Saturday, July 16, 2005

Review: Through the Desert

Through the Desert (by Reiner Knizia and recently re-published by Fantasy Flight) just may be the world's best "lunchtime board game". Let me explain.

For the last several months, a group of friends and I have been playing games together during our lunch hour. There are five regulars among us but on any given lunch hour one or two may not be able to make it. It's a somewhat unpredictable crowd since we all have responsibilities that may keep us from gaming one or two days out of a week. So we're always looking out for games that work equally well with 3-5 players. Through the Desert fits the bill perfectly.

It's also nice to have a game that lasts about 30 minutes or so. That gives us time to eat our lunch, set up the game and play, and still have a little time left over to put the game away and either gloat or complain about how it went. Again, Through the Desert is perfect here.

And of course since someone (usually me) will be carrying the game to lunch, it's nice if the box be comfortable to lug around. Again, Through the Desert is perfect. The box is on the smallish side (about 8"x6"x2") but packed solid with bits. Just right for lugging to the lunch room.

Ah but is it any fun? Well it wouldn't be the perfect lunch game if it weren't fun to play now would it!? You bet it is!

Rule number one with Through the Desert ought to be: "Don't eat the camels." The box is packed tight (and I mean really tight) with nearly 200 little plastic camels in yummy pastel colors. They look suspiciously like mints but I can assure you that they aren't really edible. They sure look tasty though!

The game is played on a board covered with hexagons. The board represents a section of desert surrounded by dry mountains. Randomly scattered about the board are watering holes and six oases. The object of the game is to claim territory with your camel caravans.

At the beginning of the game every player gets one camel in each of the five pastel colors and a set of camel riders in their own (non-pastel) color. The riders clip on the back of the camels and are used to distinguish which camel trains are yours and which are your opponents'. Each player takes turns placing their camel riders on the board, thus claiming their starting positions. On subsequent turns, players place two camels on the board to extend their camel trains. You can place camels of any color so long as they extend your camel trains and they don't cause two like-colored camel trains to merge. In other words, you can't place a peach colored camel in such a way as to cause your peach colored camel train to merge with an opponent's peach colored camel train.

Players earn points in several ways. First, whenever a player places a camel on top of a watering hole, he collects the watering hole chip and the number of points (1-3) shown on that chip. Second, if a player causes her camel train to connect to an oasis, she earns five points. Third, if a player builds a camel train in such a way as to enclose an area of the board (one with no other camels in it) then she immediately scores any watering holes and oases in the area and also scores one point for each hex in the area. Finally, at the end of the game, players are awarded ten points for having the most camels in a color. (For instance, if I have more camels in my peach caravan than any other player, I get 10 points.) Players who tie for the most camels in a given color are awarded five points each.

Through the Desert has a lovely blend of strategy and tactics. The initial camel rider placement is highly strategic as it claims your initial territories and sets up your scoring potential. On any given turn there are always agonizing tactical decisions to be made. Do you spend your turn continuing to enclose an area with your peach caravan or do you place a couple of lavender camels to prevent your opponent from enclosing an area with his lime caravan? Do you spend an action and connect to that oasis right now or do you play somewhere else and risk the chance that someone might prevent you from connecting on a subsequent turn? The game is full of decisions like this and it's one of the things that makes this such a great game.

This is one of those games that belongs in every gamer's library. It's a true classic and you owe it to yourself to pick this one up. But remember: Don't eat the camels!


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