Friday, February 03, 2006

Review: Euphrates & Tigris: Contest of Kings

Tigris & Euphrates has long been one of my favorite games. That game is regarded by many as Reiner Knizia's crowning achievement. So when I heard that there was to be a card game version of T&E I was very anxious and excited. How would it be different? Would it be as good? Well the wait is over. Euphrates & Tigris: Contest of Kings has finally arrived.

Euphrates & Tigris: Contest of Kings (E&T:CK for short) is a card game that supports 2-4 players and plays in around 45 minutes. That makes it a little shorter than the board game, finishing in roughly two-thirds the time.

Inside the box you'll find the same wooden leader tokens from the board game as well as 200 half-sized cards. I'm not a big fan of half-sized cards (for one thing, they're much harder to shuffle than full-sized cards) but given the amount of table space required to play this game, I have to admit that this was really the only logical way to go. Other than their diminutive size, there's really nothing to complain about; the cards are very attractive and of the finest quality.

For those that are already familiar with the board game, learning E&T:CK will be a snap. The rules are so similar that you can teach the game in just a few minutes by focusing on the differences between the card game and the board game.

Just as in the board game, players are identified by symbol (lion, bull, pot, and bow) rather than color and each player has four leader disks with his symbol: one black king, one red priest, one green merchant, and one blue farmer. As in the board game, your goal is to use your leaders to exert influence on the kingdoms of the Fertile Crescent in an effort to earn victory points.

Each player plays the game with a hand of eight cards which is replenished at the end of every turn. The cards serve the same purpose as the tiles from the board game with one minor difference: they are also used to count victory points. In the board game, whenever you earn a victory point you take a victory point cube of the appropriate color from the supply. In the card game, whenever you earn a victory point, you must add an appropriately colored card from your hand to your victory point stack. If you don't have a card that's the right color, too bad for you! No card; no score! As in the board game, the winner is the player with the highest score in his lowest scoring category so you must be careful to collect all four victory point colors; not just one or two. Unlike the board game, players are NOT allowed to review their own scores until the end of the game; rather they must remember what they've taken. I can think of no good reason for this other than to avoid confusing the scoring piles with the players' hands and I can imagine a lot of people adopting house rules that do away with this restriction.

In the board game, the playing surface is a two-dimensional grid representing a map of Mesopotamia on which you play your tiles. In the card game, the playing surface is a linear row of treasure cards. Each treasure card represents a different region and additional cards are added below it to expand the region. Place a leader disk on one of the cards in a region and it becomes a kingdom. Play a card between two treasure cards and the regions merge. This linear representation simplifies the geography quite a bit. In fact, it simplifies it a bit too much in my opinion. Although the basic mechanics are the same, you loose a lot of the strategy of carefully joining and splitting regions that is so vital to the board game. One other problem is that due to the size of the cards (which are by necessity larger than the tiles in the board game) the card game actually requires a LARGER playing surface than the board game! On the other hand, the card game packs quite a bit smaller so provided you have a large enough table where you're going, it does travel better.

If two leaders of the same color are ever in the same kingdom then there is a conflict. Internal conflicts occur when a player adds a conflicting leader to a kingdom and are resolved with red cards played from each player's hand (majority wins, defender wins ties). External conflicts occur when a player joins two kingdoms with the same colored leaders and are resolved with cards that match the leaders' color. Victory points are taken from cards used in the conflict.

Those familiar with the board game will realize that conflict is almost identical. The one difference (and it's a big one) is that in an internal conflict, a leader's base strength depends only upon the card that's underneath him: if it's a red card he gets a one point bonus. This means that having red cards in your hand is very important since it's really the only way you have to defend against an internal conflict. That makes internal conflicts far more luck dependent than they are in the board game.

There are other similarities with the board game: the treasures are still there as are the monuments, although in the card game they are called ships, there are only three of them, and building them (much less keeping them) is more difficult than in the board game.

I really wanted to like this game. I'm a huge fan of the board game and I was really hoping that the card game version would bring something new to the game while retaining the same flavor. At the end of the day, I have to say that while I do like the card game, it's not as good as I had hoped. E&T:CK isn't a bad game at all and had it come out first I'd certainly have recommended it, but with the board game already out there, the card game is just too similar and yet slightly inferior in almost every respect. If you already own Tigris & Euphrates, I can think of little reason to get the card game as well. And if you are trying to decide between the two then I would definitely recommend you choose the board game. About the only reason to get the card game is if you want a version of the game that you can take with you wherever you go.


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