Atlanteon is a game that combines extremely dubious theme, second-rate components and rather solid mechanics. If you strip away everything but the bare bones, you will find yourself with a decent little abstract that has just a few fiddly elements with the endgame. However, that extra baggage definitely does the game a disservice.
In Atlanteon, you are either taking the side of the marauders or the guardians in a brutal undersea war that determine the fate of the undersea world. You control an army of mer-people in their epic clash of the titans. Yeah, right. Don’t get me wrong. A good theme can spice up an abstract. The Battle for Hill 218 is really just a tile placement game but the different powers of the different cards really come together with the WW II theme. I can’t say the same about Atlanteon. If the pieces actually moved or attacked, this theme might work. However, Atlanteon, as its core, is a territory control game. It’s not a dynamic game and there is almost no sense of high fantasy/science fiction in its play.
In its defense, I understand the game was originally themed around the French Revolution. That might have worked better.
Atlanteon is part of Fantasy Flight’s silver line of games, which is their cheaper line of games. Fantasy Flight, in general is noted for the high quality of their components and even their more recent silver lines games, like Red November or Cold War have had quality bits.
Sadly, Atlanteon is an earlier silver line game. The board and the tiles are both fairly thin. Worse than that, they have a very dull palate of colors, making the artwork seem very plain. One person I played the game with didn’t even notice the individual spaces of the board until I pointed them out. You've taken the time to give us an exciting although inappropriate theme and then you've made an art choice that makes it as dull as possible!
There isn’t anything wrong with the wooden pieces but those are mostly discs. It’s kind of hard for me to get excited about little wooden discs.
Now that I've bashed the theme and the components, let's actually get to the game itself.
Each player gets eleven tiles and eleven wooden spheres in their color. The tiles are numbered zero through nine, as well as a king tile that also counts as a zero. The game also has three non-player tiles: two white castle tiles and one black castle tile.
The first player sets down one of the white castle tiles on the board, placing one of the two white castle wooden pieces one it. The other player places the black castle tile and the black castle wooden piece. The first player then places the other white castle tile/piece. Then the second player actually starts playing the game.
Okay, it's a decent way to solve the age old first player problem.
Here's the actual game play. Players take turn placing their tiles on empty spaces. Since the board is five by five, the three castles and twenty-two player tiles will fill up the entire board if the game doesn't end before them.
When a tile is surrounded on all orthogonal sides or, if you prefer, all four edges, it gets claimed. The side of the board also counts as part of being surrounded so you only need two tiles to surround a tile in the corner. Players then add up the numbers on the tiles surrounding the tile in question, as well as the tile itself. Whoever has the higher number gets to claim it, putting a disc on it. The tie breaker is whoever owns the tile in the first place.
There are two interesting tidbits in this. First of all, even if you claim an enemy's tile, they still get to use that tile for future claimings. Second, there are times when you'll place a tile where it will get claim it immediately.
Castles are almost the same. White castles act just like other tiles, only you don't get to put down a disc. You do get the castle, though. The black castle, though, is taken by whoever has the lowest number. You do get to put a disc down on it, though. The tie breaker with castle is whoever DIDN'T place the last tile.
There are no less than three ways for the game to end. First of all, you win if you get all three castles. Second, you win if you claim the other guy's king. Third, you win if you get all of your discs and your king on the board without the other guy claiming it.
Now, there are a lot of things I actually like about the game play of Atlanteon. Knizia, whose cult I am a proud member of, does tend to come up with a lot of good ideas. (We rent out the basement in the Masonic Lodge on Thursdays. No robes necessary but a nice tie is appreciated. First rule of Knizia Club is you talk about Knizia. A lot.)
The actual game play itself, when stripped away from every last built of undersea war theme, has a lot in common with Go. It's a perfect information abstract where there are no random elements. Now, it is true that each player has eleven move maximum, as opposed to a potential a hundred and eighty moves. (If you do fill the entire Go board, please go back and reread the rules) However, a game of Go can easily take up an entire evening or more while you can get a game of Atlanteon while waiting for your coffee at a bistro.
Okay, I am now going to mention some pet peeves that Atlanteon manages to step on for me. For me, as abstract should have as simple a rule set as possible while offering a wide variety of options. The entire minute to learn, lifetime to master dodge is an ideal for me. (And, no, Chess doesn't break that rule! Chess is a bloody perfect work of art, even if it does have six different kinds of pieces and rules like castling! Yeah, I'm not just a pretentious snob. I'm also a hypocrite) Atlanteon, though, for such a simple game, has some fiddly bits.
First of all, the castles seem a little odd. I love having neutral pieces on the board. They add terrain and create choke points. They add a lot to the replay value of the game and where you place them helps determine what your strategy for the game will be.
However, the castles also bring special rules into the game. It’s a game with eleven moves each and it has special cases? It has one piece that breaks the rules regarding every other piece? Okay, it all ties together well and adds variety to the game play but it still bugs me.
I also don’t care for the fact that are three significantly different end conditions in the game. (I do mean the word significant. One can argue that there are four different end game conditions in ZERTZ but they are all variants on the same fundamental idea) Two different end conditions for an abstract I’m used to seeing, generally to cover all contingencies. Three different ways of winning smacks of desperately trying to cover too many bases.
Still, like the castles, it all works and it’s all balanced together. None of the end game conditions seem like a badly smeared piece of plaster trying to cover up some gaping hole.
But I can only bash Atlanteon so much. Everything in the game play works. The game is nicely balanced. You can make meaningful decisions throughout the game and you can also go into each game with a long term strategy in mind. The game plays fast enough that you have to either really suffer from analysis paralysis or just hate it for it to wear out its welcome.
Besides, it’s been so easy to get a cheap copy of the game for years that it’s ridiculous. I got my copy for five bucks and I bet a lot of the folks reading this to find out what I got wrong can say the same. And, I have to be honest, I know I’m going to keep on playing the game, even if it just while I’m waiting for my cup of coffee. Yes, for all the bad things I have to say about Atlanteon, a couple of which are even valid, I actually like playing it.
If you don’t like abstracts, don’t play this game. If you want the theme to mean anything at all, don’t get this game. If you like your games to be pretty, you’re going to have to define pretty differently than I do to like this game. If you enjoy quick little abstracts and you can get a cheap copy, Atlanteon is worth picking up.
Thanks for the review. I used to own Atlanteon and played it a few times. It was OK, but what really did it for me was the bland presentation and terrible faux-fantasy artwork, and also the fact that, when the game ends, you realize you won or lost based on something you did 10 moves ago, and the rest just sort of deterministically flowed from that single watershed moment. It sort of makes you feel silly for having played the rest of it out.
Nevertheless, it's a decent example of what you can do with a pretty simple rule set and low piece count. Ultimately just not for me.