Thursday, April 10, 2008

Diggin' a hole (Thebes, Phoenicia)

We played two new games this week, Thebes and Phoenicia.


JayWowzer brought along his copy of Thebes for us to try. Despite the fact that most games that I hear about don't interest me much anymore, Thebes had picked my interest. Having played it, I'd say the design has a lot going for it, but the luck is a little more than I can handle.

The game is quite attractive, with a nice board, thick cardboard chits and very nice discs which are used to determine a player's ability at digging for artifacts. My favorite components were the very nice bags used for drawing the artifacts... a nice touch. I had heard a lot about the time mechanism used in the game, and it does work quite well. It's very much like turn order in golf: Whoever is in last plays until they are not last anymore. In Thebes, players have 52 x2 turns which represents 52 x2 weeks. Every action requires a number of weeks to perform. Some actions are worth quite a bit but take several weeks to perform. In the meantime, another player could choose to do a series of shorter actions instead. It's not a mindblowing mechanic, but it works well and (other than in golf) I don't think I've seen it used before.

I found the tension in trying to figure out how long to do research vs actually going to the dig to be very entertaining. Going first likely means you have fewer draws (unless you were particularly effective at specializing your knowledge), but players that come later get worse odds at drawing anything good. So far, so good. I was really enjoying the game.

Problem is, in the game we played the player who won (me) did it by being lucky at artifact draws. It seemed to make all the stuff which happened before sort of irrelevant. I thought about it afterwards, and I think I decided that the problem I have with the scoring isn't the random draws or the sand mechanic. It's the value of the artifacts.

I wonder how the game would play if the value of all artifacts was 1. The luck of the draw would still be present, but that luck wouldn't be compounded by the fact that a 7 is seven times more than a 1. The rest of the game stays the same, but I suspect exhibitions would become more popular. Another possible variant would be to allow the 3 most valuable artifact drawn (between all players) to be worth it's value at the end of the game, but the others are worth 1. If we did this, I would suggest that exhibitions consume the relics displayed (exhibitions would have to be worth twice as much as they currently are to offset the lost artifacts). This way, the advantage of drawing a high tile would be counterbalanced by the fact that a player is unlikely to use it on an exhibitions (where it would be lost).

So, I did like it. If I can ever find a copy cheap or for trade, I'm all over it.

(a note for posterity: Bharmer drew 20 sand tiles in a row over 3-4 different expeditions. Not one artifact. He didn't stand a chance. As for me, I had 45 points worth at the end of the game. I suspect that's a big haul.


On paper, Phoenicia seems like a Puerto Rico clone with a bonus auction mechanic. It plays 2, which is good, and it plays in about an hour normally. Very positive. However, I found the rules confusing (although the Nova rules from BGG helped immensely). To make matters worse, there graphic presentation leads to errors and confusion. Critical icons are placed on the scoring track, which invariably end up beneath player tokens and therefore illegible. The symbols are thin, small and difficult to interpret. There's probably a good game in there, but even the game setup made me wish I was playing something else.

Anyway, I'm sure I'll try it again, but it's a definite addition to the trade pile for now.

I wanted to talk a little about an error we made. We are supposed to start with a worker in the first space of hunting and farming! This is why the scoring track starts the way it does (3 production, 2 vps) . Now my mind can rest.

Kozure was running away as the leader for most of the game until the final few turns where I made a valiant attempt to catch up with him. It almost worked, I was 1 point behind him!


  1. Thebes

    Great visuals. Great mechanics. Good "fun" in most cases. HOWEVER, the winner seems very arbitrary due to wide range of treasure pulls, as Easy points out.

    Also, one's strategy seems largely dictated by the cards available at the beginning of one's turn, so you're not really making critical decisions so much as choosing between the limited options available. This is not a horrible thing, since it has this factor in common with a number of other games (Power Grid, Ra, etc.) but for some reason it feels more pronounced here.

    I agree strongly with Easy that the wide variance in treasure value is the principal factor in determining success and since it's random, this factor + the randomness of the sand/treasure draw makes it feel like you win by fluke.

    On the other hand, the person with the best "hand" of cards at the end (Easy) did end up winning, so it's not entirely dependant upon luck.

    Had I designed this game, I probably would've done a "excavation grid" board for each site with the treasure markers single-sided and stacked. The deeper the level, the more "draws" you'd need to use up. Of course, this would add to the set up time, because you'd need to sort treasure piles into one, two or three "levels" of excavation (there'd be an increasing degree of value in the deeper levels, but fewer treasures to find). Thus you'd find a number of small value treasures near the surface (with a few high point ones mixed in), then as you got deeper, you'd find less, but they'd be higher in value.


    Seldom has such a relatively intriguing and clever (?) game been buried beneath quite so much poor interface and non-intuitive graphic design. (Race for the Galaxy, coincidentally or not, falls into this category as well, though not on the same level at all).

    I enjoyed this game a lot once we got over the initial difficulty with rules and general layout and graphics, but it really feels like a final draft playtest version rather than the final production version in a lot of ways.

    It seemed quite intriguing, but I'm not sure if it was just a matter of being fuelled by a desire to figure it out, or whether there was actually some meat to the gameplay.

    Quick thoughts on Phoenicia:

    Decision tree: auction cards - buy cards based on your long term strategy. strategies seem to be - pursue low tool cost techs to get lower returns on workers or pursue high tool cost techs to get higher returns. Simple enough... or is it? Bid higher on more workers (forts) or bid for fewer already trained workers (indentured servants). Pursue different techs for different payoffs in later sets.

    I dunno... I'm just not sure there's enough variety in techs and paths to give this one legs... the Shipyard + Tracker strategy seems to be the strongest at this point. But subsequent plays will tell.

    Either this has medium depth in terms of strategies, or it has low depth, and I don't think we'll know until we can play it again a few more times.

  2. Your suggestion regarding artifact hunting is intriguing. Certainly it would add a layer of strategy and theme to the game, at the expense of setup (as you said). I was looking at variants which could work with the game as it is. I guess my main gripe with your idea is that it would do away with the bags!!!

    Another variant I thought of was to have players draw tiles one at a time. When they stop, the number of weeks spent is tallied up according to the wheel. It would add a certain Diamant/ Ra feel to the game, and increase the odds of someone being able to leave with SOMETHING every time.