So, a while back, @RossM wanted suggestions for really ridiculous PBF games. Games that would be really challenging to do in this format. Well, Antiquity is probably peak ridiculous for this, but I want to give it a try.
First, why play at Italian city states in the middle ages?
Here’s Ava and Quinns talking about it:
Soundcast 111 partial transcript
Ava: I want to talk to you, Quinns, about a game that is probably the opposite of Planet Apocalypse, [Quinns laughing] in that…
Ava: Apart from the fact that it is also probably not very available right now. Although, there is a lovely implementation – and when I say lovely, I mean hellish – available online. But we’ll get back to that. I want to talk to you about Antiquity. This is a Splotter Spellen game, which gives you… Anyone who has seen the review of Food Chain Magnate might have a bit of an idea what they are getting in for here. We’re talking about a game that has no dice whatsoever, has no luck whatsoever, [Quinns laughing] and is just your ruthless brain against someone else’s ruthless brain. And not only that, but the absolute horror of the game itself trying to slowly kill you.
Quinns: Oh, this is- I’ve just brought up a photo. This is the most beige thing I’ve ever- No, it’s- Yeah. Oh, goodness.
Ava: [talking over Quinns] It’s ssssssssssssssssso beige! It has leaned so far into the kind of beige “we are talking about medieval Europe so we are not going to give you any color whatsoever,” but it does-
Quinns: It looks like a piece of bread gave birth to a board game.
Ava: [stammering] Part of me is like, I wanna say it’s horrible, it’s really dull-looking, it’s very… But it also- It does the same thing that Food Chain Magnate does, of like, while it is lo-fi and… colorless, everything in it is done with the same style. There’s a consistency throughout absolutely every piece in this game. Honestly, one of the buildings that you can build is the rubbish dump in your town, and it is just a tiny little brick that has D! U! M! P! [Quinns laughing] printed in every corner? And it’s just- I don’t know, everything about it looks like it’s been drawn on weathered paper, and inked in… yeah.
Quinns: This is nuts. I’d not seen a photo of this before, but you can see how this is exactly like Food Chain Magnate. It is very brown, in the same way that Food Chain Magnate is very white, but it’s consistent and I would not say it’s ugly at all.
Ava: Yeah, no, it’s very, very pretty. I think it looks really really good on the table. But! That’s not all that we care about. So, Quinns, I want you to picture something. I want you to picture that you are dropped into the year 1050, and rural Italy. [Quinns groaning] How do you think you would fare?
Quinns: I was feeling alright until you said “rural Italy.” [Ava laughing] I think I’m dead within seven hours.
Ava: Yeah, so, Antiquity appears to be trying to simulate that. You start off with a city. There’s some hexes laid out in front of you. So there’s big hexes which have got tiny little hexes on them, and that lays out the landscape. It looks quite a lot like a civilization game from a distance, and it shares a lot of elements with that sort of standard. You start off with a city, and that city also gives you a little player aid, which is a little kind of menu that you fold out that has a little grid in the corner, and that is the part of the bit of your city where you can build. Out in the land, there’s various textures of landscape, so there’s mountains and trees and rivers and little occasional exploration tiles that are things where you might possibly be able to go and get a tiny bit of food. And all of this is laid out before you.
And then, you go through the rules, and I found that the best way to do this is to go backwards through the rules, because it’s really important for people to not get too excited during the- Like, the early phases of the game, you’re building stuff and you’ve got opportunities to do lots of things, but you’ve got to know that the last few phases are Pollution and Famine [Quinns chuckling] and just everything crushing down around you. And yeah, these are all of the things that you’ve gotta deal with, because this isn’t your grandpappy’s civilization game. This isn’t gonna guide you through a turn-by-turn thing. This is gonna make you struggle for every single thing that you get.
Quinns: Yep. I think when we say civilization games, people think that’s synonymous with growth, right? Partially because of the impact of the video game, but also board games in the 80s. It’s this idea that, “Oh, I’ve got one city. Then I’ll have two. Then three! Then I’ll build the Eiffel Tower!” You know? This looks a little more like Agricola.
Ava: Yes, no, it’s definitely got that. And it’s an interesting comparison, because I’m on the record as really not liking Agricola, because it is too cruel and too hard?
Ava: And Antiquity is crueler and harder than Agricola, absolutely. So let’s try and give you a little picture of what you’re doing. The core of the game is that you have a little grid that is your city, and you have these little tetris pieces of buildings that you’re allowed to build on your turn. You start with a little bit of wood, a little bit of stone, so you’ve got some options for what you build. Those buildings each give you a special ability that you will be able to use later on through the turn. So, for example, the more cart buildings you’ve got, the more people you can send out into the wilderness to go and set up farms and that’ll be how you slowly get resources.
