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In Assyria, you play a tribe of nomads in the deserts of Mesopotamia. The aim is to develop and move to attractive areas formed by the rivers, collecting resources for the survival of key villages. Obviously, good locations are coveted and opposing tribes seek to block you.
Ystari has developed quite the reputation amongst gamers, having published a nice collection of outstanding strategy games. For several years, I thoroughly enjoyed every game they released, including the outstanding Caylus, winner of the International Gamers Award in 2006. While they have published a game or two over the past few years of which I am not too fond, for me, their reputation remains intact, and each game they release is a must-try. Their latest release is Assyria by designer Emanuele Ornella. As with Ystari, I hold Ornella in high esteem, as he has created some very engaging designs, including Oltre Mare, Il Principe and Hermagor. So, a release that teams them both is one that I cannot miss trying.
As one can surmise from the title, Assyria tells the story of the emergence of the powerful nation of the same name in 2000 B.C. The nation that was to become Assyria was in its infancy, with various tribes struggling to expand and survive. Players expand along the delta, establishing new villages and constructing wells and ziggurats. They vie for the favor of the nobility, and attempt to win the favor of the gods. Some will survive, while others will succumb to the perils of the land. There is a perennial shortage of food, and floods are a predictable, yet devastating occurrence. Both cause the consistent loss of people, forcing player to rebuild their empire from the remnants. In the end, the most successful tribe will emerge as the dominant force in the budding empire.
The board depicts a section of Mesopotamia, with two rivers dividing the map into three sections. Each hexagon depicts one of five resources, which will be needed to feed any villages located on that hex. Players receive a collection of huts, a plow card and one resource card to begin the game. The game is divided into three reigns, with floods and additional scoring occurring at the end of each reign. The first reign consists of two turns, while reigns two and three have three turns apiece. Each turn consists of the following phases:
Farming. Two rows of five food cards are revealed, with each row being arranged in ascending order of value. Each food card will depict from 1 – 3 of the same resource. These resources match those found on the board, and are needed to feed one's people. In turn order, players select one column of two cards. The selection is based on several considerations. Players must provide for the villages they intend to maintain, as well as new villages they will place on the current turn. Thus, they must select cards depicting resources matching the locations where their villages are or will be located. Further, the turn order for the remainder of the turn will be based on the cards players collect, with those selecting lower-valued cards taking their turns earlier. Going early in the turn order has significant advantages, so it is sometimes worthwhile to forego cards with substantial resources in order to take other actions before your opponents.
Expansion. Each turn, a new expansion card is revealed. These cards range in value from 2 – 4, and dictate the number of new huts players must place that turn. In turn order, players place these huts, which must be placed next to one of the player's ziggurats or huts. Only one hut may occupy a space, and there can be keen competition for certain territories. Care must be taken to place the huts so that they do not obscure the resource symbol located on the center of each hex. As player's feed their people in the next phase, each hut is moved to the center to indicate they have been fed. This procedure is helpful, but time-consuming and fiddly.
Resupplying & Famine. Here's where we sing the "Feed the World" song from many moons ago. Players MUST resupply (aka, feed) as many of their huts as possible. No playing Stalin here and deliberately starving your people. Players use their food and plow card, which acts as a wild card, resupplying huts located on spaces depicting matching resources. Excess cards can be kept from turn-to-turn. Any villages not supplied have their people starve, and the huts are removed from the board and returned to the player's supply. As tragic as this sounds, it is inevitable – some of your people will starve. This actually does provide you with a steady supply of huts that you can replace on future turns.
Wells. If a player has three villages located around the intersection of three hexes, they may construct a well and immediately earn victory points. Players earn either 6, 5 or 4 victory points, depending upon the current reign. Wells cannot be constructed next to ziggurats or between the two rivers, as this area is presumably already well irrigated. I've been involved in some games where few wells are constructed, but had one game wherein one player concentrated on digging wells. He won.
Revenue & Prestige. Players earn camels – a valuable commodity – for each village constructed on a river hex. The more villages on each river, the more camels earned. Camels are used later during the action phase. On almost every turn players will concentrate on constructing villages along the rivers so as to earn camels.
Victory points – known as prestige points – are earned for huts and ziggurats. Huts erected between the two rivers earn two points apiece, while huts placed outside the two rivers earn one point apiece. Huts located on a river do not earn points, but do earn those valuable camels. So, there is a trade-off when founding villages along the river. Each ziggurat tile constructed earns one point.
