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Saturday, 24 April 2010

Look at the Pretty Camels

Originally published in 1998, Reiner Knizia’s Through the Desert: A Game of Caravans and Desert Oases has recently been reprinted by Fantasy Flight Games. This is tile placing, route building, area control game, with the tiles being camels instead of camels. Designed for two to five players aged ten and up, it can be played within about thirty minutes. Its theme has nomadic tribes competing to become the most powerful in the desert by taking control of oases and establishing long caravan routes. In the game this is done by placing not just camels, but pretty camels in pastel colours.

The game consists of a board marked with a hex grid over a desert dotted with water holes and palm trees. Along the edges are several mountain ranges, with an additional impenetrable range in the middle of the board. One side of the board is marked with a bold line which marks the limit of the two to three player game. In a four or five player game, the whole of the board is used. There are also one hundred and seventy five plastic camels, comprised of thirty four camels in each of the five colours (lilac, mint, pale lemon, pastel green, and salmon pink), plus five in grey – though these look more brown than grey. For each player there is a set of six Riders (blue, cerise, green, orange, and red) that sit easily on the camels. In addition, there are five palm tree is dark green plastic. These come in two pieces and are easily assembled.

The other components consist of the Water Hole Markers, worth either one, two, or three points; Oasis Scoring Markers, worth five points and awarded whenever a caravan reaches an oasis; the Area Scoring Markers, awarded for the number of hexes enclosed by a caravan; and the Caravan Scoring Markers, awarded for the longest caravans in each colour, worth either ten points for the longest, or five points if there is a tie.

Game set up is relatively quick and simple. The palm trees are placed on any of the palm tree or oasis hexes – there being more than five palm tree hexes, and the Water Hole Markers are placed randomly on the water hole hexes face down. They are then turned over and their values revealed. Each player receives one camel of each colour, including a grey one, and places a Rider onto each of these to turn them into his Caravan Leaders. The grey Camel Leader is not played in the game, and only serves to remind the player of the colour of his Camel Leaders.  The players then take it in turns to place their Caravan Leaders anywhere on the board so long as they are not placed on a water hole or next to another Caravan Leader or a palm tree. Play then proceeds normally.

On his turn, player places two camels – these can be of any colour, the same or different – on the board. Each camel must be placed adjacent to a camel of the same that is connected to the Caravan Leader of your colour. It cannot be placed next to a caravan of the same colour which connected to a Caravan Leader of a different colour that belongs to another player. For example, Louise could put down a lilac camel next to her lilac caravan that is being led by one of her cerise Caravan Leaders, but not next to Dave’s lilac caravan which is being led by one of his orange Leaders. Keeping caravans separate in this way serves to make scoring easier for each caravan and it adds a tactical element in placing – it is possible to block another caravan of the same colour because it can only come within one hex of it.

When placing camels, a player will score points for most of the time. If he places a camel on a water hole, the player receives its Water Hole Token and adds its value to his score. If he places a camel next to an oasis – indicated by the presence of a palm tree – the player receives five points. This can only be done once per caravan per oasis, so a player will have to send that caravan to another oasis if he wants to score more points with it, or one of his other caravans to the first oasis to score points by reaching that one. In general, a player will try to reach as many oases as possible with each of his caravans, but will find himself blocked by caravans belonging to the other players.

Lastly, a player can score points by enclosing an entire area with a caravan of a single colour, claiming the points for any unclaimed Water Hole Markers and oases inside the enclosed area. He will also be awarded points for the enclosed area at the end of the game, at a rate of a single point per hex enclosed.

Game play continues until the players run out of camels to place of a single colour. Each player adds up his score so far and adds to this the points for any enclosed areas that he has created and if he has managed to create the longest caravan for any of the caravan colours, he receives points for that too. It is possible to tie for the longest caravan in a colour, in which case the points are split. The player with the highest score is of course, the winner.

Through the Desert is a simple game to play. You just put down two camels per turn. Where you put them though, is where the game gets interesting. There are multiple means of scoring of course, so as a player do you try and grab as many Water Hole Markers as possible, reach as many oases as possible, build the longest caravans, or enclose as much territory as you can? Invariably, you will try and do all of these, but there is usually never enough time, enough space, or enough camels. Game play tends to consist of two phases. In the first, players try and connect to as many water holes and oases as possible, preventing in the process other players from doing so. In the second phase, the game becomes more complex as each player builds longer caravans, tries to reach more distant oases, and enclose whole areas. At the same time, he should also be watching his fellow players looking for opportunities to block their caravans, so preventing them from reaching other oases and water holes as well as reducing the area that they can enclose. With so many options available a player has to make choices, sometimes to his benefit, other times to a rival’s detriment, and this really does force a player to think about he is going to put his camels.

Physically, Through the Desert is well presented, but then you would expect nothing less of a game from Fantasy Flight Games. Its rules are very clear and easy to read, being just four pages long. Unlike earlier editions, only the English rules are included. The game is also rather attractive and looks good when being played. That though, is all down to the pretty little camels.

Through the Desert has three main problems. The first is one of cost. This is an expensive game for what it is, and this is only exacerbated in regions where games are subject to tax (which includes the United Kingdom).  The other two problems have to do with the components. The first of these is that with as many components as Through the Desert has, it does not come with any means of storing everything separately. This is a constant issue with products from Fantasy Flight Games and given just how much the customer is being asked to pay for this game, it seems a little rich not to include some decent ziplock bags. The second issue with the components is the choice of colours for the camels. In particular, the mint and pastel green camels are not always the easiest to tell apart and a better choice of colours would have made play just that little easier.

In the past I had read reviews of this game and scratched my head at how exactly it was played, but Dave – whose copy I am reviewing, thank you very much – quickly ran us through the rules. So having played it, I have found myself enjoying it very much. How to play proved easy to grasp and we were busy blocking each other on the second game, with everyone’s score being quite tight at game’s end despite our not knowing how well the other players were doing. We went from draw between myself and Dave in the first game to both myself and Louise beating Dave in the second game which I won, but only just. This is a game that I would appreciate having on the shelf ready to play.

Through the Desert is not quite a gateway game, a game that you use to introduce others to the hobby. In part this is because it is ever so slightly more abstract than other games that are described as being gateway games, such as Carcassonne or Ticket to Ride, but also because perhaps its theme is not quite as strong as it should be and because it is just slightly too easy for one player to block another, making game play ever so frustrating for the neophyte. So perhaps it best to introduce this game after other gateway games have been tried and enjoyed. Probably a little overpriced, Reiner Knizia’s Through the Desert: A Game of Caravans and Desert Oases is nevertheless a game that manages to be both pretty and thoughtful, and not just enjoyable.