Mesopotamia: Cradle of Civilization
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Several thousand years ago, clans of people began settling in Mesopotamia. Now you can lead one of these clans, exploring unknown areas, building huts to live in, and creating cult centers to collect the valuable and desired Mana.
At the same time, all the players must work together to build a magnificent temple for the god Marduk. Each clan brings their offerings to this mighty temple, hoping to earn the blessings and protection of the deity. The highest rewards will come to the leader who brings all of his people's offerings to the temple first. Can you lead your people to their rightful place in the eyes of the god Marduk?
NOTE: This review was first published in Knucklebones magazine
I’ve just about had enough. I’m really sick and tired of companies using my physique on the front of game boxes without giving me credit or sending me royalty checks. I’ve worked hard (well, OK … not at all!) to achieve this body, and I feel I should be compensated when my image is used by game companies. The final straw came when they used a sketch of my physique for the Mesopotamian god Marduk on the cover of the game. Have they no shame?
Yeah … I know: I’m dreaming. I haven’t had such a physique since … well, never actually. But enough of my dreams, let’s talk about the game itself. Mesopotamia is the latest from designer Klaus-Jurgen Wrede, whose repertoire continues to grow since his immensely popular Carcassonne was released upon the world. Set in the ancient world, players must explore the area, erect huts and holy places, and ultimately make offerings to their god, Marduk (who we affectionately call “Marmaduke”). The first to make all four offerings becomes the favored tribe of Marduk.
As one expects from Phalanx games, the components are high quality, with the artwork designed by the master, Franz Vohwinkel. The board is comprised of up to 41 interlocking tiles, which depict forest, plains, quarries, volcanoes and the central temple. Seven tiles form the initial board, with the temple in the central, with more tiles appearing as players explore new territory. The tiles fit snuggly together in a puzzle-like fashion, so there is no slippage or movement during play.
Players each receive a collection of tribes and huts (wood, of course) and holy places. Resources consist of wood and stones, which are actually small rocks! Players will use these resources to construct huts, holy places and appease the god. Finally, there is a deck of cards that grant special powers to the players when used.
Players begin with two tribes and one hut on the board. On a turn, a player may move up to five spaces, splitting these movement points amongst his tribes as he sees fit. Each hex only costs one movement point to enter, with the exception of volcanoes, which are impassable. While moving, a tribe may freely pick-up or drop one resource. This resource is placed directly atop the tribe marker, creating a curious spectacle. Wood is found on forest tiles, while rocks are mined from the quarries. New resources may appear when new forest and quarry tiles are discovered.
New tiles may be discovered and added to the growing board by moving a tribe off the discovered area. A new tile is randomly drawn and placed. If it is a forest or quarry tile, three of the appropriate resources are added to the board, one on each of the corresponding tiles. Plains tiles are also important, as they are the future sites of huts and holy places.
While there is no combat per se, a tribe may steal a resource being carried by an opposing tribes IF the active player has more tribes present in the tile than the opponent. So, it can be risky to have a resource-toting tribe alone in a tile. Apparently, those ancient Mesopotamians were quite the thugs!
During the course of movement, a tribe may not transport a resource tile through the temple area. However, stones can be delivered to help construct the temple, which rewards the faithful tribe by increasing that player’s Mana level, both current and his overall limit, by one.
Mana? Sure! Each player has a Mana chart, and can possess a limit of eight Mana. Mana is needed to make offerings to Marduk. Each player possesses four offerings, one of which appears on the board each time a new hut is constructed. The offerings must be delivered to the temple, but require the expenditure of 2, 4, 6 or 7 Mana, as depicted on the counter. As mentioned, victory goes to the player who delivers all four of his offerings. Thus, Mana is quite important, as one cannot sacrifice to the god without it.
When delivering the offering, the tribe who carried it to the temple is removed from the game. Some folks have complained that this is representing human sacrifice. Sigh. Some folks really need to get a grip. This is a game.
After a player completes his movement, he may choose one of three actions, performing it as often as he desires:
1)Building huts. The player must have two tribes and one wood resource present on a plains tile. The tile may have at most one other hut already present. The player places one of his huts and an offering counter of his choice onto the tile, returning the wood resource to the supply.
2) Erect a holy place. The player must have two tribes and one rock resource present in an empty tile – nothing else may be present. The player places one of his holy place tiles, and returns the rock to the supply. Holy places are important as they produce Mana at the end of each turn, provided the player has a tribe present.
3) Population growth. The player must have two tribes present on a tile containing one of his huts. The two tribes, well, produce a new tribe. Hmmm. An important point is that new tribes cannot be produced in tiles containing an offering, unless it is being carried by a different tribe. Seems carrying that offering prevents other activities!
