Seldom has there been a longer or more speculative wait for a new release. For this was it, the much vaunted Knizia Gamer's Game. The first allowed to exceed the magical hour, the first to put Reiner through a long and exacting development and testing process, the first to be specifically designed for gamers rather than the mass market and reputed - by anyone that played it, saw it, fed his cat or found a discarded counter in the bin - to be his tour de force. It was, in all respects, the game almost all of us were waiting for - as if Francis Tresham had said he was going to design a one hour 1829 or if Sid Meier turned his hand to sports gaming. We had Modern Art, High Society, Heller and Medici as the benchmarks; this was going to be better. And then, of all things, it didn't show up.
Since then, we have run the gamut of emotions and rumours. Will it be any good? He's changed the game again! He's scrapped it and gone onto something else! He's too busy! Hans im Glück don't like it! And then, calm, sanity and talk of a delivery date. Will it be at Nuremburg '96? Or Essen '96? Or Nuremburg '97? Finally, over a year 'late', it appeared at Essen and the sighs were audible. And if it is any help in relieving your pent up anxiety, Tigris is a superb game, right out of the top drawer of game design. If the dream ticket, voiced in Sumo about three years ago, was for Reiner to design the ultimate gamer's game, he has come as close as anyone so far. My numerical indicator is reading 9 out of 10, on a par with the very best, and I suspect you'll want to know exactly why.
Tigris is a game about great civilizations. Your task is to build kingdoms and then empires, establish trade and agriculture, ensure your borders are secure, acquire treasures and construct monuments to the gods. And you need to do all this better than your rivals. Like many of Reiner's games, it is set firmly in ancient history and concerns the important plain between the two eponymous rivers. On this plain, you will contest four categories - Religion, Trade, Farming and War. The actual systems are as simple as laying pieces freeform on a large gridded board, not dissimilar to a stretched Heller & Pfennig, the resolution of those systems varies from instantaneous to complex and the whole package combines to make a strategically themed game with many tactical nuances.
I was fortunate to test an early version of Tigris (now changed beyond recognition, thus precluding a disclaimer) and very much liked what I saw. The reason was the gameplay, which was unique, and the brilliantly designed victory conditions which have, fortunately, stayed in place throughout. While essentially standalone in many games, something you just add up at the end (especially where money is involved), potential victory in Tigris is something you need to monitor and plan from turn one. The base system will be familiar to anyone who has played Careers. You need to earn victory points in the four distinct categories, plus treasures which are joker VPs, and those points must be balanced to show you have a well rounded society. The rub is that it matters not a jot if you have 20 War points, for it is not the total VPs, nor the highest category, but the weakest link of the four that will constitute your score. So, if you have 18,15,12,5+1 treasure while your neighbour has 7,7,7,7, he has won 7-6. This prompts a question typical of many good ideas - why had no-one thought of it before? Presumably because they aren't Reiner Knizia. Apply this rule throughout the game, affecting decisions, turn tactics and strategy and you have a very clever foundation on which to base the mechanisms. It is my view, humble of course, that this device makes Tigris what it is. The rest is excellent, but this is the real jewel and the game's nucleus. I suspect its inclusion made life rather difficult in terms of play testing and balance, but it has been implemented superbly.
The basic game device is that, in each turn, you may perform two actions in any combination (including repeats) of laying a tile and perhaps claiming a victory point; playing a leader; placing a disaster tile or changing in your hand of six tiles. The most common tactic is to get a leader emplaced near a temple tile or two (coloured red) which gives him power when it comes to later disputes over his authority. There are four types of leader, the King, the Priest, the Merchant and the Farmer. Each of these has a colour code which relates to the tiles in the game, but the game's structure is such that you play with a symbol with four coloured counters, rather than a single colour as is more usual. Broadly speaking, each leader has a special skill (the king for instance can collect VPs of any colour) and tiles of the matching colour laid in that kingdom score a victory point. So, your farmer sits there from a previous turn, you lay two blue tiles (which must be on the river spaces) into the kingdom, and collect two blue VPs. Put them behind your shield, replace the tiles from the bag (virtually the only luck element in the game) and wait anxiously for your next turn to see if you can play some greens or blacks.
The other elements in the game are disasters, which take out certain tiles in the style of a tactical nuke, and treasures, which are sprinkled around the map at the start and once there are one or two left, the game ends (it also ends when all the tiles have been drawn from the bag). Once you have two of these treasures enclosed by a kingdom, you may take one of them and use it as a wildcard VP. Very useful, often the trigger for a challenge (see below), and much sought after as trophies - perhaps more so than their influence deserves. That is because there is a better way of getting VPs; the monument. Monuments can be built when four similar tiles are laid in a square, and flipped over. From then on the edifice produces two different coloured VPs per turn. If you are in the kingdom with an appropriate leader, or leaders, you collect them. Frequently.
