Sunday, November 9, 2008

Tigris & Euphrates

Two more milestones were achieved here up the vacuum thingy this week.

Firstly, the lads over at The Spiel have added a link to this blog on their site (and I finally joined their site after listening to Stephen and Dave for over a year). If you like your board games (and let's face it, if you're reading my blog then you probably do) I highly recommend giving The Spiel podcast a listen to on your mp3 player of choice.

The second milestone was that after purchasing the bundle of goodies I keep harping on about, last Friday I finally played Tigris & Euphrates, meaning I've now played all five games. Woohoo!

I bought Tigris & Euphrates (T&E) knowing nothing about it other than it was one of the top rated games on Board Game Geek (it's currently sitting at number 5 (out of 4845 (and if you're at all interested, the lowest rated game is tic-tac-toe))).

It's fair to say, in fact, that of the five-game bundle, I deliberately left T&E until last thinking I wasn't going to enjoy it. It looked too chess like, what with all the strategic placing of tiles on a board.

I'm happy to report that I was wrong. Sure, there's strategy involved but it's not as taxing as you might think. There are enough avenues to collecting victory points that no one is going to be completely shut out of the game. Certainly there are ways to build and defend strong positions, but there's always a way to exploit another player's weakness.

In short, I really enjoyed the game. I made some decisions that were, in hindsight, poor, and that I probably wouldn't do again. Then again, all four players were rookies so there was no advantage of experience for any of us.

OK, let's get into the game play and then, as usual, I'll finish with a quick summary of the game we played on Friday night.

T&E is played on a board. Said board looks like this (as usual, click on any image for the full size picture):

The board has nice artwork depicting the Tigris and Euphrates rivers flowing through the ancient civilisation of Mesopotamia.

As a side note, the game keeps reminding The Giggling One and me of one of our favourite songs: The Mesopotamians by They Might Be Giants (from their album The Else).

The board is divided into a grid of 176 squares (16 x 11) in which players take turns placing tiles and leader disks.

Civilization tiles (there are other tile types I'll get to in due course) and leaders, come in four colours: blue, black, green and red. Each of those colours is representative of a different "sphere" in which players try to win victory points.

  • Blues tiles represent farms, with the blue leaders being farmers.

  • Black tiles are settlements, with the black leaders known as kings.

  • Green tiles are markets, while green leaders are traders.

  • Red tiles are temples, with red leaders being, not surprisingly, priests.

    The leader disks themselves look something like this:

    Unlike most other games, players are not differentiated by colours. Instead, each player chooses a "dynasty" which is represented by a symbol: the lion, the archer, the bull or the potter.

    As tiles and leaders are placed on the board, they create "regions" and "kingdoms". A region is any area of the board covered by one or more linked tiles. If a region also contains one or more leaders then it is a kingdom.

    The basic idea of the game is that when a civilization tile is placed on the board, if you have a leader of that colour in the same kingdom then you score a victory point in that colour.

    Yes, that's right, victory points also come in the four colours. You'll need to win VPs in every colour if you want to win the game, because it's the colour you have the least of at the end of the game (your weakest sphere) that determines your score.

    Before we get there, though, we need to know how the placement of tiles and leaders work.

    In order to look at that, we should look at how a turn works.

    But before we look at how a turn works, we need to know how the initial setup works.

    And before that, we...actually, let's just go with the setup.

    Let's take another look at the board:

    See those 10 spaces with winged beasts? To get the game rolling, 10 red civilization tiles (remember, they're the temples) are placed on those spaces.

    Not only that, but each of these temple tiles has a treasure placed on it. Oooh! Treasures are simply small uncoloured wooden cubes that act as wildcards. If you claim a treasure during the game, you keep it until the end of the game and use it to shore up your weakest colour (or use multiple treasures to boost the VPs of one or more colours).

    Additionally, all players are given 3 special tiles: 2 catastrophe tiles, and 1 unification tile (technically there are also dynasty tiles with each player's chosen symbol on them, but as far as I can see they play no part in the game other than being used to randomly select a starting player).

    Now, here comes the cool, sneaky part. Each player is also given a screen with their dynasty symbol on it. These screens are used to hide stuff behind so your opponents don't know the secret stuff you've got. Unless they cheat and sneak a peak of course.

    The secret stuff you hide behind your screen includes your stash of civilization tiles (you can have up to 6 at any one time) and the victory point and treasure cubes you collect during the game.

