Jeroen Doumen & Joris Wiersinga
Good luck with fitting this on your shelves
First published: 2004
Publishers: Splotter Spellen
Length: 180 minutes
Some board games are available everywhere you look. You could pop into a petrol station to grab £10 (or £40 these days) of petrol and a Kit Kat Chunky (other chocolatey snacks available) and you’ll see a forlorn Uno deck shoved in with the small shelf of emergency camping supplies. You could probably buy a copy of Monopoly from a drug dealer’s house these days. Even “designer” games like ol’ grandaddy Settlers of Catan or the hip young Quirkle, Dominion or Dixit are pushing out into more and more stores (Waterstones in the UK and I hear Target in the US has more and more games now). So what was once the hidden treasure of Germany toy stores or murky, stinky specialist game stores in the rest of the West, is now pushing outwards SLIGHTLY more into the mainstream.
There are, however, some games that never achieve such freedom. Such as 40 hour war games (“Pah, that’s a mere kiddie game!” I hear wargamers cry), games with strange, niche themes like shaving dogs or building Moonie temples….and Splotter Spellen games.
Splotter Spellen are a small Dutch publishing company, famous for producing excellent games in small numbers. Their games are expensive, generally highly rated and often end up out of print, floating around the internet for higher and higher prices. One of these, Antiquity, was considered a “grail” game (i.e. one that people dream of hunting down and buying) by many. Finally, after years of begging and cajoling, Splotter recently made more copies of the game available. “Huzzah!” people cried. Fortunately for me, I already owned the game, a mindbogglingly lucky target of the most generous Secret Santa in existence.
The hospital was wisely built next to the Brewery. Too late for those two poor souls though
Does anyone remember playing that old PC/Amiga game Settlers? It’s had numerous incarnations over the years but I still remember loading up a copy of the game (back when Amigas TOLD you to back up your games and play the copied versions…or in the case of everyone I knew, give them to your friends) and sinking myself into it for hour after hour. The premise was simple. You have a quick look around the randomly set-up landscape and choose where you want to start. Your settlement has borders that can be expanded by building knight houses and towers. There are trees in your settlement so you build woodcutters. Now you have wood so you build a lumber mill to turn the wood into planks. All the while your little chaps are walking along your paths, transporting the wood back to the castle. Now you can build more things like wheat and pig farms (with butchers for producing meat and bakers for bread). Mine some stone and you can build all kinds of quarries. Run out of wood? Build a hippy-like tree planter, complete with hairy feet and a rainbow guitar strap (no doubt). Get fishermen lining the banks of the lakes and expand, expand, expand.
To an eleven year old boy stuck in the countryside every evening, this was pretty addictive stuff for a while. Creating a happy little world of production, all the while covering over your human footprint by filling the land full of hippy tree planters. It was wonderful. It was an excellent game.
Now imagine that game, just with dwindling tree supplies and vast amounts of increasing, choking pollution. Delightful.
Antiquity is set LOOSELY in late middle ages Italy. Players take on the role of different settlements, starting at different corners of the maps, stripping resources, polluting, building closer and closer together and competing over what’s left. All the while, trying to complete their chosen victory condition (by choosing which Patron Saint to pray to in their stony middle ages church). The game takes time, it takes concentration, it even takes steady fingers and an ability to turn your head away from the table when you need to sneeze. However it rewards you with a rich, deep and often frustrating game play experience. Antiquity is one of my very favourite games and let me tell you about it.
A young city nestling in natural beauty. A fisherman and a miner go about their business
The game map is set up using large hexagonal tiles. The game comes with plenty and they’re double-sided so it’s unlikely you’ll ever get two games geographically identical. Depending on the number of players different numbers of tiles are used to keep things close but not TOO crowded. Each player will start at a different corner of the map, choosing where in the hex to build their city. The maps include forest (trees), grassland (farming), lakes (fishies and other goodies) and mountains (stone and gold).
Each player also receives a beautiful paper player aid / town planner that is set out to look like an old parchment or book. The aid has what you do each turn (there are a number of steps), what you need to build new buildings, information about patron saints, space for unbuilt houses and townsfolk that come with them and, most importantly, the town grid.
The town grid is a grid of squares into which you build your buildings. It’s very much like Tetris as you’re trying to fit houses (1×1 square) around the church (shaped like a cross), your builders (small L shape), the town dump (bigger square) and all kinds of strangely-shaped buildings. The kicker being that once you’ve built a building, you can’t move it, so you really need to plan your town wisely until you can build another town somewhere else on the geographical map and then you get an extra grid you can use.
So then, each game turn consists of ten actions. Already it’s sounding complicated right? Well they all flow properly together and make sense so it’s not so bad.
- First you take all your workers off the buildings they were working at in the town and put them back on their houses.
- You build new city buildings using the goods that you have. You choose where your men are going to work for this turn. A few buildings use their abilities.
- You check to see who gets to build out into the countryside and in what order.
- If you put men on the Cart Shops you get to send men out into the countryside to farm, chop wood, mine for stone, fish etc. You choose their central “point” where they will set up camp and you place pollution tiles and the good tile on the spaces around them where they are farming/fishing/mining/chopping. A few buildings use their abilities.
- Check that your stored goods fit into your storage space. All others have to be discarded.
