|From:Kosmos Cost:$34 Players: 2-5 Playing Time: 30-45 minutes Type of game: Family strategy Skill level: 9 Complexity: 3 Reviewed by: Peter Sarrett, Issue 5.2 (18), Spring 1998|
Reiner Knizia's games tend to be one-mechanism wonders. His whole style is to develop an interesting play mechanic and wrap a game around it. Witness the basic auction of Medici, the negotiation of Quo Vadis?, the set collection and simple movement of Tutanchamun. Much of his talent lies in drawing the maximum possible play value from a simple foundation. This trend continues with Durch die Wüste (Through the Desert), a nifty little gem which ranks in the upper echelons of Knizia's output.
It scores high on the bit-o-meter as well. Besides the desert hex-grid board and numerous cardboard score chips, the game includes a few herds of pastel plastic camels. Yes, pastel. A handful of plastic riders (used to indicate camel ownership) come in more traditional colors. A quintet of plastic palm trees finish the ensemble.
The board gets liberally peppered with watering hole chips worth 1-3 points each, as well as the five palm trees representing oases. Players then take turns placing camels on the board until everyone has placed one of each color.
On each turn, players extend their caravans by adding two new camels of the same or different colors to the board. Each camel must be placed next to one which is already part of that player's like-colored caravan (so you can only place a purple camel next to another of your purple camels). Camels of the same color but belonging to two different players can't touch. This is a purely practical matter, since only one camel of each color carries a player's rider. To see who a camel belongs to, you have to trace backward along the caravan to find the mounted camel. If two caravans of the same color were to touch, there would be no way to tell where one ends and the other begins. This rule carries some interesting stategic implications— opposing camels of the same color can create dead zones which only other colors can enter.
In typical Knizia fashion, a player's options on each turn are narrowly constrained to placing two camels onto the board. It's in the varied goals players are vying for that the scope of the game broadens. There are four ways to earn points. In the short term, players try to connect to oases and watering holes. The first player to place a camel on a watering hole chip collects the chip and scores its face value at the end of the game. Watering holes are a big part of the placement phase and early game. The spaces adjacent to a pair of high-value pools get occupied quickly during set-up, and the chips usually get snatched in short order.
The first time a player's caravan connects to an oasis, that player collects five points. Any number of caravans (well, no more than six, since there are only six spaces surrounding each oasis) can earn this bonus at each oasis, even if other caravans of the same color have already connected there.
The other goals are more long-term. If a player cordons off a section of the board, Go-style, with one of his caravans, he collects all the watering holes within that area and scores a point for each enclosed space. Such an area only counts if there are no other camels inside it. Surrounding an area is a great way to pick up points. Not only do you get a point per space, but you collect all the watering holes inside without having to spend camels to get to them. The enclosure rule is crucial to the game's success— without it, decisions would be too easy and the game would mostly be about grabbing quick points whenever you can take them. This and the caravan bonuses described below infuse the game with the strategic elements it needs.
The final way to score is by sheer weight of numbers. The game ends when all camels of one color have been used. At that time, a ten point bonus is paid to the owners of the largest caravan in each of the five colors (ties split the bonus). Picking up a couple of these can mean the difference between winning and losing.
Reaction to Durch die Wüste was rather mixed at this year's Gathering. I suspect that may be partially because the game is so obviously abstract, with clear hereditary links to Hex and Go. I'm hardly an abstract afficionado, but I quite enjoy this game. The distribution of the watering holes provides enough of a randomizer to make each game start differently. Some players who were luke-warm after playing with five players liked it better with only three, claiming they felt they had more control. You certainly get more turns in a smaller game, giving you more time to develop your strategies and less chance of an opponent getting in the way. I think the game works well with 3-5 players, and friends have said it worked well with two.
Another criticism is that the game feels to random. In fact there's no randomness at all once the game begins. The game might be described as chaotic, however, in the sense that your own success is dependent on the actions of other players which might seem arbitrary to you. But I think there's less chaos in Durch die Wüste than in other games like, say, El Grande. In fact, I think players can predict their opponents' actions with reasonable accuracy. Players will usually go after threatened watering holes or oases first— targets which other players could prevent them from reaching. You can reasonably expect an opponent to go after the most valuable scoring opportunity available to him. The wrench in the works is that sometimes your opponent may be thinking farther ahead than you are, and may know that taking a smaller bounty now will allow him to claim a larger reward later. This is a good thing, as it means you can't sit and mentally play out the game in advance (those tempted to do so should be sent for counseling immediately).
As with Die Siedler von Catan, the setup phase lets players stake out their territory and shapes the flow of the early game. When someone drops a camel near one of yours of the same color, there's an incentive for you to expand that caravan quickly before your opponent freezes you out. That's a danger for all camel colors, but like-colored camels effectively project a barrier within a one-space radius. As with Siedler, then, what seems like a good location early on can become less appealing once opponents have had done their dirty work.
One of the most attractive aspects of the game is its relatively short duration. The game is rated at 30-45 minutes and actually clocks in within that time, which is rather refreshing. You can easily play it more than once in a session.
My biggest criticism of Durch die Wüste addresses the game's production rather than its gameplay. With five colors of camels and five different colors of riders, it's difficult to scan the board and take in the state of the game at a glance. Nothing pops. The game really screams for an electronic game board or computer version in which the hex a camel is placed on changes to the color of its owner, allowing you to instantly see who owns what. To be fair, I'm not sure how this could have been accomplished in the board game without adding a lot more pieces— colored hexagonal tiles or many more riders (and wouldn't that be a pain— snapping riders onto camels before placing them, and unsnapping them again at the end of the game).
Just a few moves into my first game of Euphrat & Tigris, I was in love. Even though I'd barely begun, I could see the vistas of strategy unfolding before me and knew I'd have great fun trying to master the possibilities. That's a rare experience, and Durch die Wüste didn't repeat it. But a few turns in, I recognized the hallmark of a good game. On each turn I could only perform two actions, but always wanted to do more. The game progresses well from the short-term goals of collecting chips and oasis bonuses to the larger quests. Your goals are often threatened from many quarters at once, and deciding which targets to pursue involves picking your battles and guessing your opponents' priorities.
It may not appeal as strongly to serious gamers, but Durch die Wüste is more approachable than Euphrat & Tigris and should prove popular with a wider range of players. Recommended.