Tuesday, June 30, 2009

No time for love, Doctor Jones

Designed by Peter Prinz

In Thebes, players take on the role of competing archaeologists who are trying to earn fame and fortune by discovering ancient artifacts from long-dead civilizations.


The board depicts a map of Europe and North Africa, set at the beginning of the 1900's. Spaces on the board include major cities such as Paris and London and ancient ruin sites ranging from Mesopotamia to Greece to Egypt. Players move between these areas, collecting research, supplies, and team members from modern cities, and then using these resources to dig for artifacts among the ruins.

Four cards rest face-up on the board. While the cards have different functions, each has two common elements: the city where that card can be obtained, and an amount of time (in weeks) it takes to pick up the card.

The edge of the board contains a 52-week time track with a token representing each player's progress throughout the year. Every action takes a variable number of weeks, so the players will rarely occupy the exact same time slot. The track also determines the players' turn order; the person currently "earliest" in the year moves first, which means the order is constantly changing.

Each turn, a player can make one movement action, moving anywhere on the board -- spending one week for each "hop" traveled -- and then perform one of three actions:

- Pick up a card located in the current city, spending the number of weeks shown on the card.

- Dig for artifacts. If a player is at a dig site and has any knowledge about the civilization in that location, from one to twelve weeks can be spent on a dig expedition. The amount of time spent digging increases the number of tiles the player draws from that dig site.

- Discard and replace all face-up cards. A player must be in Warsaw to perform this action.

There are several different cards, each important in its own way:

- Knowledge - These colored "books" represent research performed on a specific civilization. The more knowledge a player possesses, the more tiles that can be drawn from the dig bag during an expedition. There are also General Knowledge cards that count as any color (but take longer to research) and Rumor cards that act as one-shot Knowledge for a single dig.

- Legislature - These are straight "victory point" cards. Picking one up has no effect until scoring at the end of the game. However, the points awarded by each Legislature card increases exponentially as more cards are collected by any one player -- a single card isn't worth much, but eight or nine will award a player with a flood of points at the game's end.

- Shovels and Research Assistants - These represent supplies and staff. Possessing shovels allows a player to draw extra tiles from a dig bag, while research assistants act as bonus research of all colors.

- Automobiles and Zeppelins - These allow a player to move around the map more quickly.

- Exhibitions - These cards have colored dots representing artifacts from different civilizations. If a player possesses the right combination of artifacts, these cards can be collected simply by going to the city on the card and spending the requisite number of weeks exhibiting the artifacts.

Digging allows a player to draw tiles from one of five canvas bags, representing the different dig sites. Each bag contains several artifacts, a few "bonus knowledge" tiles, and several empty sand tokens. The number of tiles drawn is determined by the level of knowledge of the civilization, as well as the number of weeks spent digging. A small cardboard wheel is supplied for each player, printed with a cross reference between knowledge points, weeks digging, and the number of tiles drawn.

Artifacts and knowledge drawn from the bag are kept by the player, while any empty sand tiles are returned to the bag. This means that over the course of the game, each bag will gradually contain fewer artifacts, reducing the likelihood of good returns from a given dig.

The game ends after a predetermined number of years. Once the last player's token has passed the year-end mark on the time-track for the final time, scores are tallied. Each artifact collected from digs has a point value printed on the token. Add in any points given for collected Legislature and Exhibition cards. Finally, compare amassed knowledge: the player with the most knowledge points of each color gains a bonus 5 points (which can have a huge effect if a single player can master two or three -- or more -- knowledge categories). The player with the most points wins.


As you may have gathered from my previous reviews, I tend to avoid very heavy games, rarely wanting to delve too deeply into a huge multi-hour boardgame or deep economic simulation. Because of this, when the game's owner began introducing the rules for Thebes, I held my breath as the dozen or so different types of cards in the deck were explained.

However, the complexity began and ended with the cards, and the rest of the rules turned out to be quite streamlined and intuitive. While each player will amass a huge number of cards throughout the course of the game, almost none of them have to be "used" -- most are simply a display of available resources. Each turn is a simple "move and act" process, so once a player understands the individual cards, there's not much else that has to be memorized.

Gameplay flows quite well. The time-based turn system is quite innovative, and it allows for some unique strategy -- for example, if you're a few weeks behind the other players, you can sometimes perform a few quick actions all in sequence before anyone else gets a turn. It's also very easy to figure out when the game will end, so strategies can be formed to fit one or two last digs or exhibitions in before the end of the year.