    Once everyone has their screen set up, players take it in turn to draw 6 tiles out of a cloth bag. There are 153 tiles (57 red, 36 blue, 30 green and 30 black) in the bag, minus the 10 reds already placed on the board.

    Then, the game starts in earnest.

    On your turn, you get to take two actions. There are a total of four types of actions you can take, and you can take any combination you like, including the same action twice.
    1. Position a leader: You place one of your leaders on to the board, you move one of your leaders from one space to another space, or you remove one of your leaders from the board. Pretty straight forward really.

      The whole point of positioning leaders is so that they earn victory points when tiles of the same colour are placed in the same kingdom, or when monuments are located in the same kingdom. "Monuments?" you ask. Let's not get ahead of ourselves - we'll talk about monuments later.

      When it comes to positioning a leader, they can only be placed on empty spaces adjacent to a temple (adjacent in T&E means orthogonally adjacent (sharing a common edge), not diagonal). Additionally, leaders can't swim, or don't like getting their tootsies wet, so they can't be placed on a river space.

      Leaders aren't great diplomats either so the final restriction is that they can't be placed on a space whereby they would unite two kingdoms.

    2. Place a tile: You take one of the 6 civilization tiles behind your screen and place it on the board.

      You'll generally want to place the tile somewhere where you're going to earn a victory point - that is in a kingdom where you have a leader of the same colour.

      These tiles can go on pretty much any empty space on the board. The major restriction is that only blue tiles may go on river spaces, and indeed they are the only spaces on which blue tiles can be placed.

      Unlike leaders, you can unite two kingdoms with a tile placement, though you're not permitted to unite more than two kingdoms.

      Tiles don't have to be placed adjacent to an existing region. If you wish you can place a tile all on its lonesome.

      Once a tile is placed, if there is a leader of that colour in the kingdom then the player who owns that leader takes a victory point cube of that colour.

      If no leader matches the tile, but there is a black leader (king) in the kingdom, then the player with the black leader gets the VP matching the colour of the tile.

      If there is no matching or black leader in the region in which a tile is played, then no VP is awarded. Keeping up? Good.

    3. Play a catastrophe tile: You place one of your two catastrophe tiles on the board.

      Catastrophe tiles are used to permanently occupy a space on the board. They can be played on top of an existing tile (as long as it doesn't have a treasure or monument sitting on it) or on an empty space.

      The main purpose of catastrophe tiles is to split a kingdom in two (or more), thereby severing leaders from certain lucrative parts of their former kingdom.

    4. Swap tiles: You discard (face down) any number of tiles from behind your screen and draw replacements from the bag.

      You'll do this if there are certain colours you don't have that you'd like to get, and/or you have some tiles you don't want. Of course there's no guarantee you won't just draw the same colours from the bag.

    OK, so I've been mentioning victory points and treasures a bit so I guess I'd better include a pretty picture I took with The Giggling One's digital camera (no poor quality mobile phone pics this time):

    The little cubes are worth one victory point, while the big ones are worth 5. See how much you can intimidate your opponents by saving up the little cubes then trading them in for big ones.

    The little white-looking ones (they are actually a light tan colour) are the treasure cubes.

    Treasures can be claimed when two kingdoms with a treasure become united. Whoever has the green leader (trader) in that larger kingdom (or whoever is the first to place a green leader in that kingdom) gets to take one of the treasures.

    Now at this point, you might be thinking "What if there are two green leaders in the kingdom?"

    Well that's a good question, and I'm glad I asked it for you.

    No kingdom can have more than one leader of any colour. If two like-coloured leaders do end up in the same kingdom then there will be a battle for supremacy, ending with one of the leaders being withdrawn from the board.

    This is the meat of the game where strategy really comes to the fore. Knowing where and when to cause a conflict, and planning one carefully in advance, is the key to success.

    There are two types of conflict: internal and external.

    To cause an internal conflict, all you have to do is place a leader in a kingdom which already contains a leader of that colour. You'll then duke it out by counting the number of red tiles adjacent to each leader, plus any number of red tiles you want to add from behind your screen (those tiles are then removed from the game). The winner gets to stay and receives a reward of one red VP, while the losing leader goes home in a huff (ie. gets taken off the board).

