Friday, 2 November 2012

exploring Antiquity

I am a lucky man. My wife Michelle has played four games of Antiquity with me so far (and also 55 games of Through the Ages in the past). One reason that I bought Antiquity was I hoped it would be a game I could play as a 2P game with her, so - mission accomplished! I was a little nervous about teaching her the game at first. Afterall this is one very merciless game system. The game punishes you much more than your opponents do. She did well enough, and even beat me in 3 of 4 games. I can say it's partly because she only picks San Christofoni as her patron saint, which she finds easiest to play, and I keep trying different patron saints (and usually failing to play them effectively). But when I look at how spectacularly I failed, I think a big part of the failure lies with me and not with my adventurous approach.

I should have learnt a lot from my mistakes. Famine is the biggest threat. It increases every round, and it increases whenever anyone discovers a food resource in the wild using an Explorer. If you don't have enough food, you earn graves for your cities. You need to stockpile food to stay afloat, and you need to win the game before you are overwhelmed by the famine level. I keep making the same mistake of not producing or stockpiling enough food. Another mistake is failing to plan ahead for my second city. I sometimes wait until it's too late to prepare for my second city, e.g. when my first city is already full and my building resources are rotting away. Yet another mistake is not having a clear strategy that fits my chosen patron saint. You don't have much space in your cities (especially when you keep having to dig graves!), so you need to be picky about which buildings to have. I find that I sometimes construct buildings on a whim, depending on what looks attractive at the time, without making sure that they really do fit well into a coherent strategy. The result is I end up having to scramble to build a second city to have more space for other buildings I desperately need.

In contrast, Michelle by now has a pretty well-tuned San Christofoni strategy. It's almost a formula. She builds a stone mine in round one, and uses the stone mined to build her cathedral in round two, to be dedicated to San Christofoni. She doesn't build a Store because by round two she will have infinite storage. She likes the Market, which lets her exchange for goods types she doesn't have. She likes the Faculty of Alchemy too, which does clean-up and allows her to reuse land and lakes.

No matter which patron saint you pick, you need to have a clear strategy so that you can progress towards the victory condition efficiently, i.e. before famine destroys you. Despite the many spectacular failures, I am enjoying this journey of discovery. I may not have discovered the best ways to play each patron saint, but I do have some rough ideas on what to try next time, and I do know what I should not do (I just hope I remember them next time I play).

One worry I have about Antiquity is the replayability. The game is quite solitairish for about the first half of the game, and it can feel like an efficiency contest with little you can do to affect your opponents (like swimming?). Only in the second half when players' zones of control start overlapping will there be some player interaction, like dumping rubbish in your opponent's forests, peeing in his ponds. If there are more or less ideal approaches to play each patron saint, then the game may become rather formulaic. At the start of the game you check out the landscape, decide on a patron saint, construct a blueprint in your mind, and then just execute based on that blueprint, with some adjustments in the second half of the game as you come into contact with your opponents. I don't know whether this will be the final conclusion after I master all the patron saints. My worry may turn out to be unfounded. Even if my worry turns out to be true, I would have spent many games reaching that conclusion, and by then I would have already gained my money's worth. I think even after that Antiquity will still be an enjoyable game to bring out once in a while to exercise my brain.

The predetermined blueprint worry is the problem I have with the solitaire version of Town Center. It is why I am only interested to play multiplayer Town Center now.

I recently played The Great Zimbabwe (also by Splotter Spellen) and enjoyed myself a lot. It has much more player interaction than Antiquity, and it made me think about the multiplayer solitaire characteristic of the early game in Antiquity. Splotter is becoming one of my favourite publishers. I enjoy many of the games designed by the design team of Jeroen Doumen and Joris Wiersinga. The games are intricate, merciless and unapologetic. You need to know the game well to play half decently. I would even argue that the games have player elimination, because if you don't know what you're doing, you can easily doom yourself in the first few turns. I think this has happened to me in every single Splotter game. It was what scarred me on Greed Incorporated. It recently happened to me in The Great Zimbabwe. I find Splotter games very unique. There are many other long and complex Eurogames, but Splotter games have a signature that sets them apart. I find that there are always big-stroke strategies which if your opponents do not know how to counter, will let you trample over them. The games are not about doing many small things efficiently and making many clever tactical choices. They are about crucial moments that make or break you. You need to learn to spot such moments, to grab the opportunities and to avoid the pitfalls.

These four recent games of Antiquity against Michelle made me think about how gamers should be gaming. This may actually be the best way to game - to apply the Game of the Month concept. Pick a game with good depth, and play it many times to fully appreciate it, before moving on to the next good game. Skipping some good games is a worthwhile sacrifice. It is better to fully appreciate one good game than to have brief introductions to five good games, right? Well, it's easier said than done. Many boardgame hobbyists tend to get easily distracted by the next shiny new game. Aaah... the bane of our lives.

