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Joe Gola
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The past teamings of designer Reiner Knizia and publisher Hans im Glück have brought the gaming hobby such classics as Quo Vadis?, Modern Art, Euphrat & Tigris, Samurai and Amun-Re. Their eleventh collaboration is 2005's Tower of Babel, a three-to-five-player game for ages ten and up and with a listed duration of forty-five minutes. The subtitle on the box cover is "...or why the eighth wonder was never built," and this is a bit cryptic until one reads the back: "Who doesn't know the wonders of the ancient world? World renown gigantic monuments, made by the hands of men to honor or glorify God. The most famous of these are known today as the seven wonders of the ancient world: the pyramids of Giza, the colossus of Rhodes, the statue of Zeus at Olympia, the hanging gardens of Babylon, the Mausoleum of Helicarnassus, the Lighthouse of Alexandria and the temple of Artemis of Ephesus. And, perhaps, also the unfinished tower of Babel—the eighth wonder of the world?" What is more important than these particular architectural accomplishments, however, is the concept which is mentioned just afterwards: "Monuments cannot be erected by individuals." This idea is really the heart of the game—the greater the accomplishment, the more hands that take part in the making. Together the players will work at the construction of eight great wonders, piece by piece, each contributing what he will and each reaping his share of everlasting fame. There is only so much that mortals can do, however, so some of these mighty monuments will reach completion and others, like the fabled Tower of Babel, will remain a dream, forever a testament to the chasm dividing our grandiose plans from what the entropy of the world allows.

The game components consist of a board depicting the eight aforementioned monuments, twenty-four building chips in four colors, a fat deck of building cards in colors matching the building chips, a slim deck of blue bonus cards, and the players' pieces, which consist of a little wooden pedestal and twenty matching mini-monument markers per player. Players also receive one "trader" card, which they will keep with their hand of building cards throughout the game.

Play begins by shuffling the twenty-four building chips face down, assigning three to each monument, and then turning them over for all players to see. As previously mentioned, there are four suits of chip, and these are "ship," "camel," "crane," and "mason," or purple, brown, grey and white, respectively. Each of these chips also has a number between three to six printed on it, and this number indicates how much of that type of resource is required for that portion of the monument's construction. Next, players are dealt four cards from the fat deck of building cards—each card simply showing one of the four building-chip suits—and these represent the amount of the aforementioned resources that the players have on hand—the crane operators on the payroll, the slow lines of dromedaries poised to breach the horizon, et cetera. Throughout the game these resources will be spent by the players to fulfill the requirements of the building chips.

The gist of the game play is that the players will take turns playing "project foreman" and choosing construction projects while the rest of the table offers help with the chosen projects in the form of cards. Both roles provide opportunities to earn honor in the eyes of monument enthusiasts (and thus victory points), and the game continues until all of one suit of building chip is gone from the board.

To begin his turn, a player will take his pedestal, place it on one of the eight monuments, choose one of the remaining building chips from that monument, and place that chip on the pedestal; by doing so the player is declaring his intention to bring this portion of the monument's construction to fruition, and all the other players may now offer their help. Each player besides the foreman—the "contractors," essentially—may place an offering of cards face down in front of themselves. The number of building cards offered by a player cannot be greater than the number on the building chip, and while any suit of card can be included in the offer, only cards matching the suit of the building chip will be relevant (other suits may be included for the purposes of bluffing, and these cards are taken back into the player's hand when the offer is revealed). When all the contractors have either made an offer or have indicated that they will not participate, the cards are turned over and the offers revealed. The foreman now decides which of the offers he will accept, if any; he may choose more than one offer, but he must choose each offer in its entirety, and the total number of cards accepted cannot exceed the number on the building chip. If the total number of cards accepted is less than the number on the building chip, the foreman must make up the difference from his hand or the construction project fails.

So what do players get if they successfully complete the project?

