Phil Walker-Harding

Publisher: Kosmos

How many times can we build pyramids for the Egyptians. The theme is truly cooked. How about building….Hadrian wall? Stonehenge? Great Wall of China? Nazca Lines? (Photo credits: Eric Martin@BGG)

Phil Walker-Harding designed games have been really well-received by the gaming crowd. I think the most remarkable achievement is that his games straddle both the casual and serious gaming crowd really well. On the surface, the games are easy to grasp and are thematically appealing to the family. Yet, there is often enough meat in the bones for more serious gamers to chew on, perhaps as a heavy filler. This is no easy feat. Sushi Go is one example where the game is easy to teach and grok for casual gamers but still appeals to gamers who enjoy a light card drafting game. It provides enough easy play to satisfy gamers at all levels. Imhotep and Cacao also fall into this category and to a certain extent, Gizmos as well. These games are slightly further upstream of traditional fillers such as No Thanks!, For Sale or 11 Nimnt as they are heavier but does not yet cross over to the medium weight category of games.

In all the examples above, Imhotep is Walker-Harding’s best design. It is one of those games where you think to yourself, how can such a simple game be appealing at all? Why didn’t I design this game? How can a game that doesn’t seem to have a lot of decision space work? Well, it works. To be absolutely clear, there is no way you can compare this to the heavy weights. We are not talking about how good Imhotep is relative to Teotihuacan. It’s apples and oranges. Imhotep is what you play AFTER playing Teotihuacan. As fillers go, this really is one of the top selections.

A game of Imhotep for 4 players can be as short as 30-40 minutes. Each round consists of several turns and each turn, player either replenish their sleds with 3 stones from their personal quarry, place a stone on a boat or sail the boat to a location. Easy peasy. There are a variable number of boats with different carrying capacities available each round depending on the number of players. For a 4 player game, there are 4 boats available each round and the capacity for the boats are different, ranging from 2-4 stones. Each boat has a minimum capacity before it can set sail and a player must have at least one stone loaded before they can move a specific boat. The round ends when players have collectively launched all the boats to trigger scoring. OK, a short digression here: I have to say, the stones in the game are awesome. The wooden blocks are hefty and the colors are perfect for the game: brown, gray, black and white. I don’t recall a single game that features such hefty and chunky wooden blocks. I know this is entirely a cosmetic decision by the publishers but I really appreciate it and it “feels” like you are building a structure. This just wouldn’t fly if you use a standard cube found in other Euros.

The locations where the boat set sail to is what makes the game tick. There are 5 boards featuring both A and B sides. Both sides have different ways of scoring and increase the diversity of game play. Once each ship carrying stones set sail, they will land on one of the boards and each location can only take one boat. Players place stones on different boards to compete for scoring. As per Euro scoring categories, one board allows direct construction of pyramids to score points; another board builds obelisks with the two tallest obelisk scoring points; one can also help construct a crypt for end game scoring or build a wall to score points for bricks visible top down. Finally, there is a market where the ships can land and trade stones for either power cards or set collection cards for end game scoring.

That’s basically the gist of the game. The beauty of the game comes from deciding which boat to load and when to set sail. Loading stones on boats seem to be a good default option at first blush but if someone sails your boat, they can bring it to any one of the locations, perhaps one that you aren’t interested in competing. A sharp player might quickly see which areas you are winning and divert the boat carrying your stones to a location you do not care or not competitive. However, it does come at a cost since you are sacrificing your turn to hurt others and I don’t think it happens often, though it can. Gauging when a boat sails is not always easy and in some instances, pushing your luck is important in this game.

Another aspect of the game that requires paying attention is looking at which boats the stones are loaded and the position of the stone. If a person is building the crypt and you want to piggy back on the boat, then knowing when to load the stones on the same boat is critical as stones are unloaded on a first come first serve basis. Basically, first stone in is also the first stone out of the boat. Most of the boards, the position and order of the stones when unloaded is critical. For example, the pyramids, walls and crypt all score differently depending on the order the stones are unloaded because there is a spatial component to stone placement. The market cards are also picked up according to turn order of unloading the stones. In short, turn order matters greatly.

All of this is really to say that Imhotep is simple, but player interactions will add a layer of intrigue and angst. If you enjoy these things, then Imhotep will provide a huge bang for your playing buck and is clearly my Walker-Harding favorite. The game is also clearly designed with easy expansions in mind. One need to only introduce more scoring boards and the game becomes extremely replayable. There are also now quite a number of print and play designs which integrates more stuff and give you more options. The Private ship mini expansion is cool because it allows a single use of a personal boat which carts one stone to any port of your choosing, bypassing all rules of stone placement on boats. Both the Stonemason’s Wager and Pharaoh’s Favor mini expansions gives you more special powers that are triggered from stones in the quarry. Not sure if these two final expansions actually complicates an already elegant game. Finally, there is also a full commercial expansion available.

Overall, Imhotep is a really really good 30-45 min filler. It is longer than your standard fillers and also meatier. I think the game should stay in my collection for a little while longer.

Final Word: Good

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