Review of Cleopatra and the Society of Architects

Review Summary
Comped Playtest Review
Written Review

May 24, 2006


by: Shannon Appelcline


Style: 5 (Excellent!)
Substance: 3 (Average)

A beautifully produced game with numerous, cool bits. The gameplay is fairly average but should appeal well to casual board gamers.

Shannon Appelcline has written 681 reviews (including 358 board/tactical game reviews), with average style of 4.03 and average substance of 3.85. The reviewer's previous review was of Nature of the Beast.

This review has been read 9433 times.

 
Product Summary
Name: Cleopatra and the Society of Architects
Publisher: Days of Wonder
Author: Bruno Cathala, Ludovic Maublanc
Category: Board/Tactical Game

Cost: $49.95
Year: 2006

SKU: 7501


Review of Cleopatra and the Society of Architects
Cleopatra and the Society of Architects is the new big-box game from Days of Wonder. Its designers are Bruno Cathala and Ludovic Maublanc.

Players: 3-5
Time: 60-90 minutes
Difficulty: 3 (of 10)

The Components

Days of Wonder has gotten a good reputation for producing big-box games with extravagant components. Cleopatra and the Society of Architects contains what are perhaps their most notable components to date. They include:

Quarry: A solid sheet of cardboard with rock "walls" raised up to help separate the components. This tray is pulled out of the box and set to the side when you play. It contains all the items that you can construct during a game of Cleopatra (other than the cardboard mosaics). Herein you get 9 column walls, 6 sphinxes, 2 obelisks, 2 door frames, and 1 throne and 1 pedestal.

The pieces are all large and molded from hard, tan-colored plastic. They all contain a medium level of detail, but some of it's very nice, such as the hieroglyphs up and down the obelisks. There isn't a lot of contrast on the plain tan pieces, which is unfortunate, but they'd probably look amazing if you wanted to paint them. Even if not, they're attractive.

The quarry comes wrapped in a protective plastic dome. Unfortunately when I took mine off I ended up with an annoying sticky residue on the bottom of the quarry.

Game Boards: Two heavy cardboard panels. They're used in conjunction with the box bottom, which shows the outside of Cleopatra's palace. This is where all the pieces from the quarry are ultimately placed.

You place the "garden" board atop the box. It has spaces for the mosaics of the gods and Cleopatra's throne and pedestal. You place the "plaza" board in front of the box. It has spaces for the sphinxes and the obelisks, and also shows Cleopatra's processional, which marks the time until the end of the game. The last two quary pieces, the door frames and the column walls, go around the box.

Other Plastic Figures: A small tan figure of Cleopatra which doesn't have that great a level of detail and two statues of Anubis in each of the player colors (green, purple, black, orange, white). The statues are molded out of a softer plastic and seem to have slightly better detail as a result.

Cardboard Bits: The cardboard bits are all printed on thick, linen-textured cardboard. The corruption markers and talents are each simple markers. The amulets are circular and show crocodiles while the talents are rectangular and show a value of 1, 2, 5, or 10.

The merchants come in the five player colors. Each one shows a ship with the color & hieroglyph of the owner, which is a nice touch. The merchants are wild cards in the game, and they helpfully show all five resources along their bottom.

The Mosaics of the Gods are pentominos. Each one shows a different set of five connected squares. They're each edged in different colors, which makes them vivid.

The altar of the god is a circular cardboard piece that you put by the front of the board. It exists solely to collect dice that come up "ankhs" so that you don't accidently reroll them.

Cards: Cards printed on full-sized, linen-textured cardstock. Each one has attractive art in the middle, then either icons or text at the bottom to describe what the card does. They're all very pretty, and also very easy to use. Besides the good use of icons at the bottom of each card, there's also a handy shorthand at each of the top corners, which allows you to see exactly what a card does if they're stacked on the table or if you're fanning them in your hand.

Dice: Five wooden dice, each printed with an ankh on one side.

Pyramids of Corruption: Cardstock pyramids which you fold out when you play. Each is printed with the color and hieroglyph of one of the five players. You place your corruption tokens inside them via a slot, so that the other players can't see them.

Summary Sheets: These summary sheets not only tell you the cost and return on every construction (which is extremely useful during the game), but also show what every card does. They're everything you need to play the game, so that you don't have to reference the rulebook. Very helpful.

Rulebook: A 12-page full-color rulebook which does a fine job of explaining the rules, and which you won't need to consult during the game thanks to the handy reference sheets.

