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Review: Imhotep

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Imhotep Box

Most of us can only dream of achieving the greatness of Imhotep. The man was a master builder and the Benjamin Franklin of his day (in that he knew an awful lot about many subjects). He even built his own tomb and hid it so well, it still hasn’t been found. While I don’t know that many of us want to disappear when we die, there’s something to be said for being a great builder. Imhotep gives you a chance to cover yourself in greatness by building monuments that will stand for ages. Or, you know, you can just quietly crawl into your tomb and disappear.

How It Plays

Imhotep is a fairly simple area control game where players are attempting to build monuments that will stand the test of time. To do this, players must gather stones, place them on ships for delivery to building sites (or to trade at the Market for cards that provide special abilities), and then offload the stones and build the monuments. Players gain points by not only having the most of their stones at a building site, but by having stones placed in specific arrangements at the building sites.

Imhotep is played over six rounds. To begin a round, a card is drawn showing the four ships that will be used this round. Ships come in four different sizes and can carry between one and four stones. The Market is also filled with four cards drawn randomly from the deck.

Imhotep Market
The Market and some of the round cards.

On a turn, a player performs one of four different actions.

Get New Stones: Take three of your stones from your quarry and place them on your supply sled. The sled can hold five stones so if it’s already full, you cannot add more. If you don’t have enough empty slots to place all three stones, you may place however many you can, but any extra stones must remain in your quarry.

Place One Stone on a Ship. You may place one stone on any empty spot on any ship that has not yet sailed.

Play One Blue Market Card. If you have a blue Market card, you may play it and use its benefit/special ability to bend the rules of the game. The card is your action for the turn. It is not played in addition to any other action.

Sail One Ship to a Site. You can move a ship to a site of your choosing, provided that the ship has at least the minimum number of required stones aboard (indicated on the bow of the ship token). If a ship has already sailed to a site, you cannot sail another ship there. You don’t have to have any of your own stones on a ship in order to sail it.

Once the ship docks, stones are unloaded in order from the front of the ship to the back. Empty spaces are ignored. Each site has different rules for what the stone’s owner receives and when the reward is given. Sometimes the first stone off the ship gets the best reward, such as having first choice of cards in the Market. Other sites give points based on a grid or spatial arrangement and the first stone off the boat may not get the most points or best placement.

The Market and Pyramid are assessed immediately upon docking. At the Market, players can choose one face up card. Some cards let you bend the rules of the game, some allow you to place extra stones, and others affect end-game scoring. The Pyramid awards points based on where on the grid stones are placed, according to the placement rules indicated on the site tile.

Imhotep Setup
Set up and ready to play!

The Temple is assessed at the end of the round and the Obelisks and Burial Chamber are assessed at the end of the game. (All described below.)

Players continue taking turns until all four ships have sailed. The last ship to sail ends the round immediately. At the end of the round, the Temple is scored with each stone visible from above giving the owner(s) of those stones one point. The next round is set up just like the first. Any stones already placed on sleds and site boards remain in place.

The game ends after six rounds and final scoring begins. You assess the sites in the following order and award points accordingly:

Burial Chamber: Each stone in the chamber earns a point. If, however, stones of one player’s color are connected, they earn bonus points based on the number of connected stones.

Obelisks: Players earn points for the size of their obelisk, with the tallest getting the most points and other players getting fewer points for smaller obelisks. The points available depend on the number of players in the game.

Cards: Decoration (green) and Statue (purple) cards in hand at the end of the game are worth the points indicated on the card. Any unused blue Market cards are worth one point.

These points are added to the points earned during the game (from the Pyramid and Temple) and the player with the most points wins the game.

A Monument to Gaming Greatness, or the Ruins of Fun?

When I first played Imhotep, it was easy to see why it was nominated for the Spiel des Jahres. It has everything that the jury typically looks for: A game that’s easy to learn and simple to play but which provides some depth in play, family friendly theme, relatively short playtime, and balanced scoring opportunities that give even inexperienced players a chance to win and have fun. Imhotep really is the definition of a gateway game and it can be a solid introduction to the basics of area control, as well.

There is very little randomness in Imhotep, which is pretty rare in a gateway game. What little there is comes from the random card draws to fill the Market and establish which ships will be used each round. Beyond that, everything is up to the players. You must gauge where to place your stones on the boats so you gain the most rewards once the boat reaches a building site. All of the information is public, so it’s easy to see what your opponents are doing and how their scoring is going.

Imhotep is a very tight design with a delicious amount of tension. You only have one action per turn so you have to make it count. As the game progresses, you begin to get nervous and that one action takes on more urgency. You need points and you need them now! How are you going to get them? Or do you (gasp) need to give up a turn to resupply your sled or stop someone else from scoring? All of the building sites remain open for all of the rounds so you always have full choices, but with more stones in the sites, it gets harder (on some) to get optimal points. Success requires spatial awareness, as well as strategic and tactical thinking. Is your brain melting yet? It should be, but in a good way.

Imhotep Pyramid Tiles
The site boards where you will build your monuments!

