|From: Hans im Gluck Cost: $47 Players: 2-4 Playing Time: 90 minutes Type of game: Gamer strategy Skill level: 7 Complexity: 7 Reviewed by: Peter Sarrett, Issue 5.1 (17), Winter 1997|
I know I've said this before. And I pray I'm able to keep saying it for a long time to come. But what is it with this Knizia guy, anyway? The man churns out superlative games like Whoppers at Burger King. Somewhere there's a brimstone-scented parchment with his blood on it.
Months before its release, the grapevine was already abuzz with advance word about Euphrat & Tigris. No details were available, but playtesters raved that this was Knizia's best game yet. So before anyone had played the published version, it was already on many people's shopping lists at this year's Essen.
When the package arrived in the mail, it was like an early birthday. I tore it open with fevered abandon, gibbering with maniacal anticipation. Inside the El Grande-sized box I found what may well be Knizia's most gamer-oriented game. Dozens of heavy cardboard tiles in red, green, blue, and black (with a streak of yellow in the center, causing new players some confusion), four sets of wooden "leader" discs, lots of colored wooden cubes,half a dozen two-part wooden monuments (some assembly required) and a game board featuring the titular rivers lay nestled within.
With a cursory inspection of these bits, it's obvious that E&T is a tile-placing game. Reading a little further into the rules reveals that it's quite unlike any other tile-placing game I know. Most such games involve creating patterns or linking like groups to each other (Drunter & Druber, Die Schlangen von Delhi, Streetcar, Take it Easy). While there's a small bit of pattern creation in the game, for the most part E&T eschews that mechanic. Instead, we're treated to some innovative (and initially confusing) systems containing depths and subtleties I've only begun to plumb.
The core of the game involves earning points in each of four colors (abstractly representing your kingdom's populace, trade, food, and piety). Neglecting some to outperform in others isn't a winning move, since your final score is only the lowest of your four color totals. This single rule drives the entire game, as players constantly shift their strategies to improve their short suits. As one player's interest in a color peaks, another might be ebbing— making it possible for the first player to grab a strong position in that color more easily (but not necessarily without conflict). This oscillation helps maintain the game's flow. Each player has goals to work towards. Eventually they're likely to conflict, but for a while they may be compatible enough to give everyone a chance to accomplish something. This weakest-link scoring system is a brilliant centerpiece. It seems so obvious, yet I can't think of any other game which utilizes it. Another point in Knizia's win column.
Players hold a secret hand of six tiles, and may take two actions each turn (placing a tile, positioning a leader, playing a catastrophe tile, exchanging tiles from their hand). At the start of the game, one of these actions is likely to be the placement of a leader. Everyone has one for each of the four colors. Placing a leader doesn't earn any points, but you can't earn any unless you've got some on the board. When conflicts arise, one leader always gets removed— so its owner has to spend a valuable action putting it back if he wants to earn points with it.
Once a leader is on the board, all tiles connected to it via an unbroken chain of tiles and other leaders are considered part of a kingdom. When a tile is placed in a kingdom (another of the possible actions), whoever owns the leader of the matching color in that kingdom earns a point of that color (so if a green tile gets played, the owner of the green leader in that kingdom gets a green point— even if someone else played the tile). Points are marked by the wooden blocks, kept secretly behind each player's privacy screen. If the kingdom has no leader of the played color, but it does have a black leader (king), then the black leader's owner gets the point (continuing the earlier example, the king's owner would get a green point).
This has a number of effects on gameplay. The most obvious is that black leaders are the most versatile to deploy at the start of the game, allowing players to score with tiles of any color. A more subtle effect is an incentive for players to place their leaders in kingdoms holding opposing kings, to reduce those kings' effectiveness.
Although any number of players may have leaders in a kingdom, only one leader of each color is allowed. Playing a leader of the same color as one already there creates an internal conflict which must be resolved.
Strength for internal conflicts comes from nearby temples. Every temple a leader touches (orthogonally— in E&T, diagonals don't matter) gives that leader a point of strength. The attacker (newly-placed leader), then the defender (existing leader) can increase their strength by showing and discarding additional red tiles from their hand. The loser (attacker loses ties) is immediately removed from the board. Regardless of the color of the leaders involved, the winner gets a red point (since the conflict is always fought with red tiles).
It's also possible to place a tile such that it joins two kingdoms together. If this causes two leaders of the same color to exist in the new kingdom, an external conflict ensues. These have more far-reaching consequences, and greater rewards, than internal conflicts. This time strength comes from all tiles of the leaders' color from their original (pre-merge) kingdoms. More tiles of that color can be shown and discarded from players' hands to increase these totals. The winner gets a point in the disputed color for the losing leader and each kingdom tile which added to the losing total— all of which get removed from the board! Not only can this mean big points, but it can dramatically change the game's landscape.
