Designed by Klaus Paal
Published by Hans im Glück
Reviewed by Mike Siggins
Bolstered by years of solid success, Hans im Gluck are branching out - both in the designers they use and by broadly doubling the number of games they are releasing each year. There can be a downside to this, of course, but at the moment their enviable track record is holding firm. With more major releases due at Essen, Cheops tandems Freibeuter in this year's Nuremburg batch and they are a good, if unspectacular, pair. I don't know Klaus Paal, and as far as I can establish he hasn't been published before, but he seems to have turned in a good debut game. So I suppose the general conclusion is that unlike many players in the field, Hans im Gluck know their stuff, can be expected to pick out good designs whatever the source, and we the gamers get double the number of chances of buying the next Tigris. Seems like a rather good deal to me.
Not to be confused with the Settlers expansion of the same name, Cheops is a game of collecting - acquiring artifacts that may, or may not, be forgeries and which might, if you are lucky, be sold on for a profit in the souk, or to collectors if the demand is right. Your role is the head of an Egyptian family (though at least one member looks very English) who 'acquire' these baubles by virtue of visits to pyramid tombs. The family with the highest income at game end is the winner, but the market is volatile and you must nick the right stuff and sell at the right time. All that is veneer, largely made up by myself, to lend some logic to a game that is in fact quite abstract. But more on that later.
There are three main elements to the game board: the pyramid, where the artifacts are stored and liberated, the rules chits, which make life interesting, and the price tablets. Right, pyramid first. There are six colours of artifact, denoted by neat little plastic scarabs. These are placed randomly on the board. In your turn you may 'take' one scarab from the lowest level by replacing it with one of your four different family counters, taking care never to have two similar counters adjacent. At any time there is the option of paying for a double move. To get to the next level of the pyramid, you must build on top of two dissimilar family members (anyone can have laid these). Progress is made up the pyramid until the midway point where six rules tablets are encountered. These must, eventually, be taken and they will subtly change a minor element of the game. Beyond them, the pyramid narrows (derr, obviously) and rich pickings are few and far between. Needless to say, once underway, you can't always get what you want and others know what you want, so you take what you can get when you can! The rules chit effects are quite varied. Some are long term (prices move, one colour of scarab freezes in price), some are short term (do something now for a bargain price) or deferred (amending victory conditions, allowing scarabs to be swapped for other colours etc), and so on.
So how do you get money? And why would you pick one scarab over another? During the game, money is gained only through selling stolen scarabs immediately to the market. The price can be varied by rule chits, but you will always get a fair price and seldom is it worth arbitraging - usually if you have to sell for money, you sell, if not you hold as chances are the scarab will be worth more at game end. Unless you are stuffing someone, but we shall return to that. Of course selling means you forego the unknown future value, but if you need cash, or think the scarab will eventually be worthless, you take the money and run.
The key to the end game is the price tablets. These sit proudly at the top of the board, six different, showing the start prices, the price trend and, importantly, the final price. One can immediately see which scarabs may have greater value to collectors and which won't. The kicker here is that every scarab sold in the market makes its way to the collectors, affecting the end game price - the sold scarabs are placed on the respective tablet, covering up the previous price and triggering the next. Sometimes up, often down - a nice way of stuffing a rival. When all but one of the spaces is filled, the final price comes into play.
At game end (triggered by two tablets filling up, the pyramid emptying or no-one being able to take a turn) the valuation for each colour is determined by the last uncovered price. This may be a simple 30, or perhaps a multiplier, or perhaps 50 for first and 30 for second. It may also be 5, or 0 - both less than you could have sold for in the market when you stole them. Multiply your stored scarabs by the appropriate tablet price, add your cash, and there is your score. So even though a colour can be worth zero, chances are it won't be - thus it is normally worth the gamble to keep scarabs for a higher game end valuation than selling immediately. This is not always true though, and I have seen someone come very close to winning just by picking up and selling. The interesting corollary of this tactic is to deprive other players of the colours they want, and by selling, one fills up those price tablets. For variety, the game provides a generous mixture of tablets and rule chits so each game, in that respect at least, will be different. In fairness it is a cosmetic touch as none of them change the game's shape extensively (compare and contrast to Ursuppe).
