Babylonia Board Game Review
By MARK WILSON
Year Published: 2019
Playing Time: 60 Minutes
I discovered Babylonia in a somewhat odd manner: a group of Board Game Geek members started a fervent interest group around the game, extolling its virtues to anyone who would listen, and changing their avatars to tokens from the game.
It was amusing. Certainly, devoted fans of a game are nothing new on the internet, but there was sort of a winking self-awareness to this particular movement, even though their love for the game was sincere.
But then what they were saying about the game resonated with it, enough so to give it a try. Was it really designer Reiner Knizia at the top of his prolific, award-winning game? Eventually, I had to find out.
And does it live up to this hype? Sort of. It’s a game with a number of strengths, but I’m going to have to include at least a couple caveats that will affect some gaming groups.
Babylonia – The Premise
Babylonia is a tile-laying game that plays in about 45 minutes (despite what the box says, it’s often quicker than its stated 60 minutes). It finds you linking circular tiles to surround and score city tiles in a pattern-matching mini-game that scores you points for each of your connected tiles whose symbol matches one of the symbols on the surrounded city.
A couple other quirks allow for some nuance, like one-off scoring of Farm tiles (not tied to symbol matching) and ziggurats that award points for placement around them and confer special bonus abilities for whoever has a majority around them when they’re surrounded.
Plus or minus some rules on placement and the special abilities, that’s the whole game.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Board Game Theme
Theme is overrated. Or rather, theme as represented by components and art. Great art is great. Interesting tie-ins to history or lore are great. But this isn’t where “theme” exists for me.
Rather, it exists in the story the game tells, which ideally matches things like components and artwork, but can be entirely separate from them.
For clarity, Babylonia is one of the more pleasing (to my eye) Knizia games out there, despite some minor legibility issues. The map avoids the error of Tigris & Euphrates in its utter minimalism, but nothing in Babylonia is overdone or flashy. There’s a sense of importance suggested by the components (the chips are a bit lighter than you’d expect, but ah well), but it doesn’t overstate itself.
We’ll come back to this, because “the story it tells” is more important to me than its superficial trappings.
Babylonia in Context
I have to link to this thread on Board Game Geek, because it does a superb job of placing Babylonia in Knizia’s canon. The game is an iteration of many ideas that he’s been working on for decades. But it’s also a unique product.
A game like Yellow & Yangtze (Y&Y) felt, to me, like a direct descendent of Tigris & Euphrates (T&E). I’m no Knizia scholar, but Babylonia probably shares the most in common with Samurai, though it’s not a modern update of that game. Therefore, it sidesteps the cognitive dissonance I felt during Y&Y, of it being good but not being the original. There was too much Uncanny Valley, and it just made me pine for the (comparative) elegance of T&E, despite Y&Y cleaning up a few of T&E’s rougher edges.
Well-know reviewer group Shut Up & Sit Down once memorably called A Feast For Odin “the final evolution of the Rosenberg Pokemon,” in reference to its designer, Uwe Rosenberg. I chuckled at that descriptor, but it also feels roughly accurate. “The final evolution of the Knizia tile-laying Pokemon” might not fit quite as well here (Feast For Odin was Rosenberg’s “biggest” game of its type; Babylonia isn’t), but it also works in the sense that there are ideas inherited from numerous previous Knizia games in Babylonia.
This isn’t the last of the comparisons to other Knizia games. It’s easy shorthand to aid understanding, even if my goal is to describe what separates Babylonia from them.
Gameplay – In the Thick of It
Knizia designs often get compared to abstracts, but this is wrong. The best ones share the “easy to learn, hard to master” nature with abstracts. They also invariably feel quite tactical.
But many abstract games lack chaos. If I had to briefly describe much of Knizia’s famous work, it would be “abstract + chaos.” The poster child here is Tigris & Euphrates. A well-timed conflict can change the entire game for all players in unforeseen ways, but otherwise it’s very easy for it to feel like a cerebral, abstract experience.
