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Ur, 1830 BC
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From the temple, one can see far over the lands of Ur. The king points to teams of men digging near the river. "Look, my son. The men of Kishi are digging a new canal. We will dispatch some workers to shovel water into it. Make sure they water our lands well." But I do not listen to the old king. I am contemplating whether to lead my men in founding a new nation closer to the river's source, or to devote the coming year to science. There are rumours that the Babylonians are experimenting with a wheel that wields water, and my people could use such a contraption. For the Gods have revealed that a great drought will be upon us....
Ur, 1830 BC is a game about irrigation in Mesopotamia. It is based lightly on Francis Tresham's successful series of 18xx train games, of which 1830 and 1835 are the most famous. As this series is the favourite non-Splotter game of three of Splotter's designers, they wanted to make a contribution to this great gaming tradition. So here it is!
Each player controls a dynasty in ancient Mesopotamia. The game is played in rounds consisting of three phases. In the settlement phase, players but and sell land, trying to settle the areas that will yield the most. If the population in an area grows large enough, states emerge. These states can build irrigation works in the development phase. After that, the rainy season starts: water comes down the river and is diverted to be used for irrigation. Each plot of irrigated land yields income to the land owner and to the state that operates the waterworks.
As more and more states are founded, the technological development in waterworks and digging tools drives old equipment out of use. Canals are built faster and faster, land yield goes up, and more and more land becomes available for agriculture.
The game involves three levels of strategy: first, smart buying and selling on the land market; second, tactical play developing the right land and canals on the map; and third, strategic anticipation and control of the speed of agricultural development.
- Game board
- Non-permanent marker
- Water (24 blue discs)
- 4 land price markers (yellow squares with mountains, trees, grass, and sand)
- Ownership markers for 6 players (larger squares)
- 38 cards with waterworks and diggers
- Sequence markers (hourglasses) and waterworks in the six colours of the states: Akkad (grey), Babylon (blue), Elam (green), Persia (black), Sumer (yellow) and Urartu (red)
- 6 treasury charts of the states Akkad, Babylon, Elam, Persia, Sumer and Urartu
- 6 independent nation cards (Ashur, Barahshum, Calah, Der, Eridu and the First
- 1 primogeniture card (the mess of pottage)
- Splotter banknotes of 1, 5, 10, 50 and 100 Splägels
Francis Tresham's [page scan/se=0428/sf=category/fi=stockin.asc/ml=20]18xx game system is built round the idea of two interconnected economic struggles. The primary one takes place on the board, where companies compete to build money producing empires which will thrive in a climate where technological advance is constantly creating a need for further investment. However, it is the secondary one that is ultimately the more important. This has players buying shares in the companies and it is the money earned by these shares that will determine victory. Control of each company rests with its largest shareholder -- a position that can change -- who thereby gains the sort of personal advantage that tends to go with being the one who is in charge of the finances.
This game takes that basic scenario and creates something new from it. The railway companies from the original are replaced by kingdoms in ancient Mesopotamia, share ownership by land ownership and the wealth that comes from rail traffic by the wealth that comes from being able to irrigate your land.
The board shows the confluence of three rivers. The land around and between them is divided into six kingdoms -- Babylon, Sumeria, Persia, etc. A roughly hexagonal grid divides each kingdom into 11 or 12 areas and the rivers into stretches. Each land hex is of one of four types: hill, forest, savannah, desert. It is the value of these land types, rather than the plots in a particular kingdom, that will fluctuate. Some of the hexes are also city sites, a fact that increases their value and their earning potential. At the income stage of each round, water will flow down the three rivers, where it will be collected by reservoirs built by the various kingdoms. This water is then diverted onto land by systems of canals that have also been built. The land thus irrigated brings in money both to its owners and to the kingdom. In the early stages of the game only a smallish proportion of the water in the river will be scooped up in this way, but as the game progresses reservoirs get bigger and the flow escaping to the land down river from the map gets less. Eventually there comes a time where none reaches these people to the south and at that point the game ends -- the reason being that they have got angry and invaded.