Ava: And that’s great. Emphasis on the “slowly” there [Quinns laughing] in how slowly you get resources. During the countryside building phase, it’s really exciting. You find a place, it’s like, “Oh wow! I can put a lumberjack there and there’s plenty of wood around it.” So you place these little tokens on the board. It is slightly faffy, because you have to do things in a very particular order, but you place all these tokens on the board, and then each one of those buildings, once per turn, you will be able to harvest and get one thing back. So you think you’re getting this slow trickle of stuff. And you are getting a slow trickle of stuff, but it is such a slow trickle, and then every turn you’re looking at your board, and in order for a building to work, for most of the buildings, it needs to have a person in it. Which means you have to build housing.
And it’s fine, the first five houses in your city, they’re free! And after that they slowly get more and more expensive as the people start wanting more food, or greater variety of food, or fancier goods to come and join in on your city and get involved. But the people that you’re sending out to work in the fields stay out in the fields. So they’re not available anymore. So you put someone on a cart, and then you lose them for eight rounds while they slowly chop that wood that is, in theory, allowing you to build stuff, but it’s also stopping you from doing the things that you so desperately want to do.
The feeling of the first few turns of Antiquity is desperately struggling to just about break even. [Quinns laughing] And this is made even more visceral by the fact- So those Famine and those Pollution phases? The Famine phase in particular. Each turn, the Famine level will go up by one. Each time you find one of those precious seeds of food in the exploration token, the Famine level goes up by one. Which means that… And the Famine level is how many people die [Quinns laughing] unless you have food in stock for them.
Quinns: Oh, what?!
Ava: Yeah. You have to have some food in your stock. Now you don’t use that food, but you have to have food harvested and ready during the Famine phase in order to go. (?) You can get a granary, which is one of the few buildings which doesn’t need to be occupied? Although I didn’t realize that that didn’t need to be occupied, so I didn’t build one until the late stages of the game? And when someone dies, that’s a little gravestone with the names of one of the designers or one of the designers’ friends [Quinns laughing] that you drop into one of the spaces on your city. So you’re slowly filling up the empty spaces of this little tetris grid-
Quinns: Oh, what?!
Ava: -that you’re filling in… Yeah! Yeah! And if you haven’t got enough room for a graveyard, for one of the little gravestones, you’ve gotta put it in a building! [Quinns laughing and clapping] And that building doesn’t work anymore, because it’s got dead people in it!
Ava: Honestly. The balancing act that you have to do between growing and building and keeping people alive… And honestly, it really just becomes a case of being like, “Right, I think I can afford to let like, four people die this turn? [Quinns laughing] So, let’s do it.” And then you place those four people, and it’s closing down your options for the next turn. And so that idea of growth, you know, you do- In this game, you will want to build a second city. The reason you want to build a second city is so that you’ve got room for a graveyard. [Quinns and Ava laughing] That is just a place to put corpses! Like, honestly.
Quinns: Oh, could you imagine that scene. Like, you know, the pioneers are looking out. It’s like, “Mother, we could build a town over there. There’s running water… and the thousands of bodies we need to bury, they could be there!” [Ava laughing]
Ava: It’s exactly that. It’s grim and it’s brutal at kind of every turn. And it’s just got a load of fascinating choices like that that make it really nasty, and like, it’s a game of survival for so much of it. And then you do hit a point, eventually, if you don’t knock yourself out of the running, which is- Because this is a Splotter game, that is entirely possible to happen very early on.
Quinns: I would love to take a second now, because we’ve – only briefly – but the crew has now played enough Splotter games that we’re starting to see the commonality between all of them, you know? Looking at pictures of Antiquity and hearing you talk about it, there’s a bit of Food Chain Magnate in there. There’s also a bit of Roads & Boats in there, which Matt and I played lots of last year. And I don’t even think it’s fair to say that Splotter games are, you know, games with the bumpers taken off, which is probably a comparison that we’ve used before, but I’m struggling to think how I would summarize them. You have any idea?
Ava: I mean, someone told me recently, and I haven’t managed to factcheck (?) this quote, but someone told me recently that one of the designers said, “If you can’t lose a game on turn one, there’s no point in having a turn one”?
Quinns: You know, that… Whether you agree with it or not, there’s a lot of truth in that. Because if you-
Ava: There’s a brutality in there.
Quinns: Well, I mean if you can’t lose turn one, that means that the decisions you’re making in turn one are somewhat irrelevant?
