eric and won that conflict as well. The game ended before the bag made its way back to me, and when the veils were lifted I discovered that the two external conflicts that Joe had won were just enough to give him the lead. The final scores were Joe Lee 7, Joe G. 6, Martin 5, Eric 4.

In retrospect I'm kicking myself for my endgame stunt, particularly because it wasn't really necessary. I was in good position regarding external conflicts, and on top of that I had three treasures, so there wasn't any pressure to score in one particular color. I was by no means a lock to win, but by giving everyone else two free turns in such a close game I was a lock to lose.

It is interesting to note that no monuments were built. Sometimes I wonder if the monuments were only included in the game to add a little something extra to the two- and three-player versions, something to keep people from just napping in opposite corners. It seems to me that the four-player game just doesn't need the additional element, as the board is so crowded people tend to have to fight each other whether they like it or not.

I had been anxious to try E&T again because, after playing an interesting game a few months ago, I decided that I really needed to figure out what I thought about it once and for all. I did like the game, but at the same time it never really grabbed me in the way that other Knizia titles have, and so I was somewhat baffled by the game's overwhelming popularity. In a moment of extreme cynicism it even seemed to me that the game's reputation was nothing more than a self-fulfilling prophecy; everyone tells new converts to the hobby that E&T is the best, and so in embracing gamerism the neophytes embrace the flagship game as part of the package, and six months later they tell the next guy the same thing.

However, assuming I was correct in this train of thought, the notion of E&T's greatness still had to originate somewhere; there had to be that first acceptance and push. Who threw the snowball that started the avalanche? The reviews here on the 'geek are not particularly inspiring--merely the rites of worship, not the prophecy--and even in the older blurbs on Funagain the reputation of E&T seems to be a foregone conclusion and not something that was being brought into existence.

Finally, I found it: the rave to end all raves, Mike Siggins's 1997 Euphrat & Tigris review in Sumo. He ends up giving it nine out of ten stars, but one gets the distinct impression that ten out of ten is reserved for some kind of Platonic ideal that does not exist in our workaday reality. One also catches a glimpse of the gaming landscape back then and is reminded that competition was not quite so fierce in those days; according to Siggins, Knizia's top work to date was Modern Art, High Society, Auf Heller und Pfennig and Medici; the promise of a heretofore-unseen Knizia "gamer's game" meant that E&T had attained the status of a classic even before it was released.

More importantly, Siggins's review is a nice piece of writing, and a convincing one to boot. The paragraph breaks have been lost in the mists of time, but it's very much worth reading, no matter what your opinion of the game:

It would have been easy to brush aside E&T in my own mind at that point, but I have learned at least one lesson in life, and that is that it's a bad idea to assume that other people's preferences are motivated by something other than true inclination when they do not correspond to my own. So, as I said, on Sunday I decided to give Euphrat & Tigris another shot, determined to try to view it without preconceptions, either good or bad.

This time, finally, the game clicked, and what I found was that even if it won't be an absolute favorite for me, it's certainly at the level of the rest of the Knizia's work, and I can now see how it might be someone else's "10". It's elegant in its own way, even if some of the rules are a little convoluted, and it kneads the brains and churns the guts with lots of drama and tension at every turn. It also bears the hallmark of all of the Doctor's work, that amazing degree of replayability; Knizia's games all seem to have that standard-deck-of-cards quality in that they're incredibly easy to jump into and yet each game seems fresh and new and unlike the last. The random elements are not some peripheral danglings to keep things from being monotonous, but rather the levers and axles that drive everything and which the players must shift and shuttle to further their own ends.

In short, it's another great game by a guy who makes a lot of great games, and considering the strength of the designer's body of work it's not surprising that one particular title has been singled out to be the gamer's ideal.

There is one slight flaw to it in my eyes, though--and Mike Siggins touches on this too--in that it has a certain light/not light feel to it. You see, you have the random element of the tile draws, and even if you advance the "a good player can make do with any tile draw" argument--I don't totally buy that, by the way, but we'll leave that aside for now--you're still left with the fact that even a seemingly safe external conflict can blow up in your face when your opponent is packing an abnormally large number of the crucial color. Now, all that's not necessarily a bad thing, but it does clash with the fact that the game does often require a certain amount of strenuous, chess-type brainwork, particularly when it comes to trying to figure out the risks and rewards of complicated conflicts. I find that this dissonance within the feel of the game is a slight imperfection, though not so much so as to turn me away from it.

