Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Thebes: Is this game worth playing?

A few weeks ago, when I first acquired the game Thebes, I wrote a post called "Thebes: What's in the box?". In that post, I mentioned what a beautiful game it is and briefly mentioned that my wife and I enjoyed playing it after a couple plays.

Today, I am going to tell you my impressions after 6 plays. 4 plays have been 2-player, 2 plays have been 3-player. If you are like me, you want to know whether a game is worth buying. Hopefully I can help you make your decision regarding Thebes, if you're still on the fence.

Here's what I admired after a couple initial plays:

- Theme integration: the theme was tied into every part of the game, and the archaeology theme was attractive.
- Visuals: art and components are as good as they come. I love Michael Menzel's artwork.
- Collection mechanics: During the game you hoard lots and lots of cards and tokens to store in your area.

Here's what I admire after 6 plays:

- Theme integration
- Visuals

As eager as I was to purchase this game, as excited as I was to play it at first, and as much fun as it was the first few times around, I am sad to report that I am no longer having much fun playing Thebes. Let me explain.

The most common complaint on BGG about Thebes is the luck factor. What I mean is, when you dig at the dig sites (dip your hand into the bag of tokens) you can be really lucky and score lots of good treasures, or you can get unlucky with a handful of dirt. This is not a problem, in my opinion. This luck factor actually works well with the theme. The game sticks to the theme in every other way so why not here? Realistically, if you do more research, an excavator has a better chance of digging up better artifacts, in a more efficient manner. But even if you have the most research, you might dig and dig only to find nothing. This is well-represented in the game, and doesn't pose too much of a problem. Some people who despise luck in a game will quickly be turned off by this aspect of the game - enough so that they might bail on the game after one play. Really, watching someone dig up all the good stuff, while you pull nothing but dirt, can be very disheartening.

But, that's not my problem with the game. I didn't mind the lucky digs so much. There are other ways to gain points, and you have control over how you manage your time and invest your efforts.

The game really plays out in two areas. As would be true in real life, you research, then you excavate. You can choose how often to excavate, but the meat of the game is researching. Researching looks like this: move your meeple to a city or stay where you are, then draw one of four cards. You do that a lot in this game. If you are going to enjoy playing Thebes, you need to enjoy the process of researching. There are lots of things you can collect during the researching part of the game, including:

- special knowledge
- general knowledge
- rumors and legends
- assistants
- shovels
- congress meetings
- cars
- zeppelins

And, by a different process, you can participate in exhibitions, but it still feels like research. This variety of card types is a strength of the game. It gives you lots of ways to formulate your strategic goals. Working a lot on one thing will inevitably mean you have to sacrifice others. As I mentioned above, you have to enjoy this part of the game to really have fun. I found that after 5 plays, this wasn't fun for me anymore. It didn't feel tedious necessarily, just not rewarding. It didn't feel like well-spent time. It felt like an exercise with little point because the decisions weren't heavy, tricky, or important.

For me, the decision-making in a game is one of the most important aspects. If my decisions don't feel important, the game can feel more like going through motions than actually using my brain for the sake of gaming enjoyment. I want my decisions to matter. I want to feel the tension between options. Which choice will benefit me most? Which choice is strongest for my position and long-term goals? While Thebes gives you a smidgen of this, it is not very stimulating. Too many of my decisions felt like, "Okay. Sure - I guess I'll go dig now instead of grabbing 2 more special knowledge over in Moscow." or "Congress card or 3 special knowledge for Egypt? Do I really care? Both would benefit me. Eh, I guess I'll take the congress card. Yay." Your card choices will matter if you make obviously poor ones. But, good decisions seem to usually be apparent, as in Ticket to Ride.

Well, after having made my sad decision that the game had lost its flavor for me, I decided not to play the game anymore, shelving it and preserving it as trade material (unless my wife decides she wants us to keep it, of course). After a couple weeks had gone by, the game was selected for our Boardgame Wednesday meeting. I joined the Thebes group, resolving to give it another go. Someone else in the group owns the game and so brought his copy.

The three of us started playing and for the first couple rounds, I actually found myself thinking, "This game's not so bad. It's actually kinda fun." Shortly thereafter, I realized, "Wait. I'm not having fun." The rest of the game only drove home what I had learned after my first 5 plays. Thebes was still an unrewarding game in a beautiful package.

Once I find something that interests me, I hope to trade Thebes away to someone who will really enjoy it.

Now, before I finish, I have to explain a comparison I can't ignore: Thebes vs. Mykerinos. Surely, you are thinking, "Those games are totally different!" You're partly correct. Let me show you why I make this connection.

First of all, these games share the excavating theme. It permeates every aspect of Thebes, and is only pasted on to Mykerinos, but it is there nevertheless. But, let me tell you why I would almost always choose Mykerinos over Thebes, when I'm looking to play an excavation game.

Thebes is light weight, unrewarding, and lasts 60-75 minutes, on average.

Mykerinos, on the other hand, is medium weight, very rewarding, crammed with meaningful decisions at every step, and plays out in only 45-60 minutes. It is certainly one of my favorite games.

With these two games side by side, I can't imagine why I would ever choose to play Thebes unless the following were simultaneously true:
  1. I was too mentally exhausted to think through the strategies of Mykerinos
  2. There were no other games available to play
  1. The people I was playing with needed a lighter game than Mykerinos, or already knowingly disliked Mykerinos
  2. There were no other games available to play
The likelihood of one of these two scenarios ever happening is so low that I can't see when I would choose to play Thebes. Now, if it was my wife's turn to pick a game, and she chose Thebes, fine. I'll play because that's how our system works. When you pick a game on your turn, we play it. Although, coincidentally, my wife doesn't like Mykerinos one bit, so I intentionally never pick that when it's just the two of us. =)

So there you have it. A review from someone who started off as an eager fan of Thebes, and eventually became uninterested. I'm hesitant to get rid of a game containing Michael Menzel art, but if it's not going to get played, it does no good on the shelf.

Keep in mind, I know many people really enjoy this game. My guess it that many people will also find that the game will lose its luster after more plays. The only way you'll know if this game is good for you is to try it two or three times and see if the mechanics strike a chord with your brain. For me, what started out as a lush chord eventually lost its resonance.

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