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Subject: Review of 'Babel' rss

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Maarten D. de Jong
Netherlands
Zaandam
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1. INTRODUCTION

Babel is a board-supported card game for two players. With this I mean: if you ever lose or damage the board, it's really no big deal. The objective of the game is to build several temples (which are really quite odd-looking ziggurats) consisting of 6 stage seach faster than your opponent. The winner is the one who reaches a total preset number of building stages first. In order to delay the other player, you can pull off numerous tricks such as stealing stages, or collapsing the entire construct.

Most people 'in the know' will look at this game and remark something along the lines of 'Hey, this looks just like Lost Cities!'. Indeed, there is a strong outward resemblance between the two games. Compare these two pictures:



On the left Babel, on the right Lost Cities. Both feature the rectangular board, both have something on the board, both have five sets of overlapping cards at each players side. However, in terms of gameplay, we are dealing with two quite different beasts. I will not use Lost Cities as a base of comparison in this review, but since many people seem to buy this pair precisely because of the resemblance, I thought it useful to point out that we are really dealing with two separate titles.


2. GAME MATERIAL

In the sturdy box we find a game board, a rule booklet, 2 stone playing pieces, 45 temple cards picturing temples at various stages of completion and 60 tribe cards, subdivided into 5 groups of 12 identical specimens. We also find a simple plastic tray which holds the components perfectly. (Yes, apparently some publishers still think about storage... Hats off to them!)

The artwork on the board depicts 10 temple construction sites: 2 for each of the 5 tribes. Every player controls one site per tribe. I find the artwork a little too detailed, but since it is also obscured for most of the time playing the game, I guess that very minor gripe takes care of itself. Strictly speaking the board is not required for play: it just organises things. The temple cards are so-so: I really cannot tell from the size of the temple whether it is at stage 2, 3 or 4. The halo at stage 6 (the highest level; at this point the temple is completed) is a bit corny. Fortunately there are numbers on those cards so there is no confusion over that particular stage. The tribe cards serve their purpose and are clearly distinguishable due to their colour.

The rule booklet is extensive, offering numerous examples of more advanced tricks. However, make sure you read it, because I had the 'pleasure' of skipping the same important little detail on two separate occasions, leading to rather unfavourable responses from the players. Nevertheless, it serves as a good reference and leaves no questions unanswered.


3. GAME PLAY

Game play proceeds in 3 phases per player turn. First, a player draws 3 new tribe cards from the closed deck, adding them to his hand. Second, he chooses any number of the following actions:

1] moving his stone playing piece to a different construction site
2] laying down tribe cards column-wise under construction sites
3] building various stages of temples
4] invoking special powers of the column-arranged tribes
5] (once per turn): move the last three tribe cards from one column to another

He can do whatever he likes, provided he meets the requirements for the above actions. Then comes the final phase: ending the turn by drawing two new temple cards and adding them to his temple card column in descending order. (This is the little detail I forgot on two occasions. You might wish to try for yourself what it does to the game.)

Actions 2, 3 and 4 can only be performed (and are only effective) at the construction site where the player's own playing piece resides. This move costs one tribe card in the colour of the construction site you wish to go to; if you don't have that colour, too bad. It may not seem like a big deal, but it affects your strategy considerably, especially in the later stages of the game when there are lots of tribe cards already arranged in columns. You cannot really predict where your opponent is going to build his temples either, so pre-positioning strategies tend not to be very succesful.

By laying down tribe cards in any order he choses at a particular construction site of his own, a player acquires the right to build as many stages of a temple as there are tribe cards in that column. The stages must be built in ascending order without skips, and are drawn from the end of either player's column of temple cards. In other words, you can pick a temple card from your column or from that of your opponent. If the correct stage is not available, then further construction at that site is (temporarily) suspended.

A player can opt to invoke special powers of his tribes when 3 or more identical tribe cards are arranged in sequential order within one and the same column, and this is where Babel shows just how nasty it can get. At the cost of discarding one of these cards in the column, you can:

* collapse the entire temple of your opponent at his site, returing the temple cards face-down to the stack
* rob the top stage of the temple of your opponent, putting it on your site---skipping stages is allowed here
* force one particular tribe from the tribe column of your opponent to be discarded entirely
* force the last tribe of your opponents column to become traitors and join your column
* skip a temple building stage, provided the stage you intend to build is available at either temple card column
* force the other player to discard half of the cards in his hand.

