Sunday, 18 November 2012

The Great Zimbabwe

Plays: 5Px2.

The Great Zimbabwe is Splotter Spellen's new Essen game. Jeff was at the Essen game fair October this year, and brought back a copy to be played at OTK. I gladly grabbed the opportunity to do so.

The Game

The Great Zimbabwe is about building great monuments in ancient Zimbabwe. Players are kings competing to build the most impressive monuments. The modular game board is randomly set up every game, and it has four types of resources and some lakes and rivers. Resources are needed for manufacturing ritual goods, which are required for upgrading monuments to increase their values. Rivers (and lakes) ease the transport of ritual goods to the monuments where they are needed.

On your turn, you pick one main action out of three options. (1) You can build a new Level-1 monument for free. (2) You can do craftsmen-related actions. This usually means claiming a technology card and building the workshop type allowed by the tech. Claiming the card increases your victory requirements. The default points required for winning is 20, but it can increase up to 40 if you claim many useful cards. A workshop must be within range of the resource type it needs, and in future every time anyone buys a ritual good from this workshop, one resource will be depleted for the round. You set a ritual goods price at any new workshop, and can also increase the prices at your existing workshops. You can build new workshops of the same type as you already own. (3) You can upgrade one or more of your monuments by one level. Upgrading a Level-1 monument to Level-2 requires one ritual good; upgrading a Level-2 monument (to Level-3) requires two different ritual goods; and so on. The highest you can go is Level-5, since there are only 4 types of ritual goods in the game. You need to deliver the ritual goods to the monument you are upgrading. If they are too far away, you can use other monuments (yours or other players') as hubs to establish a delivery route, paying $1 to the bank for each hub used. Rivers can help in increasing range, because each connected body of water is treated as one space. Taking one step from a river bank space into a long river is one step; going ashore at the other end of the river is just one more step. Upgrading monuments is the main way of gaining points, because tall monuments are worth many points.

The game board is modular and randomly set up every game. 9 pieces are used for a 5-player game.

The single square icons printed on the board are the natural resources which are needed to manufacture ritual goods. The 2x1 and 2x2 tiles are the workshops which produce the ritual goods. The round disks are the monuments. The natural coloured wooden pieces are the depletion markers, indicating resources that have been used in the current round. That very very long river in the background would have been very helpful for transporting ritual goods, but no many people built workshops or monuments along its banks. Sigh... noobs... (and indeed we all were newbies in this particular game).

There is a concept of obsolescence of ritual goods. For three of the ritual goods types, players can build secondary workshops. These workshops further process the ritual goods from the primary workshops, creating more valuable versions. E.g. sculptures are the better version of simple wood carvings. Once a secondary workshop is built, the primary version of its ritual good type is no longer acceptable for monument upgrading. Anyone wishing to use this ritual good type must now pay both the primary craftsman to produce the basic good and the secondary craftsman to upgrade the basic good. He may also need to pay transportation fees to send the basic good to the secondary workshop. Using secondary ritual goods also consume more natural resources, since both primary and secondary workshops consume one resource each. This makes competition for resources tighter, and thus competition for turn order becomes more fierce.

Money is important (of course!). You not only need to think about making money, you also need to consider how money flows into the game, out of the game, between the players, and even between your left and right pockets. At the end of every round you earn money based on your tallest monument. Some god cards and specilist cards also let you make money. These are the only ways money enters the system. When you build workshops and when you pay for transportation costs, money leaves the system. When you use others' workshops, money is flowing between players. When you use your own workshops (yes you need to pay your own minions, a.k.a. craftsmen), it is money flowing from left to right pocket. You must still pay the full price, and you only get the money back into your hand at the end of the round. Making money is important, for buying ritual goods to upgrade monuments, and also for bidding for turn order.

The bidding for turn order is interesting. Every bid made is immediately paid in full to a pool. If you don't or can't make a higher bid than the previous player, you go to the last available slot. After the bidding is done, the bid money in the pool is distributed as evenly as possible to all players. So this is another way money is flowing between players.

