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 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.


Game Night: Silicon Valley Boardgamers

For Sale was a quick round of filler as 5 of us had shown up, and we were sure more were coming, and For Sale has about the best bang for time investment of any short game I’ve played. And I won, proving that you can win just about anything if you’ve been playing off and on for 5 years and your opponents have never seen the game before (auction games are usually not my forte).

Speaking of which … Amun-Re is a game that I like a lot. This time must be about my 10th play, and it’s still going strong, still revealing new depth, and still playing in different ways each time due to the vagaries of the order in which the provinces come out who is playing. I did horribly this game because, for some reason, I was finding it hard to concentrate. I don’t know why. But like Taj Mahal and Tigris & Euphrates, this is not a game you can play on autopilot and expect to do remotely well, so I came in last. I find the early game very difficult, and usually get reamed somehow by committing to some element of a strategy (usually farmer-light vs. farmer-heavy) only to find things going the other way and everybody else zooming past me. I know it’s heresy, but Amun-Re might actually be better than Tigris & Euphrates and on par with Taj Mahal (*).

Last of the night was Urland with the new expansion. I think Urland is really a very nice game, better than its predecessor (Ursuppe) actually, rather underrated, and I think the new gene cards are much better than the new genes that came with the Ursuppe 5-6 player expansion. Mutation came out in our game, which is an interesting gene, as did Photogenic and Nocturnal (the latter too late to have much impact as it turned out). We played with the guidelines in the rulebook, which adds only a few of the new genes in a game; next time I think I’ll just mix up all the expansion genes in with the originals.

(*) Endnote: Although I like my Best of the Knizia Boardgames list on BoardGameGeek, I must admit it contains something of a white lie – I don’t actually think quite that highly of Tigris & Euphrates, and succumbed to it’s popular acclaim in ranking it #3. While you’d hardly go wrong with it, in my heart of hearts, I think Taj Mahal (#7) and Tigris & Euphrates should probably be reversed. If you think swapping #3 and #7 doesn’t make any sense, well, I didn’t want the top of the list to be dominated by all “big” games (T&E, Taj, Amun-Re). I might be coming to the conclusion that Amun-Re is better than Tigris & Euphrates, actually. But, I’ll be cautious on that for the moment.

2014 Footnote: I’ve been reposting these articles verbatim until now, but I feel like I have to add here that 2004 me was pretty wrong about this. Amun Re and Taj Mahal are both great games, and would likely be the crown jewels of any designer other than Reiner Knizia. Taj Mahal is even an almost-classic which still gets occasional play. But Tigris & Euphrates is the clear masterpiece which I’ve come to appreciate more over time. It also doesn’t help that Taj Mahal has been sort of supplanted by Beowulf, while Tigris & Euphrates has never been emulated.

Gaming Afternoon at Larry’s

Mark was visiting from Ohio, so Larry offered up his place for some gaming. I went in thinking I might like to try to get a game of Liberty in, since I expect to receive Columbia’s new Gettysburg game any day now and after that happens it might be a while before I get to play Liberty enough to finally figure out what I think of it. But that was a long shot given it was a eurogaming crowd, so I was pretty happy when Amun-Re came out, since I’d been thinking about it after reading a list soliciting strategy tips for various games on BoardGameGeek. Amun-Re is a very neat game that I think might be under-appreciated.

Anyway, we had one new player and 4 who had played before (I definitely think it’s significantly the best with 5). It was interesting, because I really thought I was not playing well and thoroughly hosed – I found myself with little money as I had provinces without farmers, camels, or residual income while other players were earning big bucks on farmers due to a big sacrifice. I invested in power card provinces, but the power cards I drew featured the “sacrifice twiddler” card heavily (3 times, I think), a card I am not particularly fond of. However, I did have strategic pyramids, and the sacrifices dried up towards the first scoring round, and I entered into the second round in better shape. By bidding very conservatively and very carefully hoarding my money, I managed to pull back in it – and I actually would have won if I had bid 7 instead of 9 for the last sacrifice. I had forgotten that bidding high would drive up the value of other players’ temples, so I just slapped all my money down since I knew I needed to win the last auction. This was the closest game I’ve ever played, with the top three players separated by a single point.

I like Amun-Re a lot. It’s not as good as Taj Mahal or Tigris & Euphrates, in my opinion – but I think it’s closer than people give it credit for. The power cards are slightly uneven – the one that allows you to alter the sacrifice total and the one that allows you to rebid in a given province seem weak in comparison to the others – but it’s really pretty close.

Second was Tongiaki. This is I think the third time I’ve played, and I definitely like it as a solid middle-tier game. It’s short-ish, it’s neat, games are very different each time, the game is dynamic, it’s got interesting choices. Plus, I won – although it was very close. We played with 4 this time, which is probably the ideal number. I dunno, but until somebody tells me the 6-player game is really great, I remain leery of playing with 5 or more – but 3 or 4 seem really good. Often these light-ish start fading pretty quickly, but Tongiaki seems solid.