There are two main sources of victory points in the game, one to be gotten via successful contracting and the other to be gotten via successful foremanship. Points earned for contributing resources to the monuments are determined by a mechanism which all gamers will find familiar, that of area majority. When players have spent cards to aid in the building—whether this was done by the foreman or the other players—they will discard these cards and add to the monument a number of mini-monument markers equal to the number of cards they contributed. At the end of the game, each monument pays off 10 VP to the person with the most markers on it, 5 VP to the runner-up, and 3 VP to anyone who has at least one marker. If there is a tie for first, the players tied each receive the points for the runner-up position and everyone else gets 3 points. However, if all three of a monument's building chips are taken before the end of the game, this means that the monument has been completed, the people rejoice, and the monument scores early, with the amount of the payout being dependent on how many monuments have been completed up to that point. The first monument completed scores only 8 for first place, 4 for second, and 3 for third, and the second scores the standard 10/5/3, but after that the completed monuments become increasingly more valuable; the third monument scores 12/6/3, the fourth 14/7/3, the fifth 16/8/3, et cetera, up to a maximum of 20/10/3 for the seventh. Note that because of the end-game condition it is impossible to complete all eight monuments.

The points to be gained from being foreman are distributed at the end of the game and are dictated by another familiar gaming mechanism, that of set collection. A foreman who successfully meets the requirements of a building chip on his turn takes that building chip and keeps it face-down in front of himself until the end of the game. If he is able to collect two chips of the same color, he scores 5 VP per pair at the end of the game. Three chips of the same color will earn him 10 VP, and four or more matching chips will earn him 20 VP, again per set. The numbers on the chips no longer serve any function after the chip is collected.

To keep things from becoming too predictable with respect to the collecting of these building chips, there is a mechanism that allows a player in the contractor role to try to acquire the building chip instead of the player in the foreman role. As mentioned earlier, each player is given one "trader" card at the beginning of the game; at any time a player can add this card to his offering of building cards, and this signifies a request to trade roles with the foreman. If the on-turn player accepts this offer and the build is successful, the offering player will receive the building chip and the on-turn player will put on the monument a number of markers equal to the number of building cards that the trading player offered along with his trader card. For example, suppose that Player A chooses to build a "mason 4" chip but Player B is trying to collect mason chips. Player B decides to offer 3 mason cards and a trader card; if Player A accepts this offer, Player B takes the building chip and Player A places three of his markers on the monument. Naturally, any earnest offer involving the trader will need to be at least a little generous in order to make the exchange worthwhile; an offer of only one card plus a trader will almost certainly be waved off in disgust.

Regardless of the outcome of the turn, players always return trader cards to their hands for reuse. Players will never lose this card, and so can offer trades as often as they wish.

At this point one might be wondering what prevents the players from trying to complete every project entirely on their own—that is, hoarding cards until they can afford to be both foreman and contractor at once—and in so doing making the game an exercise in multiplayer solitaire. There may well be a mathy reason why this is not a viable strategy (if nothing else, it is certainly a more efficient use of cards to let others help build monuments if one can still maintain majority), but there is also a game mechanism that discourages this approach. If we consider that the victory points represent prestige—that is, not merely results but how glorious one appears to the rest of the world—one will understand that sometimes good intentions are almost as noble as an accomplished deed. Therefore, players are also awarded victory points for offers which are rejected—one point per building card, to be precise. This payout is not quite as lavish as that of the other two sources of VP—note that players may not offer more building cards than are required for the building chip—but if one is able to master the fine art of making generous offers that the other players find themselves compelled to refuse, a player can find himself with a steady source of victory points that over time may equal or exceed that of a couple of majorities or a full set of building chips.

At the end of each turn, whether or not a build was completed, the active player deals everyone one new card, including himself.

Instead of attempting a build, a player may also choose to pass his turn, in which case he deals everyone a card plus an extra one for himself (that is, he gets two cards and everyone else gets one). This might sound like a lame way to spend one's turn, but it is better to gain a card on the table than to attempt a build and fail due to lack of resources, particularly because any players who do make offers will be getting free points for the rejected cards. Moreover, players most likely won't feel short-changed by the game by passing because everyone is involved at all times and players make as many important decision on other players' turns as they do on their own.