The game begins with the "sale" of six "independent kingdoms". This corresponds almost exactly to the initial sale of the "private companies" at the start of a game of 1830. These kingdoms provide income to their owners and carry other benefits -- non-existent or minor with the cheap ones; significantly useful with the dearer. They will disappear -- absorbed into the major kingdoms -- part way through the game. Their function, as in 18xx proper, is to bring money into the game early on and to provide an interestingly asymmetric start. Their sale is also almost the last point at which the parallel between this game and 1830 is just about exact. From here on, although similarities exist, they are outweighed by the differences and old 18xx hands should start reading the rule book with as much care as the newcomers.
After the purchase of the independents players use their remaining money to buy plots of land. The price of each goes, as I said earlier, by its type and the starting values have been decreed by the designers. Hill is the dearest, followed by forest, savannah and desert. This might not seem completely sensible -- savannah being cheaper than hill and forest -- but it nudges the players into following the intended story line, which is that the south starts as the more prosperous region but then goes into economic decline as the north develops and begins to hog the water supply. City sites cost as much as the "next terrain up", so, for example, a desert city area costs as much as a non-city one in the savannah. Money from the sale of land goes into the kingdom's treasury and players use markers to indicate their ownership.
When a kingdom has sold six land areas it becomes "active", with the idea being that the population has grown to the point where they have stopped being nomadic, settled down, turned to agriculture and become organized enough to start doing something about irrigation. Only land in active kingdoms will generate income and this is something that players need to bear in mind when making these initial land purchases. On this first turn do not buy land in a kingdom unless you are sure that it will sell enough plots to start operations this turn. To stand a chance later on you need to have all your money working for you from the start.
Once players have made as many initial land purchases as they either can or wish to, the independent kingdoms pay income to their owners and then the first "operating round" begins. This is the time when each kingdom builds reservoirs, pumps and pipelines, allocates its water and distributes its income. All decisions on these matters are taken by the "king", this being the kingdom's biggest landowner.
Building comes first and in order to build, the kingdom needs to buy cards. These are the equivalent of the trains in 18xx, only here they are multi-purpose and how much you pay depends on what you intend to do with the card. For a reservoir or a pump you hand over your money, place the appropriate marker and hand the card back to the banker, who will put in into the box, out of the game. Reservoirs are placed in river areas and there can only be one per area. They collect water but will only transport it to an adjacent land area. To get it further inland you will need pumps. All this water movement requires canals and this is the other use for the cards. This time they are thought of as "digging crews" and you get to keep the card, placing it with your treasury. The crew will then dig for you each turn until the passage of time renders them too old to lift their shovels.
At this stage of the game the cards are not very powerful: the reservoirs only collect a little water, the pumps will only transport water a single hex and the crews can only build short canals. As the game progresses they get more powerful (and more expensive), with each new batch coming online when the previous one has sold out. It is this arrival of new batches that will eventually cause your crews to leave in a way that corresponds to early trains becoming unusable in 18xx. Reservoirs and pumps don't disappear in similar fashion. It is quite likely that you will want to upgrade some of them, but the procedure is more complicated and something I'll come back to.
When each kingdom has had its opportunity to build, it is time for the water to arrive. A number of "water markers" are put at the head of each of the three rivers. They then "flow" down the rivers, with some being diverted by the reservoirs. Just how many depends on the reservoir's capacity. The water collected goes into the country's irrigation system. The area where it comes ashore must receive water, but the destination of the rest is a matter for the king to decide. Any area that receives water produces income for its owner and so kings tend to water their own land first. The water also results in a general "harvest" for the kingdom and the money from this can either be divided between the kingdom's landowners on an "equal share per owned plot" basis or kept in the treasury. The king again decides which. Usually he will opt to pay out, because he is, of course, the biggest land owner. However, there will be times when the state of the treasury demands that the money be withheld. If this latter is the decision, then the king must also remove one of the kingdom's waterworks (pumps or reservoirs). This is the only way that waterworks can be removed and so such a retention is the first step in any planned upgrade.