Quinns: You know? Or at least… Certainly, if… We can kick this question down the road and return to it later, but certainly we can say, Splotter games are games where it’s possible to make good decisions on every turn. It’s possible to feel really good about any given turn in a Splotter game. It’s also possible to feel awful. They’re games where you can do things and go, “Oh! No, that was an awful choice. I was playing my absolute hardest, I was paying attention, and I still made a choice that has put me in a terrible place.”
Ava: Yeah. Yeah yeah yeah. And I think that, unlike Food Chain Magnate, which you can just watch people accruing ten times the money that you’re getting, and realize that you’re just gonna be slowly driven into the floor for a while, Antiquity… If you… If you come out the gates really badly, and you mess up, then you are just stuck, and you are stopped. And you can probably… Generally speaking, you could probably call it, and just stop, and walk away from it. I don’t know if you’d want to do that? And we had a player who did pin themselves into a corner and worked out about halfway through our game, but wanted so much to power on and see how this worked and see how long he could hold on to, hoping that we would all die before him. [Quinns laughing] He had quite an efficient engine that was just slowly not allowing him to do anything else.
Quinns: Oh my goodness.
Ava: Whereas other people had engines that were spooling up. But every turn, everyone was still swearing, everyone was still going, “Oh my god, I don’t know whether I can actually get through this turn.”
Ava: So I think that it feels a lot more like you have got a chance of it. And I thought I had it sewn up, my game, and I ended up losing on a tiebreaker for a dead start. (?) I should talk about victory, actually, because that’s a particularly interesting and particularly odd thing. At the beginning of Antiquity, there is no way to win the game. Literally, there isn’t a victory condition that you can describe. What happens though is at some point, you will put aside some stone, and you will build a cathedral. When you a build a cathedral, you have to dedicate it to one of five patron saints.
Quinns: Ooooooh, nice! Okay!
Ava: Yeah! Notice those two things.
Quinns: [talking over Ava] I was ready to be like, “Oh, is it the gods of earth, fire…” But no! It’s a Splotter game. It’s gonna be something a little more interesting than that.
Ava: [talking over Quinns] Nope, nope, nope nope nope, it’s rural Italy, it’s Catholicism extreme. So there’s five different saints. Each of them does two things. The first one, is they give you a incredible bonus. Actually, one of them gives you a really rubbish bonus. And all the rest of them give you amazing bonuses. Santa Barbara lets you reorganize your entire city.
Quinns: Oh, whoa, okay!
Ava: So, whereas before you were playing Tetris, and when you made a thing, if you put it in the wrong place, that’s it, it’s there, you’ve… That’s one of the big huge mistakes you can make. One of my big mistakes was putting a single house in a position that meant it was not possible for me to get my cathedral until I built my second city. That sort of mistake can happen and can strangle you in this game. But Santa Barbara just says, “Hey, don’t worry about that! You can rearrange, you can shuffle around everything in your city whenever you like. Just do it! It’s fine. That’s up to you. It’s your city, you do what you want.” [Quinns laughing] And that’s just such a relief.
One of the… I can’t remember the name, but one of the saints lets you store as much food as you want in the cathedral. And you just don’t have to worry about storage anymore. For everyone else, they’re going, “Oh no, do I actually have room to keep that? Can I man my warehouse so that someone can get in there and we can keep that food for just one more round?” And yeah, you can just say, “Hey. No. I don’t care about that. There’s plenty of room in the cathedral. There’s room for everyone.” But! Each patron saint has a second thing, which is that they dictate how you win the game. So if you’ve got Santa Barbara, you need to get all twenty houses placed in your city.
Quinns: Oh! Wait…
Ava: If you’re able to store stuff, you’ve gotta pull that stuff all together so that you’ve actually got three of every single resource apart from woods and stones, the easiest ones to get.
Quinns: Oh, that’s so good! This is like the opposite of what we were talking about with Isle of Cats, where, you know, Isle of Cats is like, “You can draft cards that’ll give you some points for doing one of the hundred things that you can do.” No, but this is so much better. I was ready for you to be like, “Oh, if you’re Santa Barbara, then you get points for doing this.” But no! It’s like, it gives you the finish line! That’s awesome!
Ava: Yeah, no, it’s a finish line. That’s it, that’s it, absolutely. The game ends- At the end of each turn, you check whether someone has fulfilled their victory condition, and then they win or they lose. They win or you carry on playing.
Quinns: And you won on the same turn as someone else?