The only downside to the variable turn order system is that when performing a very long action (say, a 12-week dig), it may be a long while before a player will get to act again. During my second game, I initiated some very long digs -- at one point, I got up, went to the restroom, bought a cookie from the newsstand, and sat back down… and it wasn't even close to being my turn yet.

I am quite impressed by the different strategies that are available to the players. Gathering several Legislature cards can allow one to run away with the game (as I gleefully discovered during our very first session), but only if the other players don't stop it. Doing early "quick digs" may only allow a few draws from the dig bags, but with the best chance of drawing artifacts. A slower, research-heavy strategy can allow a player to draw an insane number of tiles from the bags, but the bags won't be as well-stocked because the draws are made later in the game. And Exhibitions are always a strong option for a player lucky enough to hold the correct combination of artifacts.

If there's one element of Thebes that doesn't appeal to me personally, it's the complete lack of player interaction. In true Euro-style, there's no way to directly interfere with anyone else's actions. At best, you can try to swoop in to grab a desirable face-up card before an opponent, or try to perform preemptive digs to try to deplete the dig bags. Once it becomes apparent that an opponent is in a position to win, there isn't much that can be done to stop him, even through collaboration by the other players. Your only option is to take a few risks and try to boost your own score before the game ends.

While the design is solid, the physical game components are very hit-and-miss. The board is serviceable but not beautiful, and the cards are thematically appropriate but can sometimes be hard to read at a distance.

However, the other bits and pieces add a lot to the game. The wooden player pawns, which have more than a passing resemblance to Indiana Jones, are perfect for the setting. The "dig wheels", which determine the number of tiles drawn during a dig, are both attractive and useful. The dig bags, in particular, are a very fun element -- reaching into the bags to randomly draw out valuable artifacts (or, more often, worthless colored sand) is much more exciting than it has any right to be.

My initial impression of Thebes is very favorable. The theme is original and meshes very well with the gameplay, while the rules are easy to learn without sacrificing depth. The strong balance between random factors and strategic elements is perfect to keep the game interesting without being too dry for more casual players to enjoy.

I can definitely see why Thebes was nominated for the 2007 Spiel des Jahres award, and I look forward to my next opportunity to play.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

June game round-up

Hillary and I met up with our local group last night, and I got through four different games in about three hours. Most were pretty lightweight, so I figured I'd just write a quick paragraph on each rather than trying to review four games (three of which were completely new to me).

Incan Gold is a fun little filler game that we'll sometimes break out while waiting for more gamers to arrive. Players take on the role of archaeologists who are searching for treasure and valuable artifacts hidden inside an ancient Incan temple. Unfortunately, the temple is also full of dangers, such as poisonous spiders and rockslides. Gameplay consists entirely of a "press your luck" style decision every turn (no whammies!), where each player must either hightail it out of the temple and keep what he's carrying -- and pick up any undistributed treasure on the way out -- or press on further and risk losing everything to one of the aforementioned hazards. Incan Gold is not a deep game by any means, but it's a quick and fun distraction. It can also support up to eight players, which is great when you have a larger gathering of gamers that wants to play together before breaking up into smaller groups for more involved games.

Fresh Fish is an odd spacial management game unlike anything I've played before. The board is a nearly empty grid of undeveloped lots, starting out with just four marketplaces (power, fuel, fish, and... board games). Players must claim land and build factories to supply the marketplaces. The closer a factory is to its corresponding marketplace, the better a player's score -- however, distance must be measured along the road. This is tricky, because the road hasn't been built yet! Placement of the road has a few rules: it must touch every factory and marketplace, and it must have access to any claimed but undeveloped lots. Also, road tiles are only placed when they have to be -- for example, if there's only one open exit from a marketplace left, the road has to go there. At the end, the player with the lowest total distance to market, minus the money he has left (low scores are good), is the winner. This game is pretty darned confusing the first time through. Our session had several new players, and none of us really understood how road placement worked until we were well into the game. The whole thing made my head hurt, but I'd like to try Fresh Fish again now that I (sort of) comprehend how everything fits together.