The only remaining matter to be dealt with in the round is the adjustment of land prices. In addition to a division into kingdoms and areas, the board can also be viewed as being split into regions, each region being a set of contiguous areas of the same terrain type. Looked at this way, there are between 3 and 5 regions of each. For each of hill, forest, savannah and desert you count to see how many of its regions received at least some water. Its share price marker is then moved up by that many steps. This is very different from the way prices go up in standard 18xx, where everything is done by company/kingdom. Here it is not how well a kingdom is doing, but whether savannah, say, is this round's fashion item. It is another point that you need to consider when you are buying land and also another that directs players towards starting in the south. You don't want to be striking out on your own, since the fast capital gains are to be made by spotting and following the trend.
A new round now starts, you will again have money in your pocket and will be buying more land. You might even be thinking about taking your profits and selling some. To do that you leave your marker on the hex but flip it over. This enables everyone to keep track of which land is "new" and which "second hand". The distinction doesn't affect any future buyer, but does decide who gets the money. The kingdom only gets it from the sale of "new" land; otherwise the money goes to the bank. It is also the bank that will pay you for land that you sell. When land is sold the price marker for that terrain moves down one box for each area disposed of up to a maximum of three.
A long description, but then this is a complicated game. My verdict on it is also going to be a bit complicated. Does the game work? Yes. Is it well designed and does it have something significantly new to add to the genre? Yes to both. Does it have the strategic depth that makes for long-term replay value? Yes again. Did I enjoy it? Not very much, no. I expected to, but I didn't. And neither did the people I played it with, despite the fact that they, like me, are big fans of railway 18xx.
This takes a bit of explaining and it may be significant that I and the rest of the 18xx part of my group came up with the same set of answers to the same questions in 1995 when Jim Hlavaty and Tom Lehmann published 2038. That was also a game that took the 18xx concept, moved it into a totally different setting -- in this case mining the asteroid belt -- and introduced a completely new set of ideas in place of the standard 18xx operating system. There too I admired but I didn't much like. Perhaps my group is just hooked on trains and have an idea at the back of our minds that unless it has trains and track it isn't really 18xx. However, though that half realised prejudice -- which of course says more about me than about the game -- may be part of it, I can put my finger on the main thing that I was finding increasingly irritating during our playings of the game. It was fiddlier than the railway versions. Long games need very clean bookkeeping if the cumulative effect is not to wear you down and here the income calculations are more complicated than those in 18xx by just enough for it to start getting to you by the end. They are more complicated for reasons which have interesting effects on the strategy of the game, but I still found it wearing, especially as it was all aggravated by the most ill thought-out bank I have come across in a long time. It consists of roughly equal quantities of 1s, 5s, 10s, 50s and 100s. Real currencies such as sterling, the euro, the deutschmark and the guilder have/had a denomination between 1 and 5 and another between 10 and 50 and there is a damn good reason why they do. Without them, small payouts, which this game is full of, are much messier for the banker to handle, plus you are constantly running out of the over-used 1s and 10s, prompting frequent requests for the players to check their cash and change any suitable multiples of low-valued notes for higher ones. It is all extra hastle that you really don't need.
Those are the negatives, but, as my other answers to my questions showed, there are positives as well. The game is not, as you might have feared, just 18xx with a fresh set of labels. It is much more original than that. It has also been very well thought out, with rules, both on the building and financial sides, that give players lots of scope for varied strategies and subtle tactics. And I say that despite my strictures in the last paragraph. I found the income calculations a bit too intricate and fiddly, but then I have a very low intolerance threshold in such matters. Provided they raid another game for banknotes with a more sensible set of denominations, people more patient than me will probably wonder why I'm complaining and what can't be denied is that the system is one with interesting consequences in the play.
In summary, Ur 1830 BC is a game that not everyone is going to like, but those who do like it will like it a lot and get a lot of rewarding play from it. It is just a shame for me that I'm not among them. Production is up to professional standards -- about on a par with the sort of thing you used to get from the old Avalon Hill, but with a few wooden markers thrown in to raise the tone that bit further. Canals are created by drawing on the map with a marker that is provided, but I'm always a bit nervous of doing that unless the surface is very clearly one that will clean easily. My suggestion would be that you put a piece of perspex over the top and draw on that instead.