By Doug Mann 2015
I think that THEBES is a great game – a Euro that is also heavily thematic and the best game with an archaeology theme that I know of. In it 2-4 European archaeologists build up research knowledge, hire assistants, do archaeological excavations (digs), then show off their treasures at exhibitions or go on the lecture circuit.
The treasures they find, the exhibitions they mount and congresses they attend give them a variety of victory points. If they have the most specialized knowledge on one of the five ancient civilizations they can investigate – Egypt, Mesopotamia, Palestine, Crete or Greece – they get a 5-point bonus at the end of the game.
It’s also fairly friendly for non-gamers: easy to teach if you’ve recently read the rules, not too viciously competitive, with no player knockout. Two of its mechanics are clever and underused: the time scale around the board, which determines who moves (the player with the least amount of time spent so far), and the use of cloth bags to store random treasures.
The time track reflects the variable amount of time used in different actions (doing research is quick, while a dig takes much more time), and allows a player who wants to take a break for any reason to not disrupt the game (they can go on a dig and disappear for ten minutes).
The “bag” randomizer mechanic is also effective and thematic: less random than dice rolling (you can’t roll five 6s in a row) and no more random than a deck of cards, but reflective of what happens when several archaeologists scour sites for treasures i.e. they start to run out of artefacts to dig up. This is where I disagree with Sam Healy’s criticism of the game in the Dice Tower videos: it’s obvious that a finite set of counters in a bag is much less random than rolling two dice.
But why only 2-4 players? I recently played it with 4 players, and it became clear that the only reason to limit it to 4 players is that the treasures run about by the end of the third year of play. So here’s a quick and easy way of scaling it up to 5 or 6 players.
- First, use two large meeples or plastic miniatures from another game for your player markers – I suggest white and black to avoid the colours already in the game.
- Second, find two flat wafers for time markers: if you can’t match the meeple colours, use a penny and a dime, or transit tokens, for the extra colours.
- Third, place the dig permits in a cup instead of giving everyone a set. In each year, whoever gets to the relevant site first (e.g. Greece) takes a permit, places it in front of them, and then flips it after committing to the dig. At the end of each year, each player returns their used permits to the cup. This means that at most four players can dig in a given site each year, which isn’t likely to limit anyone in any case.
- To reflect the shortage of treasures, start the 5-player game on week 25 of 1901 and play through to the end of 1903.
- In a 6-player game, just play 1901 and 1902 (this is the length of game recommended in the rules for 4 players).
- As an optional rule, to avoid treasure exhaustion, buy some “school reward” stickers of variable sizes from your local dollar store and add some temporary stickers to the blank debris counters. Add a sticker with a large star on it to one debris counter in each of the five areas: this counter is worth 2 VPs. Then add a sticker with a small star on it to two debris counters each in Greece and Egypt, and to one debris counter each in Palestine, Mesopotamia and Crete. These counters are worth 1 VP. This will keep the dig sites viable for one last dig in 1903. Add non-star stickers to all the other debris counters so players can’t distinguish between these and the improved ones.
Use all the other rules from the game other than those countermanded above. Happy excavating, and may your zeppelin ride not be too bumpy!
My ratings out of 6 for Thebes:
- Complexity: 4 Warm
- Strategy: 4.5 Warm+
- Luck: 3 Moderate
- Aesthetics: 5 Very Good (the bags, treasure tokens and archaeological gauges are great, but I’d prefer minis over meeples for player pieces)
The Three Continua
- Player Interaction: 3 Moderate (2 Cool early in the game)
- Level of Conflict: 2 Cool
- Depth of Theme: 5.5 Hot+
- Overall: 6 Excellent (the best game on archaeology, rivaled only by Tikal)
Note: My ratings for the games on this site are high because I tend to only review games I like and thus have played multiple times!