In fact, often such mergers create multiple conflicts. The resolution of one can eliminate the others by splitting up the contesting leaders. Choosing the order of conflict resolution is the prerogative of the player who placed the merging tile— even if he isn't involved in any of the conflicts. Since external conflicts result in chunks of points for other players, you tend not to cause one unless you stand to benefit from it. On the other hand, if such a merger is likely to give Jim a lot of blue points and you know Jim already has a lot of blue points, you might not mind giving him more since it won't really help him (what he needs are points of the other colors) but it might stop another player from getting ahead.
Nailing down the difference between internal and external conflicts seems to be the most common obstacle new players need to overcome. They're resolved quite differently, and it's easy to forget which is which until you've played it for a while. But wait, there's more.
The board starts with a few temples already placed, with treasures on top of them. If a kingdom with a green leader ever has two or more treasures in it, the green leader's owner gets to take one of them. At the end of the game, each treasure is wild and can be used as a point in any color.
The existence of treasures in E&T underscores Knizia's command of game design. Treasures don't dramatically change the face of the game, but affect it in subtle ways. Having treasures can make a big difference at the end of the game, but you can also win without them. So how much effort do you put in to pick them up, or thwart opponents from doing so? Their presence channels the board's expansion and encourages conflict, adding layers to the strategy.
And then there are the monuments. Anyone who completes a 2x2 square of tiles of the same color has the option of building a monument. The four tiles are flipped over (thus weakening the kingdom's leader of that color for external conflicts) and a monument is placed on them. The six monuments come in every possible pairing of the four tile colors. Players earn a point at the end of each of their turns in which one of their leaders is in the same kingdom as a like-colored monument. For example, I'd gain a blue point if my blue leader ended my turn in a kingdom with the blue-red, blue-black, or blue-green monuments. These points are free and perpetual for as long as the leader remains in that kingdom, making monuments very hotly contested. Grabbing and holding one means you can forget about one or two colors and focus on the others. The increased focus does nice things for your chances at victory.
Everyone starts with two catastrophe tiles. We seem to forego their use a lot, but when used wisely they can be devastating. A catastrophe destroys the tile or empty space it's placed on, forever blocking anything else from being played in that space. Usually, they're used to separate an opposing leader from a kingdom, monument, or supporting tiles.
The game ends when the bag of tiles empties or when there are two or fewer treasures left on the board.
Midway through the first game, I realized we had a keeper. Seemingly simple aspects of the game gained significance as we saw their effects. Leaders, for example, must be placed adjacent to temples. Jim took advantage of this by carefully creating an empire such that he never left a vacant space next to a temple. This made it very hard for anyone else to gain a foothold, since they needed to spend two actions to do so (one to place a temple, the other to place their leader).
By the end of the game, my mind was swimming with all the strategic possibilities and I was itching to play again. Each game I've gained more insight into the mechanics, yet I don't feel any closer to mastery. There are so many possible strategies that every game unfolds differently. In my first game I couldn't get blue points for love or money. Blue tiles can only be placed on the river spaces, which makes blue points a little harder to earn. But in the next game, it seemed all I could get was blue. This isn't a game you can walk into with a strategy prepared— you need to go with the flow of events.
The game's scope and initial complexity may be it's greatest weakness. I've already mentioned the difficulty of nailing down the difference between internal and external conflicts, but it goes beyond that. It's one of those games which really needs to be played once before you'll have a good idea of how to win (or really, how to play). For some people, it might not gel even after that first game. There's no one grand pattern to be seen here, but a constantly-changing kaleidoscope which rewards adaptability. That can be a bit hard to absorb in one play, especially if your opponents are more experienced.
The virtual non-existence of a theme might present a problem for some. E&T certainly fits the German profile of abstract games with a theme grafted on later. Knizia didn't do as a good a job in this regard as he's done in the past with games like Medici or En Garde. The game is intended to represent the grand sweep of evolving civilizations, but it never rises above its mechanical layer. I don't see imposing temples, I just see red tiles. Thematically, it just doesn't gel for me.
But gameplay is what really matters, and with Euphrat & Tigris Knizia has delivered the goods. This is a superb game. It's also cerebral, intense, and suited more to a gaming group than a kitchen table. Years from now, if I'm brainwashed into a life-simplification cult and start jettisoning games from my collection, I'm confident that Euphrat & Tigris will be one of the last to go.