Overall, there's an amazing amount of heft to Cleopatra. I'm stunned that they could put so many pieces in the box for $50. Some people have said it's overproduced, and they're probably right, but so what. The game is reasonably priced, and the pieces make the game very evocative.

As noted, the cards and other components are generally beautiful as well, and a huge amount of utility has been put into the cards and the reference sheets, making the game entirely easy to play. Cleopatra's components are everything they could be, and thus the game earns a "5" out of "5" for Style.

The Gameplay

The object of Cleopatra and the Society of Architects is to earn the most money ("talents") by building the parts of Cleopatra's palace. But you can't be the most corrupt architect, else you'll get fed to the crocodiles!

Setup: The board (consisting of the box, plaza, and garden) is laid out and Cleopatra is placed at the head of her processional. The quarry, with its plastic building pieces, is laid nearby and the 12 mosaic pentomino are shuffled and put in the quarry.

Each player chooses a color and takes the statues and pyramid in that color.

Each player receives 3 merchant tiles and 5 talents.

The cards are shuffled, then half of them are flipped upside down, and then they're all shuffled again. Three cards are drawn from the deck and placed on the table, forming the initial three market stalls. Note that due to the shuffling these cards may be face-up or face-down.

Order of Play: On his turn a player decides to either visit the market or visit the quarry.

Visit the Market: A player gathers resources by taking all of the cards in one of the three market stalls. He then refills by placing one card in each stall. Note that this will result in market stalls having different numbers of cards.

Afterward the player is penalized if he has more than 10 cards. He may either discard cards in excess of 10 at the cost of 1 corruption or else he may keep them at the cost of 1 corruption per card in excess of 10.

Visit the Quarry: Alternatively the player can decide to build things.

The Resources. Building is done with resource cards. There are five types of resource cards in all: artisans, stone blocks, marble slabs, wooden logs, and lapis lazuli. There are tons of artisans, and lots of stone blocks, but very few lapis lazuli.

Most resource cards show one of the resource. However there are also 15 resource cards which are "tainted". They show two of the resource, but also a corruption point. If a player plays one he takes a corruption.

There's also a special "Trompe-l'oil" card which may be used as any resource except artisans, but costs one corruption.

Finally, players have one other way to satisfy resource requirements: their merchant ships. Each one may be used to satisfy one resource requirement, but if they're instead kept they'll be worth 3 talents at the end of the game.

The Building Items. There are six types of things that players can build, each of which costs various cards in various configurations, following formula similar to those in Settlers of Catan. Each also returns various number of talents. In brief, the building items are:

Multiple items can be built on the same turn. In fact, this is strongly encouraged, as building 2 items gives a 2 talent bonus, and building 3 or more gives a 5 talent bonus.

The Mosaics of the Gods. The mosaics are a special building item because they can also reduce corruption. They're placed on the garden board, atop the palace. If they block off an area in which no other mosaic can be placed, then you have the opportunity to form a sanctuary. If you wish, you can place one of your statues of Anubis in the area formed. At the end of the game this will help reduce your corruption.

The Dice of the Great Priest. At the end of a quarry turn you roll any dice which are still showing blank sides. Any that now show ankhs are placed on the altar. If all cards now show ankhs, an Offering occurs. Typically this only occurs once, perhaps twice, in a game.

Play Worshipper Cards: There are also six types of "Worshippers of Sobek" cards that can be played on your turn (whether you take a market or a quarry action). Each of these cards costs 1 or more corruption to paly. Beggars let you take talents or cards from other players; scribes let you select a mosaic rather than having to build the top one; courtesans give you a discarded card; smugglers let you keep more than 10 cards in hand; envoys allow you to trade cards with other players in exchange for corruption; and viziers let you take cards from the draw pile, and keep some of them, based on how much corruption you want.

Make an Offering: If all of the dice end up showing ankhs at the end of a player's turn, an offering occurs. Each player must make a blind bid of zero or more talents. The result affects corruption.

Whoever makes the best offering loses 3 corruption, but all other players gain 1 or more, depending on their positioning.

Ending the Game: The game ends when 5 of the 6 types of building items have been entirely built. (Cleopatra moves along the processional to mark this.)

First players calculate their corruption. They gain one corruption for every tainted card (showing a corruption icon) still in their hand, but lose a corruption for every board space within their sanctuaries. Whoever has the most corruption now is out of the game.

Next each player counts their talents, with unused merchants being worth 3. The surviving player with the most talents wins.

Relationships to Other Games

Cleopatra and the Society of Architects is a classic resource management game with elements of card drafting, blind bidding, and tile laying.

