Sure, you’ve built cathedrals and castles and stone bridges. But now set your sites on older things. Ancient projects that really stand the test of time. That’s right, rev up your way-back machine, travel into the past and set the dial to antiquity. Because somebody has to get that nose on the Sphinx properly.
How to Play
The Builders: Antiquity tasks players with organizing laborers with special skill sets (resources) to erect structures from the days when civilization was considered “classic.” The general mechanics and basic game play are identical to its predecessor, Middle Ages. You can reference our review of that title anytime. This follow-up design adds a few new elements: tools, loans, prisoners and universities. Alas, still no trade unions. If we’re lucky, maybe those will be included in The Builders: Industrial Revolution?
The four new types of cards are separated by stack and laid out above the pool of available buildings and workers during set-up. This is called the “investment line.” When acquiring any of these, you can just pick whichever card you want from the stack, as opposed to the drafting rows with buildings and workers.
Taking anything from the investment line requires an action – and usually comes at a cost. Tools provide an extra resource with which to equip a worker. There is one tool for each resource (stone, wood, architecture and decoration in this game). It costs 2 sesterces to acquire one, but then it may be attached to a worker going to a job site for free without any additional action. Grab them when you can, because building those pyramids with your bare hands is, well, a bear.
Loans are very much how they sound, providing a quick infusion of 10 sesterces. There are only four available, but taking more than one is probably not recommended. That’s because at the end of the game, you must repay the loan with an extra 5 sesterces in interest. Or you lose 2 victory points, which I suppose is better than having the loan shark’s goons come and shake you down with broken bones as repayment.
Finally there are prisoners and universities – about as opposite on the economic and moral spectrums as you may get. Purchasing a prisoner costs 7 sesterces and then is added to your pool of available workers. They’re treated just like regular laborers except, as you might have guessed, are free to assign to project sites. Alas, these civilizations are at least partly enlightened as slave labor is considered in bad taste – convicts cannot use tools, cannot be educated and you lose a victory point for each one you own at the end of the game. Unless you manumit them. During the game, freeing slaves costs an action, in which case they now operate as regular workers. Otherwise, you must pay 5 sesterces per prisoner at the end of the game, or suffer the abolitionists’ victory point wrath.
If you’re a more progressive and humane type, you may choose to instruct your workers by sending them to school. For a modest scholarship of 7 sesterces, you can take any of the available university cards, which are neat transparencies that lay over your matriculated worker. That card must remain on that laborer for the remainder of the game and it boosts his stats, but does not increase the cost of assigning him to a construction site. After all, the Greek campus lifestyle was invented in antiquity, amiright?!
Wonder of the World of Just Slavin’ Away?
A prequel – or story containing events which precede that of an existing work – is more and more common in movies these days. However, you rarely see it in board games. The Builders: Antiquity expounds upon the elements of Middle Ages…but goes back in time!
Middle Ages is about as pure an efficiency engine as there is in game design. Somehow Antiquity fine tunes that even further. Perhaps the biggest change between titles is not the addition of four new mechanics, but rather the subtraction of 24 worker cards – that’s more than half from the original game! This rather significant reduction really impacts play by creating more competition over laborers – especially in 3- and 4-player sessions. In Middle Ages, you were pretty much able to grab workers willy-nilly and still be guaranteed a variety of resources. The unemployed were always loafing around and there are no penalties for collecting a sizably idle construction crew. Here, that deck of laborers dries up much faster requiring you to be more economical in selecting your workforce. There’s still no penalty for superfluous employees, but your labor gang will be smaller nonetheless. Hence, you need to pay careful attention in making sure that your resource portfolio is adequately diversified across your laborers.
Or not. If you find yourself with a shortfall in one or more resources, you’ll need to target those projects meeting whichever assets you have on hand. However, there are also fewer building cards in this set meaning competition for what you need can be tight. Overall I feel that the ratio between workers and buildings and resource allocations/costs is just as well-balanced as with Middle Ages. It’s just more restricted, which ratchets up the tension. It also tends to quicken the game a little, since there are fewer wasted actions spent on drafting unnecessary cards.
