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JENSEITS VON THEBAN: THEBES

Reviewed by Joe Huber

(Queen Games/Rio Grande Games, 2-4 players, ages 10 and up, 45-60 minutes; $49.95)

 

I do not think I shall ever forget my first game of Jenseits von Theben – the German title (which translates to “beyond Thebes”) of the original, small print-run edition of the game by Peter Prinz that has become Thebes. Dale Yu had caught my attention with his notes about the game after Essen – an archeology game that had really managed to capture the spirit of the subject. John Palagyi brought Dale’s copy to Gulf Games and taught the game, and soon we were collecting information, complaining about the Wise Guy (Wise Man cards, eliminated from the second and subsequent editions), and digging our way through ancient lands. In the end, it was a very close game, with three of the four players scoring in the high 40s. I, on the other hand, finished with a score of precisely 11. And I was hooked.

When the second edition became available, I pre-ordered it; when there was a mix-up, I tracked down (and paid too much for) a copy by the first method I could. It’s rare that I play a game five times without owning it, but I had with Jenseits von Theben, and was anxious to be able to play it more often. When it was announced that Queen was going to produce a professional quality production – with some tweaking to the rules – I was hesitant; glad to hear it would reach a wider audience, but concerned that the essence of the game would be lost somewhere along the way.thebesbox

I needn’t have worried.

Thebes has taken an incredibly strong, thematic game, and given it an incredible production. Even better, they have utilized the production to enhance the original, producing an even better game in the process.

So just what is Thebes about?

Players take on the role of archeologists at the start of the 20th century. Unusually, the key resource in the game is time – not in a real-time sense, but all actions have a time cost associated with them. Actions available include research into specific civilizations, general research in ancient civilizations, participation in archeological congresses, hiring of assistants, purchase of digging tools, and various opportunities for displays of one’s finds. Of course, the largest amount of time is spent at digs. The board shows seven European cities (including Warsaw, where players start) and five dig sites – Crete, Greece, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Palestine. There is a deck of cards which represents the various opportunities in Europe, with four cards available at a time, in addition to up to three exhibitions which are kept separately when they appear. Each card – including the exhibits – has a location, and a time cost. A typical preparation turn, then, consists of traveling to the city given and then taking the card; the total cost for the turn is a sum of the travel time and the action time. The next player to take a turn is then the player who has used the least time; this can lead to many interesting choices, as it’s possible to take two or even more turns in a row through careful planning.

The real heart of the game, however, is in the archeological digs. A dig turn consists of traveling to the dig site, looking up the effect of digging for various lengths of time based upon one’s knowledge, and selecting the number of weeks to dig. This translates into a number of counters to be drawn from the dig bag; the player draws this many, keeps all treasures and knowledge found, and puts the dirt tokens back in the bag. Finally, a player marks his dig license for the site as used for the current year.

The game continues over between two and three game years. At the end of that time, players add their scores, based upon the treasures they have uncovered, the exhibits they’ve given, the congresses they’ve attended, and bonuses given for the greatest knowledge of each civilization. The player to have gained the most fame as an archeologist, by these measures, wins the game.

Reactions

Thebes is my favorite game released since 1995.

Usually, I like to leave my conclusion until later in the review, but I think it’s important to state up front just how much I enjoy the game.

There are many things the game does well, but first and foremost, it takes an intriguing theme – digging up the artifacts of ancient civilizations – and carries it out extremely well with fresh mechanisms. Primary among these is the use of time as the currency of the game. This leads to lots of interesting decisions – whether or not to head to the dig sites early to take advantage of the right to dig just once per year at each location, balancing the most useful choices with the most efficient, when to take advantage of the potential for consecutive turns, and so on. This also helps keep the game moving along – turns are very short, and players get plenty of them – but can also stretch their legs after a long dig, if desired. The time mechanism has also allowed for careful balancing of the various actions; one of the few areas of the game that doesn’t feel thematically correct is the time it takes to acquire tools (three weeks) as compared to the time necessary to find an assistant (two weeks), but it’s correct for a game balance perspective.

