Gaming Unplugged: Thebes

July 29, 2009

Nothing screams “excitement and fun” like turn-of-the-century archaeology: the weeks of research, the sitting through interminable lectures at congresses, the painstaking sifting through sand-covered ruins only to come up with handfuls of worthless debris… Well, ok — I know that sounds duller than dishwater; even Indiana Jones couldn’t make a decent movie out of just pure archaeology. But that is in fact the theme of Thebes, designed by Peter Prinz and published by Queen Games in 2007, and it is actually much more entertaining than it sounds.

Depending on the number of players, Thebes plays out over a span of two to three years, represented by a 52-segment scoring track ringing the board. Every action requires a given number of weeks to complete. The active player is whoever’s marker is earliest in the current year (in the event of a tie, the most recent player to move his marker to that week’s space goes first), thus creating a strategic trade-off: the more time you spend one a given action, the better your (potential) rewards, but other players might be able to complete more actions in the same span of time and gain an advantage through sheer numbers.

Four cards are dealt face-up to the board at the start of the game, revealing research opportunities to increase your general or specific Knowledge and other preparatory actions (research assistants, congresses, tools, cars, rumors, etc.) available at specific board locations; each card lists how much time it requires to claim its reward and is replaced from the deck immediately after claiming it. Other actions include moving around the board, consuming one week per segment of your trip. One week can also be spent at a specific location to discard all four cards and refresh the choices. Later on in the game, special exhibitions will emerge from the deck that will allow you to spend time to earn more points if you have collected the corresponding numbers of artifacts. Finally, you can travel to one of the Ancient Civilizations and dig for as many weeks as you want to spend.

In order to determine that, the game provides each player a dial that indicates your level of Knowledge with the civilization you’re excavating, from one to twelve. Dialing in to your level gives you a list of numbers lined up to an index of weeks. Spending a given number of weeks allows you the displayed number of “pulls” from that civilization’s bag. Each bag contains a dozen artifacts* of various values (these values and amounts are public knowledge, indicated on special cards kept separate), two special Knowledge tokens, and twelve blank tokens representing worthless debris (my group calls these “sand” for shorthand). If you pull out one of the good tokens, you get to keep it and earn its points or add its Knowledge to your base; if you pull out debris, it goes back in the bag when you’re done to be pulled out again later! The first player to “break ground” in a given location receives a guaranteed 1-point artifact in addition to whatever he actually pulls out of the bag. You can only excavate each location once per year, so plan carefully.

The game ends once all players have completed the year 1903; you cannot spend any weeks beyond the end of that year, so you might end up sacrificing the last few weeks due to having no productive plays available. Each player totals up the value of his discovered artifacts, congress cards, and exhibition cards; additionally, whoever has the most specific Knowledge of a given civilization earns a five-point bonus (per civilization). The most points wins, although there is no given method for breaking ties.

Thebes is loaded with strategic choices, mostly revolving around the very limited amount of time you have. The key to the game, unfortunately, is the random chance of what you pull out of the “dig” bags. Even the best-laid plans can wind up with you effectively stranded out in the middle of the desert if you randomly pull out a bunch of trash despite the odds. While the randomness can be a nuisance, Thebes is an otherwise-solid strategy game that can be enjoyed in about an hour by up to four players.

*These artifacts are depictions of actual museum relics from their respective civilizations, such as King Tut’s Mask. The manual provides a brief description of each, for a nice educational bonus.