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Euphrates & Tigris

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Doug Adams writes:

Designer: Reiner Knizia
Published by: Hans Im Gluek

Doug Adams writes:

I first heard of this game in early 1996, just as I was beginning to discover the wonderful world of European boardgames and learning what the words "Reiner Knizia" meant in relation to them. Knizia is one of the best game designers going around, and this new release hasn't harmed his reputation at all.

Knizia games have very common trademarks - simple rules, elegant mechanics, low number of components, a deck of cards, fast playing times, tough decision making, and so on. Euphrates & Tigris is quite different, there are no cards, lots of components, the game lasts well past an hour and the rules are rather 'heavy'.

Euphrates & Tigris was released at Essen in 1997, and on opening the box it's immediately obvious that it was worth the wait. The game is a joy to behold, offers 90 minutes of engrossing play for two to four players, and gives a close result every time. It's been playtested to perfection.

The game comes in a large "El Grande" size box, for those of you who've seen it. The artwork on the box, and indeed in the game, is excellent - courtesy of Doris Mathaus. The colours are attractive, in an understated way, and seems to fit just perfectly in this game. Top marks for presentation here.

When you open the box you immediately are struck by the number of 'bits' inside. Included are lots of wooden blocks in four colours - these are used to record each players victory points. There is more wood yet, in the shape of the 16 large wooden disks which function as the players leader pieces (4 per player), and six impressive two-colour monument pieces.

Player screens, similar in function to the "Modern Art" screens, are also included here to hide each players victory points and hand of tiles. The outside of each of these screens features a representation of ancient city walls, with different battlements shaped on each one. Large and lavish, but probably a little too large as I've already seen a few screens go flying as someone tries to play a tile over the top of their screen.

Also in the box are 160 tiles which include the playing tiles, catastrophe tiles, and a single unification tile. Lastly, there is also a large game board. When you first open this box, I guarantee you will be impressed.

The game board depicts the Tigris and Euphrates rivers winding over a large valley. Superimposed over the top of the terrain is a grid of 16 x 11 squares. The grided area is rather plain to the eye, but running around the borders of the map are colourful scenes of the rivers drifting past the cities of Ur, Niveneh and the like.

To the game itself. Colour plays an important role in this game, linking several of the key mechanisms together. There are four colours - red for religion, black for peoples, green for trading and blue for farming. The playing tiles come in these 4 colours; the small wooden blocks that record a players victory points are earned in these 4 colours; the players earn these points through the placement of their four different coloured leaders. This can be initially confusing as players leaders aren't represented on the board by a single colour as per most games, but instead by a factional symbol (these are lion, bull, amphora or bow) in each of the four key colours.

Each player takes their four leaders, 2 catastrophe tiles and a player screen. Each player also begins with 6 playing tiles, drawn randomly from the tile bag, which are also kept behind the player screen. Ten temple (red) tiles are set up in specific spaces on the game board, an onto each of these temples is placed a neutral coloured wooden block - these are treasures.

So what's it all about ? The object of the game is to earn victory points in the 4 areas of importance for every self respecting ancient civilization. These areas are religion, the people, trade and farming - and link directly to the coloured tiles described above. How well you do in each area is crucial because your final score at the end of the game is the area in which you did the poorest! So if you've managed to pick up 15 in 3 areas but only managed 5 in your last area - your score is 5! This clever mechanic goes a long way to explaining why this game is so good.

Game play is very simple. When it is your turn, you may perform 2 actions. Each action must consist of either:

  • placing a tile on the board
  • placing, removing or repositioning a leader on the board
  • placing a catastrophe tile on the board
  • discarding and replacing up to 6 tiles from your hand

In order to score victory points in the various colours you must have leaders on the board. It's impossible to score points without leaders on the board, therefore it's a good idea to get them down early in the game. Leaders must be placed adjacent (not diagonally) to temple (red) tiles. Once a leader is placed on the map, a kingdom has formed (this is defined as a group of adjacent tiles with one or more leaders present).

Tiles can be played anywhere on the game board, but only farm (blue) tiles may be placed on, and only on, the river spaces. When a tile is placed on the board, it will typically be placed to expand an existing kingdom. When this happens, a victory point is awarded in the colour of the tile placed. This will go to the player who owns the leader of that colour in that kingdom. If there is no leader of that colour, the player who owns the king (black) leader will be awarded the victory point. A small cube in that colour is taken and placed behind that players screen.

