Designer: Reiner Knizia
Artist: Jonas Hassibi and David Prieto
What is this? Another Knizia tile-laying game? You are kidding, right? Don’t we have enough of this already. How many versions of the same game can he make…..? I kid of course, as I have been eagerly waiting to get Babylonia on the table. Ludonova distribution is not as widely available in the global market and hence, it was harder for me to find a copy. After all the positive feedback and reviews online, I must say that I was thrilled to land a copy and like any kid in a candy store, I was eager to sample the product. So, after about half a dozen plays at 2 and 4 player counts, I can render my impressin: is this Knizia masterpiece any good?
For the most part, that’s a YES.
Babylonia is an amalgamation of Knizia’s creations. A Frankenstein of gaming elements pieced together in a creative way . Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily so. One can always pluck the best parts of each game to create a new experience. This is something Knizia has done in the past and will continue to do so. For me, his new creations are often more than the sum of its parts. Each and every game has a distinctive feel that makes it stand out from its predecessor even though mechanistically, you can point to certain similarities from his previous designs. Some changes are incremental, but often times the similarities are described in broad strokes that doesn’t really stand up upon further inspection. For example, both Samurai and Blue Lagoon are tile laying games with elements of area majority. But tile laying is such a broad category that it doesn’t mean anything much beyond just the simple act of placing tiles.
As others have already noted, Babylonia plays most similar to Samurai, the classic Knizia area control tile-laying game. Yet, if you are a Knizia superfan, you can find elements of Through the Desert, Taj Mahal, Yellow & Yangtze, T&E in the game. Instead of placing hexagonal tiles on the Japanese archipelago, players place wooden discs on a hexagonal grid superimposed on the rivers of Tigris and Euphrates. Scattered throughout the landscape are cities, area for crop tiles and a few Ziggurats. These are the board elements that players are trying to capture or gain control. At the start of each game, crop tiles and city tiles are randomly seeded to reflect different scoring opportunities. Crop tiles come in two flavors and capturing crop tiles is simple: just place your connected farmer on the tile and pick it up. City tiles on the hand come with different icons/nobles printed on them. Each city tile can have up to 3 nobles printed on them. These nobles match those on player discs. Finally, the Ziggurats are permanent fixtures on the map. The 3D plastic structure is always placed in fixed locations on the board. Capturing cities and Ziggurats requires players to have a majority of their discs surround the structure in question.
Each turn, players will play 2-3 wooden discs on the board from a hand of 5. You can play 2 discs of any type (comprising of 3 types of nobles and the farmer) or 3 or more farmers. Discs are normally placed on dry land, but when playing two tiles of any type, they can be flipped to the unlabeled side and places on rivers. Under normal circumstances, discs are usually played to either surround cities and Ziggurats, capture crop tiles or to string together a larger network of discs that are interconnected. This network building is crucial to extend scoring beyond just the handful of cities that each player captures. In fact, this network scoring is the most enchanting feature of the game.
Speaking of scoring: there are 3 types of scoring elements in Babylonia. As mentioned, cities and Ziggurats need to be surrounded by wooden discs before scoring is triggered. This is most similar to Samurai. However, unlike Samurai where tiles have numerical values and players fight to gain numerical superiority, the wooden discs in Babylonia have no numerical values and instead, a simple majority is calculated among all the discs that surround cities or Ziggurats, regardless of the type of icon printed on the disc. For cities, once majority is assessed, the player who has the majority will claim the city tile and every one will score points based on the number of cities they have collected thus far. In addition, players will also score 2 points for each noble on their disc that matches the same noble on the city tile. This is not limited to just the discs surrounding the city, but for the entire network linked to the city. This means that all you need is one of your disc that is linked to a larger network, be adjacent to the enclosed city when it scores to earn trigger network scoring. This second way of scoring is what makes Babylonia special.
Apart from city scoring, players also earn 1 point for each disc placed adjacent to a Ziggurat, with a bonus of 1 additional point per presence in other Ziggurats. Basically, if you already have your discs touching 4 other Ziggurats, every time you add a disc near a Ziggurat, you will earn 4 points. However, the main prize of adding discs to Ziggurats is to gain a majority around the structure such that you can pick up a bonus tile. These bonus tiles bend the normal rules of game play and are powerful in their own way. Some of the tiles are 1 time use, but most have permanent benefits. Some may seem overpowered at first blush, but I think they are fairly balanced.
The game ends when one player is out of discs in their rack or there is one or fewer unclaimed city left on the board.