So that is it, broadly. The clever part, and one we shall see again I am sure, is the relationship between selling now for immediate gain, and holding on for future profit, all linked nicely through the enforced supply shortages, price tablets and the rule chits. While it is clever, these three elements have not been made to mesh perfectly and there is a distinct heavy handed feel - rather too clunky and obvious - but that is me being too demanding again. For the type and length of game, Cheops works fine. I would just like to see a rather more subtle interpretation at a later date.
There are no major concerns with Cheops, but there are some minor quibbles that add up to a general sense of 'good, not great', that old reviewer's standby. The first is that the theme is rather loosely attached. This is, as we know, a problem of different magnitude for different gamers. Personally, I like to see a theme that I can relate to and which the mechanics fit. Cheops is just about there. The theme is rather threadbare, showing its abstract skeleton, and the justification of game end prices a little hard to credit, but it is, generally speaking, alright.
A strange issue, shared by the otherwise appealing Ufern des Nils, is that Cheops is over rather too quickly. Simply filling two of the price tablets can happen quite rapidly, especially if it suits two or more of the players, and that is that. You are just getting underway and the game is over. I have not yet played a game where the game ends because of an empty pyramid. It does at least keep it well under the hour. Which would suggest that my next comment may be mistaken, because I would suggest that Cheops does not engage the brain too much. Not that the decisions aren't interesting, they are, it just fails to be involving. Perhaps that too is just me.
The other issue is one of control. On many occasions throughout the game you decide quite quickly that you need a certain colour of scarab to fit your tactics, or perhaps a second choice at a pinch. This will largely be future price driven, but may also fit as part of your overall strategy - always paying careful heed to the 'eggs and basket' proverb - and what others are doing. The problem is you can usually only pick from a limited choice - rationalised by the fact that those pesky tomb robbers (your rivals) have been there first and taken all the reds. There is a slightly painful element to this, especially if it is always you who has to take the worthless stone just to open up the pyramid. In extreme cases, reluctance to take a useless stone can seal off one side of the pyramid, creating some very interesting shortage issues. The sense is aggravated if you don't have the right family member to lay (they are replaced randomly). One can say that is life, but when the previous three scarabs have been gleefully taken, and once again you are left with Hobson's Choice, the goodwill gets stretched a little thinly. We can discuss the merits of chaos all day, but in this game it is more than usually galling.
Finally, it is a very easy game in which to gang up, or be ganged up upon. Two or three opponents working together can easily drive down the value of your holding if they so wish. Let's say you are holding several browns, and those scarabs are worth roughly 30, but the last price is a 0, then it takes little intelligence to work out what they are going to do. Yes, they need to get browns before you, but when you are outnumbered it can swing the game and of course they are getting paid at the market for their trouble. Their loss is the chance to pick up a scarab they would like to have, and in this subtle balance lies the secret of the game. It is partly a case of having the right coloured, valuable scarabs but it is also a case of having a selection of them to negate weak or stuffed performers and also to keep your opponent's attention directed safely elsewhere.
Cheops is a good game. As a debut design, always a factor worth bearing in mind, it is all the more impressive. It isn't the best game you will play this year, let alone ever, but then I get the impression that games of that quality are very few and far between. Lowering our sights will result in the desire for good, original, workmanlike games that are delivered by the likes of Hans im Gluck. For your twenty pounds you get a great package, with very nice little scarabs, a well written set of rules and a game that will entertain most of you for an hour. And you will play it several times. What it doesn't have is much flair, or that draw factor that really lets one fall into raptures. That though is an elusive ingredient and I am hardly likely to moan at Klaus Paal for falling at that hurdle. Recommended, a typically middle weight 'German' game, and one I feel will not disappoint.
The Game Cabinet - firstname.lastname@example.org - Ken Tidwell