|Tigris & Euphrates (1997)
|Meeple Like Us
|Medium Heavy [3.50]
One of the difficulties a game must address is that of abstraction. All games are abstractions in the end – some imprecise mapping of reality to representation. The fidelity of that representation is important – it has to be at the level people are expecting for the experience they are being set up to expect. When we reviewed Eminent Domain: Microcosm I spent a lot of time complaining about how a space game is, in my view, fundamentally incompatible with minimalism. The infinity of the universe simply isn’t something that fits into that philosophy. Of all the many decisions that a game designer must get right when dealing with an epic theme, this is the most important and probably the trickiest. The right level of abstraction has a lot of work to do. It has to encapsulate precision and sweeping grandeur. It has to capture the sublime and the ridiculous, and then it has to leverage it in a way to turn it into an actual game.
Let’s talk about Tigris and Euphrates, and how it is a masterclass in the effective application of abstraction.
The Tigris and Euphrates river system and its various tributaries meanders through Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Saudia Arabia, Kuwait and Jordan. It is an area of phenomenal importance because it is one of the main water sources of the Fertile Crescent – an area of the Middle East from which many of the major drivers of civilization are believed to have originated. This area, along with the Indus Valley and the Yellow River, is where we see the emergence of complex societies for the first time. We see evidence of the growing influence of sedentary culture and the development of fundamental technologies that will define the direction the human race takes for thousands of years to follow. Writing, glasswork, agricultural and irrigation… they all date from this period. There was society before, but civilization is said to have emerged here
In other words, ‘all human life’ is here and a game focused on this region of the world has a hell of a job in capturing what actually matters. It was a time of great religion, migration and trade. As befits an area of great cultural diversity it was also a time of tension, border disputes and outright wars. The Sumerian city-states battled constantly for almost two thousand years. This in turn is credited with the development of a kind of proto military-industrial-religious state where the first professional soldier class was instantiated. The region was eventually united under a single super-state but the time that preceded that was one of immense febrility.
So, how do you turn this into a game? Well, you either go deep or you go wide. Most games tend to adopt a relatively myopic focus in their design, offering a kind of ‘deep core sample’ of a single element of their setting. They slice out a thin cylinder that represents the mechanical stack of the game engine and then link together the various parts into something enjoyable. That’s probably the easiest thing to do because it’s a strategy with a lot of forgiveness built into it. There’s a semantic compatibility to game elements that make it relatively straightforward for things to cohere. In Fresco we look at the ecosystem of producing paintings but we never actually need to (or get to) let our inner Bob Ross free. These games benefit from a coherence that comes from no part of the design being too far away, conceptually, from any other part. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to make a game in this way… but perhaps easier than the alternative.
Going wide is a riskier approach because the relationship between disparate systems is often complex, interdependent, and works at multiple levels of redirection. The impact that an agricultural class has on the effectiveness of a professional army is profoundly complex and nuanced and doesn’t lend itself well to easy extraction from its context. Lacking that, a game designer needs to engineer a fake bridge between what are otherwise disconnected systems. They need to find a way to convincingly represent the relationship that doesn’t need lots of counter-intuitive and unsatisfying game systems. Importantly, everything has to feel connected but without actually being connected in any real way. Going wide is built on a kind of inventive but honest counterfeit – it’s not the thing, it doesn’t pretend to be, but it has to feel like the real thing. It has to be convincing, even if it is only so because we are willingly permitting ourselves to be convinced.
This is what I mean when I talk about how important theme is – it’s not just the aesthetic trimmings and the setting. It’s the relationship between how something should feel and how the systems work to bring that feeling about. A game focused on the Tigris and Euphrates should feel grand and I think the game accomplishes that with room to spare. It feels sweeping. It feels like watching the slow churn of history unfold on your tabletop. It feels, in other words, exactly like the title suggests it will. The level of abstraction selected for this game is masterful.
