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Antiquity: the Game That Tries to Kill You

Splotter Spellen is a Dutch game club known primarily for their “big three” games: Antiquity, Indonesia, and Roads & Boats. Roads and Boats, which is all about logistics, was their first big hit back in 1999; in 2004, Antiquity brought even more bits and cemented their reputation. Once I’d played Indonesia, which was released in 2005, I imported the three from Germany without even having played the first two. All three games are fiddly brain-burners, with Antiquity being the worst (in terms of fiddliness) of the lot. Antiquity and Roads & Boats also tend to be hard to find, and command fairly high prices. Interestingly enough, the same is actually set in the middle ages…apparently the designers considered that fairly ancient!

Starting setup is pretty simple: the map is made up of two land tiles per player, and you put your first city anywhere on your starting tile. You receive four houses to place anywhere in your city; each house gives you one worker. You also get six wood.

At the start of each turn, you pick up all of your workers from your city (you may also have other workers out in the fields, who will stay there until they’re finished) and redeploy them as you like. You may also build any buildings you want from your supply, provided you have both the materials and the space. Space tends to be the larger issue; more powerful buildings are often larger and come in inconvenient shapes, so they’re hard to fit in, and once you’ve placed a building you can’t move it. Additionally, even if you place perfectly there simply isn’t enough room for everything you need in one city, so you’ll have to build at least one additional one; in fact, building every building requires at least three cities.

The buildings let you do a variety of things; cart shops send people out to cut wood or fish, explorers can find food or luxury goods, a dump will reduce your pollution (very important!) and a cathedral is required to win the game: it lets you choose a patron saint. Your saint determines your win conditions: depending on who you choose, you get a special ability and win by either building all 20 of your houses, surrounding another player, building all of the buildings, or just getting rich (having three each of everything in storage). There’s also Santa Maria, who gives you the bonuses of all of the other saints, but you have to meet two victory conditions to win the game.

Once everyone has placed their buildings for the turn (which happens simultaneously), you discard any goods you didn’t use, unless you’ve built a storage; the storage costs only one wood and can be as large as you want (provided it’s in the shape of a rectangle), but it takes up space and you need a man on it to use it. Next you determine the turn order and then actually send your people out to Do Stuff around your city. Your area of control extends for two spaces from the city unless you have buildings that increase that, so you run out of room pretty fast. Once everyone has played, you get to harvest your stuff (wood, fish, pearls, sheep, etc – each farmer, fisherman, etc brings in one thing per turn until his fields are used up) and then…the famine hits.

That’s right…famine. Antiquity is a race against time: you need to achieve your victory conditions (whatever they may be) before the game manages to kill you. One way it does that it through the famine. At first glance, this may seem easy enough to handle, because you don’t actually have to feed your people; all you have to do is have the food on hand. If the famine level is at five and you have a granary (which reduces it by 3 for you) and two food on hand, nothing happens. Simple!

Simple..except that the famine level goes up by one every turn, plus another one any time someone goes exploring and discovers food. (Why someone halfway across the world finding some food would mean you need more to feed your people, I have no idea; apparently it’s more in the way of food demand, and someone discovering new food sources makes your people demand more). Pretty soon the famine level is up at eight or ten, and since you don’t have enough storage space to hold that much food (and you’ll be using it for building anyway), you start taking graves, which take up space in your cities that would otherwise go to building. Not enough space left in your cities? The graves go on top of the buildings, taking them out of play. At least, until you can build a hospital and use it to bring people back from the dead..

The famine isn’t the worst of it, though. Using the land causes pollution (except for cutting down forests, which leaves behind plains), plus each city generates another six pollution every turn, which has to be placed within your zone of control; a hex with pollution on it is unusable for most purposes. Don’t have enough free space to place all the pollution your cities are generating? For each one you can’t place, that’s another grave..

At the end of the turn, you check to see if anyone met his victory condition; if not, the game goes another turn. Although I haven’t seen it happen yet, if you don’t keep making process towards your goal, you may eventually run out of room to expand and have your cities fill up with graves; at which point it’s quite possible that nobody wins as the game manages to kill you all..

Antiquity isn’t one of my favorite games, and I don’t think it ever will be (plus it can be hard to get to the table) but I’ve turned down several $200+ offers for my copy. (For reference, when it was last in print, I paid $103 new). This is largely a puzzle game; until players start overlapping each other, it’s mostly solitaire, although you do need to keep an eye on what other people are doing so you can anticipate how it will affect the famine level or a few other areas. To me, the largest benefit of this game (aside from it being a brain burner, which I enjoy) is that it’s unique; I’ve never played anything like it.

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