The above are the basic structure of the game. What can shake them up a lot are the gods and the specialists. On your turn you can take a god card or a specialist card for "free". You can only ever worship one god, but you can have multiple specialists. These cards have various abilities, e.g. the toll booth god collects all transportation fees, the hardworking god reduces the victory requirement when taking tech cards, the rainmaker specialist (a bomoh! - which roughly translates to "witch doctor" in Malay) grows rivers, the banker specialist gives 50% interest for money banked in. The "cost" of taking these cards is your victory requirement will go up. So you better make sure they are worth it.

In addition to monuments, workshops are also worth victory points. The game ends after at least one player meets his victory requirement. If more than one player achieves that, whoever exceeds his victory requirement by the most points wins.

The board in the centre is the scoring board. The round disks mark the victory requirement for each player, and the cubes mark the current scores. The big square tiles on the left are used during turn order bidding. Bid money is evenly distributed on them, going from left to right. After the bidding concludes, every player takes the money on his tile.

The Play

I have played two games, both were 5-player games. In both games we made some mistakes. The impact was quite severe in the first game, and it made the game much tougher than it should have been. Splotter games are already unforgiving, and we made it worse. Imagine that! In the first game all players were new to the game. I spent money on getting a better turn order, and quickly built a workshop near a long river and also three resources. I thought it would get much business, but it didn't. It was off-centre and thus not near any of the start monuments, and no one built monuments along that long river. Another player who built an exact same workshop had many more customers than I did, because he built in near the centre of the board. I tried to right my wrong by building the secondary workshop of the same ritual goods type. However that secondary workshop was near only two resources, which meant I could only sell at most two ritual goods per round. My money engine never picked up momentum. We misunderstood the restrictions about placing workshops, thinking that primary and secondary workshops must not be in range of the same resource, and that workshops of the same level and resource type must not be in range of the same resource. The correct rule is a 2nd or 3rd workshop of the same level and resource type need to be in range of at least one resource not already in range of existing workshops, but it can "share" resources with existing workshops. Due to this misunderstanding, we only ever had two vessels (secondary ritual good using the clay resource) in any round, and we could not build the sculpture workshop (secondary workshop using the wood resource).

The card on the left is a god card. This god reduces my victory requirement (VR) increment when I take tech cards. However, in hindsight, it was a waste of time picking this god in this particular game. Taking the god increased my VR by four, and eventually I only saved 4VR from the two techs I took. Now I feel stupid.

The two cards on the right are tech cards that allow building workshops. The laurel icons are the victory points worth per workshop built, and the cattle icons are the costs per workshop. The cattle tiles are the prices I set for the ritual goods produced by the workshops. The top tech card is for a primary workshop. It consumes one clay resource and produces a pot. The bottom tech card is for a secondary workshop. It consumes one clay resource, needs a pot to be delivered to it, and upgrades the pot to a vessel.

Sheng had the god which allowed him to upgrade monuments while ignoring the different ritual good types requirement. Wood carvings were cheap and abundant, and Sheng himself owned two of the three wood carving workshops. He kept the price low, was able to cheaply upgrade his monuments, and no one could stop him. In hindsight, if we had understood the rules correctly, we could have tried to slow him down by building sculpture workshops and setting high prices. Sculptures would consume more resources, and would be more expensive too.

I tried to build more monuments, and hoped to upgrade many at one go. However my money engine sputtered and coughed and never quite started running. I came in dead last.

If you examine this photo closely, you will find that every resource is in range of at most one workshop (i.e. can be reached within 3 steps including diagonally). We had misunderstood the rules and made workshop placement more restricted than it should be. In this photo you can see that all the wood resources (single purple squares) have been "locked" by the three wood carvers (purple 2x1 tiles). We thought we were not allowed to build sculptor workshops (the secondary workshop) because there were no unclaimed wood resources.

