Not event the hardest of the hard-core games that I play can really be called “simulations” of the events they portray. They’re all vague approximations of a reality that, one hopes, provide enough insight into some facet of reality so as to provoke deeper thought on the subject matter.
The physical, boardgame world is set in even more stark relief. The influence of the “euro game” design philosophy has pushed designs toward a simpler, abstract game play. At the same time, the importance of theme has risen, even if this seems at odds with a simplified, elegant gameplay. See, for example, the board game 13 Days. Despite being thickly layered with the historical Cuban Missile Crisis event, going as far as including a history lesson in the manual, the playing of the game has virtually no link to the history. The decisions, the abstractions, and the victory conditions cannot be be connected, even tenuously, to the confrontation over nuclear missiles in Cuba.
13 Days is a bit of an outlier when it comes to military themed games, I think. Wargamers tend to lean towards the serious side. Contrast with a genre I’ll call “family games,” however, where simplicity and shallow theme-inspired chrome might be expected. For this audience, the emphasis must be on an easy-to-learn, easy-to-play structure rather than some deeper meaning connected to some obscure event from the past. Carcassonne has a nifty medieval feel to it, but tile and meeple placing tell me absolutely nothing about feudal France and its economy.
Last weekend, I played a game with the family where I felt the way the theme was implemented challenges this idea of being tacked on. It’s not a simulation or in any meaningful way a realistic game. Yet, I find the theme to be unexpectedly absorbing. The game is Thebes, a board game from 2007 (yet still available today). It is a 2-4 player game (better with more) that puts each player in the role of an archeologist, vying for knowledge and glory at the turn of the 20th century.
The game is compressed into a 3-year time span, although obviously that has no connection to the archeology of the time except to anchor it during a revolution in archeological technique. A century before, Europe had rediscovered the wonders of ancient Egypt when Napoleon invaded Egypt and Syria. The unearthing of the Rosetta Stone began nurturing a new understanding of ancient Egyptian culture. As the 19th century drew to an end, a systematic and scientific study of ancient sites began to capture the public’s imagination – in both good and bad ways.
The pop-culture depiction of Egyptology is perhaps best expressed in supernatural films such as The Mummy (take your pick which year, as long as it isn’t 2017) or Stargate. Grand expeditions issue forth from the universities of Europe to discover lost treasures of the ancient world. Archeologists compete with each other for the glory of presenting the best discoveries back in at home. A bit cartoonish, I suppose, but Thebes captures the spirit of it without going too Indiana Jones on us.
The game starts out with all player-archeologists in Warsaw. From there, they must travel throughout Europe obtaining “knowledge” about one of five locations of artifacts. The knowledge is in the form of cards and the cost of purchasing them is one of the nifty mechanics of this game.
Every action in the game takes time. Traveling between cities costs you a week for each move. Collecting cards costs you something proportional to the worth of that card. Digging for treasures at an ancient location also takes time. With each week you “spend”, you advance a token around a 52-week time track. Player order is then determined by one’s position on the track. Whoever is furthest behind is the next one to go. That means, if all the other players are far enough ahead of me, I might get to take multiple turns in a row before I catch up with the rest of the players. It is a nice way to manage time and variable event durations in a turn-based game.
Once you have acquired some minimal knowledge about an ancient civilization (Egypt, Crete, Mesopotamia, Palestine, and Greece are represented), you can travel to that location and dig. Digging combines your accumulated knowledge with however much time you are willing to invest to specify how many tokens you can blindly draw from a bag. The key to this is that some tokens are blank. When you dig a site, some of what you get will be valuable treasures. Sometimes you obtain knowledge that will be applicable to other sites. Sometimes you just get dirt. When you’ve finished your dig, you get to keep the good stuff but the “dirt” goes back into the bag.
This creates a tug-of-war game play where you have to decide whether to invest for the future and when to just grab points. Early on in the game, you lack of knowledge means you won’t be able to draw many tokens out of those bags. However, each draw has a decent percentage of being valuable. By the end of the game, your accumulated knowledge nets you plenty of draws, but they are likely to be worthless. All that dirt is still in the bag, but most of the treasures are already claimed.
It is a nice representation (avoiding the word simulation) of the gold rush mentality portrayed in pop archeology. If you are the first to unearth a lost city, you’ve got a good chance of stumbling across wonderful treasures with nothing more than luck and a bit of gumption. By the time everyone and their brother has excavated the known sites, you still might get lucky and dig up something good, but it will take time and preparation.
Each artifact is worth some number of points towards victory, tallied at the end of three years. In addition, you can score points by putting on exhibitions of the pieces that you have previously acquired. You can also rack up victory points by attending conferences throughout Europe. Digging would seem the best way to score, but you require licensing from the modern government, so the number of expeditions are limited. The exhibits and conferences remind you that this isn’t just a treasure hunt – archeologists are and were more interested in the knowledge to be gained than the “stuff” they did up.
Combine all of this with some colorful, attractive components (although I could wish for full-sized cards) and, at least for me, it genuinely stimulates the imagination to dreams of dusty libraries and desert digs. That it can do so under an hour and in a format that is palatable even to players in elementary school would seem like a plus.