Jul 032013
 

Assyria

Assyria is a moderately complex strategy board game for 2-4 players ages 12 and up. The game simulates civilization building along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Assyria was designed by Emanuele Ornella, an Italian designer with several other game credits, and was first published in French in 2009. The game is published in North America by Rio Grande Games and remains in print today.

Background

At first glance Assyria appears to be one of those side improvement games in the tradition of Civilization or Age of Renaissance where your goal is not necessarily to improve your board position but rather to improve your pieces and your abilities; the most advanced player wins.

The game text describes players ruling “tribes” and trying to advance them into becoming the greatest society.

It certainly looks the part too: the board shows Humanity at the cradle of civilization with the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The pieces represent artifacts available at the dawn of civilization; see it even has the word “civilization” right there for everyone to see.

But it’s not like that at all. It is a resource management game. The game is all about managing your resources and allocating your scant assets in such a way as to maximize victory points.

Not that this is a bad thing. Not at all.

Game Play

The game consists of eight turns turns called Years which consist of several phases.  Years group together into epochs except they don’t call them that, they call them “Reigns” and at the end of every “Reign” there’s a Flood. Except it’s not raining rain, it’s raining Reigns. Maybe this is a very funny pun in Italian?

But I digress.

You can score victory points as you lay pieces, AND/OR  you can score victory points at the end of each Year, AND/OR you can score victory points during a Flood. The largest piles of points are awarded during Floods.

During each Year there will be farming, there will be building, and there will be accounting.  During three of the eight Years there will also be Flooding at the end of everything else. let’s look at each of these phases in a little bit more detail:

During the farming phase, a number of food cards are laid out face up in pairs. A food card combines a type of food – salt, grapes, grain, or dates – and a quantity. For example one food card might have three grain. There are also wild cards which count as any type of food.

Each player selects a pair of food cards. It is not random, you choose the pair you want, and in so doing set the turn order at the same time: ingeniously the bidding process is rigged in such a way that the person who picks out the least desirable set of food cards will tend to go first while the person who has the best food will go last.

During the building phase, place villages and (possibly) wells. Villages may earn victory points or currency (which in this game is camels) or perhaps even starve if you placed them somewhere that you cannot feed from your hand of food cards.

Assyria villages

Villages placed on a river (like the Red villages) earn currency, which in this game is “camels”.
Other villages earn victory points, more if the village is between the rivers (like Yellow),
less if they are outside of the two rivers (like Brown and Orange).

During the accounting phase you feed your villages and use your camels to acquire cards and capabilities. Camels can be used to buy extra food,  new ziggurats or additional layers for existing ziggurats, favor from the gods, or invested in improving your government.  While you would like to buy all of these things – they are all good – you simply can not and the choices you make now are what determines the eventual winner.

Extra food may increase your currency and ability to earn points via placement; ziggurats increase your points per Year and points per Flood. But the biggest and most expensive increases come by currying favor from the gods and improving your government.

Floods wipe out any villages along the rivers but are mainly victory point award phases. You don’t play during Floods, you get paid. In Victory Points. Assuming you positioned yourself to earn that pay day.

Planning becomes critical: you need to know if the beginning of every Year where you are going to be at the end of that Year and – even more importantly – at the end of that Flood.

The player that best balances all of these choices, plans far enough in advance, and makes the most efficient use of his or her food will almost certainly be the winner; luck is minimized.


Details

Game cards are a little small and hard to deal. Every game comes with cheap cards and it annoys me: this is a $60 game! Shouldn’t it have $60 components? the other bits are fine, wooden, clearly different one from the other both in shape and color. The board is solid and well printed. The design of the board and bits are complementary, especially the ziggurats. The whole thing comes together nicely and looks visually cool as pieces are played and the game progresses.

Assyria gaming bits
Gaming bits

The rules are … awkward? They are both terse and definitive. Once you understand a rule there are is no room for confusion. But achieving that understanding is not a trivial task; the best answer seems to be to play through while reading, understanding that you will get things wrong and have to adjust.

There are rules for two and three players that work fine (essentially they shut down parts of the game board). BoardGameGeek recommends four players – I bet it gets pretty crowded! – but I cannot personally attest other than to say the two and three Player versions are fun


Overall

My Gamer DaughterThe game box claims this is a 90-minute game. BoardGameGeek clocks it at 60. Expect your first game to go considerably longer while you suss it out.

This all sounds pretty complicated, and to be honest it is a little hard to figure out especially the first time. Expect to do much better on your second go then you do at your first attempt. On the plus side you will probably get a second attempt; both times that I brought this game out people immediately wanted to play it again. This is a good sign.

My Daughter – “The rules are complicated to learn the first time and it’s hard to play the first time. But okay”. My Daughter would not buy this game but would play it again.

My Gamer Girl: “Everybody was initially confused and the very last phase was both critical and difficult to figure out. It would be wicked for kids, this is not a family game”. In spite of that negative comment, My Gamer Girl rates this as a Buy.

As for me, I found the game to be pretty, and elegant once understood. You have to do the math, and I like that. And I don’t know how I got through life without hearing the phrase “the number of camels you have divided by 2”. I rate this as a Buy too.

So go get it, and play it. But make sure you play it twice.

🙂 😀 🙂

Assyria board in progress
It looks charming, and it is

  3 Responses to “Game Review: Assyria”

Comments (3)
  1. Is that girl in the pic your daughter? If so, she looks more interested I. Her phone than the game! Haha. Very pretty though.

    That game sounds way too complex for a simpleton like me. Pfft I can barely win civilization!

    • It is not that bad. Once you have it, you have it.

      And you are right about the daughter. She liked the other game we played much better. More on that one soon 🙂

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