Thursday, February 3, 2011

Just Gaming Around - "Antiquity" by Splotter Spellen (Review)

Yes, I know Splotter Spellen is actually the publishing company and not the designer, but it's the name people recognize so I put it in the title. The REAL designers are Jeroen Douman and Joris Wiersinga. And, in reality, they ARE the publishers (or rather part of the self-publishing team of Splotter Spellen), so they are effectively one in the same.

If you don't know about 'Splotter' games then you're missing something.

Splotter Spellen actually has a full range of games, but the games that get the most attention tend to be the longer, more involved games such as Bus, IndonesiaRoads & Boats, Duck Dealer and Greed, Inc, of which I have played the latter 3 at least once each. Roads & Boats is my ultimate favorite and I'm regretting not having purchased a copy of it when it was 'cheap' and available...if you call a game cheap at $80. It's at least twice as expensive now. Antiquity is at least another factor more expensive.

Why are they so expensive? First, they are quality games. Second, they are produced in limited runs. Third, they have a ton of components in them (some have 100's, even 1000's of components). Fourth, they are terrific games to play. Well, at least, if you like long, deep games. Fifth, they make the games themselves! By hand (well, with some machinery of course)! At least from what I understand from their website.

So, I decided to talk about this game a bit more because, if you are given an opportunity to play it, don't hesitate to say 'yes'. It's an experience and you may not have much opportunity to play it again.

My friend Robert brought over his copy the other night when I suggested he bring over anything he wanted to play. Woo-hoo!

Ok, so tell me about how to play the game!
The best way to talk about this game is to walk you through some of the things you need to do. One thing I will say for this game - even though it is complex, the rules are fairly straight forward and refreshingly logical because they are fairly well grounded in reality. Most of the Splotter games are like this and is one of the things I really enjoy about their games.

To start with, your city planners (well it's just you) have to make some decisions. First, where are you going to put your initial city? Should you build closer to water to be able to fish and produce luxury items like pearls and dye? How much wooded areas do you need nearby to be able to produce wood to build more buildings and keep things going? And, do you also have good access to some mountains where you can get some stone to build other important buildings.

Then, after your city has a site, you must decide what you are going to build in your city. You probably want to start with 1 or 2 Cart shops that let you get out beyond the city and establish wood cutters (critical) and either fishermen or miners. You also need to build some houses to attract workers that you can hire and then send out to man the buildings and do harvesting and such. Here is a picture of most of the buildings you can build:

The primary buildings you can build.
Some other common ones are not shown.

In addition to WHICH  buildings are built, you have to decide WHERE in the city they will be placed. This action is reminiscent of Princes of Florence where, once the building is placed in the city grid, it must stay there the rest of the game (there is an exception to this, but generally is the case). I really like this aspect as you have a nice puzzly part of the game and you have full control over it.

Player sheet showing initial city grid (lower left) and various
costs for buildings (middle) and houses (lower right).

A critical building to get going is the Cart shop which will let you send a worker out to fish, cut wood, mine stone (or even gold), build a farm (to help produce certain goods) and eventually an Inn which helps you expand your domain.

Now, after building out your city you decide where your newly hired workers will best be put to work in those buildings. Most of the special buildings, when manned, give you different capabilities. For instance, the Explorer will be able to reach certain special locations on the map to 'discover' different types of goods, perhaps even something you can plant on a farm and grow more of!

The starting land that was randomly selected
for this 2-player game.

Now, when you farm, 'fish' or mine you decide (within the constraints of the correct landscape) how big those areas will be. Usually they will be as big as possible, but there are two things to consider: 1) Your worker will be tied up one turn per space in the area (unless you have Forced Labor which increases production at some extra cost), and 2) it will cause pollution to the land or water. This pollution will quickly become a serious problem if you don't do something about it early! 

This is one of the amazing features of the game as it keeps you working hard and fighting back against the game. And, it's of your own doing! You can also use pollution to your advantage to some extent later in the game. I'll leave that to you to figure out when you play....

After all of the building activity you must be able to store any left-over goods either in storage or, if you have a cathedral built to San Christofori, you can store as much as you want in the cathedral. 

This is a good time to talk about the cathedrals that you can build. The shape is always the same, but when you build it you have to decide which of 5 saints it is being built in honor of. This does two things for you: 1) You will get some sort of special ability, and 2) This will determine your end-game condition!

What did you say!?
Yes, you heard correctly. Build a building and decide on an end-game condition for yourself. Brilliant!

The end game conditions are: build all 20 possible houses, build at least 1 of each type of building, surround one other player's influence with your area of influence, obtain 3 of every type of food and luxury good, or, if you pick Santa Maria, you get ALL special abilities, but you must complete 2 different end-game conditions!

And, here is the really awesome thing about this - if you build the Theology building and activate it, you can then destroy your cathedral and re-build it, thus changing your end-game condition! This really lends itself to some interesting strategies.

