Designer: Reiner Knizia
Artist: Malcolm McClinton, Eva Widermann
Publisher: Playroom Entertainment
Ilium is undoubtedly a Knizia design that is flying way below the radar, even for aficionados. Whether you believe the game is underrated, I think, will largely depend on your relationship with Knizia-designed games. If you think his themes are pasted on, his designs recycled, or his glory days are behind him, then you will likely find Ilium to be just more of the same. But, if you are a fan who appreciates how he takes basic game elements and assembles them in clever ways to force players to interact, then Ilium is a pretty darn solid Euro in a long line of designs that bears his name.
Like many other Knizias, actions are easy to comprehend: players flip a card from a personal deck which shows 1-3 archaeologists and place all these archaeologists on one of the slots in a path linking two dig sites. There are 4-5 slots on each path and once the entire path is filled with archaeologists, the two dig sites connected to the path is evaluated. Because multiple paths are connected to each dig site, each dig site will be evaluated several times after each path is completed.
Since each dig site is evaluated several times, it will contain as many artifact tiles as there are paths connected to the site. This means Ilium isn’t a race game, even though there is a rush to claim quality tiles. There are 5 different artifact tiles with each tile featuring 1-5 artifact icons of the same type. Theoretically, tiles with higher artifact counts are more valuable (i.e. a tile with 5 coin icons is more valuable than one with 2 pottery icons), but this is not always the case, as will be evident below. Importantly, a player that holds a majority of archaeologists in the completed path will get first pick of a single lowest value tile from either one of those two sites. If the second highest majority has half or more archaeologists than the leader, then they can select the tile not chosen by the leader. If not, the majority gets both tiles.
As mentioned above, collecting just high value tiles while advantageous, is not really the entire aim of the game. Rather, one needs to collect a set of 5 artifacts to score point. While you may get a majority of pottery tiles with a total of 12 pottery icons, if you don’t have any coin tiles to form a complete set of all five artifacts, you won’t earn the 5 points for each set. Hence, at times, a low value 2-tile is more valuable than a high value 5-tile. That said, players who collect the most number of tiles for each type of artifacts also score a 10 point majority bonus.
In truth, all these rules descriptions about Ilium is rather useless. You must play it to get a feel for the game and you must play it more than a handful of times to understand how each decision is weighted differently depending on the board state, your opponent and the number of opponents. This is a Knizia hallmark: It is often tough to figure out how everything falls into place until you play the game. Often, the rules look simplistic – and they are – but the decisions aren’t as straightforward. For Ilium, where you choose to focus on worker placement matters, and it may take a couple of turns to appreciate the value of each placement and how best to utilize the valuable 3-archaeologists placement opportunities.
Also classic for Knizia, he throws a couple of curve balls. First, he gives each player 3 supply cubes which can be used to accelerate path completion. After regular archaeologist placement, one can use supply cubes to occupy the remaining empty slots on the path to complete it. In any words, you can jump on a path, fill up all the empty slots and snatch the desired tiles by denying your opponents the chance to add more archaeologists to the path This is very reminiscent of the “Samurai” tiles in Knizia’s Samurai where one can use these rare tiles in succession to complete a city or structure . Because you only get 3 supply cubes, you must make each one count. Just like nuclear deterrence, having unused cubes in plain sight constitutes a come-from-behind threat that must be taken seriously. It is definitely a simple yet effective way to inject tension.
The other curve ball for the game comes from a forced “donation” of one of your highest value artifact tile to your benefactor which is predetermined before the game. Each player gets a different benefactor that will want a single artifact tile of the highest value in your collection. In essence you must discard that tile, making it harder for set completion since you must compensate and collect more of that type just to make up for the loss. I think this simple mechanism makes it harder to have a bloated victory since the donation will bring down the aggregate scores from set completion. It makes claiming artifact tiles more strategic and less about just quantity.
The game plays stunningly well with 2 players and I suspect, is the optimum player count given the zero-sum, tit-for-tat nature of the game. You can take controlled risks in your selections knowing full well that your opponent might be making different choices, allowing you to plan ahead. With more players, I can tell that it will be harder to pursue a particular strategy given that your options maybe limited by what is available the next time your turn comes around. This is probably true for many games of this type, where, one relinquishes some amount of control as the game shifts into a more tactical affair with additional players.
It’s too bad that Ilium was unable to stand out from a pile of games that was published in 2008. That is perhaps not terribly surprising since the publisher Playroom Entertainment is not known to publicise the games they produce. I also noted that Ilium was never picked up by any other publisher and so, it’s likely the game wasn’t widely available outside of continental US? That’s just too bad because I think the game would have fared much better with folks used to Euro style designs and appreciate what Knizia is bringing to the table.
While lots of folks have pointed out the rather bland brown-on-brown color scheme makes it tough to differentiate the paths, the game is not unplayable. Yes, the artwork can certainly be improved…… and yes, you can try to mark up the paths with a Sharpie, but I think it will be a shame if you choose to skip the game because of the less than stellar artwork. The game play should take precedence and in this case, it is not as bad as it looks.
If you love Knizia like I do, you will once again see The Doctor’s brilliance in Ilium, where simple rules and a handful of game components is enough to generate diverse player interactions and a complex set of choices each turn.