BABYLONIA: AN EXEMPLARY KNIZIAN DESIGN By Mitchell Thomashow
Great game designers, writers, artists, and musicians generally develop multiple key insights, often early in their careers, and then rework, reiterate, combine, and revitalize them as they gain more experience, skill, and wisdom. Sometimes those insights are inspired by imaginative leaps. Often, they are synthesized in culminating projects. Prolific creators who develop a decades-long body of work generate insights in different ways. They experiment with their best ideas, and sometimes their most important works are overlooked. The core of their greatness is their ability to constantly learn, innovate, and experiment, while honing their skills, and using their cumulative experience to generate evocative works.
Without question, in my view, Reiner Knizia is the most prolific, and perhaps exemplary game designer of the modern board game era. His games span an extraordinary range of ideas and styles, but the hallmark is typically accessible rule sets, high player interaction, and multiple paths to victory. That doesn’t mean that all of his games are always great or even good, or that some aren’t repetitious of previous designs. However, when you look at the body of his work, stretching now through four decades, the number of his innovative designs is truly extraordinary. It would take a very long essay, indeed, to compile a thorough critical evaluation of his work, and to cover the spread and depth of his innovations, as well as to trace his influence and assess his legacy.
Rather, this testimony serves as an introduction to some comments about Babylonia, what I regard as the keystone accomplishment of his tile placement portfolio. Gamers often refer to Knizia’s tile-laying trilogy of related, but different games that were released in the late 1990’s, over twenty years ago—Tigris and Euphrates, Samurai, and Through the Desert. These games share a common approach—using tiles to mark territory, develop connecting links, establish influence, and surround spatial boundaries. They are all semi-abstract games, rooted in the traditions of Go, Hex, and Dominos, but embellished with color and theme, that serve to differentiate and enhance the gameplay. Tigris and Euphrates is a sensible recreation of building cities and influence in an ancient landscape, but it could just as easily be located on one of the moons of Saturn. Still, the themes of these games work and provide an accessible foundation for most players, where a strictly abstract design could be overlooked.
Knizia’s most important innovations in semi-abstract design is twofold. First, he develops creative and imaginative scoring systems, that are both mathematically sound, and fun to contemplate. Through the Desert brings points to a basic game of connections and territorial awareness. Tigris and Euphrates develops an approach to scoring that is absolutely unique and has since been widely copied, that is, scoring in four different categories, with success based on measuring the best of the least, a system brilliantly employed with Ingenious. Samurai utilizes a majority-based scoring system. Second, he adds wonderful randomization approaches to each of these games, including drawing tiles from a bag, variable starting positions, and other surprises. The beauty is in the combination of these innovations, allowing for variety and improvisation, resulting in satisfying blends of tactics and strategy.
The entire Knizia portfolio of tile laying games is extensive. I’ve not played many of them, and I couldn’t possibly cite them. However, it’s generally recognized that these three were the foundational games, his original creative insights, if you will.
More recently Knizia developed three new tile-laying semi-abstract games, Yellow and Yangtze, Blue Lagoon and Babylonia, all of which expand and reiterate the aforementioned classics. Yellow and Yangtze is a streamlined revision of Tigris and Euphrates. Blue Lagoon brings an interesting mid-game reset as well as a dynamic scoring system reminiscent of Through the Desert. But it’s Babylonia that has grabbed my attention as I believe it is the most elegant synthesis of the now classic portfolio, and the most original of these newer games.
First, here’s a brief description of the game play. Babylonia is a 2-4 player semi-abstract game. The board is stylized map of the Neo-Babylonian empire, a 10×17 layout of hexagonal spaces, interspersed with two rivers, creating three separate land masses. There are 5 Ziggurat hexagons, and 32 green-bordered hexagons where you randomly place 19 city tiles and 13 crop fields. The city tiles depict the symbols of one or two of the nobles. Each player has a set of 18 noble tiles, divided into three symbols of 6 each (merchants, civil servants, and press), and 12 farmer tiles. They comprise a hand of five tiles that are available for each turn. The tiles are neat circular discs, reminiscent of Necco wafers. On your turn you place two tiles of any kind or three farmer tiles. You can cross a river by placing a tile upside down.
Scoring occurs throughout the game. Whenever a city is surrounded, you count the number of connected noble tiles corresponding to the city type, score two points for each matching noble in your chain of tiles. Whoever has more tiles surrounding the city claims the city. Then you score points for the number of cities in your possession. Other players do the same. The farmer tiles score 5, 6, or 7 points, and there are some that score points depending on the number of cities already claimed. Finally you score points for placing tiles around the Ziggurats, one point for each Ziggurat where you have placed a tile. All of these methods of scoring can yield lots of points, and each represents a different, but connected path to victory.
