Sunday, December 19, 2010

Cleopatra and Society of Architects review

Ever the fickle diva, Cleopatra has demanded a brand new temple to honor her and has gathered a group of architects to construct the marvel. In Cleopatra and the Society of Architects players take on the role of the architects. Using a variety of materials they must construct the temple and impress the Queen when she comes to inspect it, lest she feed you to her crocodile! The game is for three to five players and takes about an hour. Like many games with a lot of components it appears somewhat daunting at first, but it is actually a very easy game to play. And a lot of fun.

Days Of Wonder have outdone themselves with the components of this game. The best part is clearly the actual temple, which is constructed over the course of the game. It consists of columns, obelisks, sphinxes, a throne and other parts that are culled from the local quarry in the hopes of pleasing the Nile Queen. I have to say, it’s actually really cool to assemble the temple piece by piece. There are a million games where things are constructed and usually the most that one can hope for is some cardboard pieces that represent the construct. This far exceeds that. The way that the game box is incorporated is very clever, the pieces looks great and they even fit well into the box when it’s all over. Well done. My only complaint is that due to the height of the palace grounds (built on top of the game box) it is hard for all of the players to see what is going on (I had a similar problem when trying to take a picture of it). The non-palace pieces are mainly little cardboard chips that represent points and corruption amulets (more on that later) and they are fine. There are also little statues of Anubis that each player gets. Who doesn’t like little statues of Anubis?

In many aspects the game plays a lot like Ticket to Ride (a favorite at our gaming table) in the sense that there are only two actions available to a player each turn; get resources, or spend those resources to build something. The resources come from the Market, which are three stacks of cards that the player can choose from. Players can take one stack, after which an additional card is placed on each of them. When the game is setup the deck is shuffled in a strange way so that some of the cards are face up and others are face down, meaning that the market stalls have face down cards in them so that you don’t always know what you get. Interesting. Throughout the game the stacks are usually of varying sizes, but you don’t always want to take the most resources because some of them are tainted. Yes, there are corrupt merchants out there and Cleopatra frowns on your association with them. Apparently the black market for Lapis Lazuli was thriving in ancient Egypt.

The other available action for players is visiting the quarry and building a part of the temple. Each temple piece costs some combination of resources (this is very similar to Settlers or Starfarers of Catan) to build. For example; building a sphinx costs a player one artisan, one stone and one marble. Completing a temple piece is also worth talents, (the fancy name for points) which ultimately decide the winner of the game. There are only a certain amount of each temple part available and this determines when the game ends. Each time a part is exhausted Cleopatra gets a little closer to her inspection. When five (of six) are completed the game ends and Cleopatra passes her final judgment on the glorious temple that has been built to honor her. The game ends rather abruptly, there isn’t a final go around or even much warning so it’s important to pay attention to what is left in the quarry or you may be left with a bunch of unspent resources in your hand. And that does not make Cleopatra happy.

Choosing which pieces of the temple to build appears to be one of the key strategies of the game. Some of them are just worth a lot more than others. The throne, for example, gets a player twelve talents, whereas a sphinx may only get you two. Huge difference. Building up some resources early on and then going for the high value pieces is the way to do it. Like TTR, it makes more sense to go for the big ones rather than an accumulation of smaller parts. There are also additional talents to be won when placing the mosaic tiles and the column walls, so competition to get these is the right spot adds another element to the strategy.

Throughout the game players get corruption amulets whenever they engage in shady building practices by using tainted building materials, dealing with characters like the Vizier and Courtesan and by hoarding more cards than the ten card hand limit. Each player has a little pyramid with a coin slot in it that the amulets go into, they stay hidden from the other players. I like having my own private pyramid that hides my shame from the other players, and the reveal at the end is rather tense. When the game ends the most corrupt player is eaten by Cleopatra’s crocodile and loses the game automatically. I think that’s a great feature. I also like that it’s fine to be corrupt, as long as you are not the most corrupt. I think there is a lesson in there.

I think I’ve said this before but I really like what Days of Wonder are doing these days. The games that they make are consistently fun, the rules are well presented and easy to understand, and the games usually have great components and themes. Cleopatra is another excellent addition to their catalogue. It doesn’t seem to have the depth of a great game, I’m not sure that there is really a variety of styles that can be rewarded. To me, a great game allows players to play in a variety of styles and be successful. Ticket to Ride and Starfarers of Catan are the first that come to mind, but Cleopatra is still a very good game and one that I think is good for luring in novice gamers.

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