Witch's Brew is a light card game where players score points by creating potions. Each player has an identical "deck" of character cards and must choose five of these each turn to form a hand. The beginning player shows a card (for example, "I am the Wizard!"), and play goes around the table with all other players either passing (if they don't have the card that was played), stealing the role ("No, I am the Wizard"), or conceding the role ("So be it!"). The player winning the round gets to perform that character's action, while anyone who conceded gets a lesser reward. Roles generally allow players to collect gold and ingredients in various ways, or to manufacture potions from these materials. This was my first play ever, and I'm already a big fan. The game mechanics are unique and clever, and the theming is excellent. Games tend to flow very quickly, and newbies should have no problem picking up the rules. Witch's Brew would be a perfect "gateway" game for most non-gamer friends.

Scripts and Scribes is another short card-based game that revolves around suit collection. There is a deck containing five colored suits (along with gold and Popes). Players take turns drawing five cards from the deck, deciding what happens to each card: three go "up for grabs", one stays hidden and goes into the auction stack, and one stays hidden and is kept by the drawing player. After the drafting round, the auction stack is turned up card-by-card, with players bidding gold cards in an attempt to improve their hands. Each of the five suits is won by whichever player has the highest total points in that suit. Suits are worth a certain number of points, which can be altered throughout the course of the game by playing Pope cards. I'm lukewarm about this game after a single play -- there's nothing inherently wrong with the mechanics, but there weren't any unique elements that I hadn't seen before in a dozen other games. You try to draft well, make smart purchases in the auction, and then someone wins. Scripts and Scribes is fine for what it is -- a simple filler game -- but I doubt I'll be begging for anyone to pull out the box when other games are available.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Burning at the stake would be more fun

One of the guys from our gaming group brought Joan of Arc last week, and boy, was that a giant, festering three-hour turd of a game.

Yeah, it's going to be one of those reviews. Buckle up, kids.

I'm not going to waste time giving an overview of the game like I normally would. Just know that it's a medium-weight territory control game, hampered by the worst design decisions, most poorly-written rules, and largest amount of "dumb luck" moments of any game I've played in recent memory. That's all you really need to know to enjoy my review.

Let's start with the rules. The English rulebook is only eight pages, which you'd think would make for a nice, simple, streamlined game. Instead, the game's owner brought pages of printed-out errata from the Internet, and we still had trouble making sense of some of the mechanics. There was a lot of flipping back and forth to find a given rule, and huge amounts of information seem to be almost willfully omitted. Keep in mind my group contains several serious gamers, who have no problem understanding much heavier-weight games.

A lot of the comprehension problems stem from the fact that there is very little text on the game components, presumably in an effort to make it cheaper to publish internationally. The deck of "battle cards" consists of yellow number cards (simple: you add the number to your attack roll) and several different "special" red cards. Each of these red cards has a completely unique (and often complicated) function, yet there is no text at all on the cards themselves -- not even the name of the card. You have to find the picture of your card in the rulebook and figure out what it does. Some cards even have a table or two that you'll have to roll the dice against, but none of this is printed on the card itself.

The game itself seems like a cumbersome mishmash of mechanics pulled from different games. Each turn starts with the players voting on "War" or "Peace", which you'd think would have a pretty big impact on things, but it really just determines the number of attacks you can make and possibly cause an extra Event. Then there are the Events and Foreign Intervention. These are both completely random mechanics and there's usually very little player response that can occur -- it's more a matter of "roll the dice and see who gets screwed".

Then there's the meat of the game: expanding and conquering territories. It's pretty standard: each player can use some Battle cards, then you roll the dice and add the result to your battle cards and any defensive fortifications. The higher number wins.

You may have noticed that I've said "roll the dice" quite a bit. Virtually every element in Joan of Arc is randomized. I'm not opposed to a bit of luck-based play in lighter games, but for a multi-hour game that claims to be strategy-based, the number of random factors is ridiculous.

Here's a list of completely random elements:
  • Turn order (100% random, HUGELY important in this type of game)
  • Events (randomly changes gameplay for a turn)
  • Foreign Intervention (random chance to lose a territory)
  • Battle Cards (random deck, determine your battle strength/abilities)
  • Combat (roll dice, pray)

We played this stupid game for nearly three hours and didn't even get to finish. I think maybe somebody won, but by that point I was happy just being done with it.

If you read my blog regularly, you know that I've never bashed a game so completely (the only other boardgame I've enjoyed less is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and that's a distant memory that I won't be revisiting with a review). However, Joan of Arc contains exactly zero redeeming factors for me.

