Monday, September 23, 2019

Through the Desert is great... but it’s weird

When I first heard of Through the Desert (by my personal hero Reiner Knizia), I read that it was Go for multiple players. That was before I learned what little I know of Go but I can now say that that’s horse feathers. Putting down stones, even stones in the shape of cute little camels, does not make a game Go.

That said, Through the Desert is a great game, one of those games that I wish I played more. I never found a table where people didn’t enjoy it. The biggest ding I can give to it is that it’s has serious color issues for someone who is colorblind like me.

The object of the game is to get the most points. But there are a variety of ways to get those points.

Thumbnail: The game is played on an asymmetrical hex grid that has spaces for water tiles and palm trees, along with lots of empty spaces. There are six different colors of camels and every player gets a camel rider for each of those colors. (So there are eleven pastel colors on the board in a five-player game) Each turn, you pick two camels and place them on the board. The game ends when you’ve used up one color of camel.

Couple of restrictions: You must be able to trace back a camel to your rider of the same color. And you cannot merge into someone else’s group of the same color.

There’s a lot of ways to get points. If you place a camel on top of a water tile, you get it and the points that come with it. If you place next to a palm tree, you get points. If you enclose an area, you get points. And, finally, if you have the most camels of a color, you get points.

Through the Desert isn’t Go but it is definitely an abstract. Camels and palm trees make the game pretty but they don’t actually create a real theme. Another theme or no theme at all could just as easily be used. And the only random element in the game is the distribution of the water tiles. Beyond that, there is no hidden information and everything is under the players’ control.

With that said, Through the Desert is a very unusual abstract. Playing up to five players alone would be noteworthy but abstracts that handle more than two have been around and become more common. (The Blokus family, Ingenious, Martian Chess, Focus, etc.) 

Abstracts, as a rule, usually have one way to get points or a defined game ending/winning condition. It’s not a hard and fast rule. Checkers, for instance, can end either when you capture all your opponent’s’ pieces or block them from being able to make a move. However, I think it’s not unfair to say that the multiple game winning statuses tends to be X or Y or Z. (Geister by Alexander Randolph or Atlanteon by Reiner Knizia are examples of that)

With four different ways of getting points that are distinct, Through the Desert is X + Y + Z + AA :D There are multiple paths to points and, more than that, you definitely can’t pursue all of them. It is an abstract that feels like a Euro. Which is weird and cool and something that feels so Knizia.

I have a long list of abstracts for people that hate abstracts. But Through the Desert is on a whole different level since it’s an abstract that doesn’t feel like an abstract. 

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