Friday, November 7, 2014

The theme's the thing

I imagine that most of designer Reiner Knizia's games begin as abstract concepts before having a theme grafted on to them. With a few modifications, Through the Desert could be played with the symbol and color based tiles from Ingenious, and its game play is similar in that it is about placing tiles (or in this case, little plastic camels) in rows on a hex grid, in an attempt to create the largest groups of adjacent matching pieces.

But rather than being a criticism of the common features many of Knizia's games have, I think this example is an excellent illustration of why theme is so important in tabletop games. While some gamers may reduce all the games they play to their core mechanics and strategy, I believe that this is the exception rather than the rule, and the majority of these types of gamers tend to gravitate toward games like poker or chess, where they can explore pure strategy.

Most gamers (us included) play games in order to be immersed in another world. It doesn't matter whether it's a world of elves and goblins or real estate brokers, the point is that we get transported to a world different from our own, and the game mechanics merely provide a useful way to frame the experience in terms of strategy and competition (or cooperation, in may cases).

In Through the Desert, players take on the roles of caravan leaders. The game is played on an irregular hexagonal grid, with several spaces marked out as oases, and many more marked as watering holes with various point values. There are five piles of different colored camels, and the game starts with each player placing one of each color on the board, marked with a rider identifying whose camel it is.

After this setup, players take turns placing camels of the various colors, which must be placed adjacent to a camel of the same color connected to the one with that player's rider on it, and cannot be adjacent to another player's camel of the same color. The goal is to earn points create lines of camels that connect to the oasis spaces and through the watering hole spaces, and also to enclose areas of desert, cutting them off from opponent's pieces.

It's a little hard to describe without having the game in front of you, but it makes perfect sense once you start playing. There is almost no random chance involved, other than the point value of the watering holes when they are first placed. The game consists entirely of the strategy involved in choosing what color of camel to place, and where to place it, adjusting your plans based on what your opponents are doing.

Sure, Through the Desert could be played with abstract pieces on an abstract board, but then it wouldn't be a game about caravan leaders guiding their lines of camels across the barren wastes in search of the best routes between watering holes. It would just be about putting markers on a board, and that wouldn't transport you anywhere.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) a solid strategy game whose mechanics fit the theme very well, even if that theme isn't overly compelling.

Date played: October 19, 2014

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