The pivotal element of the game is the challenge. By challenging your opponents, you can gain bonus VPs, expand your empire, improve your security and range and, importantly, weaken your rivals. Challenges come in two forms; those within a kingdom, and those between two kingdoms. In the first case, let's say an opponent's king and priest have set up business. They may be building farms, claiming a steady stream of blue (farming) victory points, via the king (in the absence of a farmer leader). Your farmer is off table, unused, and you'd like a piece of the action. You move your farmer into the rival kingdom, adjacent to a temple, and he happily takes up residence - no direct rival, you see - the king kindly delegating the job and the income. However, if the rival had a farmer there, you would need to contest through a direct comparison of religious support - always the decider of intra-kingdom squabbles.The contestants add up the temples to which they are orthogonally adjacent. The aggressor then adds a number (0 up to 6, the latter if he is really lucky) of red tiles from his hand. The defender responds and the higher total wins, defender takes ties - no dice, you'll note. The loser is removed from the map and the winner takes a red victory point. This is a common occurrence, and seldom causes more than a ripple in the diplomatic pond.
The real beasties are the inter-kingdom scraps, where a holding has expanded to the point that it is but one square away from a rival. Sometimes the two will co-exist peacefully for a while, but the simple act of placing a tile in the gap will prompt a challenge wherever there is more than one of each leader type present. So, a kingdom with a king and a priest can merge happily with a neighbour comprised of a farmer and a merchant, but if there are two merchants, it is fisticuffs time - in this case, economic warfare. In this contest, the aggressor adds up his green (trade) tiles and compares them to those in the defending territory. Again, tiles can be added from your hand - the 'secret army' ambush is popular. The difference this time is that the losing leader is removed along with his coloured tiles - and the winner gets a victory point for each one so eliminated. Much more productive, potentially game winning, and a couple of major gains in this fashion can inflate your VP holdings in that colour beyond concern. The knack is working out all this beforehand. Add in the kicker of two, three, or even four contesting leaders and the need to prioritize them, and you can see that it is essential to calculate correctly. The wrong tile removed at the wrong time could leave a small but vital city state stranded, or worse, a treasure or forces inaccessible. And that is the game, at the top level.
So how does the game play? This is another real strength. The five games I have played so far have all been very different and with each game new tactics and game depth have emerged. One game featured peaceful empire building, where we all sat in the corners and expanded steadily, eventually bumping into neighbours. Another was cutthroat nastiness from turn one, and contests were always on the cards. A balance of the two is common. It is fascinating to watch all this unfold, and the map is large enough to accommodate multiple strategies in the same game. One player may build slyly at the edges, another collects treasure, another sets out to invade mercilessly. The balance between passive and active play would seem to be another important consideration - passive works for a while, but some aggressive play is usually desirable and often necessary. The shape of the board therefore changes each game, sometimes you have a lot of tiles left, sometimes six monuments, on others just one. The kingdoms and your fortunes wax and wane, small fragments are left to rise again, large empires are forged and annexed, disasters strike and all the time you are waiting eagerly for the next turn. All this bodes well for repeat play value.
As in the classic German games, you are allowed a limited number of actions with plenty to do each turn. The decision making is extremely interesting, often tough, and holds your attention right to the end since it always feels, and usually is, close. The fact that you seldom know who is doing well (okay, so there will be people who count the VPs collected, or take notes) or what the previous turn will bring, keeps you on the edge. As with Modern Art, a lot seems to happen in the timescale - accurately logged at 90 minutes, but a couple of hours initially as players learn the system. The remarkable outcome is that a series of simple options, combined with free placement, tile combinations, clever rules and the terrain produce a disproportionately involved game - one in which ever changing scenarios mean you are forever thinking and alert.
The feel of the game is also unusual. While I would normally describe games as heavy, medium or lightweights, Tigris has a real sense of lightness and fun at certain times (when times are peaceful and you are just laying tiles) and a distinctly heavy feel when it comes to crunch situations and the pressure of a rival empire has to be dealt with. This is, as far as I can recall, unique (though there is a similar feel to the forthcoming Chariot Lords, from Clash of Arms). It is almost as if there are two layers of decision making, both enjoyable, but one exercising the grey cells and adrenaline rather more.
The main appeal for me is that the game has very strong internal logic. Each tile laid, each empire merged, each merchant challenged, each leader loss can be related back to reality. One can imagine the peaceful alliances, the crucial bridge across the river, the weak monarch, crops burned, the superiority of a neighbour's trade routes or agriculture, the menacing army just two or three squares away. As you know, rationalisation is important to me, and Tigris really shines in this respect. This is all the more impressive since it is, at heart, quite an abstract design. However, if you are going to have abstract mechanics, tile laying will suit me more than anything (witness Take It Easy) and a strong theme will carry the day.