If the scoring for Babylonia sounds a little convoluted for a Knizia, that’s because it is. This is possibly the only critique I have for the game. I know the scoring is more complicated because when I teach the game, I struggle a little to describe the scoring in a coherent way. It doesn’t flow. There are several ways to score points and they are all different: Cities have two modes of scoring when enclosed while Ziggurats score continuously with each placement. Crop tiles also score differently with each type. While it might not sound a lot, there is constant updating of the score track between turns, especially late in the game. It feels a little disruptive. The most fiddly part of scoring comes from city scoring for each player when a tile is captured. All players end up moving their markers on the score track. Often, a player can score twice or more on a single turn when disc placement captures multiple cities. When that happens, the game stops and all players collectively determine the scoring for the connected discs and cities. There is a flurry of movement as scoring tokens are pushed around more than once for multiple categories of scoring. This might not sound much relative to other games, but Knizia is reknowned for designing games with simple scoring. Witness Samurai with its end-of-game win conditions. Now, Babylonia doesn’t come close to other point-salad scoring games out there, but it was more than I expected. Babylonia’s game play is still a cut above the rest and more than makes up for my main gripe here. I do have to say, this issue with scoring is not evident with 2 players, but more so with 4.
Now with that minor gripe out of the way, every thing else about Babylonia is great and worthy of being labeled a Knizia. The fact that I can identify familiar elements of the game in his other designs: the disc draw and placement from Samurai and T&E; the network building from Through the Desert; the farmer placement in Yellow & Yangtze; the theme from T&E; the city tile scoring from Taj Mahal, does not detract from the originality of Babylonia. The fusion of these elements in Babylonia is seamless and the end product is its own beast. While I have played Babylonia with 2 and with 4 players, I have to confess that I love this most as a 2 player game. The disc draw and placement around cities are tight and moves are zero-sum. A placement here means an opportunity cost somewhere else. At the get go in a 2 player scenario, we will fight each other for resources in the same corner of the board. Blocking is critical and sometimes, failure to cut off an opponent’s network can be catastrophic. After half a dozen games, I still miss seeing potential moves (can I blame the overly illustrated board for this?). The constant temptation to develop your own network versus playing defensively is particularly delicious in a 2 player setting. All of these elements are also present in a 4 player game, but the outcomes are a little muddied: your defensive posture may block one opponent, but the benefits will be spread out among all other players. This situation is harder knowing that every disc you play that is purely defensive and disconnected from your own network, is probably sub-optimal in a way. I know this is a feature for many multiplayer games, but it is very evident in Babylonia. The urge to block is there, but I don’t want to benefit others. I am not saying this is a winning strategy, but I noticed many players, myself included, tend to shy away from conflicts in a multiplayer setting until mid-to-late game. I am sure there is a happy balance somewhere.
I am always unwilling to comment or write about Knizia games even after multiple plays. I feel I don’t know enough and barely scratched the surface for the game. Like many Knizias, Babylonia can only shine with repeated plays. That much is clear. Our initial 4 player games were awful. Everyone had their little corner to develop and interactions were poor. The board opened up ever so slightly with repeated plays. I don’t know how an opening hand looks like in a competitive 4 player game but I’d imagine a more robust competition for spots early on. Still, I remained to be convinced that a 4 player Babylonia is better than with 2 and I suspect, a game of 4 requires a shift in mindset on how to approach defensive plays. Unlike Samurai, opportunistic plays in Babylonia feel harder to come by and the cost-benefit are less obvious? Players rarely leave open spots to be taken advantage of and even then, without a large scoring network, I am not sure how tempting it is to steal a city tile from an opponent. Much remains to be explored. Luckily, the game is relatively short, which really help with repeated sessions. That’s the one thing about Knizia: his designs are never too complicated to just grab from the shelf and have a 30 minute session. This is an underrated concern for many board gamers who clamor for repeated plays. The time factor here matters, especially for those of us with day jobs and families. As much as I love Faiyum, it will sit on my shelf unloved while Babylonia or Whale Riders will see more play time.
Overall, I am on the band wagon with others. Babylonia is a great design and a Knizia through and through. I have to admit I felt slightly distressed at the scoring matrix in Babylonia. We lapped the score track once around in our 4 player games and this is the part that feels alien to me. In Blue Lagoon, the point-salad style scoring really turned me off and I felt we spent more time calculating points than we did playing the game itself. Perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but it underscores my respect for Knizia designs because he keeps scoring simple. We have enough games out there that scores boatloads of victory points and I can’t help but wonder if Knizia is going down that path as well. I love it when his scoring is simple. I want games that end when the first explorer reaches the gates of the temple or the first worker to build the last Moai, or the first Irish person to collect 5 stones or the first builder to finish all the pagodas…….