21 Oct 2012. This was my third game and Michelle's second. It was the second time we played against each other. I picked Santa Barbara this game. The privilege is being able to rearrange buildings, and the victory condition is to construct every building type. I build a large Store (bottom left) which let me store many food resources.

I won this game. I needed a third city in order to have enough space for all my buildings. I was probably lucky in this game. Michelle had forgotten about a particular goods type. If she had been more careful and had planned better, she might have reached her victory condition (collecting 3 each of the 8 types of food and luxury resources) sooner.

The main gameboard. I (black) tend to like harbours so my cities tend to be next to lakes.

27 Oct 2012. Our 3rd game. This time I picked San Nicolo, privilege is "buy 1 free 1" (ask a Malaysian) when building a house, victory condition is to build all 20 houses. At this point I had actually built a harbour at the right edge of the city, but it was now covered by graves.

The main gameboard. I (black) was a little slow in building my second city near the centre.

Once my second city was ready, I hurriedly built a Hospital to remove graves and a Faculty of Alchemy to clean land. I was close to suffocating by then. I also built a Faculty of Philosophy to let me ignore the variety requirement when building houses. The more expensive houses always require food and luxury items of different types, which is a hassle to collect. So the Faculty of Philosophy is very useful for the San Nicolo player.

These were Michelle's cities. She rarely bothers to build Fountains (not a single one in sight), which reduces the Famine level by one and also reduces pollution. She doesn't need them as much as I usually do. So I end up building lots of them, which helps her to some extent.

By game end, she had only used 5 squares in her second city. She likes the Market because she can use it to swap two goods for one of any type. She plans which buildings to construct much better than I do. Very little waste.

In contrast, my cities were a mess. 13 graves, and this was after I had already removed some using the Hospital. I still had 7 houses to go, which was still a long way away.

28 Oct 2012. A second game of Antiquity over the same weekend! Woohoo! This time I used yellow, hoping it would be more auspicious than black. It didn't work, but the blame was on me, not the colour. This time I picked San Giorgio - privilege is one free fish whenever anyone builds a cathedral, victory condition is completely covering one opponent's zone of control with your own. This was the first time I made use of the Stable, which increases your zone of control from two steps from every city and inn to three steps instead. It is obvious from the number of graves in this photo (even covering my cathedral in the top right corner) that I did not win this game.

I had six fountains, so no pollution from cities themselves now (usually 3 per city). But of course farming, mining and fishing still leave behind pollution.

Michelle's cities when she won the game. She didn't even need a Market this time, and she barely needed the Dump. The Dump reduces pollution by four, and her second city produces three pollution. The Dump also prevents your opponent from dumping pollution in your zone of control. I wonder whether she built it more for defensive purposes.

The game board. I (yellow) managed to spread my inns (small square markers with yellow shields) to the centre of Michelle's start terrain tile. I would probably need another two or three turns to completely surround her. But the question is whether I would survive another two or three turns.


Shingo said...

I find that there are always big-stroke strategies which if your opponents do not know how to counter, will let you trample over them. The games are not about doing many small things efficiently and making many clever tactical choices. They are about crucial moments that make or break you. You need to learn to spot such moments, to grab the opportunities and to avoid the pitfalls

One of the best description of the characteristics of Splotter games I've read so far!! I also enjoy their games very much and I could identify the uniqueness of their games but couldn't quite put it into words. I'm keenly looking forward to trying Zimbabwe soon. With the description of player interaction that matches Indonesia sounds really good. As I love the interaction of Indonesia, probably my favourite splotter so far.. Love Antiquity too and was nice to read your article.. looking forward to your blog on the Great Zimbabwe!!

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

I have played only one game of The Great Zimbabwe so far, and we made quite a number of mistakes. I'm hoping to get a second play in soon, with the correct rules. So far I'm loving it. I couldn't stop thinking about it for a few days.

Aik Yong said...

hiew.... oh look! shiny!

I hope The Great Zimbabwe will be a trend in which we explore a game further the following week. I'm afraid the plethora of Essen and kickstarter games will still be too tempting to let us linger on "yesterday's games" (they aren't even old!)

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...


Look! That's CO2! And Clash of Cultures!

Indeed we should make ourselves hermits for some periods to delve deeper into some games - boardgame retreats from boardgames, so to speak.

Lord of Midnight said...

Tzolkin (Mayan Calendar), Gingkopolis, Ladies of Troyes, Suburbia... And two Power Grid map sets. hehehe.

To counter Michelle's set-plan, you can take the saint which requires you to surround your opponents territory for a win (can't remember the saint's name).. with this you aggressively expand into her city(s), dump pollution around her, and generally choke her while you go for the winning move.

I've seen that saint in play once and it can be brutal. :)

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

That would be San Giorgio. Yes, I can imagine surrounding your opponent and crapping all over her pristine farmland can be very effective. However I need to get my act together first. Next game, first thing I need to remember is stockpile food and not get flooded by graves.

One thing that I wonder is how much terrain impacts the saint you pick and how you play. Need to explore that further.