Though here at journey's end I lie in darkness buried deep, beyond all towers strong and high, beyond all mountains steep, above all shadows rides the Sun, and Stars forever dwell: I will not say the Day is done, nor bid the Stars farewell.
Originally posted on menwithdice.com. Used with forgiveness, since that was easier than getting perimission.
Cleopatra and the Society of the Architects takes place in ancient Egypt. Players are a part of the titular architect society and doing their best to build various things for the titillating Cleopatra. As you build, you’ll earn talents (that’s money, for those of you in Rio Linda), and the most at the end wins. The game seats 3-5 competitors who will put their architectural skills to the test for about 60-90 minutes.
This review will analyze Cleopatra through the lense of comparisons to other games. I’m not saying that the subject games are perfectly similar. There is simply an element in one that lets me illustrate something about the other.
It’s like Ticket to ride – Your primary decision each turn in Cleopatra is just like in Ticket to Ride. You either draw cards or you play cards. Like Ticket to Ride, you have a few simple options when you draw cards. Most of the cards in Cleopatra represent different construction materials, and a few have special text. You select one of three stacks of cards and take the entire contents. Half the cards are face up, half are face down and shuffled together. This results in only being able to see about half the cards you could potentially get.
After grabbing a stack, you draw three cards and add one of them to each of the three piles, to be chosen from by your opponents. Placing those three cards is a nice little decision point in trying to not make anything too lucrative for your opponent’s to snatch. So both games have a major decision point on drawing or playing cards, and each has a secondary decision on how to optimize card drawing.
Playing cards is straightforward in both TTR and Cleopatra. Once you’ve collected your desired set of cards, you use your turn to discard them in order to put some plastic on the board. Both games have desirable building locations that players will race to try to get to first. TTR is all about the tear between the greed to draw more cards to get the big point connections vs the fear to turn in sets before someone else claims the route you had your eye on. Cleopatra has a tiny portion of this kind of tension, but that’s not really what Cleo has to offer. Instead, players must control their fear and greed through another way. More on that later.
It like Settlers– Most cards in Cleopatra represent a resource. To build stuff, you play the cards with the corresponding combination of resources. Unlike Ticket to Ride, instead of trying to accumulate a single color, you need a specific combination construction elements. There are 6 different features to build, each requiring a different permutation of materials. For example, it takes 1 Artisan, 1 Stone, and 1 Marble to build a sphinx.
Unlike settlers, there’s not much trading. But it is reminiscent of Catan, since every building type has a different blend of resources that it costs. So instead of negotiating or strategizing your resource production for particular resource combinations, you pay attention to what is in the stacks of cards you are drawing and replenishing. You evaluate what you need versus what you are going to allow your opponent’s to have.
It’s like Blue Moon City – The player’s first person perspective in both games is that of an architect. In either game, you’re collecting cards in order to turn in sets to be able to contribute to construction. In both games, each built structure nets you income, and that income contributes towards the game’s victory. In both games, as elements are completed, there’s a web of connection on how it impacts income produced for linked features. For example, in Cleopatra, when building a door frame, you get a bonus for each connected wall. When building a wall, you get bonus money for each connected mosaic of the gods square. When building a mosaic of the god, you get bonus money for each bush you squish.
In each game players have to choose what sequence they will build stuff, based on how building stuff impacts income of building other stuff. Either game requires players to evaluate not only how it impacts you, but also about the opportunities you leave for your opponents. For example, I could get a great placement on the Mosaics of the gods, but it could potentially set up my opponent for an incentivized wall. Someone has to blink first, and then another player is able to come in and build the newly incentivized feature.
It’s like The Queens Gambit – The toy factor in both games is huge. Both have multi tiered boards creating a 3D vista.
Queen’s gambit is an epic 3 story tower, while Cleopatra makes clever use of the box itself to have a multi leveled layout. Many of the construction elements are cool, detailed, large plastic pieces.
To further expand the 3D component experience, each player has a pyramid to hide corruption tokens in.
Queen’s Gambit is impressive immediately upon set up, while the Cleopatra board gets more and more interesting as the different features are built. It’s fun to watch the board come together and get populated with cool plastic toys. The component factor is very impressive, and the resulting building structures are fun to watch erect. Both games are able to draw positive responses from folks and make a good first impression based on the cool bits. Both go over the top and exceed expectations for visual presentation of the board. Cleopatra sits well in my collection among my other games of highly reputable componentry such as Queen’s Gambit.
It’s like War of the Ring– While the rules, mechanics, and weight of these games are vastly different, playing as the fellowship in War of the Ring presents the same type of decision that you have in Cleopatra. In both cases, it’s all about corruption management. Everything mentioned previously are minor features of Cleopatra, but what primarily makes this game interesting is that there are several elements that give you construction advantages, but at the cost of corruption. At the end of the game, before totaling score, players compare corruption. The most corrupt player is fed to Cleopatra’s crocodile and isg thus eliminated and ineligible to win. I for one think it’s great that a game sends the message that feeding a reptile is more important than a person’s life.
