The arrival of a new big-box game from Reiner Knizia almost guarantees what we shall be playing at the next session of the club, but when Mark G phoned to say he wasn't going to be able to get to this session, we wondered whether it would play well enough with just three players. However, we decided to give it a go and I'm happy to say it worked really well. Nige had played once before so he took us through the rules and we were off. The game is about acquiring regions of ancient Egypt and building pyramids there to gain victory points. However, you also have to farm the land to gain income for building and buying more land. The game is just six turns long with scoring taking place at the end of rounds three and six.
Each turn is made of five phases. Firstly the regions available to purchase on that turn are revealed; players then bid for regions; they then spend money on power cards (which give certain benefits later in the game), farms to generate income and stones for the pyramids; the fourth phase involves making a sacrifice of money to Amun Re, in return for which the player will receive gifts from their god; and finally players harvest the land and receive income from their farms. The bidding is a bit different from the norm, because if you are overbid on a particular region, you have to bid on a different region before you can bid again on the original region. And it's possible you can't get back to bidding on the first region because the auction ends as soon as everybody is bidding on a different region. Add to that the fact that there are certain types of power card that alter the normal bidding rules and you end up with auctions being very difficult to judge how to bid.
Scoring points comes primarily from the pyramids you own at the end of rounds three and six. Each pyramid built gets you a VP and each set of pyramids ( a set being one pyramid in each of your regions ) scores a bonus of 3 VPs. The player with the most pyramids in one region on the East and West of the Nile gains 5 VPs and a player whose regions contain a Temple also get VPs depending on the generosity of the sacrifice to Amun Re. Some of the power cards also give VPs if the player succeeds in fulfilling certain conditions and that's it. After the first scoring, ownership of the regions dies and the same regions come up for auction again during the second three turns. After the second scoring, players may gain up to 6 extra VPs depending on how much money they have left and then the person with the most VPs wins.
In our game, Nige benefited early on from having played before and knowing the relative benefits of the various regions. However, playing with just three players meant that those regions with "camel harvests" were more valuable than in a four or five player game because the sacrifice almost always was less than 13 and so the camel harvest almost always paid out. I recognised this and opted to take Avaris in the first turn rather than increase the bidding on areas that looked more valuable (due to free power cards / stones). By the end of the third turn, Nige had built loads of pyramids in his regions and had the most pyramids on the East and equal most on the West of the Nile. ( I could have denied him a tie in the West but had misinterpreted the rule and thought that only the region with the most pyramids on the whole of the board got the bonus, so I used an action to do something else rather than buy an extra stone to break the tie). What I did do though was gain 33 income in the harvest phase of the third turn to set myself up for the second half of the game. Nige ran away with the lead after the first scoring with 23 VPs to my 13 and Mark K's 3.
In the second half, I used my new-found wealth to seize two of the three regions with the most pyramids and was aiming in the final round to grasp the region with the most pyramids. However, the bidding went against me, a power card messed up my plans and I was forced into the worst region of the three available. The one saving grace was that it meant all my regions were on the West of the Nile and I had the right power card to claim three bonus VPs. They were also all on the banks of the Nile and I subsequently drew that bonus power card as well. Mark K recovered well and scored highly in the second scoring round as well as taking the 6 VPs for most money. I had the second most gaining me 4 VPs to Nige's 2. This brought our total VPs level, which had looked highly unlikely at the end of the first scoring and almost impossible when I had lost out in the final bidding round. However, the tie-break rule of most pyramids led to me securing a very pleasing win, while Nige was gutted at having his convincing lead overturned.
We all felt this to be another great Reiner Knizia game. Whether it has the staying power of some of his other successes remains to be seen but we found it to be very involving, no down-time to speak of and the close finish was nail-biting.