Parthenon is a new game from the newly-prolific Z-Man Games; it’s yet another civilization-building type game, this time with a vaguely Settlers-esque appeal.
Each player becomes the leader of an island in the Aegean, attempting to make their name in the world. Unlike in Settlers or Civilization, there is no map – everything is handled abstractly. You start with a couple villages that produce a single basic good (Grain, Grapes, Olives, Wool, etc.) automatically at the beginning of each turn. The rest of your building options are represented by a handful of cards, and include a couple more production villages, workshops, temples, ports, marketplaces, etc.
The immediate thing that you realize about this game is that given the goods you produce on your home island, you literally cannot build anything beyond your first couple production buildings (several costs are, in fact, expressed in terms of “goods you don’t produce”). Of the 6 basic goods available, you will have villages for only 3. Of the 4 rare goods available (tools, pottery, spices, and papyrus), you will be able to produce only one.
So, to do anything at all, you’ll need to trade. This involves either finding a compliant fellow-player to trade with (each of the islands produces a different selection of standard or rare goods, so this shouldn’t be too hard) or journeying to neighboring lands, which function much like the ports in Settlers, giving you various X:1 trading options. The journeying process is neat but fairly random, as you load up your goods and protective cards on ships and then draw cards to see what hazards they face, with nearer locations (Athens, Sparta, Ionia) being a lot less risky than further ones (Egypt, Carthage, and Rome), but the risker destinations also offer much better trade rates, as you would expect.
Whenever I play new games from a company I don’t have much experience with, I always find myself reading the credits – mainly looking over the playtesters, seeing if it’s anyone I recognize, seeing if a developer is credited, etc. On perusing the Parthenon credits late in the game, I saw something unusual – the game is derived from a game used as a team-building exercise, presumably for corporate customers. As I read this, everything became clear to me. The game forces you to trade with your fellow-players to do anything at all, because virtually all of your own resources are useless to you. The huge randomness of the trade expeditions and the brutal and somewhat arbitrary random events that pop up each turn might actually be desirable in such a game, as the players are forced to “pull together”. Unfortunately these things just don’t make for a terrifically compelling social game (and, I should say, if I wanted a team-building game at work I’d think that having everyone round for a game of Lord of the Rings might work better). Anytime you are forced down a certain approach to the game it’s not good – compare to Settlers, where you can either do the best with what you’ve got, or try to do better by trading. And the large and essentially arbitrary effects of the events is going to be frustrating and a turn-off for most serious gamers. We’re not talking events that force you to lose half your cards if you’re holding too many; many events wipe out your entire inventory.
There are a couple more minor gaffes here as well… one of my rules of gaming is that a game should end while you still have choices. One of my complaints about Advanced Civilization, for example, is that it will typically end with one or two players acquiring all the Civilization cards. For the last few turns of the game, these players are just “buying out the string”, acquiring whatever they can afford rather than making real choices about what they need. Compare to Settlers: Cities and Knights, where players are making choices right until the end. In Parthenon, the victory conditions involve just buying up everything in your inventory. Combine this with the fact that only a few of these buildings are very useful at all, and things seem off.
I’d really like to give Parthenon a passing grade (say, a 3 out of 5). The theme is great and well-realized. The graphics are very nice and evocative. I think the whole journeying mechanic for visiting foreign lands is well-done and fairly well-balanced. But ultimately I can’t do it, and it ends up being rated around a 2 for me. This is a game with a high price point ($50 retail) and long playing time (2+ hours), and given that, there just aren’t enough choices, the game is too constrained, the event cards are too random, and ultimately too many balances are out of whack. I think if Z-Man had been able to cut the price point back to under $30 retail (there are a truly excessive number of cards in the box) and the play length to 60 minutes, things would be better. But at the current price point, it’s very hard to recommend.