Monday 10 June 2013

Review - Age of Mythology: The Board Game

Age of Mythology

Age of Mythology: The Board Game
Published by Eagle Games
Designed by Glenn Drover (who clearly believes all disputes should be resolved with Queensberry Rules)
For 2-3 players (or 2-6 players if you buy extra bits)

Age of Mythology: It's a board game, you know?

Hmm. Games that tell you they are board games. It's not usually a good sign. There are exceptions, of course, like Dungeons and Dragons: The Fantasy Adventure Board Game, but as a general rule, if a game tells you it's a board game you should be concerned (I'm looking at you, Dragonology The Game, The Logo Board Game, and Small Soldiers Big Battle Game). I think it is a silly thing to put on a game box, but maybe that's just me.

However, in the case of Age of Mythology: The Board Game, I'm going to let it slide. Why? Because someone might see that big box on the shelf and think it is the computer game of the same name (on which the board game is loosely based).

Ah, who am I trying to kid? It's stupid.

Anyway, regardless of how I feel about silly names, I bought this game because it looked like something I would really enjoy. I'm very much into mythology (I've written a series of novels about mythological creatures, don'tcha know?) and, well... Well, that's it. I really like mythology. The fact the game box is stuffed to overflowing with little plastic miniatures of all my favourite mythological beasties was the icing on the cake.

Age of Mythology Greeks
The Greeks
Age of Mythology Egyptians
The Egyptians
Age of Mythology Norse
The Norse

Unfortunately, I didn't end up liking the game very much. The game rules are generally sound, with the exception of combat, but there was nothing there that really got me excited. I've only played a few times, and the game has sat on my shelf for a long time feeling lonely and unloved.

This game gives me a real sense of disappointment, because I don't really get any sense of the theme of ancient civilisations developing and battling each other with gigantic mythological creatures. All I get is the sense of pushing cubes around.

Oh yes. Wooden cubes.

Age of Mythology wooden resource cubes
Look, gold, wood, favour... and... oh, who am I trying to kid? Just cubes, folks.

I'm a theme man. Anybody who spends any time on my blog knows that. I don't tend to play many games that involve bidding for, or trading in, little wooden cubes. The awesome Lords of Waterdeep is the main exception to this rule. However, I am willing to give any game a go, and the inclusion of wooden cubes in a game isn't going to immediately put me off. When it feels like all I am doing is manipulating wood cubes... that's when we've got problems.

Wooden cubes can also be forgiven if they ship in a box that also contains six sprues of nicely detailed plastic figures. I'll be honest, those figures were a big draw for me. They are very small, and very rubbery, but the detailing is decent on the bigger models, and it is always cool to build an army of hydras, minotaurs, and gorgons. The biggest shame with this game is that you don't really get to do anything with those cool pieces.

You can play the game as the Greeks, the Egyptians, or the Norse. The aim is to develop your civilisation and win the most victory points. This is achieved through some rather interesting game mechanics.

Each player gets a civilisation board, which contains a production area and a city area. The production area contains different squares for different types of terrain (such as mountains, fertile land, and lakes). Over the course of the game you will be able to claim resource producing tiles which match certain types of terrain, and you can place those tiles in your production area. From then on, that tile will generate resources for you. For example, you might claim a mountain tile that produces two gold (good old yellow cubes). You can place this tile on any square in your production area that is designated as a mountain. Don't have a mountain square free? Then tough.

Age of Mythology player boards
The civilisation boards. Very pretty.

In your city area, you will be able to build house and other structures that give you various bonuses, such as villagers that will increase production in your production area, or towers that defend you from attack. Building houses will cost resources that you have farmed from your production area, and you will find you never really have all the resources you would like, especially as you will also want to create some troops for your army (which, of course, also cost resources).

Age of Mythology building tiles
Building tiles... Good job on the artwork, lads.

So far, that all sounds pretty interesting, right? Well wait. It's even more interesting than you think. You see, the way you gain production tiles, or do anything else in the game, is through action cards. There are seven basic action cards, and in every turn you get to pick a limited number. The amount you pick starts at four, and increases as your civilisation advances. The actions are explore (which gives everyone at the table the chance to claim new production tiles), gather (harvest your resources), trade (swap resources you have for resources you want), build (er... build something), recruit (develop your army), attack (pick a scrap with someone), or next age (pay a bucket load of resource cubes to advance your civilisation to the next "age").

As well as being able to pick from your seven basic actions, you can also gamble by drawing actions from a random deck. The random cards are generally more powerful, but you don't know what you will get until you draw. So, you could play it safe and pick from your low-powered basic actions, risk it all by drawing all random cards, or take a few basic actions and a few random ones. It is a really interesting mechanic, and creates quite a lot of tension.

