Thursday, 15 December 2011


Plays: 4Px1.

Antiquity, published by Splotter Spellen (publisher of Indonesia, the game in my current blog header), was first released in 2004, reprinted in 2006, then went out-of-print, and in 2011 it was reprinted again. Prior to this 2011 reprint, prices for a copy were ridiculously high. I thought although I would probably like the game, I wouldn't be paying this kind of price for a boardgame. When I learned of the 2011 reprint, I decided to try-before-buy. It is still expensive, recommended retail price being EUR80 (around USD105 / MYR335), but if I like it enough, I will pull the trigger. Jeff has a copy, so I read the rules, and found a Friday to visit OTK to try the game.

The Game

The theme of Antiquity is developing cities in medieval Italy, but I find the actual mechanisms very relevant to the modern world. The game board is made of hexes representing different types of terrain. Each player starts with one city on the map, and has a 7x7 grid off the board which represents the space available in that city to construct buildings. You can construct buildings in your city (and later, cities) as well as in the countryside, i.e. the main game board. You start with building houses, each of which give you a worker. Most buildings need a worker to operate. You build countryside buildings to gain resources, e.g. woodcutters' huts, fisheries, farms. You build city buildings for various functions, e.g. stores to keep your resources, cart shops to allow you to build countryside buildings, harbours to allow you to access water spaces. So far, everything sounds fine. It sounds like a pleasant city-building or civilisation-building game. But Antiquity is not "pleasant" at all.

First, you get famine. Every round there is a general famine level which keeps going up. Some incidents cause it to increase more quickly, some cause it to drop slightly. If you do not have enough food in store, or buildings which help reduce famine effects, you get starvation, and you are "awarded" graves which you must put in your city, occupying precious space. Sometimes you are even forced to put graves on your buildings, rendering them unusable. Like Age of Steam, you start the game on a slippery slope. You need to plan to get yourself out of that hole and not get caught in the downward spiral. Second, you have pollution. When you farm, or fish, or mine, the plot of land you use is exhausted and becomes polluted. As you exploit the lands around your cities, you gradually deplete usable land. You need to expand your zone of control (normally two steps out from your cities and inns) to gain more land, and this is the main competition in the game - racing to use land before your opponents do so. Every city you own produces pollution every round (think of it as rubbish), and you need to dump this pollution somewhere in your zone of control. So pollution will grow and grow, and this is the other quicksand pit that you need to climb out of before you drown.

On the main game board, that big piece at the back is my city. I have a woodcutter's hut on the right. When building it, you first place grassland tiles on the forest spaces, then wood resources on them. Finally you place a worker on the (imaginary) hut itself, which is the centre of the woodcutting area. Every round, you harvest one wood resource, leaving behind grassland. Once all the wood resources are collected, your worker returns to the city and can be used for other jobs. The fishery in the foreground works in a similar way. When building it, you first place pollution markers on the water spaces, and then fish resouces on top of them. This means once you harvest the fish, you leave behind a polluted water space.

To win, you need to be first to achieve one of the five victory conditions. In addition to struggling against the game system, you also need to race against your opponents. During the game, when you build a cathedral, you must pick a patron saint, who gives you some special abilities, and also determines your victory condition. Victory conditions include building all 20 houses, constructing all available buildings in the game, having 3 each of all food and luxury resource types, and spreading your zone of control to completely cover the zone of control of another player. If two or more players achieve their victory conditions at the same time, tiebreaker is unpolluted space in your zone of control.

The Play

I did a 4-player game with Jeff, Dennis and Kevin. Jeff has played before, the rest of us were new. I have read the rules so I taught Dennis and Kevin with Jeff filling in the gaps. Our game had a tough start. All four of us did Explore, and all four of us found food resources, which caused the famine level to shoot up. Starvation aplenty! I sent out a farmer and a woodcutter out early, to ensure I had a stable supply of food and wood for the first few rounds. Jeff was first to start working on a luxury resource (gold), and it gave him some flexibility. The rest of us were not as ambitious and hadn't planned that far. Managing famine and pollution was tough. From the start I felt like I was in the red and trying to claw my way back to the break even point. Goods spoilt every round and without a manned store they would be wasted. This was yet another challenge. I built a big store to manage this. However I later regretted it, because I selected the patron saint that allowed me to store an unlimited amount of resources in my cathedral. My big 3x2 store became a waste.

My city had many water tiles nearby, so I made good use of the harbour, which allowed me to increase my zone of control to these lakes and their coasts. I was also active in building inns, which let me further expand my zone of control to more and more lakes. These helped me a lot. I had access to more lakes to fish / dive for pearls / harvest dye. I had access to more farmland and mines too. Also very importantly, I had access to garbage dumping ground. Dennis and Jeff quickly built dumps which prevented me from dumping on spaces within their zone of control. That protected "their" lands somewhat, but thankfully I still had plenty of "dumpable" space.

This was how I started my first city in the first round.

My first city soon getting rather congested.

The patron saint I selected required me to collect 3 each of 8 types of resources (food and luxury). That meant I needed much space to farm and to collect resources. So expanding my zone of control was important. I only built up to two cities. Dennis, Kevin and I all struggled with building our second city. We had not planned ahead far enough, and before we were ready to build our second city, our first city had started filling up and our growth was stalled. Jeff had planned better, and still had much space in his first city when he built his second. Although each additional city produced more pollution, he built a dump and fountains to neutralise that. Jeff went for the patron saint which required all building types to be constructed. He later built a 3rd city. The additional pollution was scary, but he needed the city space.

I was yellow, Dennis blue, Jeff black. We all had two cities at this point. I used my inns aggressively. They are the small squares with yellow emblems. Look at all those pollution markers (skulls on red background). Scary!

