Water isn’t something you think about much when you have a flowing supply available at the turn of a spigot. But when you’re in the desert, the leader of a caravan with people and camels to worry about? Water is everything. Water is life.
It’s also victory points. And the best way to plot your way through the desert is to follow the water and mercilessly leave other caravans in your dust.
How It Works
Through the Desert is a network-building game for two to five players. Players are nomadic caravan leaders trying to connect their caravans to the most valuable desert territory (namely, oases and watering holes). The player with the most points at the end of the game wins.
To begin, place one watering hole tile on each of the watering holes on the board. The plastic palm trees are placed randomly on oasis spaces (and watering holes are placed on the spots without palm trees). The oasis and other point tokens and the camels in five colors are placed within reach. Each player chooses a color and receives one caravan leader riding each of the five colors of camels. Beginning with the first player and going clockwise, each player places one caravan leader on the board (following the placement rules) until all of the caravan leaders are on the board. The game begins.
On a turn, players will choose two camels and place them adjacent to their caravan(s) of that color. Each player has one caravan of each color, and camels may not link same-color caravans of different players. If a camel is placed on a watering hole, the player who places the camel takes and keeps the watering hole tile (worth 1-3 points). If a camel links a caravan to a palm tree for the first time, the player claims an oasis token. If a player completely surrounds an area with camels of one of their own caravans, that player scores points at the end of the game for each space so enclosed.
The game ends when all the camels of one color in the supply have been placed on the board. Players score points for the largest caravan of each color and for any areas they have enclosed and add their watering hole/oasis points from during the game. Whoever has the most points wins.
Note: The rules change slightly for five-player games (each player will have just four colors of caravans). Also, the Euro Classics edition of the game includes a variant board side with a new rule: the first time a caravan crosses the river, the player gets a 5-point token.
The Desert Is Dessert
When a new edition of a classic game is released, the audience is usually twofold: those who have been waiting for the game to be reprinted, and fans of the older game who want a new edition with an updated or upgraded look and possibly new expansion material. I think the new edition of Through the Desert will satisfy the first audience; I’m not sure it will capture the second.
Through the Desert is, indeed, a classic game. Originally released in 1998, it has that classic abstract perfect-information feel while still seeming like a fresh, modern design. There’s a reason why it keeps returning to print and why, even in a year when beautiful abstracts seem to be making a comeback, it still holds its own among the best in the crop.
One of the best things about Through the Desert is how simple it is to explain. The scoring is simple–land on a token? take it; connect to a palm tree? take an oasis token–and the turn structure is even simpler: place two camels. But it is the simplicity of Through the Desert that makes it a great game.
The problem that players face in Through the Desert is dividing their attention between several different fronts. Each player in the game is juggling four or five different colored caravans, and players are simultaneously trying to capitalize on their own opportunities, block their opponents from scoring too many points, and turn the board state to their advantage. There are several ways to score points–enclosing areas, linking oases, claiming watering holes, making the largest caravan of a color–and it’s often not possible to pursue them all simultaneously. After all, each turn, players can only plod toward progress, placing two camels at a time.
This is brilliant. No matter how well a player is doing, they can only advance two camels per turn; no matter how poorly you are doing, you get the same opportunity to move forward that everyone else gets. Is a player unstoppably advancing their pink caravan? Then they’re not focusing on green or blue or yellow or purple. Are you out of competition for the largest green caravan? Maybe you can work on your blue. Are you not well placed for watering holes? Maybe you can wall off a portion of the board and score big points, or maybe you can connect to oases. There are so many opportunities to score points, and it’s impossible for other players to keep you from all of them, which means the game doesn’t usually feel punishing.
But if it doesn’t feel punishing, that doesn’t relieve the tension necessary to make the game interesting. As is the hallmark of all great Euro games, there is so much to do and there are not enough actions to do everything. And while there is no direct aggression in Through the Desert, there is plenty of player interaction. Players can actively hinder other players from achieving their goals, so much of the game is reading your opponents. How badly do they want their own goals? How much are they willing to interfere with yours? It’s a practice in appeasement: if I place a camel here, is that enough aggression to merit a response? What if I place another one here? Players have to decide how they will police each other while still achieving their own ends, and this is the kind of decision that’s hard to put an objective value on, meaning each game will be different. Through the Desert strips away any rules overhead, offering simply a stage for human drama to unfold.
Through the Desert strikes a delicate balance between serious abstract like Chess or Go and approachable, entry-level hobby game. It’s hard to overstate just how simple the rules are, yet because player interaction is so central to the game, every game will be different as players employ new tactics and as their strategy grows and adapts to their opponents. And if player interaction doesn’t seem like it will change enough from game to game, there is variable setup with the watering holes and oases to make different spots attractive each game.