In fact, as I write this, I have to think to myself that there are some really interesting things happening, and it is surprising I don't like the game more. There are plenty of strategic and tactical choices to make on every turn, and you never feel like you are able to do exactly what you want to do (which is exactly what games like this should be like). For example, when picking production tiles, the person who played the gather card reveals a certain number of tiles and picks one. Then every other player gets to pick one. There's an interesting decision right there: Do you take the best production tile you can, or do you pick a tile that you know your opponent really wants, even though it is less useful to you? With careful play, you can actually create situations where your opponents are unable to take any production tiles at all, simply because they do not have a matching terrain square on their production boards.

Even the way victory points are handled is quite clever. Each round, each player on the table gets to allocate one victory point to one of four different objectives: Largest Army, Most Buildings, Won the Last Battle, and Built the Wonder. Over the course of the game, victory points will build up on each objective, and then at the end of the game the person who met the objective scoops the victory points. The only exception to this is the Won the Last Battle objective, which dishes out the victory points to the winner after every battle.

The victory point mechanic is interesting because it allows people to focus on certain targets. Think you might have the most buildings at the end of the game? Then keep putting victory points on the Most Buildings objective.

So, if I like how victory points are allocated, I like how you select your actions each turn, and I like how you gather and spend resources, why don't I like this game all that much?

One word: Combat.

Age of Mythology reference sheet
The reference sheet (note the singular, 'cause you only get one)

The combat mechanic is utterly awful, and makes a mockery of having all those cool plastic army miniatures.

When it comes to attacking someone, you don't move around on a map like in Risk. You simply play your attack card and then select an opponent. You also select if you are attacking the opponent's production area, city area, or the area where resources are stored. You and your opponent then secretly select units to fight in the battle (the attack card you played lets you know the maximum number of units you are allowed to use).

Once units are selected, you and your opponent do a grand unveiling. The fight is then resolved via some kind of bizarre gentleman's agreement in which both players select ONE of the units in the fight. Only those units will actually fight.

You select the unit that will fight by using a deck of combat cards, that have pictures of the different units in your army. You find the card that depicts the unit you want to use (and which also lists combat dice and modifiers to attack), and then put it face down in front of you. Your opponent does the same. You then flip your cards.

You roll dice, apply modifiers that some troops get against certain opponents, and then figure out who has won. The losing unit is destroyed, and then you proceed to a new round of combat. This process is repeated until one side is wiped out, or one side retreats.

Now, re-read that description of the combat phase, and shout out when you spot the point where the little miniatures have a purpose.



I don't hear any shouting.

It's awful. I honestly can't describe how disappointing this element of the game is. It makes no sense that two armies march out to face each other, and then line up one behind the other to take it in turns to fight. Not only that, but it makes battles take forever.

I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised by this one-on-one style of combat though, it is exactly what is depicted on the cover of the box!

The only reason the miniatures exist (other than to sucker in people like me who go "Ooh, miniatures of cool monsters"), is so you can see how many of each type of unit you have. The whole thing could have been done with tokens to represent the units. This would actually have been better, because you could have just flipped the tokens over to see who fights who, and modifiers could have been printed directly on the token as well. This would have removed a lot of plastic from the game, plus all the combat cards, making for a more compact and cheaper game. I guess cardboard tokens just don't cut it in today's gaming community...

Age of Mythology rules
The rules: Concise, and well-written.

Unfortunately, the combat mechanism is a big killjoy for me. I could come up with alternative rules, but frankly, I don't have the time or the inclination. I don't buy games to redesign them. I have about 50 unfinished prototypes of games of my own if I want to do that. When I pay money for a game, I want to play it the way the designer intended.

However, even if the combat system was different, I'm still not sure I would love this game. You see, all the other elements seem very clever, and I really do think there are some very good ideas in there; but at the end of the day, I still just feel like I am pushing cubes around.

Selecting where to put my victory points each turn? Just placing a cube.

Gathering my resources? Just picking up cubes.

Trading? Swapping cubes.

Entreating the Gods for their favour? Collecting more cubes.

Building an army? Pushing cubes back onto the "bank" pile.

I know, I know. You could say the same thing about any game that involves resources and trading. But here, I just really didn't feel like I was developing a civilisation, and I certainly didn't feel like I was waging wars between mythical creatures. For all the cleverness of the rules, it just felt a bit stale and lifeless. If anything, some of the mechanics are a bit too clever; and that causes the theme to be undermined.

It's not a bad game by any means. I think if you could do something about the combat mechanic it could actually be a very good game. The component quality is good, the rules are clear and easily picked up. There really is a lot to like. But this is not a game that I enjoy, and it is not a game I intend to keep in my Vault.

Such a shame, because I do really like those miniatures.

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