Timing is vital in comedy, and equally so in game marketing. The first reaction of many players was that the game was similar to Loewenherz. This puzzled me. Yes, there are similarities in the sense you are expanding kingdoms and there are conflicts, but the two are implemented so differently I can't see why the comparison is being made. Where Teuber's game is relatively linear and ordered, overtly abstract with a veneer of history (and the veneer is virtually transparent), Tigris works for me as a well themed, reasonably chaotic game. The freedom of tile placement alone tips the balance. Others though have commented that Tigris is equally 'thin' thematically, and rather dry, so I guess this will again come down to personal taste. Certainly what may have happened is that Loewenherz took some wind out Tigris' sails, being a placing/terrain grabbing game, and had it been released when initially expected that would not have been the case. But that is moot. I think the solution, if you feel this description leads you to the same conclusion, is to take the Tigris Challenge, play them both and see which you prefer. They are both good, but I know which one I prefer.
The other aspect to consider is that the game is a tough one to learn and win. There is no problem with the game or the rules, just that the concepts involved, although easy to explain, are difficult to master - I think this is still regarded a major plus point, isn't it? Some gamers, myself included, felt a little deflated after the first game. Why? Because it wasn't that enjoyable thanks to requiring several rule clarifications and making a lot of errors. This is not typical German game fare, needing a lot more learning than usual and considerably more thought - the latter isn't a problem of course, as long as you are in the mood for that sort of game. But I wouldn't recommend it late at night or as a follow up to Die Macher. Exactly like Modern Art, in fact. It is always enjoyable, but it can be a strain and it needs a couple of games to even begin to appreciate what is happening, how the conflicts work, and importantly how you stand a chance of winning. Undoubtedly the biggest bugbear is grasping the rules for challenges, both intra-kingdom and inter-kingdom, and the resolution of the latter which I shall try to explore next.
Depending on which tile is laid, the position of all the others involved, and the order in which you elect to contest rivalries, the result of inter-kingdom conflict can be wildly different and sometimes perplexing to predict. It is a form of look-ahead skill, never a plus point for me, and is certainly a knack that took me three games to even get a handle on. The good player will be able to look at a position on the board, play the tile, and try to obtain the outcome he requires. Even so, it can always go horribly wrong, which is par for the course for the rest of us, or the learner. It is this single issue, and the ability and desire to master it, that is almost certainly going to put some people off. I don't see any way round it as our attention spans have been whittled away over the last ten years and this is relatively hard work, meaning 'the weaker ones will perish'! On the other hand, I would ask that you give it every chance. Once fully understood, or in my case partly mastered, you can see what is going to happen broadly, you can take an informed decision and at least make a good stab at executing your takeover properly. It is also extremely clever and the subtleties possible in the tile laying and various takeover strategies are one of the game's real assets. Personally, given the shortage of games of this quality that offer you such a good workout for the brain, this is all to be welcomed. I think it has been handled as well as it can be, and pitched just right for the target market.The learning curve plateaus at around game three - you just need to stick with it.
As I said, Tigris took its time coming, but it was worth it. I can only guess at the effort this one took to get right, especially considering how much it changed in the last two years. It was excellent when I played it back then, design techniques have moved on, Lowenherz appeared, and it has still managed to arrive fresh, demanding and doubtless influential. Even in the few games I have played, I have frequently seen a situation that makes me wonder, "How on earth did he resolve that one!". But that is exactly what has happened and as far as I can tell, the game and the rules are virtually flawless. It is marked down slightly because it is, for all my comments on rationalisation, a fairly abstract game with some low-key look-ahead, it can cause headaches and it isn't going to be inexpensive here. Add in the fact that this one has clearly rung my bell and you may differ somewhat in taste, and you may wish to dilute my remarks and downgrade it a notch to an eight. Either way, if there is one game you should buy this year, or at the very least make every effort to play, this is the one. Make sure you place an order at your local gameshop now.
However good a game, it is rare for there to be no reservations. In Tigris' case, aside from the learning and teaching aspects mentioned earlier, there is just one. It is nothing more than a slight concern that I have felt and expressed, but which good players have already explained away or dismissed. But I feel I should raise it for discussion since the SigRadar is definitely reading something. The predicament is this. If you are earning victory points steadily, but one category is trailing and you have few or no counters of that colour, I am not entirely sure you can correct the situation in the short term. The obvious answer is to keep your tile turnover high (a good tactic anyway, this) and try to pick out some of the short colours and lay them. Another solution is to gain access to a monument, which can also be achieved through other tile colours in which you have more strength. In the medium term you can devise ways and means, usually through a series of strategic coups, but be sure you pick up on this requirement early. It should be said that I am in the minority here, other players apparently having little difficulty in balancing the books, so it may well be a case of my not having grasped the finer play tactics. So, over to you on this matter.