In the second game, three players had played before and two were new. This time I remembered the pain of poverty, and told myself I wanted to be rich, rich, rich! I picked the toll booth god, which let me collect transportation fees whenever anyone (even myself) needed to pay such fees. Unfortunately in this game we had a massive river and the bomoh too. The bomoh grew the river, making transportation very easy for everyone. Many players built monuments on the riverbank. I made little money from my toll booth god. Wrong career choice! I built three different workshops, two of which were secondary workshops. Surely investing in business would let me become rich. It did. But I completely underestimated how quickly the game would end. Just when I started counting my hard-earned money, game over.

Black (sorry I forgot your name) had been steadily upgrading his monuments. When secondary workshops started popping up, increasing the cost of monument upgrades, he plonked down a diamond workshop (which was expensive but had no secondary workshops) which could access most of the diamond resources on the board. He set a moderate price, made some money from it, and also made good use of it himself to upgrade his monuments. I had misjudged the pace of the game, and I came in dead last again! I took many tech cards and had a high victory requirement.

This game, the god that ignored the requirement of different ritual good types (picked by Sinbad) did not help much, probably because the other players all tried to deny him cheap and abundant ritual goods. Heng worshipped the horny god which let him build two free new monuments instead of one. He went for the rabbit strategy, hoping to litter the land with monuments and then upgrade many at one go. Unfortunately he was cash poor, not having any workshop of his own. Allen joked that he could try building two free monuments every round until he reached his victory requirement.

This was the second game I played. In the south there was a big river, which had now been further grown by the rainmaker (bomoh) specialist and linked up with two lakes. Quite many monuments were built on the river bank.

My god on the right, Qamata, who claimed for me any transportation fees paid for using hubs. I call him the toll booth god. I had built two workshops at this point, and later built a third one.

Look at all those yellow monuments! This was the game end situation. Black was the one player to have met his victory requirement (VR). The rest all had the same number of points. However the absolute score is not important. What is important is how far you are from your VR. Allen (red) and I (green) had the highest VR, so we were last. He was ahead of me in turn order, so he had the 4th place, and I was 5th.

The Thoughts

I kept thinking about The Great Zimbabwe after playing it. I was quite the smitten kitten. Jeff brought a few copies back from Essen, and asked if I wanted to reserve one. I said I'd try-before-buy, even if it was a Splotter game. Allen decided to buy a copy, so I thought I didn't need to own it, because I game with Allen frequently anyway. I thought I had made up my mind. However I kept thinking about it, wavering and teetering at the edge, to the point of almost losing sleep. In the end, I decided to buy it. Even if I may not get many plays out of this physical copy, I feel it's a show of support to this great design. And I can sleep better now.

To play The Great Zimbabwe well, you need to grasp the full situation of the game, and you need to understand every moving part and what each opponent can do to affect the game situation. You need to be able to see the threat and the opportunities beyond what's immediately visible on the board. This is not a game where you just try to do your own thing and hope to win by being efficient. You have to understand the economic situation, the game dynamics and the pacing. There aren't that many rules in the game, but the various god and specialist abilities, the board setup, and the players' actions can create very different game situations.

This is not a game for casual gamers. It needs repeated plays to shine. It is unforgiving, like many other Splotter games. Despite being shorter and seemingly simpler than other Splotter titles that I like (Indonesia, Antiquity), I feel that The Great Zimbabwe has just as much depth as the other games. It's the same goodness with less fiddliness.

I just hope I don't come last again the next time I play. But maybe that's a good thing. This game is a temptress, always staying just out of grasp and making me want to come back to explore it more.


Aik Yong said...

The black player in second game is Thomas.

The interaction is this game is high. You keep thinking you can manage the chaos from the other players but the learning curve is high, that's why this game is such a temptress!

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Thanks Heng!

We should play this again!

DiStefano said...

Hi, good to see you like this game. I like it as well. And i was fortunate enough to play the game while still in prototype fase. Jeroen one of the designers and a friend of mine will be happy to hear you like it as well.

Regards from the Netherlands,


Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Hi Stefan! I really like that the games from Splotter are rather different from the many games in the market. They stand out even among the heavy Eurogames which are targeted at the small niche of hardcore gamers.