Okay enough of the lecture, let’s get to the actual review. Tigris and Euphrates is a tile-laying game of area control where each player is trying to gather points in four key categories. Green points represent trade, red points represent religion, blue represent agriculture and black represent a kind of ephemeral authority. In turns, players take two actions. With each of these they can place or move leaders, play down tiles from their hand, lay down a catastrophe tile to undermine their opponent, or replace tiles from their hand.
Players get points whenever a tile is added to a kingdom, and a kingdom is defined as an area of orthogonally contiguous tiles. Points are awarded only if they have a leader of an appropriate colour already connected. Place a black tile where you have a black king, and you get a black point. The more of a particular colour of tile there is in your kingdom, the stronger that leader is when it comes time for wars. The more temple tiles to which a leader is adjacent, the stronger that leader is when another leader of the same colour arrives into a kingdom in an attempt to dispute authority.
A kingdom you see can hold only one leader of each of the four colours, and to begin with this isn’t going to seem like a problem. Everyone will build their kingdoms around their leaders, letting authority, power and wealth accumulate with the slow passing of ages. The board begins with some pre-existing temples on it, and each of these temples contains a wild point. When two temples are connected to a kingdom with a trader present, the owner of the trader can claim one of these wild points for their own. These wild points are incredibly valuable, for reasons we’ll see later, so this creates a pull of gravity. Kingdoms tend to grow towards where the riches are to be found.
Tiles can be placed pretty much anywhere, except only blue tiles can be placed on rivers. When a square of four tiles of the same colour is constructed, this can be converted into a monument. This monument will have two colours, and any attached leader of those colours will get a point every round as long as the connection is maintained. These massive edifices pulse out riches and authority with all the steady reliability of a war-drum. And in the end, that’s exactly what they are – rich, tempting prizes that other players will regard with envious and contemplative eyes.
The bend of history is towards war, and so it is with Tigris and Euphrates. After a short period of time, collegiate empire building simply will not cut it. When you see a monument being constructed, the framing of the game changes from ‘Let’s build friendly kingdoms’ to ‘Hey, that’s a thing that would look much better in my control than in that of my opponent’. Envy, territorial pressures and the compulsive arms race of authority drive the players of Tigris and Euphrates to war. It’s inevitable – it’s built into the nature of civilization, and perhaps even into the universe. Tigris and Euphrates doesn’t do anything as gauche as make war something worth doing in and of itself. It makes you covet the territory of an opponent, which is the psychological equivalent of making them a sworn enemy. You don’t wage war because it’s a gamified system. You wage war because they have something and you want it – territory, access to wild points, or monuments.
There will come a time then when someone is going to fire the first arrow and it comes with the clicking of a single tile – the tile that joins two disconnected kingdoms at the periphery. At this point Tigris and Euphrates throws you into the midst of a system of warfare that is borderline genius. In most games a combat is at least somewhat predictable. You can weigh up strengths and weaknesses, probably expressed through the medium of dice rolls, and come up with a reasonably accurate model of how things are going to go down within the uncertainty window of randomness. Tigris and Euphrates though has no dice at all – and yet war is brutish, risky and unimaginably surprising.
The first thing in a war is that you have public information (how many tiles of a particular colour are in a kingdom) and a suspicion of private information. The former might be enough to give you a sense of confidence, but it always comes tinged with risk. But what’s most wonderful here is that war has complex consequences and one betrayed assumption will result in the most spectacular shifts in fortune. It’s glorious on a number of levels, but what is most satisfying is how anything short of an overwhelming advantage will leave both sides as war-ravaged as you’d expect.
Only one leader of a particular colour can be in any contiguous kingdom and so the war is handled in a series of confrontations, the order of which is decided by the aggressor. They say ‘My black king is attacking’ and then you each count up the black tiles in your empire. The attacker then decides to commit a number of tiles of that colour from their hand, and then the defender chooses how many of their own tiles to commit. These get added to the tile count on the board, and the player with the most strength wins. The losing leader is removed from the board, as is every one of their supporting tiles in their own kingdom. The winner gets points for each piece removed from the board, and that can be lucrative in a large war. To the victor go the spoils.