    An external conflict occurs where two kingdoms are united by the placement of a tile, and there are now leaders of the same colour in the new, larger kingdom. Battle lines are drawn over the uniting tile. The active player places his or her unification tile over the joining tile then the players with the matching leaders count the number of tiles on their side of the divide that match the colour of the feuding leaders. The combatants can then add to this if they wish with matching tiles from behind their screen.

    Once again, the winning leader stays and gets a VP of the same colour, while the losing leader is removed from the board. External conflicts have one extra casualty: all matching tiles in the loser's side of the kingdom are also removed.

    Unfortunately, in the game we played, while I remembered this rule while I was explaining the rules at the start of the game, I forgot about it as the game went on. This meant that after external conflicts, no tiles were removed along with the defeated leader. Additionally, I forgot all about the rule of the winning player in a conflict receiving a VP. Major oops!

    External conflicts won't necessarily involve the player who places the unification tile. Sometimes you might just want to be a bastard and cause two other players to fight.

    Oh, and have no fear; losing leaders can always be placed back on the board later. Also, any players in a conflict who added tiles from behind their screen get to replenish their hand at the end of the turn.

    By the way, if there is a tie in a conflict, the defender wins.

    Alrighty, we're almost done. Hoorah!

    I promised we'd have a chat about monuments, so let's do that before we finish up.

    Monuments are large, er, monumenty things that look like this:

    As you can see, there are 6 monuments, each made up of two colours.

    If you think you might like to build a monument, all you have to do is place a tile such that it creates a square of four like-coloured tiles. You then flip the tiles upside down and whack on a monument.

    Like this:

    The monument must contain the same colour as the four tiles you flipped over. If there aren't any monuments with that colour left, then you can't flip the tiles.

    Monuments have a pretty funky purpose in the game: they are an ongoing source of victory points.

    At the end of your turn, if you have a leader in the same kingdom as a monument, and that leader shares a colour with the monument, then you get a victory point of that colour. For example, if you had a green leader in the same kingdom as the green & black monument pictured above, you'd get yourself a green victory point.

    If you had both a green and a black leader in that kingdom, you'd get two VP cubes, one in each colour. If there were a green & blue monument in the same kingdom, that monument would also generate a green VP for your green leader. Nice!

    So now you know how the game works. You place leaders and tiles in order to maximise your VP scores across all four colours. VPs are earned from tile placements, monuments, and from winning conflicts.

    The game ends when at least 8 of the treasures have been taken, or there aren't enough tiles left in the bag to replenish a player's hand back up to 6 tiles.

    Screens are then removed, and players count the number of VPs of each colour (with treasures added where necessary). The player with the most VPs in their weakest sphere (the colour in which they have the least VPs) wins.

    If there is a tie, the next weakest sphere is compared, and so on.

    It's definitely a juggling act to try and collect all four colours. It's often easy to have a strong position with which you can collect VPs of one particular colour, but it's how you collect the other VPs that determines how well you do.

    Nevertheless, you still need to be in a position to win VPs, which is exactly where Splat put himself right from the start during our game.

    After creating two monuments very early on, Splat started the VPs rolling in. When he was finally knocked off his perch in that kingdom, he'd made himself a nice little earner in the opposite corner of the board.

    Despite our best efforts, neither Bernd, Carl nor I could gain a strong enough position to be any real threat to Splat.

    As for myself, I had one or two ad hoc plans that worked OK, but any long term strategy always managed to be scuppered by the actions of someone else before it got off the ground.

    Also, I used my two catastrophe tiles fairly early to block Bernd's black leader from reuniting with a kingdom containing two black monuments and my black leader. It may have been more prudent to sacrifice that kingdom and use the catastrophe tiles later to split other kingdoms.

    It's all about adjusting and readjusting to the goings on around you. If you think you have a position of strength in one kingdom, be prepared to see that undermined with a catastrophe tile or two.

    Here's the board as it was at the end of our game (I was the archer, Splat was the bull, Bernd was the potter, and Carl was the lion):

    Final scores:
  • Splat: 13
  • Jeremy: 10
  • Bernd: 9
  • Carl: 4

    All four of us collected two treasures each, with Carl's treasures doubling the size of his blue VP stack, a colour he found particularly difficult to come by.

    And for good measure, here's Splat's winning VP stack:

    Unfortunately, he didn't quite reach his goal of building his stacks as high as his Tic-Tac box.

    It was good fun, and with more people coming along to HoGS nights, I'm sure I'll get a chance to play this and my other games again. Next time I'll try and remember the rules!
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