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CLEOPATRA AND THE SOCIETY OF ARCHITECTS

Reviewed by Herb Levy

(Days of Wonder, 3-5 players, ages 10 and up, about 60 minutes; $50)

 

Although the title may win a prize for the longest game name in recent memory, the premise of Cleopatra and the Society of Architects is simple. In this design by Bruno Cathala and Ludovic Maublanc, Cleopatra yearns for a new palace. The players, assuming the persona of architects, compete for the Queen’s favor by building the most magnificent structures and decorative grounds. To build, the architects need resources. Unfortunately, quality resources can be difficult to obtain so, sometimes, inferior resources need to be used. While helpful in the short term, the corruption resulting from using substandard materials may be your undoing.Cleopatradays

Cleopatra and the Society of Architects comes with the kind of quality components that can make even the most jaded game player take notice. In addition to a deck of cards, two boards (representing the “Palace Gardens” and the “Plaza of the Sphinx”), five special dice and other play aids, the game comes with loads of beautifully molded plastic pieces representing columns, obelisks, sphinxes and other objects that the competing architects will construct. It is fascinating to watch the palace and its grounds rise. This 3D experience, while undeniably appealing to the hardcore gamer, makes the game irresistible to the casual player. Once you’re seduced by its good looks, the quality of the game play makes the game worthy of its royal treatment.

While games generally take full advantage of their components, this game even uses the box! After removing all of the pieces, the box bottom is turned upside down to serve as the base of the palace to be built. The Palace Garden board is placed on top with the Plaza of the Sphinx board set before it. The “quarry” which holds all of the plastic pieces to be built is placed nearby. Cleopatra (represented by a small plastic figure) is placed on a path in front of her Palace. Each player receives 5 talents (the currency of the game which doubles as Victory Points), a hand of three cards and, in their chosen color, a pyramid, two Anubis figures and three Nile Merchant tiles. (Each player also gets summary cards which are an invaluable help during the game.)

The cards of the game depict the stone, wood, marble, lapis and artisans used in construction. Some of these cards contain twice as much of these resources – but using these cards extracts a price, resulting in a corruption disk added to that player’s pyramid where it is stored secretly. (Think of it as a “pyramid piggybank”.) Other cards give the player a special advantage – but at a cost of one or more corruption disks. All of these cards are separated into two approximately equal parts. Then, one of the parts is turned upside down! Now the two halves are shuffled together so what you get is a deck with some cards face up and some face down! The top three cards are drawn and placed side by side to create three stalls in the “Marketplace”.

There are two fundamental choices each turn: either go to the Marketplace to get resources or go to the Quarry and build.cleo2

At the Marketplace, the active player may choose all the cards in any ONE of the three market stalls and add them to his hand. (There is a hand limit of 10 cards.) Then, that player replenishes the stalls by drawing, one card at a time, three cards from the draw deck and adding ONE to each of the stalls (including the stall now empty). If the card is face up or face down, it STAYS that way when placed. Instead of this, if a player has sufficient resources, he may opt to go to the Quarry and build.

Each piece to the Palace has a certain cost in resources. Players discard cards from their hands in the required amount of resources to build pieces. Built pieces are placed in the appropriate spaces on the Palace grounds and the builder collects income (in talents) for the construction. Inevitably, no matter how hard you may try, you will use inferior resources and/or special cards and you will begin to amass corruption disks.

The player with the MOST corruption at game’s end CANNOT win! He is eliminated and fed to the crocodiles. Of the surviving players, the player who has amassed the most talents wins! Gathering corruption isn’t the problem; it’s ending with the most corruption that will kill you! So how do you get rid of those Corruption tokens? In several clever ways.

As the game progresses, mosaics will be built in the Palace Gardens. These mosaics come in different, 5 space, geometric shapes. A builder earns talents by placing these (as he does when building any structure) but mosaic placement serves a different function too. Strategic placement of mosaics can result in open areas in which no other mosaic piece can fit. Those areas can be claimed by the builder (by placing one of his Anubis figures there. At game’s end, each open claimed space neutralizes one Corruption marker. This is the main way to eliminate corruption but there are others.

After every piece is built, the dice are rolled. These six sided dice show five blank sides and 1 ankh. Whenever an ankh is rolled, that die is set aside. When the fifth ankh appears, all players must make an “offering to the gods”. Translated, this means that players secretly decide how many talents to risk and simultaneously reveal their offerings. The player with the highest offer can LOSE three Corruption disks; ALL other players GAIN anywhere from 1 to 4 more Corruption! But win or lose, all talents offered go back to supply! (Once done, the dice are “reset” to their blank side, ready to be rolled again.) Finally, Corruption can sometimes be “given away” to another player through a Special card which requires a player asking for a particular “untainted” resource from someone to also accept a Corruption marker from that player.

When ALL of one type of structure is built, Cleopatra moves up the path to the door of her Palace. There are six varieties of structure. When Cleopatra reaches the fifth step on the path, the game ends immediately and the winner is determined.

The Corruption markers in the player pyramids are revealed. In addition, players receive 1 Corruption for EACH tainted card still held in their hands. Now, players neutralize Corruption at the rate of 1 Corruption for each claimed open space in the Palace Gardens. At this point, the player with the MOST remaining Corruption LOSES! The remaining player with the MOST talents has won Cleopatra’s favor and the game!

Cleopatra and the Society of Architects neatly fills the niche between mass market games and hard core “gamer’s games”. It’s a tightrope act that Days of Wonder, judging from the well deserved success of its Ticket to Ride series, seems to have mastered. The way the cards in the marketplace are handled gives you some clue as to what you can expect to draw but, without perfect information, there’s a sense of taking a chance – or playing it safe – that makes the game engaging without adding complexity. Cleopatra has enough decisions to keep you involved – from card/resource management to mosaic placement to offerings for corruption absolution – with just enough luck (in card draws and dice rolls) to allow you to blame a defeat on chance. And, despite all that’s going on, the game is easily taught to those who enjoy games but don’t breathe the European style of play that many of us take for granted.

It’s rare to see a game so completely encompass a theme in such a stunning graphic display AND present satisfying and easy to learn gameplay. But that is precisely what Cleopatra and the Society of Architects does. This game is a remarkable accomplishment that would surely please Cleopatra herself. Highly recommended. – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – Herb Levy


 

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