You can learn much more about how the game plays by checking out the rules on Board Game Geek or any of the helpful how-to-play videos. https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/266164/babylonia
The game takes five minutes to teach, although a game or two is necessary before you have a sense of the whole picture. Babylonia scales brilliantly. The two player game is fascinating as there is so much manipulation for territorial control, and the 3 and 4 player games bring a different kind of complexity as you can move in and out of territorial connections depending on the formation of temporary alliances. I have played the 2 player version about 25 times and the multulplayer version only once, a year ago when Craig Massey introduced me to it at 2019 Lobster Trap. Although my comments here are mainly about 2 player Babylonia, I have no doubt that the multiplayer version is spectacularly interesting.
So what’s going on in the 2 player game? Every tile placement matters as you have to choose a strategic approach early on depending on how the cities and farms are arranged on the map. Do you try to build lengthy chains that connect far-flung sections of the board so you can cash in on whichever cities are scored? Do you focus on claiming as many smaller cities (those surrounded by fewer hexagons) first so you have an advantage when cities do score? Brilliantly, Knizia designed the game so that you score your cities when someone else claims one. Do you emphasize scoring farms, especially the ones that score points based on the number of claimed cities, aspiring to claim those farms later in the game when more cities have been claimed? Do you stake a claim to as many Ziggurats as possible, knowing that the more claims you have the more points you’ll score?
And finally, if you have a majority of tiles surrounding a Ziggurat you get to claim one of 7 special power cards, each of which provide either a scoring or rule-breaking advantage. Each of the cards is interesting in how it impacts game play. Some are better claimed earlier in the game and some are better claimed later. The early game jockeying around the Ziggurats is another important dynamic.
Every tile placement provides rich choices as you have to decide the optimal play. The game state, although initially stable, radically changes with each placement. Hence you must always think on your feet and read the game state anew. Astute improvisational thinking matters. But so do skill and familiarity. There’s no question that after 25 games, I have a better sense of how a game might evolve or emerge, and with each game I discover an approach that I hadn’t previously seen. Yet as rich as these decisions are, and as challenging as Babylonia is to play well, it’s not really a brain burner. There’s a flow of play and a joy in the tile placement that lightens the experience of what is really a very deep game. In summary, your game playing awareness is challenged on multiple levels—understanding how to build connections and networks, linking those networks to area influence, perceiving spatial territorial relationships, and using brinkmanship to develop threats that force your opponent to make moves she’d rather avoid. We’ve had high scoring flamboyant games that are almost like fast-breaks to the basket, and then tight, defensive struggles where blocking is crucial. Knowing when to play offense or defense is contextual. You must always think on your feet. All of this occurs in 30 minutes and you come back wanting more—much, much more.
There are two fine testimonials to Babylonia on BoardGameGeek. First, I recommend a lengthy discussion among two “kniziaphiles” placing Babylonia in the broader context of Knizia’s classic tile game portfolio.
And a second, “The Babylonia Century” geek list where different users compare their experiences as they aspire to play Babylonia 100 times!
The ensuing strategy discussions surrounding this game are very interesting.
Babylonia is an absolute Knizian masterpiece, reflecting his experience, spirit, and refined game design philosophy. It is simultaneously deep and light, studious and improvisational, as well as elegant and intricate. It challenges you on multiple conceptual levels. You can play it with a family or with hardened gamers. It scales brilliantly and offers players a rich learning experience. I love this game (obviously) and rank it among my top ten all time. It’s really that good. I offer gratitude to all involved in the production, development and distribution of this wonderful effort!
Illustration below is an end game photo. Final score was Gray 150, Blue 149!
One final note: I agree with Dale’s comments below about the funky tile racks and the contrast levels on the board. These needlessly mar an otherwise good production. We use old wooden Scrabble racks for the tiles and do our best to deal with the contrast issue.
Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers
Dale Y: For me, the game was quite enjoyable. I like the constant tension of wanting to do so many things on each turn but not having the chance to do it all… No different than Through the Desert. The one thing keeping this from being an “I love it” was the frustration with the physical pieces. I found that the racks to hold the tiles didn’t really work, and we often had accidents where player’s hands were exposed as the racks failed. Also, and this could be just my eyes, but I had a hard time with the contrast levels on the board; finding it difficult to see the details/lines, especially in the swampy areas. I’d be happy to play this one again (whenever anyone asks), but as far as my collection goes, there wasn’t enough here to supplant Through the Desert or Samurai.
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it! Mitchell T, Luke H, Eric M, Craig M
- I like it. Dale, Chris W, Lorna, Dan B, Brandon K
- Neutral. Steph H
- Not for me… James Nathan