I like Through the Desert a lot, but, as with all games, it isn’t for everyone. For one thing, the game is, like the desert in its name, dry. There are moments of excitement when you outmaneuver your opponent, but much of the game is played in chin-stroking silence. While the rules are simple and the game can be played fast and loose, it’s the kind of game that lends itself to analysis paralysis. The pieces are pretty but not gorgeous, and while the thematic setting is appropriate, again, it isn’t really exciting. This is a game you play for the gameplay, not the trappings.
Some might think Through the Desert also suffers from the Settlers of Catan problem, where initial placement has an outsized impact on the game. Granted, which camels you choose to place and where you choose to place them matter a great deal, as does timing, but this is the pay-off for where players place their caravan leaders. Poor decisions in setup are hard to escape during the game, and at times you’ll realize who has clinched the victory long before placing the last camel. To me, this isn’t so much a problem as something to be aware of. Through the Desert is the kind of game that rewards repeat plays (that is, players can get better at it, especially by recognizing and choosing the best starting placements), so it’s to be expected that new players might struggle a little with this. I’ve played fifteen or so times over the years–a fair amount, but not obsessively so–and I’m better at the game than I used to be, but I by no means feel like I’ve mastered it. (I wonder if this is the kind of game you can feel like you’ve mastered? Like the other members of Reiner Knizia‘s tile-laying trilogy, I’m not sure it is.)
The Euro Classics edition comes with several variants, including a new map on the reverse side of the board. When I was simply examining the components of this edition, I looked at the board and thought, That’s it? The rules change–the first time each caravan crosses the river, it scores 5 points–didn’t seem like much. And then I played on the map, and I do have to say that it changes the experience a significant amount. There is no central mountain range, meaning there are fewer opportunities for enclosure scoring. And with the central river acting as one giant oasis, there seem to be fewer places to hide. The river also incentivizes playing closer to your opponents–the river is one long scoring opportunity. However, players also have to balance scoring potential away from the river, as unpoliced caravans near the edge of the board can score big points if the other players aren’t paying attention. The new map is not a throwaway addition to the game: it really is a value add, especially if you are a veteran of the game.
The components here are very nice. The new edition retains the iconic pastel (read: marshmallowy) camels, the riders (who frequently pop off their camels), and palm tree components from earlier editions, but the board, watering hole, and scoring chits have received a graphics overhaul. I like that the watering hole pieces are now full hexes, which are less open to ambiguity or slipping around. The board is double-sided, offering both the classic board and a new variant board. The board now lies mostly flat, which is a huge upgrade over my old copy of Fantasy Flight’s Silver Line edition. There is a small misprint on the largest-caravan tiles, where the front and back color on the chits doesn’t match. This is annoying, but it’s not a deal breaker. The game also includes enough camels for you to keep all five player caravan colors fully horsed and ready in between games. At least if your riders will stay on (roughly half of mine do).
While the components of this edition of Through the Desert are nice, they are what put me in doubt for whether current owners of the game will want to upgrade to this new edition. As I said, the plastic components–the pastel camels, the rider pieces, and the palm trees that denote oases–are the same as previous editions. The riders are just as jumpy when you try to pin them to their camels as they were. The graphics update looks good–I prefer the new, browner look to the older, yellower look, and the scoring chits are nicer. But essentially, if you are paying to upgrade, the retail price is $45, and most of the components are the same. At that point, you’re mostly paying for the variant board. If you play Through the Desert frequently and if it’s one of your favorite games, this new challenge is likely worth the cost of the upgrade. Through the Desert is certainly the kind of game that can be played often, and if you do play it often, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed in the cost or the product–the new board is a wholly new challenge. However, if you already own a copy of the game and don’t play it that often, you’re probably not missing much by sticking to the older look. (Unless it really, really bothers you that the board doesn’t lie flat. Which, if that’s the case, I won’t blame you.)
So the new edition of Through the Desert isn’t a slam-dunk upgrade if you already own the game. If you don’t own the game, well, this is your opportunity to own a classic game that, even after nearly twenty years, is still great. It is still one of the best hobby games in the classic abstract mold, it looks beautiful, and it offers lots of tense and interesting choices while retaining a simple core ruleset. And it’s the kind of game that gets better the more you play it. If you haven’t played this game, now is a great time to try or buy. Through the Desert is a classic–a game that in a sea of new releases that are bought and quickly forgotten, is a true evergreen and an ambassador of what great board games have to offer.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Asmodee USA for providing us with a copy of Through the Desert for review.