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.


At 3:03 PM, Blogger vo0do0chile said...

I agree about the "lack of interaction", there should be an expansion and it should have "road sabotage" cards and "bribe council member" cards and "pilfer site" cards and so forth. you know... we could always do user created modifications ;)


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