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Assyria

Reviewed by Herb Levy

(Ystari Games/Rio Grande Games, 2 to 4 players, ages 12 and up, 45-90 minutes; $59.95)

 

assyria1In the latest game from Ystari, a new empire is about to emerge in the north of Mesopotamia. Players, as chiefs of nomadic tribes, travel through desert sands to garner prestige through the building of wells and ziggurats in the desolate land. Ystari, continuing its custom of always including a Y in the title of their games, has taken this desert land for the game’s title: Assyria.

Assyria is designed by Emanuele Ornella whose other designs include Oltremare (Winter 2005 GA REPORT) and Il Principe (Winter 2006 GA REPORT). The game comes bookshelf boxed with four sets of wooden pieces consisting of huts, disks and four ziggurats (consisting of three levels each), food cards, expansion cards, plow cards, mounted board and set of rules.

The board shows a gridded desert area with two rivers running through it. Each hex on the map also displays an icon for one type of food. Around the board perimeter are tracks for scoring, camels, offerings and influence as well as places to show turn order and claims for available food cards. Each player gets a plow card and takes his chosen set of wooden pieces and places one of his disks at 0 on the scoring, camel and offerings tracks and disks of all players are randomly chosen to create the initial turn order. Four food cards are drawn and, in reverse turn order, each play picks one of those cards as part of his hand and now each player, in turn order, places a ziggurat base on his chosen starting hex.

With turn order determined, the first player creates five pairs of cards by placing a row of five food cards at the bottom of the board and then another row of five on top of them. Wild cards (showing all food types) are placed at the far right, cards showing only 1 of a food type on the left, cards showing multiple food icons go in between. In turn, each player chooses which set he wants and places his start token there. When all players have chosen, one set will be left over and we have a new turn order based on these picks.

The game is played in three “Reigns” with two game turns during Reign one and three turns each during Reigns two and three. A game turn consists of two phases: farming and expansion. When farming, players place huts equal to the number shown on the current expansion card. (The game starts with a card valued at 4 in that position. Each turn, a new card, valued from 2 to 4, will be flipped.) Huts may be placed anywhere on the board provided that they border an already placed piece of that player. Once played, these huts must be fed.

Feeding involves playing cards to match the food icons found on the occupied hexes. (Ziggurats are exempt from this requirement and do not have to be fed.) There are five types of food icons: grapes, dates, palm, salt and barley. Some food cards have more than one icon of a type and may be used to feed multiple huts requiring that particular food. Plow cards serve as “wild cards”; they may be used as any one food icon card. (Used plow cards are discarded and may be “recycled” later.) Huts that cannot be fed are immediately victims of famine and removed from the board, back into a player’s stock.

assyria2Should a player manage to still have huts occupying three hexes in a “circle” after feeding, he may build a well at one of the vertices. (A well may NOT be built on a river hex or between the two rivers or on top of another well.) Wells score immediately and are worth 6 points during the first Reign, 5 during the second and 4 during the third. Prestige points are also scored by huts (1 for each hut outside the two rivers, 2 for those between the rivers) and ziggurats (ziggurats can be up to 3 levels high and you score 1 point for each level built). In addition, players get camels (the currency of the game) based on how many huts are directly on a river: 3 camels for the first hut on a river, 2 camels for each additional hut on the same river. Once everyone has had their turn, the second, expansion, phase begins.

This is where players spend their camels. In turn, players may build and extend ziggurats (at a cost of 6 camels for a base, 3 camels to add a second level, 2 camels to add a third level). A ziggurat can only be placed in a hex occupied by that player’s hut. A player may also buy a plow card (if he has already used his) for 2 camels and/or one of the remaining food cards from the display (at their noted cost). But that’s not all.

After every Reign comes a flood. In preparing for this flood, players may use their camels to exert influence over the three “dignitaries” of the game. It costs four camels to gain influence with the top dignitary (noted by placing a hut on his particular track). In return, each hut exerts 3 influence. (You also get prestige points as a bonus, from 1 to 8, depending on whether 1, 2 or 3 of your huts have been placed with him.) The second dignitary costs 3 camels and exerts 2 influence per hut. (His bonus is awarding you a plow card for free, provided you don’t already have one.) The third dignitary only costs 2 camels and exerts 1 influence. (His bonus is a return in camels, 1 camel back for each hut placed). Total player influence is calculated and compared at the end of each Reign. The player with the most influence receives VPs equal to the number of all the expansion cards of the round. Second place receives prestige points equal to all the expansion cards MINUS the highest valued card and so on.

The final action option is offerings. A player, at the cost of 1, 2 or 3 camels, may advance his token on the offering track. At the end of a Reign, this results in VPs equal to the number of ziggurats a player has multiplied by the factor his token has advanced to. (This can be considerable. Through offerings, a player can reach a multiplier of 4. Place all 4 ziggurats you have and you can get 16 VPs in one stroke!)

After the final Reign (and final flood) and with prestige calculated, players also receive a final scoring bonus of 1 prestige point for every 2 unspent camels, 1 prestige point for a plow card still held and 1 prestige point for every ziggurat tile constructed. The player who has amassed the most prestige wins!

Assyria is all about balance. Cards are chosen so that the better cards force you to go later in turn order; less attractive cards allow you to go first. This balance is maintained right from the beginning when player order is randomly chosen and players get to choose their first card in reverse order and continues throughout the game as sets of two cards are drafted. Having more powerful cards to feed your huts is important as huts still extant generate camels/currency and prestige (aka Victory Points). Yet, going first allows you to claim better positioning and pressure your opponents, staking claims with the dignitaries (which earn you prestige later). Camels are vital in carrying out building, earning influence and in placing offerings and camels are only earned through hut placement on rivers. But river huts generate NO prestige. And you are limited in camel earnings. You may never have more than 10 in a turn. Worse yet, after each flood, these huts are removed from the board so a camel/currency monster engine is not possible! Again, balance. This balance carries over to strategic considerations as well.

Although the game is not difficult, it will take a play or two to digest all the possibilities presented. Two viable strategies for winning seem apparent: wells and ziggurats. Built wells give an immediate boost in prestige (anywhere from 6 to 4). That’s a significant amount and, if you can properly place and maintain huts, establishing wells can make the board look like an outbreak of measles! But wells are limited. There are only 16 of them. The savvy opponent will not allow one player to monopolize wells placement. Ziggurats, on the other hand, are expensive to build (6 to 3 to 2). Still, spaces occupied by ziggurats do not have to be “fed” (allowing you to maximize food card use). Even more importantly, the potential for prestige from them is huge as they score prestige each turn AND can generate up to 16 points through offerings after floods. A supplemental factor not to be overlooked is domination in influence as it can result in upwards of 10 prestige points each Reign and can be pivotal even though it is only scored three times during the game.

The biggest flaws in Assyria come down to graphics. While the board is attractive and the colors chosen (yellow, orange, red and brown in the Rio Grande edition we played – ignore the green in the accompanying photo) are easily distinguished and fit into the desert theme, the graphics used to depict food types used on the board are both small and, in some cases (particularly the grapes and dates) too hard to differentiate at a glance. Larger pictures and different colors would have served better. A more minor quibble involves starting positions on the board. Starting positions with 2, 3 or 4 players change. Why not put an icon or at least a number on the starting spaces for ease of set up?

Assyria is a game that demands your attention and presents hard choices as you seek to balance between earning income and prestige, between building wells and ziggurats, between what you want to do and what you are able to do. Playing Assyria is like trying to walk a tightrope, you need to keep your balance or you’ll take a fall – but you’ll have a good time doing it!

 


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