The actions and choices available also fit the theme of the game particularly well. Knowledge improves the ability to dig. General knowledge of ancient civilizations helps – but specific knowledge of the area where you wish to dig is also required. Assistants help gain knowledge; tools help players to dig more efficiently. And then, to really bring it all together, dig sites are initially filled with ancient treasures – but as digs continue they become less and less fruitful.

The greatest criticism of the game is not hard to guess; it’s the element of luck present. Digs are done by random draw from a bag; while it’s easy to calculate probabilities, there will be better and worse draws. Further, the treasures themselves range widely in value (from 1 through 7, concentrated toward to low end of the scale). On top of this, the deck of actions can work out very well – or very poorly – for players; in particular, if one player has to spend far less time on travel than others, that player will gain a clear advantage. And there is nothing in the game to insure that these random elements don’t align to benefit one player more than others. I’ve heard many people note that this luck element actually bothers them the most when they are the beneficiaries of the good luck, as they feel guilty about their good fortune. While this aspect of the game doesn’t bother me – there are choices that can be made to best deal with bad luck, and I’ve often seen the luckiest player not win – it is worth being aware of. I suspect those who most care about their choices directly impacting their result and those who care far less for the story and experience of a game than other aspects of game play will be most bothered by this aspect.

The production of Thebes is simply wonderful, on the whole. The most notable aspect of the production is the draw bags for the ancient civilizations, each of which has a pattern screened onto it identical to that shown on the board; it’s not necessary for the game, but adds something to the experience. The dials which show how many items can be pulled from the bag based upon one’s knowledge and the length of the dig are a significant improvement over the slide bars of the original edition, though it is sometimes hard to see the number of tokens to be pulled when digging for twelve weeks, at least on my copy. Otherwise the production is fairly typical for a German game, with easily punched cardboard components and nice wood pieces for the players and for scoring.

Strategy

While Thebes is not a deeply strategic game, there are a few strategies worth noting. As with many games, there is an advantage to be gained from doing something different from other players. In particular, being the first to at least a couple of digs is well worthwhile – beyond a guaranteed find for the first to arrive, there is a significant advantage to digging early. As a consequence, there is an advantage to concentrating learning in a couple of civilizations early; because of its position, knowledge of ancient Greece can be particularly useful.

Since the luck of the draws can’t be accounted for, it’s worth noting the other methods for gaining victory points so as to best take advantage of them. In particular, having the greatest knowledge of each civilization is worth five victory points, and attending meetings of the archeological congress can be worth an average of up to four points a piece. Exhibitions can also help, though only if one has had some success with digs. The mixture of colors in the exhibitions follows the pattern of the rainbow (Orange Yellow Green Blue Purple). So two of the early exhibitions are 1 Green 2 Blue and 1 Purple 2 Orange, and one of the later exhibitions requires 1 Blue, 2 Purple, and 3 Orange. Paying careful attention to these other aspects of the game can often make up for weaker treasure finds.

Conclusion

Again – Thebes is my favorite game released since 1995. It’s not a game for everyone – those bothered by the luck element will likely not find the gem here that I have. It’s a strong enough game that I’d suggest that even those with reservations try the game; the execution may overcome those concerns. The game tends to run about an hour with my group, which is just fine for what I get out of the game but some have reported as inconsistent with the luck factor. I’ve also heard of groups taking two hours or more for initial plays; that should come down over time, but I suspect the game won’t take under an hour for most groups even with experience.

Thebes is readily available and a good value for the cost. It’s a fairly large box – a significant consideration for those with limited space available for game – but it doesn’t waste the space. I’ve been enjoying Jenseits von Theben for three years now; it’s nice to be able to let people who enjoy the game know that it’s now readily available. This is Peter Prinz’ first game to be published by an outside publisher; I hope he has success in having other games published, as I look forward to seeing to take on other subjects. – – – Joe Huber


 

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