The only other thing I have to say about Euphrat & Tigris is that I disagree with those who feel that the theme is incidental. I've read interviews with Knizia where he said that the theme came first, and I believe him. The game is very much about the important aspects of this time and place as we conceive of them from this remote date: the building blocks of civilization and the creation of order versus the greed and jealousy that achievement brings and the destruction that follows.** Now, I'll grant you, the game is a severe abstraction of the theme, but the theme does inform the game play quite nicely, and it would be awfully hard to learn without it.

We finished up the night with the Knizia card game Drahtseilakt as a closer. The players were Joe Lee, David Woodford, Chris, and me. It was somewhat late, so we played the friendly version of the game where card counting is not possible. I swiped the score sheet after the game was over so you can see how we all did.

First round: Chris 1, JG 1, Joe Lee 1, Dave 5.
Second round: Chris 4, JG 7, Joe Lee 0, Dave 0 (if you score zero points in a hand you can also erase one of your previous rounds' points)
Third round: Chris 6, JG 13, Joe Lee 0, Dave 2
Fourth Round: Chris 17, JG 20, Joe Lee 4, Dave 11.

As you can see, my tightrope-walking skills were consistently poor. Thank God I was wearing a helmet.

Drahtseilakt is a nice little game, somewhat similar to Land Unter (or Zum Kuckuck), except that card play is not simultaneous and playing a low card can be as problematic as playing a high one. There are a lot of little interesting details that one can take into account--for instance, who you'd like to see get hurt, and the desirability of going as close to last in a round as possible--and so the game has a little more going on than might first meet the eye. Next time I'll play without the extra cards in the deck for an an even more "serious" contest.

It was nice to get to sit across from the table from Dave again; for some reason we never seem to be playing the same game at the same time. I do mourn the loss of his moustache and goatee, though; it was facial hair that said "I'm just a henchman right now, but I'm taking night classes in supervillainy."


*There was also a lot of talk about pizza. You see, where I come from, the whole point of the pizza is the grease, and when it comes to toppings, you choose items that will only augment and not detract from the ooze and oil. Acceptable options are:

- pepperoni
- sausage
- garlic
- extra cheese

However, at Joe's house, there seems to be some perverse competition to suggest the most asinine type of pizza that man can conceive. Squab and chutney pizza. Pot roast and rhubarb pizza. Endive and jerky pizza. Even should a normal ingredient accidentally be included, it is immediately canceled out by some bizarre partner; it would never be sufficient to have just pepperoni on a pizza, it must be pepperoni and chard. Sausage must be paired with aspic, and garlic with wedges of clementine. What has driven Joe's friends to this psychotic behavior I can't imagine; all I know is that I am the one who must suffer.

**Primitive as the Mesopotamians were, being king was still a big deal back in those days, and, reading Herbert Mason's loose translation of the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh, it's easy to see why people were so willing to fight for the job:

As king, Gilgamesh was a tyrant to his people.
He demanded, from an old birthright,
The privilege of sleeping with their brides
Before the husbands were permitted.

A nice little perquisite, that, though you'd probably end up spending a fortune on wedding presents. Nothing's perfect, I guess.
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Bryan Rankin
United States
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That's No Session Report
How dare you bury that fascinating discussion of E&T in a session report! angry I almost skimmed right past it. I have played the game many times, and I think it's great, but I too had often wondered why so many think it is the second coming.
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Eric Jome
United States
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A most excellent report.

"a good player can make do with any tile draw" argument--I don't totally buy that, by the way

Good... don't. Because it isn't true. Anecdotally, I have played a couple dozen games of T&E and even against a table of people playing for their first time, it can be very challenging to win if you don't get the tiles.

The game is all about external and internal fights. What do you need to win those? Tiles. And tiles are drawn randomly. So, even the best laid plans will come down to yours set of tiles behind your screen versus an opponent's set of tiles behind their screen. The most elite level of play seems to involve provoking external conflicts between other players to discover what they have in their hand... but that is a remarkably difficult challenge with tiles flying off the board after each external conflict resolution.

T&E is a great game for replayability, variation of strategy, concept, and fun factor. It's only real flaw is the dependency on randomness.

I have suggested in the past adding a house rule. You can pitch tiles and then rummage through the bag for whatever tiles you want. This takes both your actions (ie your entire turn) and you must show everyone the tiles you picked. I have yet to try this out seriously, but I would be curious to know what other people would do.
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Kevin Lloyd
United Kingdom
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You mean this isn't a tribute to my wedding aniversary? Doh!
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