Those are the rules, for the most part, and though the game play is simple—really it is only the scoring that takes some getting used to—the situations that arise during play are quite complex. Players are able to turn all of the game's mechanisms to their own advantage, from choosing which chip to build (A value 3 chip for easy set collection or a value 6 chip for placing lots of markers? Which monument would you like to bring closer to completion?) to deciding how much to offer to a project (Can you win a majority? Can you get some points for a rejection? Do you even want the build to succeed?), from deciding which offers to accept (Who's in the lead? Can you arrange it so that your opponents are tied for influence and earn fewer points?) to economical hand management (How can I spend the fewest cards to get the maximum amount of points?). There is even a large-scale struggle that takes place, in that players not only compete for individual monument majorities but also try to influence how many points will be distributed when the completed monuments are scored, that by either hurrying the wonder to completion or by trying to postpone the payoff until later. There is also a fine line to tread with respect to the points to be received for rejected offers; if one is disinclined to spend one's cards on a project, it is advantageous to make a generous offer which will be refused, and the trader card is very useful in this respect, since you can make a large offer including the trader and still expect to be turned away if the chip on the block is a suit that you suspect the foreman is collecting. Of course, if you pull this stunt too often, a vindictive player may bite the bullet, accept the offer and deprive you of a number of cards that you were loath to part with....

Overall the game is fascinating and has a unique feel to it despite the familiarity of the individual mechanisms that make up the whole. Like most Knizia games, the first moves can feel a little arbitrary, almost like player-guided random setup, but once the situation has taken a little shape—monuments approach completion, players show themselves to be favoring chips or majorities, majority rivalries begin to develop—there is an exquisite push and pull as the players try to finesse both the little moments and the larger shape of things. If nothing else, the question of hand management is a fascinating one, even a bit of a mysterious one. If a player is strong in a particular color, does he spend those cards to put his markers on the board, or should he collect building chips in that color and use the cards as a reserve in the case that the other players are stingy with their offers? Also, what is the right balance between holding cards back to make a few powerful, game-shaping moves and spending cards often to gain points in a more opportunistic way? The potential boom-and-bust of the in-game monument VP payoffs creates an interesting dynamic as well; in the beginning a player might choose to finish off a monument in which he has no stake so that the players who are "invested" in it receive a minimal payout, but eventually the jackpot gets bigger and players are forced into the difficult decision of whether to try to complete a monument for a particular number of points or hold out for more points and risk having the payout drop back down to the baseline of 10/5/3 if the game ends sooner than hoped. There is even potential for some nasty bluffing in the game, since players are also allowed to add extra off-suit cards to their offers when they put them face-down on the table in the hopes of misdirecting the other players.

What is perhaps most remarkable about Tower of Babel, however, is a certain transparent quality, in that the game facilitates complex interaction between the players and yet in and of itself it feels light and unobtrusive; certainly players may be nonplussed by their card draws at times (though no one suit of card is inherently better or worse than any other), but there is no moment when players are struggling against the game instead of their opponents. Moreover, what players are interacting against is not just the bare clockwork logic of their opponent's moves, as is the case in so many German games, but also their opponent's personalities—whether they prefer the guaranteed payoff of the set collection VPs or the gamble of the area majority VPs, whether they try to insinuate themselves quietly in as many situations as they can or they prefer the thrill of dominating a few struggles outright. Players can be as helpful or as cruel as they see fit, providing well-meaning offers to the others in the hopes that, when their opponents need to make an arbitrary choice between two equivalent offers, they will take that of Mr. Nice Guy, or conversely flummoxing the competition with obnoxious bluffs and offers that flirt at the borders of common decency.

However, all this must be said with one reservation, because there is one more element to the game which I have not yet mentioned, namely the blue "action cards." These cards are a set of bonus cards which are supposed to be earned by the on-turn player whenever a monument is completed (i.e., all three building chips have been taken) and which confer one-time advantages ranging from a double turn to an extra draw of cards to a straightforward five-point end-game bonus. Supposedly these were not in Knizia's original design but were added by the publisher, and I can easily believe that, as to me they feel unbalanced and out of place. There are two significant problems with these cards in my view, the first being that some cards are simply better than others. The ability to exchange five cards with the deck could conceivably leave a player no better off than he was before, assuming that he even had five cards that he wanted to exchange in the first place; on the other end of the spectrum, there is a card that gives a one-time bonus of three points per card for a rejected offer, which in the best case would be a whopping eighteen points.