Speaking of strategy and tactics, Imhotep presents an interesting dilemma and almost requires you to think in reverse. Unlike many games where you want to have an overall plan to carry you to victory, success in Imhotep is best achieved by setting yourself up to survive the negative things that will happen to you. Someone will sail your boat before you’re ready. Someone will play the market card that allows them to reorder the offloading of stones, ruining your perfectly planned boat. Someone will get a red market card that allows them to place a stone on a building site, circumventing the sailing phase entirely. If you were planning on sailing to the same site, you may no longer get the best position. Success is based on setting yourself up to do “well enough” each round, instead of playing for perfection. Perfection isn’t going to happen, so you need to position yourself to gain a good number of points in several areas, rather than the most points from one.

The game is simple enough for kids to play, but the complexities and subtleties of this kind of thinking may elude them. It’s still a great family game, though, because kids can play with an assist from the adults, or everyone can agree to “just play” without overthinking it or intentionally screwing other players. If you choose to play this way, Imhotep is a great evening of family fun with some cheers and groans as things go well or poorly, but no hurt feelings.

The game does allow for some take-that play and sensitive players may get upset. Sailing boats before people are ready and market cards that alter the rules in a player’s favor make it possible to screw over other players. But if you’re playing with family or non-gamers, the good news is that everyone gets something when the ships sail (as long as they have a stone on the boat). Having a plan go awry doesn’t necessarily mean you get no points (although it can). It usually just means you don’t get all the points you wanted.

Imhotep Cards
Some of the Market cards.

Among gamers, though, things can get ugly. Players can really set out to attack each other as they compete over every single point. Some people cannot abide the idea that they need to play “good enough” and will try to play perfectly, even if that means leaving everyone else at the table in a rage.

Hardcore play can also lead to severe AP. If everyone is trying to maximize every turn, Imhotep can have the thinking time of chess. Thinking through your options, the spatial ramifications, and the “what if’s” to chase every point can slow the game to a crawl. Again, everyone will hate you.

Imhotep is best played briskly for the fun of it. Sure, apply some thought to your moves, but then get on with it. A game loaded with AP isn’t fun. The game just isn’t deep enough to justify that kind of mental effort or time, unless you’re playing with a group where all members agree to play this way. (Then more power to you. Fry your brains at will.) 

The game isn’t complex to learn or play, but it does have a great deal of replayability. First of all, the site boards have A and B sides. You can play with all A’s, all B’s, or a mix. The B sides make things a little more complex. There is also a variant in the rule book for a more punishing game. Aside from that, the replayability of the game comes from the combination of spatial, strategic, and tactical considerations, plus that tiny dash of randomness that keeps things interesting and different each game. Imhotep is an easy game to pick up and play, but it takes time to get good at it. I don’t see this wearing out its welcome any time soon in my house.

Imhotep Feature
Half the fun of the game is stacking blocks when it’s not your turn.

I also need to add that it plays very well with two players. Unlike many area control games, it didn’t lose anything with fewer players. At least not to me. Other people may feel differently, but I found that it was still tense and exciting and played smoothly. Bonus: It requires no major modifications or dummy players to play with two. Of course the screwage can feel worse with just two because, well, who else’s plans are you going to mess up? However, as long as both partners are willing, it’s a fun game.

So, other than the AP and the take-that which may bother some groups, are there any other negatives to Imhotep? The only other potential problem I have is that the theme is a bit abstract. Yes, you are building things, but it doesn’t really feel like you are a master builder. You aren’t creating blueprints, bidding for materials, or managing labor. That would be a much more complex game. Basically, it feels like you’re a shipping clerk working for Imhotep. Your job is just to get the stones to their final site. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s not the same as being a master builder in control of all phases of monument construction.

Overall, I find that the game deserves the praise it has received. As long as you go into it knowing that it is a family/newbie friendly game and you aren’t seeking a big, heavy game, it’s perfectly enjoyable. The components are great and half the fun is playing with the chunky blocks when it’s not your turn.

As noted, it’s a great gateway and weeknight game that enables you to work your brain cells as hard or as lightly as you want. Play for fun or try to destroy each other. It’s up to you, but as long as you play briskly, a game will move quickly and take about forty minutes. There’s also enough game here to keep you coming back for more and challenging yourself. If you’re looking for a solid, thinky, family friendly game that will challenge the newbies and the gamers, you can do much worse than Imhotep.

iSlaytheDragon.com thanks Kosmos for giving us a copy of Imhotep for review. 

 

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Summary

Pros

Two-sided site boards and harder rule variant add to replayabiltiy.
Easy to learn and play family game with some appeal to gamers.
Short playtime; good weeknight game.
Gameplay requires spatial, tactical, and strategic considerations.
Take-that is mitigated with rewards for all.
Balanced scoring means everyone is in with a chance to the end.

Cons

Can induce AP which ruins the experience for others.
Take-that play may upset sensitive players.
Game is less about being Imhotep and more about being his shipping clerk.

9.0 Very Good

I like games with tiles/modular boards that set up and play differently each time. I'm also one of "those people" who likes dice and revels in randomness.

Discussion2 Comments

  1. Nice review! You’re right on the money that this game is about being Imhotep’s shipping clerk.

    I was surprised how much I enjoyed this one. I described it to my friends as being designed by an angry Reiner Knizia, and they agreed with that assessment. Elegant play with significant room for messing with others’ plans. I really like it.

    • Jennifer Derrick

      Yeah, I was surprised how much we liked it, too. When I saw it I thought, “Eh.” Drab colors, not much to it… I wasn’t sure. But somehow it just grabs you and makes you fall for it, anyway.

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