Babylonia isn’t quite so bombastic. It lacks the overtly punitive nature of T&E’s conflicts. But an unexpected tile placement or explosion of farmer tiles can rearrange your mental map of the game just as much as it changes the literal map. Or the relative value of certain options will change with each passing turn.
This is good. Nothing stays static. There’s no such thing as mapping out more than a couple turns in advance, even in a 2P game.
Here we’ll start to gain or lose some interest, because if you hate watching your plans get dashed (even if it’s not a deliberately antagonistic move) or prefer to plot longer-term strategies, this won’t be for you. However, if you prefer to play against the other players more than against the game’s internal mechanisms, there are elements to enjoy here.
Further, a 3P game might necessitate things like a temporary alliance (explicit or implicit) with another player to prevent the third player from running away with the game after some shrewd early moves. I imagine if enough players played this, you’d hear some “runaway leader” complaints (I certainly have). This is true, but only if your group is unable to manufacture the catchup mechanism(s) through your collective play. The game will reward good play, but won’t hold your hand if you fall behind.
Merging The Old and the New
There’s a design philosophy, for which Knizia is the standard-bearer, that values a certain level of austerity when it comes to rules complexity, but promotes a lot of emergent gameplay.
Newer design trends have created an explosion of games with lots of mechanical layers in them. I think there are more pitfalls to avoid with this type of design, because these games can get caught up in their own machinations to the point where players have very little freedom to jostle amongst one another. There are exceptions to that rule, of course (I’ve reviewed at least a few rules-dense games that I think are great). But once you start to see this line between games, it’s hard not to notice it.
Babylonia feels like the most modern of several Knizia games I’ve played, because it adds a few bells and whistles in terms of ways to gather points (there are several) and special ability tiles (the ziggurat tiles). But there’s still an austerity here. Calling it “rules complex” is only in reference to some other Knizia games. Compared to others of its strategic and tactical depth, it’s still rule-lite.
Catching Up and Falling Behind
There’s one way it manages to stay “old-school,” though, and it won’t be a good thing for everyone: it won’t hold your hand if you fall behind. In so many classic games, the “catch-up mechanism” is simply to learn to play better. And to be frank, that’s the case here. If someone plays shrewdly early on, it will take a concerted, multi-person effort to stop them. Or you’ll simply have to take your lumps and come back stronger next time.
In modern gaming, there are often explicit mechanics designed to keep bad early play from being a death sentence. This is a function of the modern hobby, since there are more games, and thus less time to play any single game. I find myself learning (or re-learning) games much more often than playing a game where I’ve internalized the rules.
I like sinking deeply into games through multiple plays, and don’t mind taking my lumps in early sessions and having to learn to play better. In that sense, Babylonia appeals to me, because your best session will be once you’ve mastered the system and are matching minds with other players of similar skill.
However, because I play with gamer friends with collections that number in the 100s, that’s not how I play games. Many games are lucky to see the table a few times per year.
Compounding this, if you play any single game sporadically and the first couple sessions are dominated by the person who knows the game the best, you and your whole group may never want to revisit it. Even the arguably more brutal Tigris & Euphrates has you hiding your points. You can make reasonable guesses at who’s winning, but this dynamic effectively keeps hope alive, whereas Babylonia’s public point track and lack of surprise endgame scoring may just act as a bludgeoning cudgel for newer players.
For reference, I pushed myself to play this more than usual before writing a review. But because I don’t game with a single, consistent group, the problems persisted.
This has created some dissonance within me, because Babylonia isn’t the only game like this both in my collection and among games I really like. I see the potential, but I’m unsure if that potential will ever be realized. If a game is great only in a context you lack, pointing to its theoretical greatness is more frustration than fulfillment.
The Stories We Tell
Returning to the idea of theme, what story does the gameplay tell?
If the game manages to convert you and you get more than a handful of plays under your belt, the story can be a deftly cutthroat war based on spatial reasoning and intuition of your opponents’ intent.
Here’s one of the caveats, though: at times, it will also feel like a spreadsheet puzzle designed by a doctor of mathematics, not an intense interpersonal struggle. I don’t mean “spreadsheet” in the sense that it can be optimized, but rather that you’ll spend a bunch of time just tallying the granular points from every single action.