- Harvest time! All workers in the countryside return one good to your store. This will generally reveal a pollution token meaning that the spot is unusable until it’s cleaned up again. Chopped trees leave a clearing that can be used for farming but trees never grow back. If a worker has finished then he returns to town.
- Explorers can be sent out to take an exploration token. These will be either an olive, wheat, sheep or wine. Add one to your supply.
- Famine. Check the amount of stored food (wheat, olive, sheep, fish) you have and compare it against the famine level. If you don’t have enough food, take a grave tile and place it on your town map for each you’re short of. Increase famine level by one.
- Pollution. Each city pollutes three tiles around it unless you have a dump with someone working there. If you have no space, more graves!
- Check to see if anyone has won.
So there you go. Ten phases flowing through each turn. It doesn’t take long to get used to them and they are explained on your player mat anyway.
Time progresses, with the city desperate to expand, leaving pollution and deforestation
For me, one of the biggest strengths of the game is how everything works together. How it feels like you’re building your town and sending your workers out into the fields. You have the “mini game” of fitting your town pieces into the town space and deciding what buildings are a priority. Sure, being able to clean up pollution or being able to build farms without needing a “farm good” to get it started is great, but those buildings are huge. So do you hold out until you can build a new city in the countryside. But when you do build a new city pollution will increase and it IS quite expensive to build a city, meaning that it’s possible you’ll have to allow some hunger and death to fall upon your city(ies) in order to save up the luxuries to build it!
The map really comes alive as players send their workers out, chopping down trees (I LOVE the way that chopping trees leaves a clearing which can be used for farm land afterwards), mining, fishing in the lakes and so on. The map really gives the impression of small cities and towns in a patch of land going about their business and bringing in the crops and raw materials they need.
You could play to keep a harmonious world, at one with nature and cleaning up all your pollution as you go. Or you can play slash-and-burn, raging across the countryside, leaving a trail of pollution and unusable land in your wake. Or, like most players, you spend the time frantically balancing between the two, stuck in a painful loop of trashing the land around you and desperately trying to heal it so you can trash it all over again.
Antiquity really captures the imagination and pulls you into its world. It’s a hands-on “civilisation” game where you’re focussing on the very core of your faltering city rather than on sweeping across continents. Even more interestingly, it’s more than possible that every player is going about trying to win in a very different way due to the patron saints.
In order to win a player MUST build a cathedral in a city and choose their patron saint. This saint will give them a special ability and require a certain winning condition. San Nicolo requests that you build all your workers homes to win, but you can get a “buy one get one free” on them! San Giorgio desires that you surround another player’s land in your own area of control, offering you a free fish for every cathedral that has been built. Santa Barbara requests that you build every building type in your cities but lets you rearrange your buildings freely. San Christofori wants three of every type of foot and luxury good in your stores but allows you to store the goods in the cathedral. If you’re feeling like a challenge, Santa Maria will give you all of the abilities but you must complete two of the win conditions.
This adds an extra depth to the game as players positions ebb and flow as they potentially focus on different targets. You may be happily going about getting all your required goods for San Christofori, when your neighbour starts encroaching onto your land and taking all your prime farmland to win with San Giorgio.
Building inns allows the city to stretch out across the land. Everyone loves a pint
So, the game is beautiful, deep and involving but nothing is perfect. Where does Antiquity suffer?
A common complaint aimed at Antiquity is that it can feel like “multi-player solitaire”. Especially early on you will be going about your business, building, harvesting goods and so on and not interacting with your opponents at all. The interaction can increase later on as players build closer together, if players use the market to trade or if a player is trying to win through San Giorgio. However if you love a game that is focussed on direct competition then Antiquity is not for you. It’s more of a race to ease your own city through the early hardships and push it to the edge of survival to squeak out your victory conditions first.
The game can also be fiddly. There are a lot of small cardboard chits, often with two or three piled on top of each other. If you have fat sausage fingers, arthritis or had too much caffeine, laying them out and picking them back up again can be tough and can be frustrating. Though it must be said that in order to make such a complex game less fiddly would have required the pieces to be about twice as big and unwieldy
Lastly there is a way to mess yourself up from the very start, which requires me to always warn new players. You must never run out of wood as in order to go and chop down more wood, you need a wood to build the woodcutter’s hut! Some players may get all grumpy and uppity about how the game doesn’t have some kind of built in mechanism to prevent this, but it doesn’t. Unless you count the person explaining the game telling people.
Ultimately then, Antiquity is an event. The box is huge, the pieces many, the game turns long and multi-faceted. I have found the game surprisingly straight-forward to explain now that I know the game well, but the rulebook, while decent, is not exhaustive. Mistakes will be made in early plays and games may drag on until you understand how it works. I would encourage everyone to push on through that though. Antiquity is an excellent game, beautifully realised and (with many turns carried out simultaneously) keeps every player involved throughout with very very very little “down time” where you’re waiting for other players.
I know it’s expensive. I know it’s relatively hard to get but find someone with it and get them to play the game with you.
- Has the grandeur of a real “event” game
- Beautiful to look at, from the muted map colours to the player sheets
- Really makes you feel like you’re balancing on the brink of disaster
- Little interaction at the beginning of the game
- Lots of little cardboard chits everywhere, fiddly