Secrets of the Tombs
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You are an explorer making your way along darkened passages of a pyramid in search of treasures from ancient Egypt. However, you have paid no attention to the tales of Ammut, also known as the 'Eater of Hearts', or 'The Devourer'. Will you be able to make your discoveries before being caught by this creature whose body was a dreaded combination of crocodile, and hippopotamus? You'll need skill and a little luck to collect the treasures and exit the Pyramid alive!
The game is not only immensely playable and fun for all the family: the carefully designed components surround the players with the beauty of Egyptian life and art, making it a truly memorable experience.
I really like ancient Egyptian stuff—pyramids, mummies, treasure/artifacts, art/hieroglyphics, and folklore—I love it all. In Secrets of the Tombs, you are an adventurer—an archaeologist (kinda like Indiana Jones)—exploring an ancient pyramid in Egypt in search of treasures and artifacts. The object of the game (for 2- 5 players) is to be the first player to collect 5 artifact counters (all different colors—a player may hold only one counter in a color) or 12 artifact cards—and make it out of the pyramid alive. You will be competing with other adventurers, and will also have to contend with Egyptian gods (who may help or hinder your progress), “trapped” or cursed treasures which weaken you— shortening your life, and last but not least—Ammut the “eater of hearts” wants to devour your soul (Ooooh! Ahhhh!)
At the beginning of the game, the artifact counters are placed on their indicated spots on the board and the players choose a starting position right outside the entrance. Each player starts with a supply of 7 life counters. Ammut is placed at the beginning of her track on the top of the board. The Event Cards and Artifact Cards are placed in their respective stacks beside the board. The rules say that the youngest player goes first.
Each player can do the following things on a given turn: (1) place passage tiles and (2) move their explorer through the pyramid (with a roll of the dice).
The active player can draw and place up to 3 tiles, and each tile needs to be placed before the other is drawn. The player may also choose to take no tiles. A player may also choose to take no action other than taking 2 life counters and letting the next person go. When placing a chamber tile, it can be placed anywhere as long as it connects to at least one other passage tile, an empty square, or a chamber.
The player then rolls the dice. The player moves the number of spaces according to the number rolled, but the explorer must stop moving when he/she comes to (1) a grey square in the passage or (2) when entering a chamber that contains an artifact that he/she wants to collect.
When a player has to stop on a grey square, an Event Card is drawn. This card will feature an Egyptian god, and will describe some circumstance that results in either the gain or loss of a life counter (e.g., “Horus doesn’t like the smell of your aftershave. Lose one life”—just kidding). If you’re lucky, you will gain a life counter, or you might draw the goddess Hathor, who you can keep with you to protect you from a future “harmful event” that would otherwise result in the loss of a life counter token.
When a player stops on a chamber having a token/treasure he/she wants to collect, they draw the number of artifact cards indicated on the chamber tile. An artifact card with a T symbol means “trapped” (or cursed) and each T symbol means the player loses a life counter token. An artifact card with an A symbol means that Ammut moves one space along her track, or 2 squares along the pyramid passages. Some artifact counters have neither a T nor A symbol (Whew! What a relief!).
If one or both of the dice show the Ammut symbol, then Ammut moves. When 2 Ammut symbols are rolled, the player resolves any Ammut movement and then rolls the dice again. If Ammut is on the track, she moves one space along the track when an Ammut symbol is rolled. Ammut continues to move along the track each time the Ammut symbol is rolled, until she reaches the end of the track. When she reaches the end of the track, she can now enter any empty chamber of the player’s choice. If no empty chamber is available, then Ammut stays on the last space on her track. When Ammut has entered the passages, she moves 2 squares when one Ammut symbol is rolled. When both die show the Ammut symbol, then Ammut can move 4 spaces through the passageways (she doesn’t stop on the grey spaces) or be placed in any empty chamber of the player’s choice.
After finishing his/her movement, a player may wish to continue a turn by spending one life counter to (1) move again along the passageway, (2) place extra passage tiles (2 tiles for each life counter spent), or (3) find a secret passage—i.e., replacing a passage tile on the board with one that he/she has just picked up. The replaced tile is then placed by the side of the board. When all tiles have been used, all replaced tiles should be shuffled and recycled.
When a player enters a passage where Ammut is located, then the player rolls the dice. The player loses the number of life counters corresponding to the number on the dice (in this case, Ammut symbols count as zero). A player may choose to enter a passage where Ammut is located, but must subject him/herself to an attack.
If you run out of life counter tokens—you’re dead—but not out of the game. A dead player gets to control where Ammut moves when an Ammut symbol is rolled. A dead person gets to keep all his/her cards and counters.