The place a tile/award a victory point is the most common mechanic in the game, and it's usually the player who's turn it is who gains the points. However, it's not unlikely that a player will give someone else a point if it strengthens his own strategic situation in a kingdom. Why would you do this ? Well, it's not all wine and roses in ancient Sumer.

Conflicts can arise in this game when two leaders of the same colour are positioned in the same kingdom. This can happen in two ways - either a leader of the same colour is placed within a kingdom; or a tile is placed to join 2 kingdoms together into one kingdom. The result is leaders of the same colour but belonging to different players, suddenly coexisting within the kingdom. This cannot be, and a conflict must be resolved until only one leader of each colour remains within any kingdom. For ease of description, placing a leader will cause an "internal conflict"; while placing a tile will cause an "external conflict".

Internal conflicts are resolved as follows. Each player notes the number of temple (red) tiles adjacent to their respective leaders. The attacker may then add temple tiles from his hand of 6 to this total. These temples are discarded from the game. The defender now has the option to try and match this total by adding temples from his own hand. All the defender needs to do is match the total, he doesn't have to exceed it. The winner of an internal conflict will gain one red victory point, while the loser will have to remove his leader from the board.

External conflicts are resolved in a similar fashion. However, the tile that was used to join the two kingdoms together (thus causing the conflict) is covered by a special "unification" tile. The leaders in conflict count up the number of supporter tiles on their side of the unification tile, and again may play further supporters out of their hands, as for the internal conflicts. The difference here is that temples are not used, but tiles of the leader's colour (it may still be temples if priests are in conflict). After an external conflict is over, the loser must remove his leader and any supporting tiles from the board. Sometimes the consequences of this are to split the newly joined kingdom back in half again. The winner of the conflict will earn as many victory points in the colour fought over equal to the number of pieces removed from the board. External conflicts can generate a lot of victory points for a player, and change the board drastically.

Another way victory points can be scored is through the building of monuments. These may be built if a player places tiles in such a way that four identical tiles are arranged in a 2 x 2 square. These tiles can be turned face down, and a monument placed on the four squares as long as one of the colours on the monument matches the colour of the face down tiles. Monuments pay victory points in their two colours to a player if they own the leaders of those colours at the end of their turn. Monuments are a powerful source of victory points and are often fought over.

At the start of the game each player is given two catastrophe tiles, which may be placed as one of a players actions during a turn. A catastrophe tile effectively removes the tile underneath, which can change the situation on the game board drastically. For example, a kingdom may suddenly be split, or a temple supporting some leaders may be removed (causing the leaders to be taken off the board - they cannot remain unless they have an adjacent temple). The problem with catastrophe tiles is exactly when to play them, as they are a destructive influence that while hurting others, isn't gaining you points. Careful thought is required when playing these tiles.

Also at the start of the game, there are ten temple tiles placed in specific positions on the map. On top of each of these temples is placed a small victory point cube in a neutral, wood colour. These are treasures, which are a tantalizing piece of bait for the players as they represent a "wild" victory point each at the end of the game. Treasures can only be claimed when there are two of them in the one kingdom. When this occurs (through expansion and unification of kingdoms) the player with the trader leader (the green one) may claim one of the treasures.

The game ends at the end of a turn during which a player was unable to refresh his hand of tiles to six, or if the number of treasures on the board was reduced to one or two. Treasures held by players at the end of a game count as "wild" victory points that can be assigned to any colour or colours. Players reveal their totals and the best lowest score wins. If there is a tie, then the next best lowest is compared, and so on.

I'm not going to discuss tactics here as I'm by no means an expert player. I can say that the game play is intense, engaging and very thought provoking. My half dozen games so far have been the quickest 90 minutes I've spent in a game for a long time. In true Reiner Knizia fashion, we are allowed little "down time" as we are constantly watching the board, reassessing, and changing plans. The hidden victory points throws a wonderful element of doubt into the game - the player screens add a lot to this game.

So is there anything wrong with the game ? The short answer is not much. The theme of ancient civilizations is very thinly applied, but that can be said about most Knizia games and it doesn't bother me at all. I also heard of about half a dozen instances where first edition copies had various problems with the components. My copy had one third of the tiles cut badly, but Hans Im Gluck, to their credit, speedily fixed this problem. Problems with components should be well and truly ironed out by now.

In short, Euphrates & Tigris is a wonderful game and a must buy for serious game players. I'm not sure if it would be that suitable as a family game, but then again I'm sure most homes have a chess set or two in them - and this game does indeed have a chess-like feel at times. Euphrates & Tigris is going close to replacing "Elfenroads" as holder of the title "My Favourite Game".

Doug Adams
February '98

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