Starting back around the release of Taj Mahal, maybe even as early as Ra, new Knizia big-box games started being treated with increasing skepticism by the “serious gamers” in the online crowd. I had to take to task the early adopters on rec.games.board who found nothing new of interest in Ra. I loved Taj Mahal, but found only a few takers at The Gathering when it was new, and those who I played with were unimpressed and generally unenthusiastic.
This sort of thing is easy to chuckle about in retrospect (and eBay prices on Taj Mahal and Ra seem to have borne out my point of view). Amun-Re got more or less the same treatment – “Another Knizia auction game? How many times can he do this?”. I was again surprised, not least because Amun-Re isn’t really an auction game. I think of it as a cash management or economic game. While I don’t think of Amun-Re as an enduring classic like the best of Knizia, I still like it quite a bit.
There is, however, a dark side to my fondness for the game. Prior to my recent plays, I figured there was depth to it – it’s a Knizia big-box game after all, and it certainly has the trappings of a deep game – but I didn’t have actual personal experience of its depth.
You see, before this, I had almost always won at Amun-Re, even though I am traditionally not very good at cash management games. I credit this not to superior skill or intellect, but to the fact that while I have played a number of times, I have almost always played with people with little or no experience with the game. There are lots of different elements to the scoring, and it’s easy enough not to grasp the relative importance of everything (almost everyone I’ve played with has missed the significance of the “most pyramids” awards their first game, a major chunk of points). Since figuring out complicated scoring systems is something I am usually good at, against inexperienced players I could usually win just because I understood, generally, the weight of the various scoring opportunities. Since this fairly basic level of play was usually enough to win or do well, I was never forced to evolve and seriously delve into the subtleties of the game. I could see that they were there, but I didn’t have to work them out.
So it was nice to finally get to play Amun-Re a couple times on back-to-sessions recently. The first time, I won by my usual approach of going all-out in the first scoring round to get the 5-point most-pyramid bonuses. The problem then becomes that when you play with smart people, they tend to learn. The second game did not go at all well. I came in a distant last. So I started to think about some of the big questions in this game for which I had always thought, “yeah, that’s interesting”, but never really had to come up with any answers to.
One strategic question in Amun-Re has always been, how much of a cash buffer do you want to retain from round-to-round and epoch-to-epoch? Having a cash reserve is obviously good – if others haven’t saved, you can pick up prime provinces comparatively cheaply and have money at critical sacrifice auctions. You can build pyramids where they are more likely to do some good, and generally invest your money when the overall picture is clearer. Having cash at the beginning of the second epoch, when all of a sudden provinces are much richer (and more varied) at the same time as income is drying up, is obviously good. The downside, of course, is that buying things in bulk late is prohibitively expensive and it’s better to buy farmers and power cards earlier so they can pay off for longer.
In the past I usually spent all my available cash each turn, building up a reserve only occasionally, and it’s always worked for me. But this is clearly not the right approach; Kim won the second game by curtailing her spending and investing only when the returns looked promising. Did I mention this was a Knizia game? I never seriously thought that just spending all your cash as soon as you got it was really going to be the best way to approach the game, but it’s nice to have it proven that it’s not.
Many of the subtleties to the game are tied up with the properties of the different provinces, in a loop between farmer slots, the harvest auction, and cash. While the goods available in return for sacrificing are valuable, the impact this has on how much money the farmers make is also quite significant. If you have lots of farmers, you can bid aggressively for the harvest, knowing it’ll have the side effect of making your farmers more valuable; contrarily, a player who has no farmers will find it difficult to justify bidding high even when it would be otherwise desirable, and so will have to manage expenses more carefully. Of course, if you’ve spent a lot of money on farmers, you probably don’t have a lot left over! Since this is a cash management game, your choices (or non-choices) with respect to evaluating the fixed-income provinces, farmers, and trade routes which primarily dictate your income are critical to the game.
I’ve mentioned that Amun-Re is a cash management game several times now, and I think that’s the key to appreciating it. Many Knizia games have tactical depth that grows on you as you play: Taj Mahal has techniques for when to block and when to dodge the player to your right; in Modern Art you learn in what circumstances to use the different types of auctions; in Tigris & Euphrates you learn to recognize when you can use your destruction tiles to break up empires; in Ra you learn to manage the tempo of the game; in Samurai you learn the techniques for playing the bonus tiles. Amun-Re, it seems to me, has surprisingly few of these tactical details – it’s all about evaluating the worth of complex assets. Everything you might want to purchase – the farmers, the bricks, the power cards, the provinces – has a value that depends on what you’ve already got, what’s available, what everyone else has, your own and your opponent’s current and future cash flow situation, and so on. This is evaluation on a level that makes Ra look like straightforward. The players who can figure out what everything is worth will do well.
Hopefully, I’ll do a better job next time.