2-6 players, 2-3 hours
Designed by Mac Gerdts
Reviewed by Ben Baldanza
Antike is a heavy game with a lot of good design ideas that is easy to play but difficult to win. Up to six players take the role of an ancient civilization, and in this role produce goods, gain knowledge, build temples, and deploy legions and ships for both offensive and defensive positioning. The game builds nicely as players attempt to win victory cards, each featuring a historical ancient personality, with the winner being the player to collect a certain number first based on the number of players.
The board is printed on both sides, and thus the game can be played on either a map of the Eastern Mediterranean or the Roman Empire. Each map shows a set of boundaries in red (for land) and blue (for seas). Some territories are all land, some are all sea, and some have both. Each area has a city, and these are marked as Gold-producing, Iron-producing, or Marble-producing. Each player begins with three pre-defined start cities, one of each type. The game action is driven by a well-conceived eight-part action wheel that shows seven different actions, one of them twice. While there are seven different things that can be done, on a turn a player will choose only one by moving their piece around the action wheel. This is an excellent idea that works very well and could be used in other games soon.
The actions in the game can be broken into three ideas: Produce, Build, or Mobilize. There is one spot on the wheel for each of Gold, Iron, and Marble. When a player chooses any of these, they produce a number of that good based on the number of cities of that type they control. Marble is used to build Temples, and a temple placed on a city raises its production value, increases its defense, and allows more military units to be placed there. Gold is used to gain progress, and there are eight different progress areas that help to make things you do more efficient and effective. Iron is used to buy military units, legions or ships, which can later be mobilized into action. Each of these three actions (Temple, Progress, and Arming) is represented once on the action wheel. The seventh and final action, represented twice on the wheel, is the Maneuver action. When this is chosen, the player can mobilize the military units previously placed to expand into new territories, and sack an opponent’s temple.
The game is won by winning a defined set of ancient personality cards. These are gained as a result of five different types of achievements. You can earn an ancient personality card for building three temples, for building five cities, for having a ship present in seven different ocean sections, for being the first to gain each of the eight progress advances, and for successfully destroying an opponent’s temple. So while there is a lot to think of in the game, staying focused on what you need to do to win a victory card is essential. Doing this will help to make some otherwise tough decisions a little easier.
Each round, a player follows four simple steps. First, they take a coin that can be used as a joker for gold, iron, or marble. Next, they move their marker on the action wheel to choose their next action from among the seven described. Movement is always clockwise and staying put is not an option. Players can move up to three spaces for free, and must pay any one resource (gold, marble, iron, or coins) for each space beyond three. To do the same action two times in a row, a player would need to pay five extra resources (three for free, then one for each of the next five spaces). They then perform the action they choose (produce a good, buy a temple, progress, or military units, or mobilize their pieces), and after that can buy cities on otherwise unclaimed spaces where they have a military unit present. Buying a city costs one each of gold, marble, and iron. Expanding into unclaimed territory and building a city has several distinct advantages: it increases production as each city will produce one of the three goods, it gives another staging ground for military movement, and it can directly lead to a victory point card for each five owned. At the end of a turn, a player takes any ancient personality card now due to them. Cards, once earned, are never lost and this both makes the game work well and helps define the strategy. Thus if on my turn I build my fifth city, I take a personality card for that. If later I lose one of these cities in battle, I still keep the card. To gain a second card of this type I will still need to own 10 cities.
The military aspect of the game is straight-forward but works well. Ships only fight ships and legions only fight legions, though both can participate in the sacking of a city and its temple. A city has a basic defense value of one, which is bumped up to three with a temple. Then, each defensive military unit adds one to the defense value. In order to take the city, an attacker must bring in ships and/or legions at least equal to the defense number. Pieces will be removed in a one-to-one relationship, ship for ship and legion for legion. Thus areas with both land and seas are easier to defend and harder to attack since the ratio of ships and legions must be considered. Each military unit has an initial ability of only one action per turn. This can be movement or fighting, but not both. Thus to mount an offensive action without any progress advancement can be a multiple-turn, grueling effort. The other clever and effective aspect of the military action is that fighting can occur as a result of pass-through movement. If another player enters my owned territory, for example, I can force the fight to remove pieces on a 1-1 basis or let them pass through. Military mobilization has several advantages: you can gain cities to reach your thresholds to earn a card, you can sack a temple to directly earn a card, and you can limit the growth and success of a competing player by making it more difficult for them to reach a victory goal.
Purchasing Progress with gold can be helpful in four different ways. One allows legions to get extra actions each turn. Once the Wheel is developed, for example a legion can both move and fight on the same turn. The second Progress has the same effect for ships. The third increases production by adding bonus goods each time production is chosen. The final Progress adds to each of your cities’ defensive value. The Progress chart is constructed as a four by two grid. Each Progress area has two levels, a simple and a complex. For example, Sails allow your ships to get one extra action per movement. After Sails have been achieved, Navigation can be purchased. This allows ships two extra actions per turn. Being the first into each of the eight areas earns a victory point card, but also is more expensive. Being the first into a first-level progress costs seven gold; all others who gain this Progress only pay three. For a second-level Progress, the initial entry costs 10 while others upgrade for just five. This is a well conceived balance.
In play the game moves along quickly since players do just one action per turn. Of course the maneuver actions take longer since pieces are moved and battles resolved. Production turns are very quick, as are Progress and Temple purchases. As the game evolves, production becomes more efficient since temples triple the production value, more cites are developed, and Progress can add bonuses. Early trips to the Gold action will net a single gold coin; later in the game that same action could net six or seven gold. Early in the game military actions are limited or non-existent, as building cities from unoccupied territories and building temples is often more productive and earns some quick victory cards. As the board fills, conflict becomes inevitable especially as the personality cards are scooped up. In a five-player game, eight personalities are needed to win the game. Once the Temple building and City building victory cards are all claimed, military advances will be necessary to get ships into more ports and to sack temples. This aspect must be considered in the game – defending everything you own isn’t that important! Winning cards is the way to victory in the game, so setting yourself up to take a card as often as possible is what works. I may have to attack to get my tenth city in order to win a victory card, but once earned I don’t need to keep all ten unless my plan is to go for another card at 15. If my focus then can shift to the Progress table or temple sacking, owning all the cities isn’t that valuable any more.
The action wheel is both well designed and creates some tough decisions. Say for example that I last finished a Maneuver action and next want to build a temple. I could do this by moving my piece to the “Temple” spot. But in between is the Iron spot, and I currently have great production capability in iron. Do I delay the temple building to stop by to pick up Iron for a future arming? This kind of decision happens frequently and watching how others behave can help determine proper timing of attacks and advances.
Early plays of the game have suggested to some that the game suffers in that conflict is not necessary to win. This may be valid in some player numbers. I think the game works best with five, where the board fills fast and conflict is essential in order to win enough cards for victory. The game is less enjoyable with six and is three-player solitaire. But the robust development ideas combined with a unique a new action mechanism make the game well worth playing even when the military actions are secondary. In multiple plays, it is clear that avoiding military activity completely cannot work if everyone is playing well. Antike is a strong new game that is an impressive follow-up to last year’s Neuland.