Designer: Phil Walker-Harding
Artist: Miguel Coimbra, Claus Stephan, Michaela Kienle
As the title suggests, this is a two player version of the big box hit from Phil Walker-Harding, who I now consider a modern day avatar for all the German designers in the 90s’. His games have all the hallmarks of the classic old-school German euros: short play time, interactive, few components and and even shorter rule book. Interaction is also largely derived from game play instead of card texts. There are few precious designers that uphold these design principles and fewer still who consistently produces hits. Walker-Harding had pretty much taken over the torch from the old timers (with due apologies to all the productive old timers).
In all aspects of game play, Imhotep: Das Duell is a pretty faithful rendition of the older sibling. In the original Imhotep, you mine stones, load boats, sail boats, unload stones to score points. That’s pretty much the entire game. The rules are dead simple but the choices are tough. Players are asked to choose between scoring or where to score. You can’t do both in the same turn and chances are, if you choose one, you might not have a chance to do the other in the following turn as others would have selected that option. These are hard choices that are ported over to the 2 player version. Instead of loading boats with stones, the boats are all pre-loaded with scoring or action tiles and placed on 2 of the 4 edges of a 3×3 grid that represents the dock. So you have 3 boats each placed horizontally and vertically on two edge of the grid. Players must then assign workers on 3×3 grid to claim the boats flanking the docks. At least two workers that form a column or row, from either player, is needed to claim a boat with tiles going to each player depending on the location of the workers on the grid. Tiles come in two flavors: they contribute to different scoring strategies, much like Imhotep, or they allow one-time special actions which is usually some form of tile or worker manipulation to gain an edge for worker placement or boat selection.
Das Duell is a simple twist from the original Imhotep. Instead of loading ships and deciding where to score, the designer flips the script and randomizes the scoring opportunities for each boat and then asks players to select boats and the tiles they want to score. The concepts are similar and distinct at the same time. Just like Imhotep, these are hard choices. All I can say is that it works incredibly well with two players and the mechanism generates boat-loads of tension each round. That’s because each action you choose comes with a sacrifice or opportunity cost. You clearly cannot do everything, but by choosing an action, you are giving up another. By choosing to focus on scoring, you are also allowing your opponent to choose what they want; by deciding to play defensively, you are losing out on your own scoring; by placing workers, you forgo selecting boats, etc. You get the idea. The impact of your choice is obvious, laid bare to see and not obscured by layers of complexity. The grid placement is genius because it adds one extra variable to consider. Workers placed on the grid can unload boats from the horizontal or vertical lines that intersects the worker. That means if the worker unloads a boat in the vertical column , you cannot then use the same worker to unload the other boat in the horizontal row because the worker is removed from the grid.
Since this is a two player zero sum situation, balancing aggressive and defensive plays is a must to win. In fact, recognizing when to block at the appropriate time is a huge part of the game. Most of the time, your actions are geared toward getting tiles that score points, but you need to keep an eye out for your opponent. For example, the tomb is a high-scoring option if you let your opponent gather all the tiles in sequence, you will be at a disadvantage. At some point, you need to fight for tiles which chains together two shorter sequences to prevent a high scoring event for your opponent. Similarly, you want to make sure the final few pyramid tiles do not land in your opponent’s hand to complete the entire structure. The beauty of the design is that components are so limited and usually one-of-a-kind that if your opponent is focused on a particular scoring strategy and hoarding those tiles, then these tiles are generally useless to you because they are low scoring. So, playing defensively comes at cost of your own scoring. Yet, defend you must. So timing is everything because you need to be selective with the defensive plays. I’d go even further by saying that Das Duell is all about these defensive strategies and what makes it tick.
The original game was a hit because of the low barrier for entry and the ease of play. We are talking Ticket to Ride level of complexity. The rules are simple but folks get a kick from the tough choices to make. I think the same is true for Das Duell, but even more cutthroat than the original. I didn’t think there was much room to wriggle or innovate from the original but was pleasantly surprised that the small changes in action selection really altered the game to suit 2 players. However, there is a certain level of “meanness” in the game that requires direct conflict. It isn’t that you indirectly pick up something that your opponent wants; instead, you are planning, perhaps several moves ahead, to snatch a specific tile away from under their noses. So, this can be a red flag for some. Be aware.
Overall, Imhotep: Das Duell is a really neat and unexpected find for us which I will recommend to others.