To paraphrase Spinal Tap: How much more could this game suck? The answer is none. None more suck.

If you're looking for a light-to-medium weight territory control game, skip this one and pick up Small World (my review) instead. You'll be getting a fun, accessible, streamlined product, rather than a horrible jumble of half-formed game design.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Guest review: Diplomacy

During Play On Con last weekend, Hillary and I went looking for late-night gaming. A full seven-player game of Diplomacy was starting up, and we were invited to play. I had a crushing headache at the time and bowed out in favor of a quick nap, but Hillary stayed on to fight her way through the all-out warfare and cutthroat politics.

She wrote up a nice review of Diplomacy from a newbie's point of view, and so I present it here...


Diplomacy is a strategy/war game that is very easy to understand, but can be very hard to play, depending on your skills and the skills of those you are playing with. There is no luck element to this game and the outcome relies solely on the interactions of the players.

Here's how the game goes:

There's a map of Europe. You draw markers to decide which country you are and get a predetermined number of units (the same for everyone). You can do a handful of things each turn: move a unit, hold a unit, support another unit's move, support another unit's hold, and convoy a land unit to another land via a ship in the area. On each turn, you write your orders and then hand them in to one person who makes sure they get executed correctly. Every "year", there is a spring turn and a fall turn. The number of units you get in the spring is determined by the number of supply centers, cities marked by a star on the map, you had in the previous fall. If you ever have 18 supply centers in your possession, you win. Simple, right?

Keep reading.

Here comes the fun part -- I mean that both literally and ironically. What makes Diplomacy Diplomacy is the negotiation of treaties, the forming of alliances, and the inevitable betrayal of said alliances. During the "writing orders" phase, players go off to the side or leave the room to negotiate with other countries. This is what makes the game truly interesting, because you have to decide what you want, how to get it and who to trust. A game of Diplomacy can get very cutthroat depending on the players and the circumstance. In the game I played, I had to leave for about 20 minutes because of an emergency with my hotel room and when I came back, one of the players was eliminated and looked rather put out. The player who had been the main impetus for this happening apologized by explaining why he did what he did and then saying "sorry you got screwed". He added "you've got to check your friendships at the door with this game."

My idea, for about 2 turns, became to figure out any way I could to screw this particular player because he was cutthroat and he was absolutely going to win. That idea went away when I realized that I was terrible at the game because I lack any ability to visualize military tactics or any notion of how to be cutthroat. So instead, I became said player's bitch. He told me what orders to execute to bother another country, and I moved wherever he needed me to, even if that meant that he took supply centers from me. I probably didn't live up to the group's expectations for the perfect adversary for the 7 player Diplomacy game some of them had been wanting to play all weekend, but I honestly gave it my best shot -- I am just not cut out to be a diplomat.

Some games like this can end up being a "kingmaker", where you figure out you're not going to win, so you then have to figure out which "horse" to back. Diplomacy doesn't necessarily have to be that way for a couple of different reasons. First of all, In the game I played, it was considered completely acceptable to say "I can't do anything else" and put all your units on hold indefinitely. In addition, the game can be voted a draw by all players left in the game, which is what the last 3 players decided upon long after I left the game.

Easy to understand, different from most games, no blowing on dice or crossing your fingers, and involves "the human element" more than any game I've played.

It's LONG (I played for at least 3 hours and the game went on long after I left), not for the sensitive soul, and requires a very specific skill set for planning moves and "negotiating" with other players.

Overall impression:
Diplomacy is very cool and I understand why it is highly rated on BoardGameGeek. I had a blast despite realizing after 2 or 2.5 hours that I could not play this game well. I actually really like how much it involves the human element -- every game could turn out very differently depending on who you're playing with, what their aim is, etc.

If this game sounds like the type of thing you would like, step up to a table next time you see someone get out the box. If it doesn't, step away from the table and go grab your Apples to Apples box, you hippie pansy. If you're not sure whether or not this sounds like fun, grab a chair and some popcorn and watch the drama unfold... if you like what you see, join them next time.

One last note:
The fact that this is essentially the "anti-Hillary" game and I still had a lot of fun definitely says something. I wish I could play again, but I am solidly in the "step away from the table" crowd given that I am a sensitive soul, am not good with military tactics, and my attention span lasts all of 30 seconds. I don't think you'll ever see me near a game of Diplomacy again... unless it's with popcorn.