So what, exactly, do the new mechanics bring?
Tools are pretty nifty. At first glance, they seem rather weak providing only one resource of a given type. In Middle Ages, they’d indeed be a waste of money and an action point. But in Antiquity, a tool is a great way to add that extra resource needed when you just seem to be one short, as you invariably do. The shortfall can be compounded with the restricted workforce. They’re cheap enough to be well worth the effort and don’t require any additional action. The downside is that there are only four of them, one per resource. So they can potentially go really fast. Often you won’t know which one you need until it’s too late.
Loans are the least attractive option of the bunch. I entered the game thinking they’d be really nice. That’s because you can buy extra actions in The Builders, but money is often too scarce a commodity to take advantage of that aspect. Especially in the early game. Having that infusion of fast specie seemed a good bet to procure those additional actions earlier. Alas, it makes little difference. Whether you have the cash towards the beginning or the end amounts to six of one and half a dozen of the other. And after you’ve built a few structures, money is less of an issue. Instead, it might serve as a catch-up mechanic if you’re really struggling. Still, the main reason debt is troubling is that you have to pay it back – and then some – or lose points. And even if you do repay the piper, it still eats into your victory points earned from coins. Even one or two points can be crucial in a design where games are usually very close.
Prisoners are actually really nice because they provide four resources. They’re expensive up front, but since you don’t pay them wages, you’ll recoup that cost within a couple of assignments. The sooner you grab one, then, the more value you’ll squeeze out of him over the course of the game. As long as you use an action to free him before the endgame, you can avoid the point penalty. Otherwise, you must pay the 5 sesterces, which can erode your victory profits, if not careful. Interestingly, the original version used the term “slave” instead of prisoner. The identification change does little to mask the fact it’s still forced labor, but considering recent controversy surrounding other titles, perhaps the switch was wise…?
Universities provide a better boost than tools, but at a more significant cost. They’re not as versatile, either, as the card is permanently assigned to one worker. Aside from the transparency looking super cool and working superbly intuitive, education can turn an apprentice or laborer into any rival of a craftsman or master. Considering the restricted pool of cards, universities are the best way to turn an undesirable employee into one that really works for you by making up for a shortfall in a particular area. As with tools, there are only four cards – one school to cover each resource – so the same uncertainties and tensions apply.
What’s great about all of these added elements is that they don’t increase complexity or fiddliness. That despite the fact they are also necessary to the game. Because of the lower card count you will certainly use elements from the investment line to augment the resources you may be lacking. Without being over-bearing, the extra mechanics manage to flesh out your options while also honing the design’s fine-tuned efficiency. And you’ll likely dab a little each into more than one alternative – as opposed to exploring just one path over the others. That’s because there aren’t an abundance of cards in any one element. The more players, the more competition, the more tension.
If you’re a fan of the first title, one question you might have is whether or not Antiquity integrates well with Middle Ages. Honestly I haven’t tried that, but I’ll posit an opinion, anyway. Don’t bother. I’m sure it would be fine for the most part. But it’s not necessary. More than that, by throwing in Middle Ages, you’ll be completely expunging what Antiquity uniquely offers – competition and tension. With an abundance of workers and buildings, the investment line simply becomes irrelevant. So then, if you already own Middle Ages, is it worth purchasing Antiquity? I rather dislike making such endorsements. That said the latter does feel like a different experience than the former. However, it is admittedly not drastically altered. And if you’re deciding between the two, I recommend this one.
The Builders: Antiquity retains its (futuristic) predecessor’s vibe as a well-balanced, hand-management, thinking-man’s filler. It has the same great artwork and coldly efficient game play. Yet it also thins the decks and adds four mechanics which help increase competition, offer different strategies and shorten game play. Despite the new options, it adds neither complexity nor fiddliness. Just as its precursor, it brings a lot more game to the table than you might presume from the size of its tin – in fact, now even more so.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Asmodee for providing a review copy of The Builders: Antiquity.