Gaming Unplugged: Tigris & Euphrates

October 5, 2007

Among the (unplugged) gaming community, there are few names as respected — or as prolific — as Reiner Knizia’s. The German designer has over 200 games on his resume, with 1997’s Tigris & Euphrates (T&E) considered his crowning achievement by many. T&E is a tile-laying game that encourages players to adopt a balanced approach to scoring victory points (VPs) as they attempt to wield the most influence in the cradle of civilization. While there are four categories of points, your final score is determined by your lowest score among them at the end of the game; for example, if you have collected 30 black VPs, 30 red VPs, 30 Blue VPs, but only 1 green VP, then your score is one and you will most likely finish dead last despite your dominance in the other three categories.

In order to achieve these victory points, you will need to place your Leaders and Civilization Tiles (henceforth just “tiles”) carefully using your two actions each turn; you can also use actions to discard tiles from your reserve and replace them or to place one of your two a space-negating Catastrophe Tiles. Each tile represents one area of a region, and each type (color) of area has its correspondingly-colored leader. When a tile is played adjacent to a kingdom (any area containing at least one leader), whoever controls the corresponding leader scores a VP of that tile’s color, regardless of who actually placed the tile; the black leader (“king”) can collect VPs of any color if the corresponding leader is not present in his kingdom.

There are three special plays that make things a bit more complicated than that: 1) Completing a 2×2 block of one color’s tiles creates a VP-generating Monument on top of them (and essentially removes those four tiles from play), which can be very powerful; 2) Placing a leader in a kingdom that already contains a leader of that same color triggers an internal conflict that will oust one of them from the kingdom (and board); and 3) uniting two kingdoms with a tile triggers external conflicts between their matching leaders and usually results in one half of the kingdom becoming devastated (and potentially massive VPs scored) in the war. Conflicts are resolved by the two players in question discarding tiles from their reserves and adding those to the leaders’ respective strength in the kingdom; ties go to the defending player.

At the end of each player’s turn, all players replenish their reserves until they have six tiles. The game ends and VPs are scored either when the last tile is drawn or then fewer than three Treasures remain on the board. Treasures are “wild” VPs claimed by the green leader (“trader”) when there are two or more Treasures in a given kingdom; one Treasure remains and the owner of the trader takes the rest. Players may arrange any Treasures they have earned in whatever way they choose for scoring purposes. In the event of a tie for the lowest total, the next-lowest totals of the tied players are checked, and so on until the tie is broken.

The game pieces themselves are every bit as solid as the mechanics, with heavy cardboard tiles, wooden VP cubes characteristic of European titles (small one-pointers and larger five-pointers), and wooden Monuments that really catch attention (and need some slight assembly). The thin cardboard screens that hide both a player’s reserve tiles and accumulated VPs aren’t that impressive, however, but they serve their purpose; they also have convenient reminders as to what actions are allowed on your turn and brief summaries of both types of conflict. Rounding out the package are two sets of rules, one detailed and the other brief.

While most players will grasp the basics of the game quickly due to the simple mechanics, the deeper strategies take some time to develop, especially where conflicts are concerned; my group generally allows takebacks if a newer player makes a misplay like forgetting how the conflicts work. There is a frustrating element of randomness when it comes to which tiles are drawn, but I consider that one of those necessary evils that encourage adaptability and strategy; besides, sometimes the Gods just aren’t on your side. Aside from that and the limited number of players (three or four; rules variants can also be found for two), I can’t find any faults with T&E and would highly recommend it to any gaming group that enjoys strategic games of this nature; it may not appeal to more casual gamers, but at around 90 minutes to play it couldn’t hurt to have them give it a try.

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