Dale Yu: Review of Towers of Am’harb

Towers of Am’harb

  • Designer: Chu-Lan Kao
  • Publisher: Moaideas
  • Players: 2-4
  • Age: 15+
  • Time: 30-45 minutes
  • Times played: 3, with review copy provided by publisher

Well, it’s been almost a year since I’ve played a game with a Lovecraftian/Cthulhu theme, but I took a demo at GenCon 2019 from Moaideas, and I was excited to give this one a try.  I have had a great track record with the games from Moaideas in the past, and many of their games remain in my collection now (Guns&Steel, Joraku, Flow of History, Mini Rails).

I will admit to not being much of a Cthulhu fan – in fact, I usually avoid it entirely – so I will simply copy and paste the backstory provided by the publisher here:

In Towers of Am’harb, you are a leader of a doom cult, and you are competing with others just like you, all trying to unleash the Ancient One of their worship to conquer the world!

You lied to the other scientists on the expedition to Am’harb, an uninhabited island in the Pacific. Only you, a true servant of the Ancient Ones, is powerful enough to move the deadly dark towers surrounding the island.

Manipulate the towers to strategically scatter your priests and cultists around the island and gain control of the dark altars. Excavate esoteric resources left behind by lost civilizations. Wisely exchange them for the cosmic powers of the Ancient One to advance your position.

Can you solve the Towers of Am’harb and unlock the secrets before your rivals? Do this before the other cults to ensure you and you alone lead humanity from the deadly light and into the peace and safety of a new dark age!

To set up the game, first you need to construct the modular board.  There are a number of different pieces available, and they are cleverly constructed to allow you to make a board which is suitable for 2, 3 or 4 players.   The board pieces are double sided to allow for a multitude of different layouts. There are 8 different cult boards, and players choose one at the start of the game.  Each cult comes with its own unique Cosmic Power to help the player in the game. Each player is given the 4 wooden tower discs as well.

The board will have a grid on it.   Random altar tiles are placed on the Altar spaces and the rest of the board is filled in with random resource tiles (3 types: red/yellow/blue)  Each player sits on a different side of the board. He has his player board in front of him as well as his wooden discs and the supply of followers (3 priests, 6 cultists). Each player will end up sitting in front of a board which has 4 large columns on it – each of those larger columns having 2 smaller columns within. 

Players will take turns moving their set of 4 different sized discs, manipulating them according to the rules of the mathematical puzzle Tower of Hanoi.  

After you have moved a wooden disk, you first may optionally active your cult’s unique Cosmic Power by paying any pair of matching resources.   The back cover of the rules has a nice summary of all the possible cult powers.

Then you must send a follower to one of the 2 columns directly above the wooden disc that just moved.  You goal here is to gain control of scoring altars that provide doom points at the end of the game. Your followers come in different sizes, 3 priests which provides 3 influence, and 6 cultists which provides 1 influence; each follower spreads influence to the 8 surrounding spaces, so it can influence more than one altar.  The space you choose must be empty – that is not having a disciple, altar, or lock token on it. You must also be able to pay the cost of the placement which is a number of resources: (number of surrounding followers of any color) MINUS (the height of your stack of wooden discs in that row). You must first pay with resources from your supply, then you place your follower and collect any resources that are in that space.

The game ends when a player plays their final follower to the board. Each other player then takes one more turn and then the game moves into scoring.  Each altar on the board is resolved one by one and doom points are scored by the players with highest influence at each altar. Altars can be worth 3, 4 or 5 points – their value is clearly visible on the token.  Ties for most influence award the full point value to all tied players. The player who accumulates the highest doom points awakens the Ancient One of their worship, and releases unfathomable cosmic horror upon the world.

My guess is that, in one sentence, I can either sell the game to you or make you run away screaming: “Towers of Am’harb is a thirty-minute abstract competitive area-control game from Moaideas (from Taiwan) that uses the Towers of Hanoi puzzle mechanic and is set in the Lovecraftian Cthulhu universe”.  There are three or four things in that sentence which will either immediately attract or repel you, and you know which group you fit into almost immediately! You might just be able to stop reading the review now!

So, in the end, though the game has a Cthulhu theme, it’s really just a skin on a nice abstract game.  Here, the challenge is two fold. Not only are you trying to control the area around the altars, but you also have to manage to wooden discs for both placement as well as cost reasons.  In the standard setups recommended by the rules, every space affects at least one altar, and there are a fair number of spots which influence 2 or even 3 altars. Always look at the start of the game for these spaces which can be used multiple times!

Since players will sit and play their discs on different sides of the map, the result is that the vertical columns you can play into will be the horizontal rows of the next player, and this can generate some very interesting interactions.  Though, this is more symmetrical in a 2-player and a 4-player game. In the 3-player game, there will be two people on one axis, and they will play in a row. However, the interesting L shaped board pieces seem to ensure that each player has equal access to all parts of the board. 

You should always keep your eye out for which columns your opponents will be able to play in.  It is worth noting that a player’s largest wooden disc can only move to a previously empty column.  Also, noting where players might be able to score a large discount in placement may help you figure out where they are planning to go.  When playing your followers on to the board, you will need also to pay a cost depending on how crowded the area you are entering, which can be offset by the height of your towers, so you must plan ahead on where you need to concentrate your efforts.

It is also important to remember that you only have 9 followers – and in my last 4p game, there were 16 altars.  Even with doubling or tripling up in a few spaces, it’s gonna be impossible to exert influence at all of them – so you have to pick and choose which battles you want to fight for.  And, once you settle on that, you need to be sure that you can get your pieces played in the right columns – you’ll have to always be thinking ahead on how to align your wooden discs to give you the flexibility to play in the columns you want to be in.

One note about the art.  I do like the thematic art – it is clear from the start that this is a Cthulhu game, and if you’re attracted by that sort of thing, you’ll gravitate towards this instantly.  I will say though that I have a huge issue with the runic font. For the first few weeks of ownership, I couldn’t even tell you the correct name of the game – I had thought this was Towers of Amhard!  Sure, I’m all for adding theme and flavor through artistic touches, but really – in this case, I couldn’t read the title! I’m thinking that I might have recognized more of the words if I were a Cthulhu person, and so I may not be the best judge of this in the end.  On the positive side, the game does have a cool glow in the dark image hidden on the box.

Overall, Towers of Am’Harb has been an interesting play.  A bit lighter than the usual Moaideas fare, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  There is a decent puzzle here which I enjoy working through. The modular boards make sure that every game could be different, and of course, you have to deal with the changing board as your opponents place their followers on the board.   As you have probably guessed by now, I could take or leave the Cthulhu theme, but the game underneath is worth playing.

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers

James Nathan (1 play, 4 players): I enjoyed it well enough.  Multi-player abstracts aren’t quite my jam, so I’d be interested in trying it with 2, and which, I suppose, is also saying that I found it worthwhile enough that I wouldn’t say no to another play.I enjoyed tower planning: if I want to place 2 more times in this column, how can I rearrange the towers to allow it, and what will I do with any requisite turns where I activate another column on my way there.  Though, ultimately, somebody else had placed in the spot I wanted by the time my plan got to its resolution! 

Until your next appointment

The Gaming Doctor

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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