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Review: Tower of Babel

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A tower to the sky? You don’t really know why they’re building it, but hey, they asked for your help, you’ve got nothing better to do, and they helped you when you needed to move to your new place, so it’s your obligation. And you’re willing to do anything for victory points.

Ah, victory points. Victory points make the world go round. In fact, they’ve always made the world go round, in modern and ancient times. You’ll help your friends, but only as long as they help you more. After all, you’ve got to maintain your reputation as the world’s most respectable builder. Your monuments are the ones that will endure.

Enter the world of Tower of Babel: the game where helping others is necessary, but helping yourself is paramount.

How It Works

Tower of Babel is a negotiation game with area control and set collection elements for three to five players in which players are trying to build the eight wonders of the ancient world “with a little help from their friends.” The player with the most points wins.

At the start of the game, players shuffle the building tokens and place three random tokens by each wonder. Each player receives a set of house tokens and a pillar in their color, as well as four random cards from the building deck and one trader card. On a turn, players may either attempt to build one token of a wonder or pass.

The game board. It’s laid out well, but the colors. Woof. The scoring tables are helpful, but the five spots for the player pillars are unnecessary, really.

Building tokens come in four different colors, corresponding to the four colors of cards in the building deck, and each has a number between 3 and 6 indicating the number of cards needed to build that token. If a player chooses to build, each other player selects a number of cards from their hand and places them face-down to offer to the active player.

Once every player has chosen cards, the cards are revealed, and the active player may choose which offers (if any) to accept. Offers must be completely accepted, and the active player may not use more material than needed to build the token. For each card a player contributes to the built token, that player places one house token on the wonder. For each pertinent card the active player rejected, the offering player scores a point. If the active player received and/or contributed enough cards to build the wonder, he or she keeps the building token for later scoring. If the wonder was not completed, it is the next player’s turn.

The trader card: “I am altering the deal. Pray I don’t alter it any further.”

Each player also has a “trader” card, which always returns to the player’s hand after use. A player may include the trader card in an offer to the active player. The trader card switches who gets the building token: if the active player accepts a trader offer, the offering player gets the building token and the active player places houses for each card the offering player contributed. The active player may accept only one trader offer per turn.

A player, rather than building, may also pass (draw an extra card). Regardless of whether the active player passes or builds, all players draw a card at the end of a turn.

Once all three tokens for a wonder are built, the wonder is scored, with points being awarded for who has the first, second, and third most houses on the wonder. (And wonders get more valuable as the game progresses.)

The game ends when either all building tokens of one color or seven of the eight wonders have been built. All incomplete wonders are scored, and bonus points are awarded for sets of colored building tokens. The player with the most points is the winner.

Wonderful Monument, or Incomplete Confusion?

Tower of Babel is a very Euro take on the negotiation game. While it won’t be for everyone, I think this game is quite good and a lot of fun to play.

The four suits of cards. I know they represent things thematically…but that’s not important.

What do I mean by a Euro take on a negotiation game? Well, in other negotiation games I’ve played, backstabbing is a corollary key component. You can offer just about anything, but it’s not always necessary for players to keep their word. Also, with a heavy focus on negotiation, there is usually room for players to make very lopsided deals, with some players bullying others into doing what they want. There is zero room for backstabbing (and not much room for bullying) in Tower of Babel because the negotiations are all handled through the offered cards. In fact, while this is very rarely a silent game (players can plead their cases before the active player as to why their offers should be accepted, and there’s usually some trash-talking), it could be played silently. Players can offer nothing except the cards in their hands, and what is offered is usually straightforward. Because the game is balanced, there are very rarely lopsided trades. (Basically, it is usually to a player’s advantage to contribute, or at least offer, cards toward a building token.) I know that some players will think this sounds boring–and it does–but it’s a lot more fun once you sit down to play.

Tower of Babel is a Euro game through and through. Everything is balanced. There are many different ways to score points, and each option a player is presented with is legitimate. Offering cards to another player can loot your hand if the offer is accepted, giving you less flexibility on your turn, but offering cards is also the only way to get points. Having an offer rejected scores immediate points; having an offer accepted has the potential to score a lot of points if the majority is secured, but you lose your cards. Some building tokens will be very desirable based on what you’re collecting; others won’t be. The game is full of these tense this-or-thats, and they’re all balanced. I wouldn’t say the game offers multiple paths to victory, as players will have to follow all three point paths to win, but the game’s different options are balanced, and good players must weigh these options carefully.

THE TOWER OF BABEL. Yes, friends, this is it.

