Sunday, September 16, 2007

Review: Thebes

It's the early 20th century and all of Europe is fascinated with the wonders of the ancient world that have been brought to light by the nascent science of archeology. As an archaeologist, your job is to comb the libraries and museums of the world in search of clues to the whereabouts of fabulous artifacts from civilizations gone by. Once your research is complete, it's time to hop a steamer bound for the sands of Egypt, oversee the dig and hope that your weeks of excavation turn up enough valuable artifacts to make a good showing on the European exhibition circuit.

If this sounds interesting to you then you might want to take a look at Thebes. Initially released in Germany under the title Jenseits von Theben, Thebes is a game for two to four players, ages ten and up published by Rio Grande Games and Queen. Designed by Peter Prinz, the game lasts roughly 60 to 90 minutes with the length largely depending on the number of players.


Inside the standard sized Queen box you'll find some pretty lovely components. There are five cloth bags in different colors, each one with a different image silk screened on the front. The bags represent different archaeological dig sites and each is filled with roughly 30 sturdy cardboard tokens, roughly half of which which represent valuable artifacts that may be uncovered (the rest are blank and represent junk). You'll also find a large deck of cards, several wooden tokens and a very nice board. Finally, from the superfluous nifty bits department, we have four cardboard gear-shaped wheels. The wheels are really just glorified charts. As you turn a wheel a set of numbers is revealed through a window in the cardboard. A simple chart would have worked just as well but these are a heck of a lot more fun to use. They also come color coded which makes it just that much easier to remember which color is yours.

So to sum it up, the components are first rate and definitely add to the overall experience. There's no question about getting your money's worth of pretty cardboard, cloth, and wood when you buy this game.


Each player assumes the role of a famous archaeologist knocking around early 20th century Europe, researching and then recovering artifacts from ancient civilizations. Points are scored mainly by recovering valuable artifacts. Each artifact is worth a number of victory points ranging from 1 to 7. There are also bonuses available for showing your artifacts at exhibitions back on the continent and for collecting Congress cards. Furthermore, each player who collects a majority of "knowledge" for one of the dig site receives bonus points.

Around the board are 52 week spaces. Each player's turn takes a varying amount of weeks depending on what the player chooses to do. The game is played on a map which is a network of interconnected cities in Europe, Egypt and the Middle East. Most turns consist of moving to another city and collecting a card that's available at that city, for which the player would be charged one week's travel time for each leg of his journey plus a number of weeks printed on the card. Better cards naturally cost more weeks. After he takes his card, the player moves his marker the required number of weeks around the calendar track and his turn is finished. One of the more clever elements of the game is that whoever's token is the farthest back on the calendar track is the one who gets to take his turn. If you're far enough back on the track and you take a cheap action then you may get to take more than one turn in a row.

Most of the cards that are available are cards with one or more colored books on them. These are "specialized knowledge" cards which give you a number of "knowledge points" for the dig site indicated by the color. Before you can dig for artifacts, you need to have at least one of these specialized knowledge cards for that site. The more knowledge you have about a given site, the better your odds of finding something when you finally decide to dig there.

So let's say you've gathered several knowledge cards for one of the sites. How do you go about digging there? First you move your token to the dig site, at a travel cost of one week for each leg of your journey getting there. Then you turn your wheel until the number in the top of the window matches the number of knowledge points you have pertaining to that particular site. The numbers that show up in the window tell you how many discs you may draw from that site's bag if you stay a given number of weeks. The longer you decide to stay, the more discs you'll get to draw. The odds of getting something other than a blank "worthless junk" disc when you draw start out at just under 50% and, if other players have already extracted artifacts from that site, they may be quite a bit worse. So you need to determine how many weeks you're willing to dig, taking into account the level of risk you're willing to accept that you may pull nothing but junk out of the bag and weighing that against the value of those weeks if you had spent them doing other things such as collecting more knowledge to be used in future digs.

Another element to consider is that players are only allowed to dig at each site once per year (a four player game lasts two years). Players will want to be sure that they are sufficiently prepared before digging so as not to waste their one and only chance to dig at that site this year.

In addition to specialized knowledge cards, there are also general knowledge cards which give knowledge points for ALL of the dig sites, and other special cards which give temporary knowledge bonuses or the opportunity to draw extra discs when digging.

And there are the exhibitions. Towards the latter part of the game, exhibition cards may be drawn. Exhibition cards are printed with a city and a week cost (just like the other cards), but they also offer a victory point bonus. In order to collect an exhibition card, in addition to the travel time and the collection time, a player must also possess the proper number of artifacts in the colors indicated on the card. In this way, players who plan ahead and collect the correct colored artifacts can gain a moderate reward for their efforts.

The game ends when the last player uses up his last week. At that point players total up all their loot, add any bonus points for exhibition cards, congress cards, and majority knowledge points, and whoever scores the most wins the game.


Thebes is a beautifully produced family game that should appeal to gamers who don't mind a little bit of randomness in their games. The pieces are wonderful, the theme is interesting, and the length is just about right for this type of game, but serious strategy gamers should beware. This game has luck, and a pretty hefty dose of it too.

First, there's the matter of the cards. Which cards you can collect depends on which cards happen to be available when it's your turn. Sure, there are always four to choose from, but because you also have to pay travel time to get to a card's city, you may often find that one or two of them are too expensive to be under serious consideration. And of course which cards are attractive to you also depends a lot on which other cards you've already collected. When I've played this game, I've often felt as if my turn was really decided for me more by fortune and circumstance than by strategy.

Next there's the fact that most of your points come from artifacts and which artifacts you recover is almost entirely decided by the whims of fate. Oh sure, you have some control over how many discs you pull from a bag and how many digs you choose to make each year, but all the same, if your opponent lucks into two or three high value artifacts and you pull blank after blank you may find yourself a little frustrated.

Still, as long as you don't mind subjecting yourself to the whims of fate, Thebes is a great game. Much of the time good strategy will overcome bad fortune and, in my opinion, the cool theme and the engaging play more than make up for the heavy luck. So as long as you don't mind losing the occasional game you felt you deserved to win, you might want to give Thebes a try.


At 7:23 PM, December 29, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent review! Convinced me to get it.


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