If there are other leaders in place, these get resolved in the same way but the thing about resolving a battle is that it hugely changes the battleground. Tiles are removed from the board, so it may be that a leader is no longer even in the new kingdom. If they are, they may no longer have access to tiles that were disconnected by virtue of a previous loss. Wars are built on choosing a clever order of attacks to ensure that support for each enemy leader is sapped away to ensure a greater chance of victory.
Everyone at the board knows this though, and everyone knows where they are most vulnerable.
So consider this from the image above. You have a strength of two in your black king, four in your green king, five in your red king and three in your blue king. You attack a kingdom with a strength of four in their black leader, one in their green leader, four in their blue leader and four in the red leader. All wars will be resolved, so you either want to lose wars that aren’t costly or win them all. In what order should attacks be resolved? And what tiles do you have to minimize your risks? Let’s say you’re sitting on three black tiles, so you’re reasonably sure that you can win that battle at least. You have a lot of advantage in green. It’d be good though if you could swing the balance of risk in your favour, so you go for blue first – committing three blue ties to the battle. That gives you six to their four.
Then they commit two blue tiles of their own from their hand. Ties are broken to the defender, and your entire world is about to come crashing down. You lose the blue leader, and the three blue tiles that they had as supporters. Your opponent gets four blue points. Ouch.
Your black king has now been cut off from the entire base of support you had. You only have three black tiles in hand and your opponent has four strength on the board. You actually can’t win that war at all now, and so your king is removed from the board and you cede a black point to your opponent.
Your priest is no longer in the war because that kingdom has been completely disconnected, but the remaining battle is between green and you just lost two of your tiles that would have strengthened your attack. Luckily your opponent doesn’t have the tiles in hand to win and they give up their green leader and the tile they had owned . You get two green points… but was it worth it?
The thing is, that’s bad but it’s not as bad as what happens next – your kingdoms are vulnerable. If your opponent can connect up the two disparate kingdoms that now exist, they’ll be in a great position to take out your isolated priest. After all, the effect of this war has been to strengthen their priest to a strength of nine against your three. When they win that war, and mathematically it seems difficult to imagine they wouldn’t, they’d essentially leave your previously noble kingdom bereft and empty, with an easy path for them to strengthen their king and trader while consolidating their own position. A lost war in Tigris and Euphrates doesn’t just cost you points, it can cost you everything and you often won’t see it coming.
Pretty cool, right? Now imagine a game where the tile that joins two kingdoms is played by an uninvolved third player. Wars can be initiated between unwilling parties in Tigris and Euphrates, and in almost every case the only winner is the one that didn’t fight. Now imagine what that does to your intentions and incentives during the game. It forces you to grow big so that you can safely win wars, and that forces you to expand close to other territories, which forces them to be extra defensive and grow large in reaction to you. You in turn see that they’re growing big and must defend yourself, so grow bigger. While war is often driven by acquisition in Tigris and Euphrates you’ll most often encounter it just as a consequence of wanting to avoid the phenomenal cost that comes with combat. If you wish peace, prepare for war. And keep preparing, because the only peace you can rely on is the one that comes from being the only survivor. All the time you need to keep a wary eye on everyone else, because wars can be started by subterfuge and you need to be ready for it.
This is amazing, and incredibly satisfying. However, it’s also here we see one of the major problems in Tigris and Euphrates – a contest of this type is heavily dependent on tile availability and thus driven in large part by am emphasis on the luck of the draw. There’s an element of pantomime and subterfuge that you can weaponise but it doesn’t change the fact that if you don’t have the tiles there’s nothing you can do when an aggressive empire comes knocking at your door. Possibly there was nothing you could have done, but in the end isn’t that basically the story of the region written in blood on your table?
This is a reasonable complaint that people have of the game, but in the end for me it’s just a different and somewhat unintuitive way of presenting the weight of decisions to a player. Tile management is strategic and tactical, not opportunistic. A tile in your hand has an espionage value that a tile on the board doesn’t and sometimes the best way to manage a circumstances is to put a heavy fog of war over the risks.
