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Review of Thebes

Review of the boardgame Thebes

by Mitch Willis 

Thebes is a unique board game for 2 to 4 players set in the early 20th Century in Europe and the archaeologically rich regions of that era. Peter Prinz is the designer and my version is the international edition recently published by Queen. This game has a few tweaks to the original game, Jenseits von Theben, which was self-published by Prinz back in 2004. Players take on the role of archaeologists, gathering knowledge, tools, and assistants to assist in digs among several historical sites. They earn victory points (VPs) by acquiring rare artifacts, attending archaeological congresses and exhibitions, and acquiring special knowledge about each site. The player with the most VPs, after a specified amount of time passes, is the winner. Our playing time has typically been from between 45 minutes to a little over an hour. Thebes was nominated earlier this year as one of the finalists for the Spiel des Jahres.

Out of the Box
The game comes in a moderately large box with an insert that will comfortably hold all components. The components include: a game board, 4 archaeologist playing pieces (in red, blue, yellow, and green), 4 time markers (same colors), 4 time wheels (same colors), 1 black year marker, 85 researcher cards, 10 exhibition cards, 20 excavation permit tiles (4 sets of 5), 155 excavation tokens (31 per site), 5 excavation bags (1 for each site), 5 summary cards, 1 summary sheet, and a rulebook.

The board is nicely made and illustrated; it displays the major cities of Europe (where you’ll prepare for digs), as well as the 5 major excavation sites. It also has 2 card display areas, one for researcher cards and one for exhibitions, as well as a time track that runs across the edge of the board, covering the 52 weeks in a year. The playing pieces are wooden meeples, in the style of Indiana Jones. All the markers are round and wooden, while the tiles and tokens are made from sturdy cardboard stock. The cards are well illustrated and have a nice finish. The excavation bags, permits, and tokens are evenly split between five colors, each representing a dig site: Greece (orange), Crete (purple), Egypt (yellow), Palestine (green), and Mesopotamia (blue). The time wheels must be assembled but this should be quick and easy, as it’s relatively straightforward. The rulebook comes in many different languages, is easy to comprehend, and has several illustrated examples of game play. Overall, the components are great and they’re language independent to boot.

The Cards
There are two types of cards: researcher cards and exhibition cards. Researcher cards consist of special knowledge, general knowledge, research assistants, shovels, legends from the people, cars, zeppelins, and congresses. Special knowledge, general knowledge, research assistants, and legends all give knowledge points that you will use when digging at specific excavation sites. Shovels will allow you to draw an extra token or two when you’re excavating. Cars and zeppelins will speed up your travel times while congresses will give you VPs. Exhibition cards are either small or large. Small exhibitions require artifacts from 2 sites and grant you 4 VPs while large ones require artifacts from 3 sites and are worth 5 VPs. Both researcher and exhibition cards will also display the city in which they reside and the number of weeks required to acquire them.

Set Up
The game takes up a bit of space, so find a decent sized table or playing area to place your board. Each player will choose a color and take the meeple, time marker, and time wheel of that color, as well as a set of 5 excavation permits (1 for each dig site). Separate the exhibition cards from the researcher cards, and form the researcher cards into 3 equal piles. Mix in and shuffle the 5 small exhibition cards into the middle pile; do the same with the large exhibition cards and the 3rd pile. Set the 3rd pile aside for now; place the 1st pile on top of the middle pile to form the draw deck. Put all the meeples on Warsaw and put the time markers on the start space of the time track. Place the year marker on 1901 with 2 or 3 players, and on 1902 if playing with 4. Place a value 1 token of the corresponding color on each of the 5 dig sites. Put the summary cards along the board within sight of all players. Randomly select a starting player.

Game Play
The first part of your turn involves moving your meeple. You may move to a city or dig site; you may also opt to have your meeple stay put. Each move to an adjacent city requires 1 week of travel time; i.e., moving from Warsaw to Paris would take 2 weeks time. Once you move, you must take one of the following 4 actions: 1) Take a researcher card, 2) Execute an excavation, 3) Claim an exhibition, or 4) Exchange the 4 cards displayed.

To take a researcher card from the display, you must travel to the city listed on the display and stay the number of weeks listed on the card. For example, if you’re currently in London and there’s a research assistant available in Rome, you’d travel to Rome, which would take 2 weeks, and recruit the assistant, taking another 2 weeks. You’d then advance your time marker 4 spaces on the time track and put the research assistant card in your playing area. Another researcher card will then be drawn to replace the one you just claimed. If it’s an exhibition card, then it will be placed on the first of the three exhibition card slots on the left side of the board. Any previously placed exhibition cards will slide down to the next slot; if there are 3 exhibitions present, then the 3rd one will slide off the board and be discarded. When the card supply is exhausted for the first time, shuffle all of the discards into the previously set aside 3rd pile to form the new draw deck.

To excavate from a dig site, you must first travel there. If you are the first one to excavate there, you claim that site’s ‘1’ point artifact token as a bonus. Once there, you’ll break out your time wheel. First, you must calculate how many special knowledge points you have for that area. These points can come from several different sources: specialty books, general knowledge books, legends, and research assistants. Once you’ve totaled your knowledge points for that site, you slide the time wheel until it displays that number at the top of the wheel. Then alongside the numbered column on the center right portion of the wheel declare how many weeks you’ll dig. The number in the window adjacent to the number of digging days is how many counters you’ll draw; this can be altered by 1 or 2, depending upon the number of shovels you may have. You’ll then take the bag of counters matching the color of the site where you’re digging and draw the corresponding number of counters. Any artifacts you draw will be placed in your playing area, while any dirt (i.e., blank counters) will be set aside. Once your excavation is complete, you’ll return any blank counters to the bag and advance your time marker the appropriate number of weeks (both travel and digging). You’ll flip over your excavation permit for that site to the side with an ‘X’. You can only dig at a site once per year; when your time marker passes week 52, you can flip all your excavation permits back over to the permission side.