To give a somewhat simplified example of how devastating a combination of these actions can become, consider the following. Your opponent has a temple at layer 6 somewhere. First you invoke a pre-positioned 'rob stage' sequence, moving his 6th temple stage to your own site. You then move three cards from one of your other columns to this one forming the 'collapse temple' sequence, and instruct your opponent to return all stages of his temple to the closed stack of temple cards, ifhewouldbesokindthankyouverymuch... (Please note that pulling off a stunt like this on your spouse may result in you sleeping on the couch.)

Fortunately such combined events are not common, but you will experience a few temple collapses or stage robberies before the game ends. And these will inevitably set you back considerably. As a result, it is impossible to tell who is going to win until the very end: the balance of power can easily shift sides in as many turns. Babel forces you to pay close attention to what your opponent is up to and build up some defenses against likely threats. However, because the opponent can force you to discard half of your cards, holding on to a large hand is not such a good idea.

The game ends when one player has a total number of stages of 15 or more, and the other one 9 or less. If that other has 10 or more, a 'sudden death' rule comes into effect: either be the first to reach 20 (in which case you win), or be the first to drop to 9 or less (in which case you lose).


4. OPINION

Learning Babel is not easy due to all the various actions you have at your disposal. Their number is surprising for a strict two players-only game. It is also not always clear how to lay down cards in columns since you want to be able to build temples, but also have the possibility of swapping about in order to form proper tribe sequences. Forgetting a rule causes serious problems, resulting in a game which is definitely not fun to play at all.

However, once that is all behind you, Babel begins to show off its true identity. It is not a game where you quietly manage your cards to achieve the goal of 15 stages. Cards come as they are drawn and turned over, and only by using what is already laid down can you work around an unlucky draw. This requires good knowledge of what is possible with various actions, but there are times when it is just too much of a hassle, or simply not possible. Fortunately, in the beginning of the game there is neither opportunity nor need to engage in lengthy action phases; you can pretty much put down cards where you see fit. However, once the total number of stages exceeds 8 or 9, it all changes.

Then the game becomes swift, very opportunistic, and forces you to prey shamelessly on your opponent. Brutal sums it up quite nicely. Having 14 stages reduced to 8 thanks to a stunt I described above, while at the same time seeing your opponents' total rise from 7 or 8 to 12 is a sobering experience. It is characteristic of play when the game begins to inch towards a conclusion. You have to be able to stand such wild fluctuations in order to appreciate Babel: you cannot avoid them. If you don't like this, or really do make your spouse sleep on the couch as a result, you should consider playing something else.

Because the game can turn into a rather agressive match, you would like it to be over as soon as reasonably possible. In most games I've played, that is indeed the case. However, sometimes it is not: creative card shuffling backed by some lucky draws can stretch the end phase of the game to an uncomfortable degree, even with the sudden death-rule in effect. When finally a winner is determined it is not always clear whether it was caused by good play or unlucky cards: the pace of the game at that stage is such that building up a buffer of sorts against nasty attacks is no longer possible. On rare occasions, both players have dodged the bullet for so long that you instinctively decide that you both win no matter what the outcome: I am reminded of a fierce (table) tennis match where both players against all odds keep returning the ball until one player finally misses by a hair.

After about a dozen games with the correct rules (and about five with the wrong ones) I can conclude that the game wears well with age. Babel definitely takes on a character of its own. The number of actions you can carry out give you plenty of opportunity to arrange the cards in various threatening and defensive ways: this keeps the game lively, as well as your opponent on his toes. It is not a deep game as the rearranging is opportunistic and performed on quite an ad hoc basis. While I don't play the game often, I find that I always enjoy the tension for a game or two before I move on to something else.


5. CONCLUSION

If you fancy a bit of a nasty and quite tactical game for two, Babel is a good choice to make; I would recommend against choosing it as the main 2-player game in your collection because you do require a certain mindset in order to emerge victorious.




1st edit: corrected various minor grammatical errors
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