Saturday, August 06, 2005

Review: Tower of Babel

Tower of Babel is one of the more recent games from prolific game designer Reiner Knizia. It's a rather unique little area control game with a bidding element and, in true Knizia fashion, many different ways to score points. It supports up to five players and plays in around an hour.

Tower of Babel has that typical "Euro" feel. Inside the box you'll find a very nice game board with the obligatory scoring track surrounding large illustrated areas that depict each of the eight wonders of the ancient world. (See, there would have been eight had our ancient biblical friends actually finished constructing the Tower of Babel.) You'll also find two decks of very nice half-size cards, several sturdy cardboard disks, and a large selection of wooden markers in the five player colors. All of the artwork is quite nice and exactly what you would expect from a Hans im Glük game.

I mentioned that there are two decks of cards. The larger deck of cards is made up entirely of colored cards. Each card has a color that matches the colors on the cardboard disks: white, brown, purple or grey. The smaller deck is a reward deck. Each card in that deck grants the player some special power or reward, such as letting him modify how an area is scored or something like that. There is no text on the reward cards and the icons aren't always obvious so for the first couple of times you play the game you'll probably have to refer to the rules to figure out what each card means. There are only about ten different ones though so players will quickly learn what the cards do and it really isn't a problem to just take a quick glance at the rules whenever one of these cards is drawn (which isn't very often).

Speaking of rules, these are very nice. They're in full color, short and clearly written with nice illustrated examples. Typical Hans im Glük fare here and that's a good thing.

Each player receives a selection of houses in their color and a wooden marker that looks like the bottom stone from a roman column. They also receive a starting hand of cards and a trade card that will be used when it's time to bid. The cardboard disks are randomly distributed, face up, three to each wonder. Most disks have a number and a color; a few of them have two numbers and two colors.

The game play is quite simple. On your turn you have two choices: you can elect to take a card or you can try to claim one of the disks. Of course, claiming the disks is where the action is. If you choose to claim a disk, you place your marker on one of the wonders, choose one of the disks associated with that wonder, and place it on top of your marker. The number(s) and color(s) on the disk indicate the number and color of the cards which will be required to claim it. Each other player in the game selects a number of cards from his or her hand and places them face down. Once all players have chosen their cards, the cards are revealed. Now you get to decide who will help you claim the disk (if anyone). Here's how it works. Say the disk is brown and has a five on it. To claim that disk you need five brown cards. Now say Alice has put down two brown cards, Bob has played three brown cards and his trade card, and Carl, not having any brown cards, has put down two white cards as a bluff. Carl's cards don't count (they're the wrong color) so they are just returned to his hand. You need five brown cards to claim the disk. You can choose to pay all five brown cards yourself or you can accept one (or more) of the other player's offers. If you accept Alice's offer, you will only need to pay three brown cards, you will get to claim the disk for yourself, Alice will put two of her markers on the wonder (one for each card in her bid) and you will put three. If you accept Bob's offer, you will only have to pay two brown cards and you'll get to place all five markers on the wonder but Bob will get to keep the disk. If you accept both Alice and Bob's offer, Bob will keep the disk, Alice will place two markers, and you will place three (for Bob's three card bid). All cards that are used to claim a disk go in the discard. Any cards that are not used (either because a bid was refused or because the cards were the wrong color) return to the players' hands, as do the trade cards. Now here's the catch: any valid offer that is refused scores one point per offered card for the player who made the offer. So there's an incentive to make an offer even if you know that the offer will be refused.

At the end of a player's turn, ALL players receive one more card. So players always have more cards with which to bid.

The tricky part of this game is the scoring. Every time a wonder is completed (all three disks have been claimed) it is scored. In typical area control game style, points are awarded to whoever has the most, second most, and third most houses on the wonder. There is a small chart on the board that indicates how many points will be awarded and each time a wonder is scored, a marker is moved down the chart and the value of completing a wonder increases. So completing a wonder near the end of the game is worth quite a bit more than completing one at the beginning. A large part of the strategy revolves around waiting for the right moment to score a wonder. Also, as a reward for triggering a scoring round, whoever starts a bidding round for the last disk on a wonder, receives a card from the reward deck as a bonus, whether or not they actually claim the disk.

The game ends when all the disks from a given color have been claimed. So there is guaranteed to be at least one wonder that hasn't been completed. All incomplete wonders are then scored. They're worth the same amount of points as the second wonder scored in the game, so if you're ahead on a wonder, it makes sense to try and score it before the game ends so you can get the maximum amount of points for it.

Finally, the disks are scored. Players count how many disks they have in each corner and are awarded points for having three or more disks in a single color. The more disks in a single color, the more points you receive.

So to summarize, you can get points for: having your bid refused, helping to build a wonder, and claiming disks. The amount of points you receive depends on the circumstances and when a wonder is scored. Furthermore, each scoring element is wonderfully balanced, so it really isn't obvious which scoring method will be the most effective and players will need to carefully consider the consequences of each action and determine how it will affect the score.

I found Tower of Babel to be a very nice, if a bit dry, game. The game plays quickly and even with five players there doesn't seem to be a lot of down time (time with nothing to do but wait). The mechanics are elegant and polished and the game is quite easy to learn. Scoring is complicated enough that it isn't always obvious what to do at a given moment. Successful players will realize that every decision, particularly the bids, can have multiple, and sometimes non-obvious, effects.

If there is one flaw with the game it is that it tends to encourage players to repeatedly draw cards early in the game and hoard large hands of cards. That increases a player's bidding power dramatically. The downside of course, is that everyone else's hand is also increasing in power. One could argue that this isn't really so much of a flaw. After all, Ticket to Ride, when played by experienced players, will almost always play the same way: players will just continually grab cards until eventually someone's hand will be large enough that they feel ready to make a move and begin scoring.

My friend Curt just loves this game and he seems to want to get it to the table almost every game night. I'm not quite as enamored with it as he is. It's a little dry for my tastes and many of the mechanics have been used before in other games. Still, I can see why he likes it: it's a solid game that is easy to learn, it appears to be quite simple but playing it well requires a deceptive amount of careful thought, and while most of the mechanics are not new, they blend very well to make an interesting game. If it sounds like something you might be interested in then I heartily recommend it.


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