Tal der Könige

Franckh, £30
Designed by Christian Beierer
2-4 Players, 60-80 minutes
Reviewed by Mike Siggins

As I commented last time, Franckh-Kosmos have, from the gamer's point of view, something of a dubious track record. While each game is beautifully presented (they have few rivals in this respect), their success rate is probably about one in five or perhaps even less. I can't help but think that taking on large numbers of beautiful but simplistic Reinhold Wittig designs doesn't help in this regard. This is not a criticism of their approach, which is clearly successful in the mass market, just a wish that their prolific output and quality could be turned towards gamer's type games now and then. Anyway, even with this unenviable record, they will occasionally get it right for us and Tal der Könige (Valley of the Kings) is just such a winner.

The theme is instantly appealing and concerns building pyramids in ancient Egypt. The game tackles this in semi-abstract and semi-realistic fashion that, for me, comes off really well. The game is high in interaction, has enough to keep you interested at all times and, thanks to an intrinsic time limit, usually plays in about an hour. Again, following the trend set by Flying Dutchman, it feels like a longer game as it packs in so much activity with little down time. Backed with a clever system of bluff, bidding and forward planning it has plenty to recommend it to the game group.

To start, each player is given a construction team including two overseers and a number of labourers (with bum clefts showing above their loincloths). These are used to scout around the board for good sites, to contest ownership and eventually build pyramids thereon. The board depicts a number of sites with plots varying between four and nine squares in size. The smallest sites are built up with four base blocks and one capping stone while the large ones have nine base blocks with two further layers of four and one. Points are awarded at game end for size and aesthetic quality of your pyramids. A big pyramid built from stone of one colour is worth a massive 11 points (if you can achieve this, you have a good shot at winning) while a small pyramid with mixed stone is worth just 1. There are points grades in between for striped pyramids and so on, but as a rule big and pure is best. Players accordingly pursue differing strategies, perhaps favouring lots of small, scruffy sites (the Barratt Technique) or spending all game building a modern day Cheops in spotless white stone.

Early in the turn, players plot moves to establish where their workers and overseers will appear. There is a initiative system so that if two surveyors turn up to a site they wish to claim, the player with initiative that turn secures it (presumably by hindering the other guy with a large mallet). Initiative passes around the board each turn in a similar way to the elephant in 1853 and each faction gets a chance to be 'first player'. This plotting is also important for the later stages of the turn as workers can get involved in some even more ungentlemanly practices, as we shall see. Having claimed the site, you are free to start building the next turn so workers are usually brought up in readiness.

In order to build his pyramid, each player has to go to the local quarries to bid for stone blocks. Unfortunately, these come in mixed batches of five and you have to buy the lot. so if you need two buff stones to complete your masterpiece, you may end up buying four or even eight others to get them. Each turn there are about half a dozen batches that you can bid for using chits which are laid face down next to the stones. On the reverse is one of four values (1 each of 1,2,3 and 4) or nothing, in which case it is a bluff chit to make other players think you are interested. The chits are revealed simultaneously with the sale going to the highest bidder (initiative settling any ties) and the successful buyers cart their stones back to base. The usual outcome is for each player to get one batch but because certain types of stone are in demand, it can transpire that one shrewd player might clean up with two or three cheap batches leaving other builders without materials. This, as you might expect, is a bit of a letdown as your workers, having been pre-plotted, can do nothing but twiddle their thumbs.

Apart from the bidding, interaction is triggered by the rules that allow your workers to move around to other sites, beat up the incumbents and take over the pyramid. This is possible at any time until the capping stone goes on, at which point it is safe and guarantees you points, so you have to make sure that your prime sites are well defended in large numbers. This is likely anyway as several labourers are needed to get the blocks in place, but if an unscrupulous player moves in just as you are completing a major project and bags it for himself, he will definitely be off your Christmas card list. All that done, the players get to add their blocks to any of their pyramids, with one labourer able to place two blocks per turn.

At the end of the turn, any surplus blocks that have not been incorporated into pyramids, either through insufficient workers or choice, are placed in the centre of the board. These combine to build the Great Pyramid which, when completed with four steps and 30 blocks, ends the game. This is both a clever and atmospheric way of bringing the game to a timely conclusion.

All this comes together to make a fascinating blend of decision making, planning and lightweight economic analysis. You have to decide which type of pyramids to build, which sites to secure, which type of stone to use, should you go for an aggressive game or quietly build in the corner? How much are you willing to spend to get those white blocks you need for your big pyramid or does it make more sense to cut your losses and make a multi-coloured cheapie? If you can't get hold of the rock you need, do you spoil an otherwise perfect pyramid with a black top to make it safe from those approaching bullies? And so on. I am not making this out to be a Die Macher challenge, it is very much middleweight in scope, but the decisions are interesting, the time pressures are always upon you and I believe the theme really helps matters along.

As one might expect from Franckh, the components are generally top notch which gives rise to the undoubtedly high price, but for once I think it is almost worth it. The excellent triangular box contains luxury wooden cubes in a range of colours to build the pyramids, wooden pawns and delicate little scarab markers to show which sites you control. The board, especially towards the end of the game, is an impressive sight. The one failing, and it is quite noticeable in play, is that the bidding chits are rendered in four shades of grey which are not only hard to tell apart, but also bear little relation to the colours of the pieces. I think the graphic designer, who otherwise did a great job, got a little carried away with form over function on these.

Tal der Könige has already become a regular at our sessions and I expect it to be played many more times before it becomes stale. Quite difficult to play well and pitched at exactly the right length, it is a game that exhibits no outstanding design features, more a skilful melding of elements and theme. It plays superbly and I am happy, price notwithstanding, to recommend it to you.

Tal der Könige is available for around £30 from Adam Spielt and Games & Kites, rather more from shops and Essen. I believe the recommended price is DM120,- which could run you £50, so it is worth shopping around.

On to the review of Tutanchamun or back to the review of Peloton.

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