The second problem with the action cards is that they are a distraction from the central tensions of the game and make Tower of Babel seem more opaque and arbitrary than it really is. I found in our games that players looked at these cards as goals in and of themselves and so were completing wonders without regard to the other consequences of this action. To the contrary, the choice of which chip to build, and particularly whether or not to complete a wonder, is a critical decision that needs to be considered in light of who will benefit from taking the chip, who is likely to score the majority, and how much closer it brings the game to completion. In focusing on collecting these cards, players were overlooking the more strategic elements of the game in favor of a kind of lottery, and in doing so made everything significantly more unpredictable. In the games in which we used the action cards no one seemed to know why they had done well or poorly at the end, whereas in the games we played without them people were much more aware of the cause-and-effect relationships that took place during the game. What should be most telling is that a group of casual players trying the game without the action cards were more successful at grasping what the game was about than a table of experienced gamers playing with the action cards.

In short, I strongly recommend playing the game without the action cards. If nothing else, I would at least suggest that a group that is new to the game leave them out for their first run-through so that they can better understand the underlying tensions in the design.

Something else to mention to new players is that the rules describe a mechanism by which players keep their pedestals in a column on the board and rearrange them to indicate turn order, but I don't think that this serves enough of a purpose considering the bother involved, and so I'd also recommend simply ignoring this.

Are there any other negatives to the game? Two, maybe. One is that the historical-footnote setting of the seven ancient architectural marvels (only of one of which even survived past the Middle Ages) most likely won't get players excited about the mechanisms of the game. The box cover's confidence in the household-name status of these structures is no doubt mistaken, since I would have to think that ninety-nine out of a hundred Americans would be hard pressed to rattle off the names of the supposedly famous seven wonders of the world. The emphasis on the one unfinished monument may even be a little misleading, in that players could think that the game ought to always end with seven of the eight wonders being completed. The other potential problem is that players have perhaps a little too much control over when the game ends, and so if an inexpert player feels bored or out of contention he can choose to hurry the game to its conclusion. Neither of these should be a problem for a group of enthusiastic players who are used to the abstract feel of Knizia's designs, but it's conceivable that one or both of these elements could spoil the game for a different group of gamers.

One other characteristic worth mentioning is the effect of the number of players on the feel of the game. As might be expected, the three-player game can be a quiet and thinky battle of wits while the five-player game is a somewhat more wild and wooly affair. Also, the focus of the game shifts subtly depending on the number of players; there are always the same number of building chips on the board, and so a player has a good chance of earning a lot of points from chip collecting in a three-player game whereas earning a twenty-point bonus might be more of a struggle in the five-player game. Personally I think it might be a matter of taste as to what number of players works best, and in fact I have read some reactions which were certain that the game only shone with three whereas others declared that five was the "sweet spot." For myself I'm not sure; I've played it with each number at least once and all the games were fun. If I had to guess I might say that four players is ideal for my taste, as that number ensures that things will be lively without losing too much control.

To sum up, I'll say that I think that Tower of Babel minus the ill-conceived action cards is one of Reiner Knizia's finest middleweights, in my book second only to the slightly more complex Ra in its excellence in that category. The game seems to have gotten very little attention from the gaming community, but I am hoping that, like many other Knizia titles, Tower of Babel will earn more appreciation as people become more familiar with it. It's rare that a game with such simple rules is able to give players such subtle influence over so many interesting, interrelated situations, and so I'm hoping to enjoy this treat from Dr. K. for many plays to come.



Edit: corrected mistaken rules interpretation regarding the number of cards that can be offered (see http://www.boardgamegeek.com/article/1537135)
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Jared Hageman
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Nice review

I agree with you on all accounts. I played once with the action cards which seemed to add a bit to much randomness. After that I have played with out them and really like the game. The word I use to describe it is subtle. The mechanics and rules are simple and provide the opportunity to play the other people at the table.

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Tim K.
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Wow. Great review! thumbsup
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starkeyboy
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Excellent summation. Been eying this for a while. Per your review it goes on the wishlist.

Do you find it an easy game to teach?
I mean to a group of Carcasonne-TtR-Winner's Circle types, with some (1 play) exposure to El Grande.
 