As one expects from Hans im Glück, the production is superb. Indeed, when I learned the identity of the publisher a while ago, I immediately relaxed - I don't think there is a company better placed to handle such a game, in both component quality and approach, and marketing, and once Doris Matthaus was on board to do the graphics, the high standard was assured. The box has an impressive heft factor, befitting its estimated price tag of $60. Like first edition El Grande before it, this is a lot to ask but, again, I am happy to confirm the price is worth it both from value for money and playability angles. The counters are good, thick cardboard, the board excellent - sparse yet easily understood - and the wooden bits represent the usual Lorenz luxury. As I said, the graphics are by Doris which should be sufficient description - I am slightly underwhelmed by the figures on the cover, but the rest is wonderful. Her use of colour is remarkable (have a look at the decorative borders on the map) and I can't think of anyone better suited to the task. As for shortcomings, the blue leader counter ink can smudge if put under too much finger pressure and I did wonder at the yellow tunic on the black counters - white would have worked better surely? The victory point cubes are split into fives and ones. Ones are fine for much of the game, but do run out towards the end. At that point players ask for change, and there is a degree of information exposure as singles are handed back for fivers. There are also too many fivers - hard to understand how they'd be used - more units would have been better, or, as we have done, provide some extras from the spares box. But these are quibbles of minuscule proportions.
Without a shadow of doubt Tigris is my game of the year, but, life being generally unfair, it probably won't go on to win the award of the same name. That statement will seem somewhat negative, but I feel the game is of sufficient complexity to distance it from the jury's 'accessible' ideal. Of course if it does win, in Schindler's List style, then I will be hugely pleased for Reiner. What matters is that it receives the critical acclaim and support (ie lots of sales) from gamers that I think it deserves. If this game can be proved to be a popular and hobby success in the same way that El Grande was, then it will act as a flagship for decent games and the days of Mississippi Queen winning Spiel des Jahres may be over for good. Granted, Tigris will not appeal to everyone, and I already know some who feel it has "been done before", that it is abstract and uninvolving, or just too tough to play. Whatever, it is almost exactly what I'd hoped for: thematically, atmospherically, interactively, tactically and weight, luck and length-wise. Even the production is virtually spot on - if you had free choice when producing a design masterpiece, you'd probably opt for Doris to supply matching artwork.
The really interesting question is whether this game will be able to make inroads into what is left of the wargame hobby and tempt even more across to the cause. Okay, I'm joking here, but I think Tigris is absolutely perfect to dispel that slight snobbery that some wargamers have about German games. "Yes, they are fun, but they are always the same thing over and over, and aren't a challenge are they?" With Tigris' decision making, empire building, thinly disguised combat, highly interactive multi-player format and adaptability to different styles of play, I would personally think this could be the one to crack the market, mainly ensconced in America, wide open.
And that is that; the wait is over. There is a distinct sense of relief in being able to gush almost unreservedly about a boardgame, something I haven't done for a number of years. It makes all the reviews that need heavy qualification, moans about control and randomness and 'what if/if only' comments worth the time and effort. It also confirms once again that this is a marvellous hobby, and that the slate full of disappointments is wiped clean by these infrequent arrivals. All that may have been partly down to personal outlook, but was mainly because no game came along that deserved the acclaim. Now, we have a game that will make a real impact on the hobby and, I sincerely hope, will squash the argument that Settlers is the best use of 90 minutes gaming time one can currently enjoy.
So how good, relatively, is Tigris & Euphrates? Personally, I would rate it as the best game to come out of Germany since Modern Art and Elfenroads, and in some respects it is better than either.That comparison in itself puts it right up there among the all-time best games and with further play I will tell you how well it persists in the long term. I'd like to think it will progress to classic status, and if I make just ten such predictions in my life, this would definitely be one of them. I think we all knew that this release could be special, and I tried hard to stay positive through all the doubts, but ultimately Reiner has confirmed what I always suspected - that he is the premier boardgame designer working in the field. In Tigris, I feel that another title has been added to the small pantheon of genuinely outstanding German games and I commend it to you without hesitation. I have also learned the benefit behind restricted use of superlatives, so that when a game comes along that is truly great, one can use the word both literally and with conviction. Quite brilliant work, deserving great success and a genuine pleasure to play.
The Game Cabinet - firstname.lastname@example.org - Ken Tidwell