You’ll be at the score track after nearly every turn, which can break the game’s flow as you scan to make sure you didn’t miss some obscure tile sitting next to a ziggurat or something. A touch too often, I’m not an active player, surveying the board for my next opportunity; I’m a bean counter, making sure points from the varied point options are tallied correctly.
If the vision of the game is to create the sweep of a civilization as it jostles for influence with others, sometimes it never ascends beyond doing a bit of fiddly math at how many points you’d expect to net if you, say, connected to a city tile instead of surrounding a ziggurat.
Strategic and Tactical Options
Your tactical options in the game are occasionally staggering, but the name of the (strategic) game is linking together your tiles to form unbroken chains. The farm tiles and ziggurat bonuses promise multiple paths to victory, but in practice, the game is about linking your civilization(s) to as many city tiles as possible, ideally the more populated ones.
Fans of the game will push back that, yes, there’s some truth there, but the tactical dance of severing potential opponent links and timing ziggurat bonuses well is the nuanced portion of the strategy.
They’re not wrong. That nuance exists. But linking is still the dominant long-term strategy. Any rules explanation will initially seem otherwise, but farms and ziggurats are what you paint the details in with. Your broad strokes, overarching strategy has to focus on linking in roughly equal measure with your opponents, or whatever strategy you craft will run out of gas as the final 20+ point cities come off the board.
So you’ll allot the city/farm tiles in setup, and a couple juicy areas will immediately become obvious. This is mildly disheartening, even though a lot of variance—and thus opportunity for cleverness—still exists at the tactical level.
Length and Width
Mitigating some of the above is the breezy play time. Even my longest session, the first time I played (which was also at max players), came in right around an hour. At 2P with experienced players, games can wrap up in a half hour even with setup and teardown. If overstaying one’s welcome is a moderately frequent problem in board gaming, Babylonia is more likely to leave you wanting more, unless the premise and gameplay simply isn’t your thing.
But the depth inherent in a roughly 45 minute experience is both impressive and satisfying.
Babylonia – Conclusions
Babylonia has left my play group(s) a bit dry. For newer players, they figure out that they’re losing and spend the last third or so of the game in silent frustration. And others haven’t been able to shake the feeling that the game is a bit fiddly, not because of rules overhead, but because of the frequent trips to the score track. For example, why do we score previously-obtained cities every time a new one is taken off the board? “Because math,” seems like the game’s answer, not some thematic or interpersonal reasoning.
And yet, as I said, there are a lot of great tactical opportunities here. Babylonia is a potentially great game, but that word – “potential” – will likely prevent the game from ascending to the heights it seems capable of. Many I’ve introduced it to are likely doomed to view it as a math exercise rather than a tightly-plotted battle for supremacy because they’ll get too few chances to absorb the math enough that the larger theme and strategic possibilities open up to them. And whoever is in last place as we round, say, the midway point probably won’t be able to see it as a learning experience but rather will simply be running out the clock with their turns, waiting for the next game.
Given the praise heaped upon the game by its fans, I was hoping to find the next Tigris & Euphrates. But that’s not what this is. The lack of overt conflict makes it less visceral, and while Babylonia is an intellectually engaging exercise, for me it’s not quite as emotionally resonant as T&E or even some of Knizia’s other excellent games. I don’t find myself laughing as much, or staring at my opponents with faux-rage as much. Those are the personal touches I need to consistently accompany a competent design for me to truly love it.
That said, my criticism is at least in part due to those lofty expectations. Even on a surface level, I think it’s a solid game. Numerous plays in, I still feel like a bean counter too often, and still feel the sting as someone at the table realizes they’re outmatched as they absorb the rules and have no way of truly competing. But its depths are eminently interesting, if not quite transcendent.
It’s one that is going to struggle a bit in my gaming group(s), and likely will in some other groups as well, but to say it’s anything other than a solid design would go too far in that criticism. So it’s just that to me: good but not spectacular. I can’t help but feel some disappointment in that fact, but I do still find enjoyment in the game.