Some comments on the game…
I think the components are good quality. The Artifact cards feature actual ancient Egyptian artifacts found in the British Museum, and have a description of what the artifact was used for, and what it symbolized. The board is sturdy and the tiles are of good quality. The scarabs, the artifacts, and the Ammut token contribute well to the Egyptian theme as well.
For the most part, the rules are straightforward and easy to understand, but I was confused about only one thing—If 2 Ammut symbols are rolled while Ammut is on her track, does she still only move one space? Two spaces? The rules seem to imply that when Ammut is on the track, she moves only one space whether it’s one or both Ammut symbols rolled, but I’m not sure.
I think luck plays a major factor in this game, but there is enough strategy and tactics to make it a fun family game. A player might get too greedy and make too many careless risks in trying to get treasures and artifact tokens, and when Ammut is nearby, you don’t want to be caught with only 1 or 2 life counters. I have played games in which someone quickly got all the required artifact tokens, but died trying to get out of the pyramid. You can foul up others’ plans by placing undesirable passages in their way at key times, or, using the Secret Passage option, change a tile so that it suits you at a crucial part of the game. A player needs to use good judgment when deciding to “gamble” a life counter, or to play it safe on a given turn.
The Fun Factor:
I think Martin Wallace has created a good family-oriented, Egyptian-themed game in giving us Secrets of the Tombs. I think this game works well as a family game, but (and no surprise here, considering there is virtually no commentary on this game whatsoever on BGG—and I’m the first and probably last person to review this game on BGG) it is definitely not a gamer’s game. I gave this game an “average” rating. It’s a game that I enjoy playing with my wife and daughter on occasion, but given a choice, I’d rather play other games. Bonified gamers who like Egyptian themes would no doubt go for games like Amun-Re or Ra. But if you’re into Egyptian themes and want something lighter and more ‘family-friendly’ than Ra or Amun-Re, I think Secrets of the Tombs is a good choice. You might want to check out Tutankhamen, too.
An essential part of any present day museum or art gallery is the gift shop. Strategically situated near the entrance/exit it seeks to boost the institution's funds by selling art books, posters, reproductions of the exhibits - anything that the marketing manager can think of that is relevant to what the visitor has just seen and which might induce them to spend. In the case of museums it is not uncommon for there to be one or two boardgames, but usually they are historical ones, modern editions of things that you will have seen among the exhibits - Senat, Hnefatafl, Mancala, Lewis chessmen and so on. If there is anything modern, it is unlikely to be worth your time, having been knocked together by someone who knows a lot more about souvenirs than they do about games. However, that may be about to change, because with Secrets of the Tombs, a game that has been produced in association with the British Museum, we are at last being offered a package of real interest: front rank designer, top notch German components and some quite interesting play.
Given that part of the brief would have been the need for a strong link with the museum's Egyptian collection, the theme won't come as much of a surprise: you explore a pyramid, collect artefacts and then try to escape before you attract the attentions of the tomb's supernatural guardian. In this case that is the demoness Ammut, a fearsome creature with the head of a crocodile, the front end of a lion and the back end of a hippopotamus. If you have the back end of a hippopotamus, you do not get invited to fashionable parties and Ammut is understandably discontented with her life, which anger she takes out on intruders, giving a good handbagging to any that she is able to catch.
The board is a 13x13 squared grid with 25 of the spaces being pre-marked as ``treasure chambers'' and the rest being blank. At the start of the game the treasure tiles - 5 in each of 5 colours - are shuffled and placed randomly, one to each chamber. Each carries a number in the range 1 to 3, this being the number of artefact cards that will be drawn by the player who picks up the tile. Once placed they are all turned face up so that the players can see where the biggest stashes of goodies are to be found. This degree of foreknowledge might not be realistic in terms of a real life exploration of a pyramid, but in play terms it makes for a more strategic and therefore better game.
In the course of the game the blank spaces will be filled up by sections of corridor, which players will place so as to ease their own movement and, if possible, impede that of their rivals. The object of the game is either to pick up one treasure tile of each colour or to collect 12 artefact cards (which you could do with 4 treasure tiles provided they were all 3s) and then to get out of the pyramid alive. Each player begins the game with 7 ``life tokens'' and ``alive'' means that you still have at least one left.
Each explorer begins on the (same) edge of the pyramid and on your turn you have two options
* place corridor tiles and move your explorer
* do neither of these but instead take 2 life tokens
Because the game is primarily a race, you won't want to do the second of these too often, but unless you do it some of the time you are likely to fail on the small but vital matter of survival.