Ava: Yeah, so right, so there’s one thing to say about- The fifth saint is Santa Maria, and this is one of my favorite things in the game. Santa Maria, the holy mother, gives you all of the bonuses of all of the other saints. [Quinns snorting] You build a temple to Santa Maria, you can do all of those. But! You’ve got to fulfill two of the victory conditions-
Ava: -of the other saints.
Ava: And that is… that is brutal! [Ava and Quinns laughing] But it’s so tempting, because it’s so much power. Honestly, the turn on which I built my Santa Maria cathedral and was like, “Oh wait a second! Now I don’t have to worry about that! Now I don’t have to worry about that!” All of my worries left me. And then a whole new set of worries came almost immediately after [Quinns laughing] trying to work out how I could actually navigate the land, how I could deal with… Because there’s Pollution being poured on every turn! Every city produces three Pollution, and you’ve got to have somewhere to put it, so the more cities you build- And you’re just filling up every single tile with Pollution, that means that you can’t use the things that you were already using. And augh, everything about this game is just like, “Oh yeah, you can do that. You can totally do that. But! Watch out because this is gonna get in your way.”
Quinns: This really-
Ava: There’s always some obstacle.
Quinns: It so reminds me of Roads & Boats when we were reviewing that, and realizing little things, like, you know, you’ve got donk- It’s all about transporters. What transporters do you have? How many do you have? And it starts with donkeys, and you breed them, so then you have a bunch of donkeys, but really you want to swap them out into trucks. But even when you swap all the donkeys into trucks – which in any other game would be like, “Well done. You did it. Now you’ve got this power.” – you realize that trucks can’t go off roads. [Ava laughing] You know, which is such a… That’s… These moments are Splotter in a nutshell, of being like… Giving you very simple rules, very simple advantages that you then realize, because of the nature of how the rest of the game is designed, are actually penalties in disguise.
Ava: Yeah. Yeah. No, that’s it, exactly. You get more options, but there’s still something new to worry about. You start building an efficient farming network, and it just means you’re making more pollution, and you’re devastating more of the countryside. [Quinns snorting] Like it’s so much more honest than any civ game, because it is just like, slow- Ahh! What happens if you build loads of cities and urbanized things? Oh well you just slowly decimate [Quinns laughing] the countryside around that city. That’s what happens. And then you end up having to be like, “Oh. Oh no, wait, we’ve ruined this city and we’ve ruined all the land around it. Let’s build another city! [laughing] Maybe that’ll fix everything!”
Quinns: The classic Food Chain Magnate thing of, you know, like, “Oh, we’re all gonna sell burgers and pizza.” “What’s our number one problem?” “Well, people don’t want them.” [Ava laughing] So really Food Chain Magnate is a game about fabricating desire so you can then sell the thing that you made them want in the first place.
Ava: Yeah, exactly.
Quinns: Which is, again, such a more truthful observation on, you know, capitalism.
Ava: Yeah. Yeah yeah yeah no. It’s… I didn’t really think it’s excellent. It is brutal, it is nasty, you’re likely to have a good solid four, five hours of play, and it is hard work and everyone will be like, complaining the whole time. I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned on anything Shut Up & Sit Down-y, but I have a theory of type two fun?
Ava: Which are things which are not fun while you are doing them, because you are just stressed and anxious and trying to make the thing work, but you look back on it and you think, “Ah, that was brilliant.” [chuckles]
Quinns: That describes all the backpacking I’ve ever done.
Ava: Yeah, no, exactly. I think that it’s like… It’s a thing, and it is enjoyable, but you will not look like you are enjoying it while you’re in the middle of it. You will look like you are…
I hope, one day, that they decide to reimplement it with a slightly more up-to-date engine, because it is otherwise close to brilliant. To Board Game Core’s credit, though, it does clearly look like a system that was designed a long time ago for play-by-email games that would have had a slower pace anyway, and I think that trying to play a live game with a system that is designed for that isn’t always gonna be perfect? But yeah, I think it runs well, and it does what you need it to do. It will just occasionally cause you large spikes of irritation.
If that doesn’t sell you on the game, I certainly won’t be able to. If it leaves you feeling intrigued, you are in the right place!
As you probably know, I have reimplemented it with a more up-to-date engine, and it works great. It will be ridiculous to run in PBF, because it is so spatial and visual, but I think it can be done and I have the tools to do it.
This is a recruitment call exclusively for players new to the game and @pilllbox, if he’s interested. I’ll be moderating, not playing. 2-4 players.
Rules are over here, and are surprisingly concise. The challenge is in figuring out how it all works on the board, but I’ll be talking people through that.
Expect a slow pace for this over a fairly long time period - if someone can’t post for a weekend or whatever, that’s totally fine.