To claim an exhibition card, you must have the appropriate type and number of artifacts (which will be displayed on the card). Then you must be the first to travel to the city hosting the exhibition and stay for the duration of the exhibition. You’ll move your time marker forward the number of weeks incurred for both travel and the exhibition itself.

You must travel to Warsaw to exchange the 4 displayed researcher cards. This action costs one week, in addition to the travel time. You’ll discard the 4 current cards and replace them with 4 new ones from the draw deck. As with all actions, you’ll move your time marker accordingly.

Once you’ve completed your turn, the player who’s the furthest back on the time line will go next. If that still happens to be you, then you get another turn. If more than one player’s time marker is on the same space, the last one to arrive there is placed on top; the player on top will always move before the player on the bottom.

Endgame and Scoring
The end of the game is determined by the number of players; with two the game goes on for 3 years, with three it’ll be for 2.5 years, and with four it’ll last just 2 years. Once all players marker have executed actions for the last week, then victory points will be tallied (NOTE: You can now use the time track as a scoring track).

For each of the 5 excavation sites, the person with the most special knowledge points in each will collect 5 VPs. If there is a tie, then each will collect 3 VPs. For each artifact discovered, players will receive the number of VPs reflected on the counter. To calculate VPs for congresses attended, refer to the table listed on the congress cards. Lastly, each exhibition has a VP value (surrounded by a wreath) shown at the top of the card. The player with the most victory points is the newest heir apparent to Indiana Jones!

While my archaeological knowledge is basically limited to the Indiana Jones movies and a couple visits to a Jamestown excavation, Thebes appears to be bleeding with theme. While the game is very random, what with all the drawing of cards and artifacts, it didn’t bother me as much since it seems to fit the theme so well. On actual excavations, there are no guarantees; as I understand it, archaeologists make their best guess, based on extensive research, of where to dig. I think this is reflected fairly well in the game with the knowledge points and how they affect excavation. I’ve already read some posts about players who’ve drawn nothing but blanks, even with a decent amount of knowledge points, but again I think this is a reflection that archaeology is not an exact science. I know it wasn’t exactly archaeology, but does any one remember Geraldo Rivera opening the lost vault of Al Capone in anticipation of an historic discovery, only to find absolutely nothing there? While I think some of the luck can be offset by efficient management of your time and resources, you’ll have to accept a certain amount of chance when playing this game.

How you manage your time is probably the most essential aspect of the game. For what it’s worth, I like hanging back on the time track, doing short turns early on, thus gaining occasionally 2 or 3 turns in a row before others get to play. If you’re waiting for a particular card to show up, exchanging the display cards can be very effective, but you’ll only want to do that when you’ll get first crack at the new cards. Thus if you can manage your time where you can exchange them at a point when it’ll still be your turn, it’ll definitely be an advantage for you. Once we got the hang of the game, it was pretty common to see the last person on the time track plan things to where he/she would end a turn sitting on top of an opponent’s marker so that he’d get to move again before that player.

While you’ll probably get a high percentage of your points from acquired artifacts, don’t ignore other VP sources. Attending several congresses can increase your score significantly, especially if your opponents are concentrating more on excavation. Exhibitions can be another good source of points. Minor exhibitions will appear first and they require you to have artifacts from 2 specific sites (2 from one, 1 from another). So you can do minimal preparation and excavate quickly and try to get 2 artifacts from each site, as opposed to trying to dig extensively in a couple of areas. With 2 artifacts from each site, you’ll be able to claim any minor exhibition, once they start popping up. Likewise, if you can pick up another artifact from each site later, you’ll be in good stead when the large exhibits come out, where you’ll need artifacts from three specific sites in order to claim them.

While the game will play differently depending upon the number of players, I think the game scales very well. With two players, you can kind of take your time in building up your resources before you go excavating. However, with four, resources are much tighter and the competition to acquire them much fiercer. Time is shorter as well, so you need to acquire your resources quickly and get to the excavation sites before they’re tapped out. And the three player game kind of strikes a balance somewhere in between. I like the game with any number of players, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that the game played so well with just two.

I particularly like the time management aspect of the game, especially the use of the time track. I’ve never seen anything like it before in a game, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see this mechanism show up in some future games.

I’ve really enjoyed playing Thebes. Despite its randomness, it’s just a very fun game and makes me feel as if I’m actually in a race to uncover famous artifacts. Yes it can be frustrating at times, but I imagine that’s probably a common feeling for real archaeologists. The components and game play combine to make this probably the most thematic game that I own. It’s also a bonus that it plays in a reasonable amount of time and is easy to teach, thus making it attractive to several of my more casual gaming relatives and friends. People who dislike a bit of luck in their games may want to steer clear of this one, but folks who enjoy theme and don’t mind a healthy dose of chance should enjoy it. Bottom line: I really ‘dig’ Thebes and currently rate it an 8.

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