Miscellany: Tigris and Euphrates
Reiner Knizia has made a lot of great board games, but perhaps none as celebrated as "Tigris and Euphrates," a game about the clash of civilizations in ancient Mesopotamia. It's been ranked as high as #2 on BoardGameGeek.com, and it won the Deutscher Spiele Preis, one of the most prestigious game design prizes around. My friends and I finally got around to playing it this evening, and I think I see why it's such a big hit.
The concept of T&E is pretty straightforward - you place tiles and leaders of various colors on a gridded board, much like Go. As you butt heads with rival civilizations of those same colors, you'll start to wage wars and put down revolutions (external and internal conflicts). You have a reserve stock of tiles that you can use to bolster your deployed forces; since these are hidden from the other players, they provide a poker-like element to conflict resolution that makes rolling dice seem primitive and random. While the rules are a bit complex (nothing as bad as "Puerto Rico," though), almost anyone should be able to get the idea after a few plays.
Scoring is interesting in that your worst area of civilization development is your final score. Unless you acquire victory points in a balanced fashion, you'll never win. There's just a lot to think about here, from simple tactics to grand strategy. On the turn-to-turn level, you're concerned with shoring up your weak areas and gathering points (the fact that you get two actions per turn means you can mount rather vicious surprise attacks). Over the course of a game, though, you'll switch from peaceful building to aggression and back, sometimes co-existing with other players' leaders, and sometimes ousting them. An entire game only takes about 90 minutes (really!), which is astonishing for a game with this much thought involved.
Some have criticized "Tigris and Euphrates" as overly abstract, but I think the theme of kingdoms rising and falling is well depicted here. Building a big monument, for example, can net you a lot of points, but it also weakens you and presents a fat, juicy target for rivals to take. The conflict system, which favors defenders, encourages a style of play more reminiscent of Cold War brinkmanship than anything else - you'll keep building and building, inches away from each other, until one player finally decides to pull the trigger and attack. "The cradle of civilization will also be its grave," one of my friends remarked, and in T&E, defeated kingdoms are typically wiped off the map like Sodom and Gomorrah.
All in all, this is a great game and a wonderful entry into the world of German-style board games. The only major downside is the price ($40), but the depth and replayability of the strategy make the game well worth the cost.