Actions. In turn order, each player spends as many camels as they desire to perform the following actions. Interestingly, the rules state that a player must take all of the actions they desire, then the next player takes his actions, and so on. We played this incorrectly once, allowing players to rotate performing one action apiece. For me, this made the game and decisions much tenser. I'm considering making this a house rule, as I feel it added more tension and decision making to the proceedings.
a)Build or Extend a Ziggurat. Ziggurats are built in three stages, costing from 6-to-2 camels, depending upon the level. When constructing a new ziggurat, it replaces one of the player's existing villages. Ziggurats cannot be located next to a well or on a river. A player can construct at most four ziggurats, but this is a difficult task as they are quite expensive. They can yield substantial prestige points, but to truly make a difference, it seems a player must embark on a ziggurat construction strategy early and diligently add new tiles every turn.
b) Create Intrigue in Assur. Players spend camels to gain influence with the three dignitaries depicted on the edge of the board. There are limited influence spaces for each dignitary, and once these are filled with huts, no more can be placed. Order is often important, so gaining influence early with a dignitary is important. A considerable number of prestige points are granted by the dignitaries, so this is an area that one cannot overlook.
c) Make an offering to the gods. Players expend 1 – 3 camels to increase their offerings to the gods. The more generous a player is, the more prestige points he will earn for his ziggurat sites. If a player reaches the top of this chart, he will quadruple the points he earns for his ziggurat sites.
d) Buy a Plow / Food card. Since plow cards serve as a wild card, they are quite valuable. It costs two camels to reacquire one, but this is usually a wise expenditure. Further, a player may purchase one of the remaining two food cards that were not taken during the first phase.
Once all players have completed their actions, the turn is over. If this is the end of a reign, more steps are taken. Otherwise, players proceed to a new turn, leaving everything intact on the board and various tracks. If a reign has come to an end, the following steps are taken:
Flood. A predictable, yet disastrous flood occurs on both rivers, destroying all villages located on the rivers. While this sounds harsh, it is sometimes beneficial as it returns huts to the players' supplies.
Assur. Players determine who has garnered the greatest influence with the dignitaries. Each hut placed as influence will earn 1 – 3 influence points, with more being granted by the higher-ranking nobles. The player having the greatest influence earns prestige points equal to the cumulative value of all revealed expansion cards. This can be significant – as high as 16 points if all of the cards (including the one bonus card revealed in reigns two and three) have values of four. The highest valued card is then removed, and the player with the second-most influence earns the cumulative value of the remaining cards. This process continues as long as expansion cards are still present. In the first reign, only two players will earn points, while in the final two reigns, all four players can earn points if they have placed at least one hut as influence.
As an additional bonus, each dignitary grants more favors for players who have garnered influence with them. These can be victory points, a plow card or camels. After granting all their favors, players remove the huts and return them to their supply.
Offerings. Players earn points for each ziggurat site, not individual tiles. As mentioned, players who gave generously to the gods will be able to multiply these points based on their progression on the offerings track. All markers are then reset to zero.
The game continues in this fashion through all three reigns – eight turns in total. After the final turn, players earn additional prestige points for each ziggurat tile, each plow card and for each group of two camels. The player with the most prestige points is victorious and emerges as the most prominent tribe in Assyria.
Assyria is a prototypical Ornella design, filled with lots of interesting mechanisms, tough choices, and various strategies and tactics to pursue. There doesn't seem to be one foolproof strategy, and it appears that one must pursue numerous methods of victory points in order to be successful. Doggedly pursuing one method of earning victory points to the exclusion of all others seems to be foolhardy. I've seen several players concentrate almost entire on constructing ziggurats and making offerings to the gods. While they scored well, they didn’t win. In two games, I consistently courted the dignitaries to the virtual exclusion of all other actions. This resulted in victory in one game, but failed in the other – although I did finish a very close second! A strategy that involves utilizing multiple actions seems to be wise.
Aside from the fiddly nature of moving the huts back and forth when resupplying the villages, my biggest concern is its duration. We have found that the estimated time listed on the box – 45 – 90 minutes – has been unachievable. The games I've played have all taken 2 – 3 hours to complete, which is frankly way too long. There are lots of decisions to be made, and choosing which resource cards to select seems to be the biggest time-consuming culprit. If I could find a way to get the game to two hours or less, it would become a regular visitor to my gaming table. If not, I fear it will become a stranger. That would be a shame, as I do enjoy the game and the challenges it presents.