Nice bit of Egyptian memorabilia, one careful owner…
First published: 2007
Publishers: Queen Games, Arclight, Piatnik
Length: 60 minutes
Since returning to the UK from my life in Japan, I suffered through a few months unemployed and looking for work. So, of course, like all good unemployed folk I spent the time watching daytime TV and playing video games. Top of the list for both, interestingly, was archaeology. The new Tomb Raider game on PS3 (which is excellent and surpasses the Uncharted series) and the classic British TV series Time Team (which is TV’s version of a delicious homemade cake: moreish and delightful). Now, while I do have an interest in plenty of history, I’ve never been tempted to pull on some beige shorts and get out into a field to dig around for Roman pottery, Medieval pottery or Bronze Age……pottery (it always seems to be pottery that they find on those shows).
However, Thebes offers the player just that. Set at the turn of the (last) century when archaeologists and (gasp) treasure hunters gathered all their knowledge of ancient peoples and romped off down to the cradle of civilisation to dig up graves, unearth lost wonders and fill their pockets with gold and priceless artefacts. When all is said and done, it is one of the richest thematic gaming experiences that the world of “Eurogames” can offer. So on the strength of that you should read on!
Been around the woooorld, there’s no place like home. BAYBEEEE
The game comes in a classic Queen box – big, colourful, deep and sturdy. There are plenty of components including the board itself, a plethora of cards, wooden player pawns, a well engineered cardboard dig wheel for each player, cardboard chits which are either blank (dirt) or have images of actual historical artefacts (which are listed and described on full colour sheets) and also colour-coded cloth bags that symbolise the dig sites for each of the ancient locations.
The art is colourful and the cards are well laid out. It’s evocative of the period, with touches on the board and on the cards as well as the look of the wheels. Card-wise you’ll be casting your eyes over nerdy bespectacled research assistants, colourful ethnic stall owners, a zeppelin, an early model car and dusty old lecture halls. The board also fits the artistic feel of the period and is surrounded by what looks like a standard scoring track from 1-52.
Palestine’s throwing up a load of dirt….and a few little gems
BUT WAIT! That’s no score track! That’s the very bestest thing about the game!
You see, Thebes does not progress in standard turn order. Every movement and action you make in the game takes a certain amount of time. Every step across the map that you travel on your turn takes one week, every card you take takes a certain amount of weeks (as shown on the card), and digging takes time too. Make your move, add the travel time to the action time and move your time marker forward that many spaces around the track. Whoever is furthest back on the time track takes the next turn! Once the 2-3 years (depending on number of players) has passed then the game ends. The time track concept has been used since, but Thebes really nailed it, frequently making you decide between multiple shorter actions or one longer action. It also adds the extra dimension to the archaeological digs (more later) themselves.
So then, a brief overview of the rules:
Each player takes an archaeologist guy and places him in onto London. They take the matching coloured disc to place on the time track. They take a “dig permit” for each of the five civilisations and they take a dig wheel. The cards are shuffled (with “exhibition” cards shuffled into the deck) and four cards placed in the corner of the board.
In turn (furthest back on the time track), players can either travel to a destination stated on one of the four cards and take the card (adding the travel and card weeks together), travel to Moscow and replace the four cards, or travel down to the ancient civilisation spaces and dig for artefacts.
Cards come in a variety of forms, including “specialist knowledge” – providing knowledge for one of the ancient civilisations (i.e. you read up on and study them), “general knowledge” – providing knowledge on archaeology to help with all digs, “lectures” – collect the lecture cards to score more and more points at the end, “local whispers” – little one off rumours that you hear to help with digs in specific spaces, and other special cards such as a zeppelin ticket (one journey takes no weeks), car (journeys of 3 or more spaces take one less week) and research students who give you extra help on the digs.
So, once you’ve researched the dig sites and gathered some cards together it’s time to head down to dig. Digs take longer so be prepared to “miss” a few turns after a dig. However they are the core of the game and you should be looking to dig as many sites as possible each year. This is where the wheel comes in. You spin it around so that the cut out window is aligned to how much knowledge you have about the civilisation. Then you can see how many “pulls” from the dig bag you can have depending on how many weeks you’re going to dig for. Longer digs take….well longer, but they will allow you to dig….well longer and therefore pull up more stuff. This is a great mechanism which leads into the dig itself. You take the matching bag for your dig site and then blindly pull out the number of discs. Some will be blank (dirt), while others will have artefacts with a point value and some will have extra bits like extra knowledge on them.
This is definitely the “luckiest” part of the game and may upset some people who go digging for weeks and end up just pulling up dirt. However this does actually feel thematic. Time and knowledge can give you the best chance of hitting treasure, but at the end of the day you might just miss out.
So at the end of the game you add up the points for all your discovered artefacts, add the points received from giving lectures and those who have the most knowledge for each civilisation receive bonus points. Added to this you receive points for bringing artefacts back for exhibitions and the player with the most points, you guessed it, WINS! Huzzah!
Bags bags bags bags bags bags bags bags bags
Thebes is a game that includes the luck of the draw (which cards are available to choose from) and some blind luck (what you pull from the bags). However these are mitigated enough by strategy and tactics to be overpowered by the genius of the game. They are left feeling thematic and like they add to the game, rather than feeling like an annoying hindrance to the rest of the game.
As I mentioned before, the time track is sublimely implemented and really adds to the decision making (is it worth making a sub-optimal move or digging for a couple of weeks less to make sure you can have another turn before your opponents?) and also works as the built-in game timer. The game is worth getting just for that. The theme is tightly tied in and the artwork is evocative of what the game is aiming to achieve – that Indiana Jones / Tutankhamun’s tomb vibe.
The downsides I can see are that some may get annoyed by the luck factor. Some games I have played have definitely seen a player getting “screwed over” by constant pulls of dirt from a bag. But played in the right spirit, that can be seen as adding to the theme and feel of the game. Also the cards (probably by necessity) are pretty small. You do end up with quite a number laid out in front of you though so even with small cards you need quite a bit of table room despite the relatively compact map.
The game plays excellently with 4 and very well with 3 players too. It works with two but, as with many 2-4 player games, you’re not going to get the best experience with two players.
In summary, I love owning Thebes and enjoy the chances I have to get it to the table to play. It’s not too long, never outstaying its welcome and brings fun and entertainment…Which is really what a game should do. Highly recommended.
- The theme is really rich throughout the game
- The time track is, frankly, brilliant
- Digging for treasure is fun and the bags are a lovely mechanism
- Your best-laid plans can go up in smoke with bad “pulls” from the bags
- The cards are pretty small