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Joe Gola
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Hang Man wrote:
The word I use to describe it is subtle.

Exactly! That's pretty much the one-word review: "subtle."

starkeyboy wrote:
Do you find it an easy game to teach?

Definitely. I think if you do a mock run-through of a turn you should have no problem. Really the only element that might make the game seem at all involved to casual gamers are the three different ways to score.
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Seth Ben-Ezra
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Gola wrote:
. Moreover, what players are interacting against is not just the bare clockwork logic of their opponent's moves, as is the case in so many German games, but also their opponent's personalities


Honestly, I think that this is true of many of the Good Doctor's designs and is an overlooked factor in understanding and appreciating his games.

Seth Ben-Ezra
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Daniel Corban
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Gola wrote:
Supposedly these were not in Knizia's original design but were added by the publisher, and I can easily believe that, as to me they feel unbalanced and out of place. There are two significant problems with these cards in my view, the first being that some cards are simply better than others.

This is sad to read. It is my main (only?) complaint about Amun-Re, which had identical circumstances: unbalanced power cards added by the publisher.
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Stephen Sanders
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DNA results:Scottish, Dutch, English, Irish, German, French, Iberian Peninsula = 100% American!
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This is the absolute best review I have ever read. Excellent job, and thanks especially for the comments about the cards. I look forward to playing this game.
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Jonathan Challis
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Gola wrote:

The box cover's confidence in the household-name status of these structures is no doubt mistaken, since I would have to think that ninety-nine out of a hundred Americans would be hard pressed to rattle off the names of the supposedly famous seven wonders of the world.


Really? That bad?

*sighs* I suppose actually I can almost believe this. I'm sure there are many benefits to the US education system and general knowledge (probably it's specialisation), but from an outside perspective, a big flaw appears to be that there is very sparse knowledge of anything outside of North America and the last 200 years or so. That's not a flame btw - just an observation that gets repeatedly justified.

Here, I would expect most grammar schoolboys and boardgamers to be able to name at least 5 of the wonders, and a third to a half to name all 7. The missed ones are usually the Mausoleum and the Temple of Artemis btw.

Back to the review - excellent btw. I suspect this game is on the light side for me (as most of Knizias are), but I like Ra, and love Amun Re (but only at 5 players) - I have this on my wishlist.
 
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Joe Gola
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Kelanen wrote:
Back to the review - excellent btw. I suspect this game is on the light side for me (as most of Knizias are), but I like Ra, and love Amun Re (but only at 5 players) - I have this on my wishlist.

Thanks for the kind words. ToB is definitely not as involved as Amun-Re; it's more on a par with Ra, I'd say.

Kelanen wrote:
I'm sure there are many benefits to the US education system and general knowledge (probably it's specialisation), but from an outside perspective, a big flaw appears to be that there is very sparse knowledge of anything outside of North America and the last 200 years or so. That's not a flame btw - just an observation that gets repeatedly justified.

That's what they say. It's unfortunate. I often wonder to what degree popular culture has taken over Americans' minds; I don't know how it is elsewhere, but kids today are bombarded with a tremendous amount of irrelevant information, all of which is presented to them as extremely important and exciting and they do have to keep up with it to some degree to fit in socially (which is important, frankly).

Kelanen wrote:
Here, I would expect most grammar schoolboys and boardgamers to be able to name at least 5 of the wonders, and a third to a half to name all 7.

To be fair, though, why? History is important, but, outside of the pyramids, I find that particular list to be just useless information. It tells no story, it tells us very little about ourselves or others except that the ancient world had some good architects, and while that's certainly something that is worthwhile, a child could learn that lesson more viscerally by studying the ancient structures that have survived, the ones that they might have some hope of actually seeing with their own eyes. Of course the kings and cultures who had the seven wonders built are interesting and worthy of study, but I'm not sure that learning about them via the context of that particular list is really the best way to go about it. It's like showing a student a restaurant menu in the expectation that it will inspire him to learn about Italian culture.

Like I said, I'm all for history—I was actually a history major in college, though not a very good one—but, to quote Einstein (and Zappa), "information is not knowledge."
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