Ok, so tell me about the rest of the gameplay! I'm getting excited and want to learn more!
Geez, hold your horses! Now you know why people really want to play this game! And we haven't even gotten to the really good (or rather horrible) part of the game yet!

After you have stored your goods you get to harvest. This means each miner, wood cutter, farmer and fisherman harvest 1 resource (or 2 + 1 to pay extra costs if you have forced labor activated). Any workers that have fully harvested their area are returned to their house and can be used for something different next turn.

Next, Explorers get to explore. There are a limited number of harvest tokens placed at the beginning. You get to pick one up that is within your area of influence and obtain whatever resource it is - animals or seeds to help you farm hopefully.

Now we get to the really horrible part: Famine! The famine level starts at 0 but each turn goes up by 1. You now get 1 grave per level the famine is at. If you have a Granary this reduces the number of graves by 3 and each food reduces by another 1. You can probably guess what some of your strategy requires you to do fairly early in the game....

That's gruesome! Where do you put the graves?
Good question! You put them in your city of course! Each grave takes up 1 square in your city! And, you aren't allowed to build there now!

What happens if you don't have any spots left?
Well, you get to put them on top of your buildings! But then you can't use that building anymore. It's difficult to work when you have dead people getting in your way!

You can also build another city. Then you'll have LOTS of room for more graves. Another option is to build a hospital so that you can remove up to 6 graves from your city per turn (if you remember to activate it with a worker)

That sounds like it kinda sucks!
Yup. It does. But in a cool way. Like: "Hey Robert, that's cool you got to put 5 graves in your city when I only had to put in 2". 

It really sucks when you have to build graves and don't have room for a hospital that you thought you'd build next turn. This happened to Robert during our game and it caused him to lose the game as he couldn't do anything about it!

That's depressing. But things must surely look up for the next turn, correct?
Well, not quite yet. After you fill your city with graves, now you must decide what to do with your city's pollution. You get 3 pollution markers for each city you have on the board. And, you must place them in spaces within 2 spaces of your area of influence.

Now, after all that you get to check if anybody won the game! Nope, nobody won.

So, you start all over again building, harvesting, exploring, graving and polluting. It really is wonderfully brutal because eventually the board can be filled with pollution and your cities can be filled with graves if you aren't careful.

Here's some shots of how that might all go:
New land to exploit!
Initial cities and some fishing
and wood-cutting action. 

Another city, many workers and
a growing pollution problem!

5 cities and tons of waste to clean up! Tsk, tsk!

It seems there should be something you can do about it!
There is! You can build the Alchemy building which lets you remove some pollution from the board. But if you don't get a handle on this early then you'll be just barely fighting it back enough to set up another farm or fisherman or something similar.

Luckily you can also build new cities over the pollution which at least might give you more room to do something else with more buildings and/or reaching some unadulterated land.

So, does the game really ever end?
No. You just keep playing until you're sick of the whole thing.

Well, maybe I'm kidding a bit. Eventually, someone will meet their game-end condition when checked. OR, you will determine that no one can actually win, so you either keep playing just because you love it so much or you start over and try again. Unless of course you have to do REAL work the next day and then you might have to pack it in.

Nah, just start a new game. Nothing else is important.

You sounded pretty excited about this game until near the end there. What do you REALLY think of this game?
I loved it! I want to play again! It's so familiar and yet, it's so original! It's great fun getting your city and workers going, then watching the pollution and graves expand and you have to fight to keep it under control while also trying to make progress as the same time.

There are many many things to manage and consider. The game is very open ended and you have the ability to do all sorts of things. And, it's totally engaging - I had a great time playing and was engrossed the entire time as you're constantly planning and scheming.

Will you be buying this game for yourself?
Well, I would if it wasn't so pricey. I'm not sure I'd shell out a couple hundred bucks for this game. I think I like Roads & Boats a bit more because it has more going on with logistics that this game doesn't have, but even that game game I'm not sure I'd pay that much for.

Which is a real shame as these games are both so good and deserve a wider audience. On the other hand, it may be a niche market anyhow for those that really want to play this type of game. I could see many people not liking this at all because it's long, brutal, has a lot of moving parts and probably feels more like work to some people than fun.

But for those of us that like all of those things in a game, it's about the experience and the challenge just to survive let alone win the game. 

Ok, I've had my say. If someone asks you to play this game, say YES and give it a go, even if it's not what you think is your type of game. Enjoy it for what it is, then decide for yourself.


  1. Nice review, thanks! As you play the game more often, you will get ahead of the curve regarding graves & pollution :-)

    Best regards, Joris Wiersinga

  2. Thanks Joris! Unfortunately, I haven't been able to play again but I'd love to have the time to play it more and figure out how to do that. I guess I need to invite my friend over again to play it. I don't suppose a reprint is coming any time soon? :) Thanks for stopping by and checking out my review!


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