Corruption is a part of Cleo’s hand management process. There’s a ten card hand threshold. If you exceed it, you have to deal with corruption. However, there’s a bonus for building multiple items in one turn. To build lots of stuff in one turn, you gotta collect a lot of cards. So there’s incentive to stockpile cards while at the same time it puts you at risk of being slowly digested for over a 1000 minutes.
A lot of the resource cards can give you corruption. There are cards with double resources or special text, both of which compensate the player with corruption. The game pulls you in one direction to get the most money in order to win, but forces you to risk complete elimination if you push to hard and too greedily.
It’s conceptually similar to War of the Ring, where the fellowship has to move as fast as it can before the shadow conquers middle earth. This is no simple matter as moving the fellowship every chance you get, for the more you move the fellowship in the same turn, the higher the risk of accumulating corruption which will give victory to the shadow.
It is through corruption control that Cleo causes players to reconcile their fear against their greed. Generally, in Cleopatra, the more you utilize the corrupting options, the more talents you’re accumulating. Both games require you to throttle forward as fast as you can in order to win, while at the same time, the faster you go, the greater risk you have of losing everything to corruption. The conflict between the greed of getting the most talents against the fear of having the most corruption is a huge part of what makes Cleopatra interesting.
There’s one part of the game where the fear/greed tension is magnified to it’s highest level. Once or twice per game an offering to the priests will be triggered. When this happens, all players secretly select a number of their talents to bid. All players then reveal their bid. The highest removes 3 corruption, all remaining players will gain corruption. The second highest bid gains 1, the third highest bid gains 2, and so on. This is a major point in the game for players to adjust their corruption standing. The decision here is huge both in impact on winning the game and in difficulty. I’ve seen players try to secure the highest bid in fear of corruption and end up not having the most talents due to this bid. Conversely, I’ve seen players under bid at this point and end up being eliminated because they greedily hoarded their talents.
It’s like Blokus– One of the construction elements in Cleopatra is the Mosaics of the gods. The mosaics are similar to the shapes you see in Blokus. It’s almost like a light Blokus mini game inside of Cleopatra.
While placing the mosaics, you get more talents for placing and covering grass spots (which is historically accurate if you recall Cleopatra’s disdain for photosynthesis), but at the same time if you cordon off an area you also have a chance to claim it, and remove corruption corresponding to how large of an area you blocked for yourself. In Cleopatra, you can put a piece anywhere as long as it fits, so it does not have the abstract strategy challenge of Blokus. While placement rules in Cleopatra is much easier, both games offer a spatial relationship decision, and has strain between fitting pieces in efficiently versus hogging up wide open areas to yourself. The placement of the mosaics is often what players spend most of their time deliberating on, since there’s a lot of time spent rotating the piece and trying different positions while evaluating how much money it can get you, how big of a space you can claim, and what opportunities you leave for your opponents.
It’s like Nexus Ops –Cleopatra’s good use of a player aid is nearly as successful as Nexus Op’s implementation. In both games, the included player aid is so good, I don’t teach the game, I teach how to read the player aid. Everything you need to know about Cleopatra is on the aid. It’s pretty comprehensive. The vast majority of rule questions can be answered on that little card. Higher props goes to Nexus Op’s aid, since everything was able to be put on a single side.
As far as the weightiness of the game, Cleo and Nexus are in the same league. It would be fair to say that as far as rules complexity and length are concerned, Cleo is the European style cousin of Nexus. They both have the same level of easy approachability with their accessible rules set.
Perhaps the best fit for Cleopatra in your game collection is the niche between gateway game and gamers game. After taking that first step into the larger world via Carcassonne, a good follow up into something more involved but not overwhelming would be Cleopatra. It’s not deep, it’s not heavy, but nonetheless has interesting elements while maintaining accessibility. There’s just enough meat to it that the hobby gamer will enjoy it along with the casual gamer. And I think not only do we learn about the moral complexities of architectural challenges in ancient Egypt, but we all learn a little something about ourselves, too. And in the end, isn’t that the real truth? The answer, is No.
Well I personally find these associations tenuous at best, contrived, and very "gimmicky".
But I LOVED the review anyway!
I find the title gimmicky, but I love your comparison of the mechanics to other games (the Nexus Ops one was too much of a stretch). I will say that this is how I teach games to people: I compare similar elements from other games and I point out specific unique mechanics they do not know.
So, I like the way you have done that here. Good job.
Oh, and Leonard Nimoy, awesome.
Comparison reviews are my favourite. If there are game aspects that resemble another game I am familiar with, it gives me a far better indication of how it will suit me and my gaming friends compared to someone else telling me what they did and did not like. Thanks very much.