Gaming Unplugged: Through the Desert

March 31, 2010

The pastel-colored camels that comprise the bulk of the pieces in Through the Desert always remind me of Easter candy, but the gameplay is much more meaty. Scattered across the mounatin-ringed desert  are five oases (represented by plastic palm trees) and dozens of watering holes valued from 1 to 3 points. Your job is to link your caravans between them and claim as much territory as possible.

Each player has five caravan leaders, one for each color of camel (plus one more leader on a gray camel to remind everyone which colors belong to whom). Starting with the youngest, each player places one of their leaders on to the board; they can’t be placed adjacent to an oasis, adjacent to another player’s leader, or on a watering hole. The “real game” of placing camels — two per player after the first and second players place one each — begins once all of the leaders are placed, but strategic leader placement will dramatically affect your play. 

Camels are placed in caravans of like colors, connected to the appropriate leader. Two identically-colored caravans cannot be placed adjacent to each other, which can create a “Tron light cycle” interaction between players at times. Any caravan that connects to an oasis earns five points (per oasis, not per connection to a specific oasis), and any water holes occupied by a camel scores its points as well. Big points can also be earned by enclosing areas with a single caravan, but the board is crowded with five caravans per player (four if there are five players) and it isn’t easy to pull off such a maneuver if your opponents are observant. The game ends as soon as the last camel in a color is placed on the board, at which point the longest caravan in each color awards its owner ten points (or five each if tied).

Like most designs by Reiner Knizia, the play is deceptively simple but the strategy complex. Only being able to place two camels per turn is incredibly limiting, especially with each player potentially working in four or five areas of the board. There are all manner of distractions vying for your attention, and sacrifices must often be made: connect to the oasis, give up several watering holes; expand one caravan, watch another get cut off by a rival. Perhaps the most important decision of all is if you want to be the one who places the game-ending camel or see if everyone else wants to go one more round…

From two to five players can participate in a game of Through the Desert, and a session usually plays in around 30-45 minutes depending on the number of players. 

Image by GamerChris