One positive element of Tower of Babel is that all players are involved at all times, whether it is their turn or not. The active player makes the choice of what to build, but the other players really decide if the active player will be able to accomplish the task. And here’s where the negotiation comes in. Players are trying to cajole each other into doing what they want, but they do it subtly through the cards they offer. I’ve had numerous hands where I don’t really want to help the active player, but I also don’t want to sit out on earning points. So what do I do? I try to make my offer as unattractive as possible while still offering cards that will score points. If I know the other player really wants the building token, I might slip in my trader card. If I know the other player wants houses on the wonder, I might offer all the cards they need for the wonder. Of course, in any situation, this can backfire because the active player has final say. Each player will have their own agenda and style for playing, and surprises are not unheard of. This give-and-take element and human factor in the interaction is fascinating and keeps the game interesting the whole way through.

Because of the interactions described above, the trader card (which sounds a bit like “traitor,” at least in our Midwestern dialect, and that double meaning doesn’t seem too far off) is what keeps the game exciting. The trader has a way of instantly either sweetening or souring an offer, and it can be used to great effect to lead other players to do what you want them to do. And since only one trader offer can be accepted in a turn, if you know the other offering players are using theirs, it’s usually an easy way to either distinguish yourself or to snap up points in a rejected offer.

Area control! The big houses are worth three. Blue would score the most, then green, then black. (The natural wood house shows point distribution of 12-6-3.)

I mentioned that the game involves area control and set collection. While this is true, these elements provide the score structure to the negotiation game rather than acting as the centerpiece. They are the pillars on which the negotiation game sits. But these pillars provide a simpler score system than is typical for a Reiner Knizia game. Understanding how players score points is very straightforward and involves very little computation. This is one of Knizia’s simplest score systems and is one of his simpler games, but I don’t think it’s worse for that. Instead, I think the simple dressings allow players to jump in and compete even during their first game.

The components for Tower of Babel are serviceable, though they’re nothing special. The wooden houses for player tokens are nice but nothing that hasn’t been seen elsewhere. The player pillars (which we call “top hats”) are superfluous, especially in how the rules say they should be used. (The game flows faster without the additional upkeep of rearranging the pillars to show turn order, especially when players are passing.) The art is okay, but a bit drab. After seeing Miguel Coimbra’s excellent art for the seven wonders of the ancient world in 7 Wonders, it’s difficult to be impressed by Franz Vohwinkel’s colorless take. Tower of Babel’s mediocre presentation makes its relative obscurity understandable, though still disappointing.

Variants! I never use the special action cards, but I always use the dual-suited tokens.

The game includes two “variants”: special power cards and dual-suited building tokens. I suppose I shouldn’t call the special power cards a variant, since they are included in the primary rules for the game. However, according to many sources, the cards are not Knizia’s original intention for gameplay (and, indeed, they do seem out of character for his designs). For this reason, I’ve considered them a variant and haven’t used them in play, especially since they seem unnecessary to the game, adding extra and unmerited incentive to an already incentivized game decision (namely, completing wonders). The second variant, the dual-suited building tokens, are an excellent addition to the game. These tokens replace a 5 token of each suit and have a 3/2 split in two colors on the token. Basically, these are more desirable tokens for end-game scoring since they count as both colors featured on the token. They encourage players to try to build them, but they also encourage more trader offers. I played my first few games without the dual discs, but now I leave them in for every game. They make the game more interesting without increasing playtime or game complexity.

Tower of Babel is a game for three to five players, and there is really no best player count, although the game plays slightly different depending on how many are at the table. With three players, there is more hand management for the offering players. There are more turns spent passing and fewer cards in circulation, so every offer must be carefully considered. (Of course, because of this, it’s usually easier to make long-term plans for scoring points.) With four and especially five players, the game is a little bit more of an efficiency game. The area control aspect of the game is more interesting, but it’s harder to make long-term plans. There are more offers for the active player to choose from, keeping the emphasis on the active player (whereas with three, it feels more like the offering player’s game). Either way, the game is fun.

The two scoring tables are very helpful. The “turn order” track? Not so much.

Of course, this game is not for everyone. As I said, the game doesn’t look all that great, nor does it sound all that exciting on paper. This game is more thematic than many other Knizia titles, but the “or why the eighth wonder was never built” tagline is almost completely unrelated. (I’ve not yet played a game that ended with the seventh wonder being built.) The game is mostly self-contained, eliminating much of the metagame that takes place in other, more American-style negotiation games. I’m okay with all of this. Tower of Babel is a fun game that easily fits into a lunch hour and offers ripe opportunities for interaction. Like Knizia’s auction games, Tower of Babel feels like a game of primarily valuation: what are your cards worth to other players, and how should you “price” them? I find this idea, housed in a negotiation game, enjoyable. But I can think of many others who won’t.

Summary

  • Rating 8
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Summary

Pros

  • Simple rules
  • Elegant, balanced design
  • Not many Euro-style negotiation games like this
  • Good interaction between players
  • Very little downtime
  • Can be procured cheaply through trades or buys

Cons:

  • Will seem bland to the American-style gaming crowd
  • Artwork does not disabuse them of their opinion
  • Not as themeless as other Knizia titles, but not super engaging themewise
8.0 Very Good

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

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