The resource management genre of games is pretty well defined by Settlers of Catan. Like Catan, Cleopatra allows for the construction of items through resource formulas (e.g., 1 artisan + 1 wood + 1 stone to make a column wall). However, Cleopatra is a considerably more tactical game, where you look at your hand, then decide what you want to build, rather than explicitly collecting the resources for certain buildings. In fact, construction in Cleopatra can seem a lot like a puzzle, as you try and figure out the best way to make use of your resources.

The card drafting is simply reflected in taking cards from partially face-up lines. It's reminescent of Coloretto except with less control because you can only see part of a line, and you're much more likely to take a long line than a short one.

As noted the blind bidding just comes up once or twice in a game. Fist of Dragonstones is another French game that uses the mechanic.

The tile laying comes about through the placement of those pentominos. Like the resource management, it turns out to be very tactical as you turn tiles around and around trying to figure out the best places to lay them, both to give you points and to create large sanctuaries.

The Game Design

Let me give my short assessment of the game design of Cleopatra first. I think it's a fair game that's enjoyable to play, but which can't be played too seriously, because the design elements imply a lot of depth of strategy, which can cause you to spin your wheels for a long time in thought without a lot of reward.

Here's my lengthier assessment:

On the good side, Cleopatra starts off with a solid basis. Formulaic resource management, as in Catan, is a strong game system, but one that's not used that often.

I also think there are two particularly innovative systems in Cleopatra

The idea of half the cards being face-up in the draw deck is excellent. In the end I actually think it hurts the strategy of the game, because you could never see enough to make a decision, but I still like the basic idea.

The corruption also is a neat idea. It's a different sort of resource to manage, but it adds a lot of tension to the game because you can't come in last. We've seen similar mechanics in High Society and Struggle of Empires, but it's still neat and relatively original.

I generally like the tension of deciding between collecting resources and building, which is a core of this game. It tends to create brinkmanship gameplay where you're always trying to get the best resources, but at the same time want to build just before your opponents. Ticket to Ride is one of the games that does this best. The brinkmanship is sort of here in Cleopatra, but building multiple items in a turn has been so heavily rewarded (through talent bonuses), that most plays were pretty obvious: you collected resources until you were at your hand max, and then you built, unless you were really, really sure that you were going to lose an opportunity if someone else built before you.

Overall, the gameplay is pretty light, especially given the somewhat uncontrollable, somewhat blind drawing of the resource cards. However, I didn't think that meshed well with the serious thought required when you were building items, and particularly when you were laying out mosaics. On a turn you could easily spend several minutes trying to figure out the optimal way to use your resources to build. And, if you built several mosaics in a turn you could spend long minutes turning and twisting them to try and figure out the optimal way to create sancutaries. A less serious game player might not get stuck in this analysis, and I'm not convinced that it made a huge difference when I was playing Cleopatra, but I really felt obliged to flick through all the possibilities every turn, and there were a lot of them.

My one other complaint about the game is that it's pretty opaque. I've played two games. In the first game I won and in the second game I came in second by just two talents. However, I never felt like I understood how I was playing better than the other players. There were so many methods for earning talents based on different collections of cards that it was never obvious to me which items might be better to build, or even when it might be better to take 1 or 2 cards in a draft rather than 3 (or 4!). I suppose that I could build up charts listing card-to-point ratios for each of the potential builds (and in fact I've already seen one on BoardGameGeek), but that again seems to go against the light gameplay of the game.

I'll also offer the caveat that Cleopatra seems to play better with 4 players than 5. Our 5-player game really dragged, I think because of increased downtime, even though 2 of the players were familiar with the game. Contrariwise our 4-player game, which also had more casual players, went a lot more speedily and was a lot more fun.

Overall I'm not convinced by the balance of randomness and gameplay in Cleopatra and the Society of Architects. Still, it's not a bad game, and I had fun playing it, particularly in my game with just 4 players, but I constantly felt like the game promised more control than it actually gave, and that felt very awkward. Even the opaqueness is just an aspect of this.

If I could fully let go, and play a casual game with no deep thought I think it would work fine, and I suspect that's closer to Days of Wonder's core audience. However as is I give it just an average rating of "3" out of "5" for Substance.

Conclusion

Cleopatra and the Society of Architects is exciting mostly due to its beautiful components. The plastic monuments and palace pieces are evocative and add a visceral enjoyment to the game. The actual gameplay feels like an entirely tactical Settlers of Catan with a few more elements thrown in. It doesn't seem like there's a lot of control, and victory seems pretty opaque, but nonetheless Cleopatra offers average, enjoyable play.

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