4) Draw a card. Cards grant special abilities to the player. These can include extra movement, extra Mana, moving resources, stealing Mana, birthing twins, etc. There is no hand limit, but a card cannot be used on the same turn when it is acquired. Used at the right moment, these cards can be quite powerful.
After performing the action he desires – and as often as he desires – the player collects Mana. 1 Mana is earned for each owned holy place with one of his tribes present. A player can also earn Mana from an opponent’s holy place, but he must have two tribes present at that site. Mana is vital, so it is important to keep your sites occupied. However, tribes are also needed to collect resources, construct huts and holy places, deliver offerings, and, of course, populate. A major decision facing players each turn is how to utilize and where to position their tribes.
The game ends immediately when one player delivers his fourth offering, no matter whether every player had an equal number of turns or not. So, players must not waste turns. The game is fairly quick – 45 minutes to an hour – so there isn’t time to dally.
Mesopotamia has an “open” system in that players have wide latitude and freedom in choosing their actions and strategies. This can be a bit daunting at first, as there seems to be SO many options. And there are, and often these options compete for attention. You want to use your tribes to grab wood to build huts so you can get your offerings onto the board. At the same time you need Mana, so you need to use tribes to grab rocks to help construct the temple. Yet, you also need those rocks and tribes to help erect holy places. However, you also need new tribes, so it is important to gather them together so they can procreate. There are so many things one needs to accomplish, and they all cannot be satisfied at the same time. Wow! Sounds a lot like life, doesn’t it? For the most part, it is.
I must admit that my 3-player games were not as tense as when playing with a full contingent of four players. There wasn’t much interference with each other’s actions or plans, and the game seemed to move along without too much tension. Playing with four players is certainly tighter, and more competitive. Further, with experience, players will better understand how to use their actions to not only further their plans, but interfere with those of their opponents as well.
I’m enjoying Mesopotamia. It is the type of game that I usually enjoy tremendously, as it offers a wide variety of options and doesn’t tie players to a pre-defined, linear path when pursuing their objectives. While the goal for each player is identical, there appear to be various ways in which to achieve those goals. The game feels much like Spiel des Jahre and International Gamers Award winner Tikal, which challenges players to optimize the use of their limited action points. In that regards, Mesopotamia is certainly in fine company.
After my first playing, I was quite happy - as the game was very easy, enjoyable to play - and allowed one the feeling of accomplishment; as they moved their pawns around, accomplishing different tasks. On subsequent plays, I was slightly less impressed, as the variety of strategies isn’t as great as I would prefer. One has to follow a specific path, and the lack of resources in the game forces part of the game to become a race, and a lucky one at that. I like the different options, and Mesopotamia works well enough that I wouldn’t turn down a game of it; but it's not something that I would ask for or desire to play often. It's interesting and fun, but the replayability is low.
A group of tiles is set up on the board, according to a reference card in the game, with a “Holy Place” marker in the middle, and each player places a hut and three tribe markers on the board. Players also receive four more huts, five more tribes, four offering markers (numbered "2", "4", "6", and "7"), and a few holy place markers of their color. A pile of resources, wood and stones, is placed near the side of the board, and a deck of eighteen card is shuffled and placed near the board. Each player receives a "Mana scale", to keep track of their mana points and places one marker to show their current amount (starts at "0"), and another marker to show the maximum amount of mana they may accumulate (starts at "3", can go to "8"). The remainder of the tiles are shuffled and placed in stacks face down on the table, and a temple marker is placed on the central holy place. The oldest player goes first, with play proceeding clockwise around the table.
On a player’s turn, they conduct three phases. In the
they move their tribes on the board. A player has five movement
points, using one movement point to move a tribe one
They may split the movement between their different units.
things a tribe may do are as follows:
- They may NOT move through a volcano hex.
- They may carry one wood, one stone, or one offering as they move.
- They may steal wood or stone from an opponent, as long as the stealing player has more tribes in the hex than the tribes being stolen from. This can only be done once a turn.
- They may deliver one stone to the temple. By doing this, the stone is removed from the game, and the player’s maximum and current mana is increased by one. A player cannot increase their mana more than eight but can still deliver stones to increase their current mana.
- They may discover new lands by moving off a tile onto the table. A new tile is flipped over and placed there, and the player’s tribe is moved to the new tile. If a player flips over a volcano tile, they instead place it anywhere, and then flip over a new tile. If a player draws a forest or a quarry tile, they take one matching resource for each player in the game and place it on each matching tile on the board. (For example, if Sam flips over a forest tile in a four-player game, he must place four wood tokens on the board on four different forest tiles, if possible).