If you opt to place tiles you may place up to three, drawing them one at a time from a bag and placing each before deciding whether to continue. The tiles are a mixture of straight sections, right angles, T-junctions and cross roads, and some of them have grey backgrounds. Tiles placed, you then roll two special dice to determine how far you can move. These are each numbered 0-1-2-2-3-A, with the `A' being a picture of Ammut. The sum of the numbers on the dice give you your movement allowance; any Ammut symbols result in the movement of the monster. If your chosen path takes you on to one of the grey tiles, you stop, lose the rest of your movement allowance and draw a ``god card''. This could result in a further movement for Ammut or see you lose a life token, gain a life token or gain a piece of protection against a future harmful event.
If you move into a treasure chamber that still has its tile, you have the option of ending your movement and taking the tile. That done you draw the appropriate number of artefact cards. Most of these are harmless, but some are trapped and will cost you a life token, while others cause Ammut to move.
Nothing innovative so far, but the game becomes more interesting and starts to give players hard choices with the life tokens. You need these to survive encounters with Ammut but can also use them to speed up your progress round the board, cashing them in for extra movement, extra tile lays and altering the configuration of the pathways. Too cautious and you are likely to lose the race; too reckless and you will be hunted down.
Ammut begins the game in her den, which is at the end of a corridor that is separate from the main playing area. Initially she will move along it and after exiting will appear in one of the empty treasure chambers. Thereafter her movements are determined by the player on turn. If he rolls one `A' he moves the monster two spaces along a corridor, and if he rolls two he can either move her four spaces or teleport her to any empty treasure chamber. So it is a matter of moving her away from your own explorer and towards that of an opponent. At first this makes for some harmless shuffling backwards and forwards, but as soon as one player looks to be doing too well the others will combine and the hunt begin in ernest. If Ammut catches an explorer, the two dice are rolled, only this time the `A's are treated as zeros. The sum is the number of life tokens lost by the victim, and if this takes them down to zero or less, they are eliminated from the game. Whatever the result the player who has been attacked relocates Ammut to a vacant treasure chamber of their choice and the game continues. The first person to exit the pyramid with the requisite amount of booty wins, and if nobody does, Ammut throws a fashionable party of her own. This latter result is possible because eliminated players continue to throw the dice and move the demoness despite being technically ``dead''.
The game plays well enough and there is sufficient both in decision making and in opportunities for unpleasantness to hold your attention. However, in passing judgement, and in deciding whether this is one you should buy, you need to bear in mind that `Secrets' makes no claim to be a gamers' game. Another Libert or Age of Steam it most definitely is not. What it is is a family game and a museum souvenir. As an instance of the former it is above average and as the latter even better than that, though still not as good as it could have been with better graphics.
My reservations about the play are twofold. One is that a player can be eliminated early and then find themselves twiddling their thumbs for upwards of half an hour. If this happened because they were too profligate when it came to spending their life tokens, fair enough. They will know better next time. However, it could happen just as the result of unfortunate dice rolls and then the situation is unsatisfactory. The other problem I have is that going last seems to be a significant disadvantage. I have a theory that when a game says ``youngest player starts'' it is because there is an advantage to going first. Usually it is a fairly small one, but here you are involved in a race for the best locations and so it is quite big. And it is made worse by the fact that the rules require everybody to place their explorer before anyone makes their first builds and move, a fact which can see the later players squeezed by hostile tile lays from earlier ones. This probably woudn't happen if you were playing in a family situation, but it is second nature with the crew I play with. I suggest that to ease the problem you modify the starting procedure so that a player only chooses which entrance his explorer will use when it his turn to take his first move.
As for the graphics, it is the cards that are something of a disappointment. Both the artefact cards and the god cards carry text that will be found fascinating by anyone with any sort of interest in Egyptology, and for that reason alone this is a game that I'd have loved when I was a kid, but the person who took the decisions on how best to display the images has no eye for what looks good. The artefact cards show photographs of items from the British Museum's collection, which is great, and they are all different, which is even better, but if you want to display photographic images you do not show them to best effect by making them struggle against a bright red background. Red is too strong a colour to be used as a background. With the god cards the background colour is suitably neutral, but here it is the images of the gods that are sub-standard. They appear to have been created using a low-resolution computer graphics package -- all the slanted lines consist of chains of short vertical segments. This is such a shame, because, when done by a person who can draw, Egyptian style figure drawings are as attractive as they are distinctive. The ones offered here are a case of a good opportunity missed.
However, don't let my comments on the graphics put you off too much. The fact that they could have been so much better doesn't make them terrible, and in the final analysis it is the game that matters most. Here the verdict is that `Secrets' is a decent family game with excellent educational value and enough gamerish bits to the play to make it a possible purchase.