Perhaps you can see here though what I mean by Tigris and Euphrates being a masterclass of abstraction. Everything has this beautifully engineered system of hidden incentives where sometimes your only reason for doing something is because you don’t want the same thing done to you. You should go into a war feeling like everything can be taken away from you and I can’t imagine a better system for handling it. It doesn’t need to give you reasons to go to war. It just gives you a system for handling it because it knows you’ll invent your own reasons. It gives you a flavour of the importance of agriculture by making certain spaces on the board that cannot be reached without farms. As a simple way of evoking the power of logistics and supply chains, it’s impressive. It even gives certain parts of the board increasing value with the monument system – a place where you can lay down four of the same coloured tiles in a square is of huge value even if there are no specific reasons why you should otherwise build there. Monuments in turn become icons of cultural significance because action tends to be pulled into their gravity wells. The value of trade is handled by the gathering of wild points. The value of religion is shown by the rebellions where one leader can usurp another through the support of temples. Essentially it allows the candidate most endorsed by the Gods, as decided by their representatives on earth, to take over the role of another.
But do you know what it is that makes this especially clever? It’s a rule that we first encountered in Ingenious. Your score in Tigris and Euphrates is determined by the category of point in which you have the lowest score. This adds an incredibly effective rubber-banding and diversity in pay – it incentivises people into building robust and secure empires with a blend of interests because it’s the only way to succeed. You can ‘win’ Tigris and Euphrates in every psychological sense and still come last. The warmonger that stands over the blasted remains of the landscape will likely find themselves bested by the small, humble empire that simply tried to live its best possible life.
Those wild points then – they get added to your lowest points total. Every one of them is a way of compensating for opportunities you didn’t have or a balance you just couldn’t achieve. They’re worth much more than their face value because of that, and that creates a powerful reason to go hunting them. Oh, and the game ends when all but two have been collected so the more people go hunting the less time they have to generate points through more traditional means. As you plunder the natural resources of the region, you violently cut into your own longevity. You have to do it though, because everyone else is doing it. It’s the tragedy of the commons – a sad story you can read in the dust of the wilderness you leave behind. Even the self-destructiveness of human nature is captured at this level of abstraction.
It’s a marvelous piece of very effective design and I have sunk many, many hours into it. Unfortunately the consequence of a design like this is a massive learning curve before players can realistically face off. The implications of any decision you make are so far-reaching that you can bounce off of the game so hard that it may as well be called Trampolines and Euphrates. A single unwise tile placement can violently tilt your experience of play so heavily in the favour of your opponents that you’re basically knocked out of contention. The rules are reasonably intuitive but their meaning is locked up in a web of cause and effect that is profoundly intimidating.
Imagine you are playing against a well-meaning person that doesn’t want you to make unnecessary mistakes. You place a red tile to strengthen your priest, only for your opponent to frown and say ‘Are you sure you really want to do that?’. You probably don’t, because you just opened up a space where an enemy leader could be slipped in and made difficult to dislodge but how could you possibly know that? So instead you place a green tile to move towards a temple. Your opponent frowns again. ‘Are you sure you really want to do that?’. Probably not, because you don’t have a green leader in the territory. So you place a red title expanding in towards another kingdom for the red point. ‘Are you really sure you want to do that?’. Probably not because now you’re so close that someone can throw you into a war to which you didn’t consent simply by playing down a single tile. Argh.
‘Are you sure you really want to do that?’ is a question people can reasonably ask from a lot of seemingly innocent moves here and that can create a situation that is far more fraught and stressful than enjoyable. This can be especially true because Tigris and Euphrates is not a game where you are always in control. Sometimes you have to live with the consequences of an action someone else forced on you.
Tigris and Euphrates is a game that gives you real moments of absolute shining genius – ways to do very clever things that leave everyone else at the table feeling shocked and awed. The first time you connect together two independent belligerent nations and then sweep in on the tattered remains you’ll feel like Sargon of Akkad. Uh, the real one that is – not the alt-right bell-end that infests my Youtube recommendations like a biblical plague. On the other hand, a game that permits you to feel this clever is also not going to be tolerant of missteps and that’s something you need to take into account from the start. It’s an amazing game, but you really need to be willing to learn its intricacies.