In a 4-player game, 8 game board pieces are used to construct the main game board. At this point, Kevin (red) had not built his second city, and things were getting tough for him. Jeff was now planning his third city. That's his hand looking for a suitable spot.

Dennis and Kevin were disadvantaged in the early game because they had built only one cart shop each, as opposed to Jeff and I who had built two. Cart shops were important to ensure resource gatherers (e.g. farmers, miners) could be sent out to work, and countryside buildings could be constructed. Later Dennis was crippled by the lack of a wood supply. He had no wood, and thus could not even build a woodcutter's hut to secure a supply of wood. Kevin was hampered by graves. Due to his first city running out of space, and the famine level, he had to place new graves on his buildings, disabling them, and thus further hurting him. This is not a "pleasant" game at all! At time things looked so bleak that the victory conditions simply felt too distant. We had to worry about survival first.

Later in the game, I managed to reach a kind of equilibrium. My patron saint gave me Doraemon's pocket (infinite storage), letting me stockpile lots of food and thus I feared famines no more. I built a dump and two fountains, neutralising the 6 pollution every round from my 2 cities. I had a hospital which let me remove graves now and then, and a faculty of alchemy which let me clean up pollution. Woohoo! Sustainable development!

Eventually it was Jeff who won by constructing all building types. I had been working towards my victory condition too, but unfortunately I was just one resource short. In that final round, I used the Forced Labour building, which I had previously thought was not very useful. It makes you collect three resources instead of one from all your resource locations, but you must discard the first resource collected from each location. So it will waste your resources and deplete your land more quickly. However in my situation this was exactly what I needed to boost my production for that round. Too bad I was just one olive short of achieving my victory condition. If Jeff and I tied, tiebreaker would be the number of unpolluted spaces in our zones of control.

I had almost achieved my victory condition of 3 each of the 8 food and luxury resources. I was only short of one olive (top right).

My two cities at game end.

The Thoughts

I like Antiquity a lot. I like the cruelty of the famines and the pollution, and how the game challenges you to stay afloat. You need to plan ahead, not only to survive, but also to try to win. There are five different ways to win, and you don't need to decide up front which one to go for. Do you decide early so that you can start using the patron saint ability, or decide later so that you are not committed too early and have more flexibility? Antiquity is not just another development game or engine building game. The challenges it throws at you make it more than that. Player interaction is in the form of racing to gain access to more plots of land and to use them. You don't raise armies or send arsonists, but digging your neighbour's gold and dumping garbage at your neighbour's doorstep can be just as nasty. There are many game board pieces that can be used to build the game board, and they are double-sided. This provides some replayability because your strategy can be very different depending on the terrain near your first city.

The game we played took 3.5 hours, but I can see the time going down now that we know the game and have some ideas about what works and what doesn't. Many actions can be done simultaneously, so there isn't much waiting time. The game looks complex, but is not really that complex. I find it more straight-forward than Die Macher, for example. In Die Macher, things that you do have implications which are not immediately appreciated, but in Antiquity you can see the big picture more easily. The game is fiddly, as in there are many small components you need to handle, but I don't find it too bad. It's less fiddly than the shipping that you do in Indonesia (another Splotter game that I like a lot). I plan to get a copy of Antiquity and hope to convince my wife to try it. It should work well for two, unlike Indonesia which doesn't.

The game is unforgiving, especially to new players, so you should heed the strategy tips in the rulebook. However we didn't follow the suggestion of first timers playing without famine or pollution. I think that would make the game a little pointless.

Cubes on the main game board are resource collectors - farmers, fishermen, miners etc.


Jason said...

Whoa, that IS pricey for a game! I checked my dozen or so online stores I frequent and it appears you'd be hard pressed to even find it over here. All that pollution seems a bit over-kill. Makes me wonder if this game was designed by a tree-hugger trying to make a political statement?! I tease. :-) Mostly.

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Indeed I panicked a bit when I couldn't find anyone selling the game at a non-crazy price. I thought the game had gone out of print again. I started a thread on BGG, and to my relief, it seems it is just that most online retailers have sold out of the first batch of games they ordered from Splotter. Splotter still has stock, and plans to make them available at their website after the holiday season. I am guessing they are also a bit behind in processing orders from online retailers. So I'm waiting for January before checking the online retailers again.

I have actually thought about not writing about Antiquity, or delaying it, lest I spur others to compete with me in buying this hard-to-find game. :-P

shingoi said...

Hi, I recently found your blog and enjoyed reading through some reviews of newly available games. I did get Antiquity and enjoyed my first game very much. From looking at your photo I saw that some of the buildings are built upside down. Just in case you haven't found it yet, you cannot build your building upside down (meaning side showing the cost of the building). This was covered in one of the main rules clarification on FAQ and answered by Splotter officially. That rule prevented me from building Brewery :(. Anyway hope you manage to find a copy!!

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Thanks shingoi for pointing this out. I didn't realize that buildings must be built with the specific side facing up. I had thought Antiquity buildings work like in Princes of Florence.

Lord of Midnight said...

you can still rotate the building, just can't flip them over. Oh just pray to the right Saint and you can rearrange them tsk tsk

From the FAQ
Q: I assume city buildings can only be built one way up (with the cost-side hidden)?

A: City buildings can be rotated to fit your needs, but they cannot be flipped over to the back. Only the named side can be used. (official)

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Jeff, I built my Forced Labour by having flipped it, which I should not have been allowed to do. Well, at least I didn't win, so I don't need to feel too bad about it. Ha ha...

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

In fact, without Forced Labour in that last round, I would be nowhere near my victory condition.