- They may deliver an offering chip to the temple. The tribe moving into the temple flips the offering chip over and pays Mana points equal to the number on the chip. The offering is placed near the temple, and the tribe who delivered it is removed from the board.
In the second phase, a player must choose one of the
- Draw a card.
- Population growth: A player may add a new tribe to a tile in which they have an empty hut and at least two tribes.
- Build a hut: A player may build a hut on a plains tile in which there is one or less hut already (of any color), two of their tribes, and one wood resource. The wood is discarded, and the player adds a hut AND an offering counter face-down underneath the hut. Players may build more than one hut a turn, if they can.
- Erect a holy place: A player may build a holy place on an empty plains tile, which has two of their tribes and one stone resource. The stone is put back in supply, and a holy place of that player’s color is placed on the plains tile.
In the third phase, a player gains one mana point for each of their own holy places, if they have at least one tribe there; and one mana point for each opponent’s holy place, if they have at least two tribes there. The mana is adjusted accordingly, although it cannot pass that player’s maximum.
Cards affect the game in a variety of ways, allowing players to have more movement points on a turn, increase their mana, steal mana from an opponent, teleport a piece, look at the draw pile of tiles, and more. Play continues until one player has delivered all four of their offerings to the Temple. At this point they win the game!
Some comments on the game...
1.) Components: As usual with Phalanx and Mayfair, the components are of the utmost quality. The cards are laminated, high quality, and the stones are - well, real pebbles that add a bit of flair to the game. The wooden tribes are hexagonal wooden pieces, which while lacking theme, helps to explain why any two of them can produce offspring. The wooden sticks, temple, and huts also add a lot of eye candy to the game. The tiles are the most striking feature - with their interlocking feature - causing them to look slightly like jellyfish. While this helps keep them together in place, it does cause some confusion as to which side borders which side. The artwork in the game, done by the great Franz Vohwinkel, is absolutely fabulous, and adds a bit of the Mesopotamian theme to the game. Everything fits inside a nice custom made plastic insert, and the box shows another rather striking illustration. Say anything else about the game – it will catch people’s attention.
2.) Rules: The rulebook is six full color pages with nicely formatted rules, although no examples are included, which might have been nice. Still, there is a VERY nice foldout that shows an illustration of all of a player’s possible moves. This was a great addition to the game and caused us to never go back to the rules; we simply looked at the card. The game takes about five to ten minutes to teach and is understood fairly well by teenagers.
3.) Stones: After one terrible mistake in a game, I now admonish all players to realize the importance of increasing their Mana. In fact, it is honestly critical that a player not put this off. If a player dallies at all doing this, they may find themselves in a situation where there are no stones left, and they haven’t increased their Mana high enough to deliver their "7" offering. A player who can’t do this is effectively out of the game. I find this a small flaw, as players must rush to increase their mana as fast as they can, decreasing the strategy of the game. A player simply cannot afford to take a chance that the others will leave enough stones for them. Stones are used to erect holy places, increase mana, and are frankly much more useful than wood, so the fight for them is fierce.
4.) Interaction: From reading the rules, I thought that the interaction in the game would be higher than it actually was. In the games I played, stealing was only done a few times, in desperate circumstances (usually involving stones). I'm glad that this is in the game, although I would have liked to have seen it more. A few of the cards allow players to interact with one another, and the race to get resources is surely interactive; it just wasn’t enough for me.
5.) Options: It is fun, however, deciding what to do. Once you’ve gotten your crew underway, increasing your mana, what should you do next? Multiply your tribes? Build all your huts? Deliver your offerings as soon as you can? The game is essentially a race game, and players will have a lot of fun, as they try to make the best decisions per turn.
6.) Luck and Fun Factor: The game is a bit too much lucky in some ways, because it’s very frustrating to need a plains tile and turn over three forest tiles in a row, or vice versa. Also, some of the cards are clearly better than others, having three extra movement points is better than getting one Mana in most circumstances. However, I felt that for a game this light, the luck was fair enough, and a clever player just learned how to deal with the ever-growing, ever-changing board.
7.) Replayability: It seems like the same strategies and tactics kept resurfacing in our games, and the importance of getting one’s Mana to at least seven seemed too important to skip. Each game was remarkably similar, which I think will hurt replayability in the long run.
In short, while I enjoyed my playings, I’m not sure that there's enough here to make Mesopotamia shine out from other games. It’s fun and light but feels like it should have more strategy and tactics than it really does. Beautiful components, excellent rules, and a breezy, relaxing game will cause this to appeal to many. The lack of replayability and strategic options bring it down slightly for me.
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