The Desert is a dangerous and uncharted area that is divided into neat little hexes that can each hold exactly one camel. This is the first lesson you learn in nomad desert herding 101. With this knowledge, and many other valuable tidbits, you head out into the vast and extremely crowded desert in search of water. Will you prosper where other caravans have withered away and become King of the Desert?
How It Works
Through The Desert is an abstract strategy game about establishing caravans deep in the desert. It is probably most well known for the sugary sweet pastel colored camels that make up the players’ caravans as they seek out water holes and oases.
Each players starts the games with five leaders representing a caravan in the game’s five camel colors. The leaders depict the player’s ownership of a caravan in that particular color on the board. The game begins with players in turn placing their leaders onto the board to indicate the presence of their caravans in the desert. Once all the leaders have been placed the second phase begins. On their turn a player adds two camels to their caravans, either both in the same color or in two different colors. The camels are placed so that they are adjacent to any camel in a caravan they control. They cannot, however, be placed so that this will cause two different caravans of the same color to combine.
There are multiple ways to score points in the game representing short and long term goals. There are two very simple and straightforward sources of points depicting short term goals: water holes and oases. Water holes are scattered across the board and when a camel is placed on top of one they receive a token with an indicated number of points. Additionally there are a much smaller number of oases, the first time that a player connects one of his caravans to an oasis they receive as oasis chip worth slightly more points.
The more long-term oriented way of scoring points is in enclosing an area. An area is enclosed when it is completed surrounded by a single caravan and the edge of the board. There is also a mountain area in the middle of the board that can be used for enclosure. When the final camel is placed to enclose an area, all of the water hole markers and oases in the enclosed area are awarded to the owning player. Additionally, at the end of the game the area is worth points based on the size of the area enclosed.
The game is over at the end of a player’s turn when they have placed the last camel from any of the colors. At this point the longest caravan in each color is determined and the owning player is awarded a large bonus. The player with the most points wins and becomes king of the desert!
Should you leave the Desert?
Abstract strategy games can be a bit of a mixed bag when attempting to appeal to a wide audience. They tend to be very dry due to the absence of any meaningful theme but at the same time they are simple enough to easily grasp and start playing with little explanation. Through The Desert won’t entirely immerse you with it’s theme but it serves a decent purpose of giving the pieces some sort of meaning. After all, the camel figure are extremely memorable and in my personal experience will get some players to give the game a chance.
Once you’ve lured in some new players with the promise of delicious candy camels out in the desert it won’t take long to get started. Both the setup for the game and the rules explanation take only a matter of minutes. This follows with the other big appeal of abstracts, a simple rule set. You are limited to placing two camels on your turn and the placement is further limited to adjacency with your caravans. Even if that seems overwhelming there are a number of short term goals in the water holes and oases that can give some sense of direction to the first time player.
Despite the simplicity there is a tricky combination of certainty that comes from the lack of randomness and uncertainty from what the other players are going to do. Especially with larger player counts there tends to be an attempt to optimize placement in the face of a human element of uncertainty, as opposed to randomness. Combine with the balancing act of short and long term goals and you could easily overwhelm a new player or induce the more AP-prone. However, I tend to encourage players to pick some goals in their first games such as collecting lots of points from tokens, concentrating on one of two caravans, or trying to enclose a big area. This generally keeps the pace of the game at a quick pace while players are learning the game and once they become experienced enough to really think through the tough decisions, the experience from their earlier games will provide some guidance.
The player interaction is front and center in Through the Desert, there are many caravans crowded onto a small board with a limited number of scoring opportunities. You’re simply going to have to step on some toes. It’s not overly aggressive as players are often choosing between many good options and being cut off somewhere will simply limit your choices. Not to say that you couldn’t have your carefully crafted plans ruined by a number of nosey neighbors. But since it’s a perfect information game if you’re planning a risky maneuver chances are everyone else will notice and if it’s worth stopping you, someone will.
The interaction extends all the way to the variable ending condition. Players control the pace of the game by deciding how quickly they are going to deplete specific piles. If a color is popular early on then players would be wise to take note of their current position and decide how an early ending should alter their plans and whether it would be advantageous to rush for the end themselves. Generally a single player can’t dictate the pace of the game themselves as it takes a lot of work to empty one pile unassisted so keeping an eye on how players are developing their caravans can go a long way towards controlling the pace of the game.
Combine the race for key scoring spots on the board, limited placement on each turn, and a variable ending and you’ve got a game chocked full of tension. This is tension that you can see coming as a board slowly unfolds and it’s created by giving each of the players the same limitations. You can only place two camels on the board but in between your turns there are anywhere from 2-8 camels being placed to match yours. The risk of leaving a key area exposed is inevitable but since everyone is looking to develop their own position you will often be able to gain some control by creating multiple opportunities across the board or threatening other players’ positions.
There is a pretty evident experience bias in Through the Desert, players that have played many times will have an advantage in a number of aspects. Most crucially is the initial placement which is absolutely key to maintaining good board position. Having many opportunities set up between your caravans is very important and being aware of color presence is something that doesn’t necessarily come intuitively to most players. There are many things to take in very quickly in this first phase of the game and doing it quickly after analyzing the random placement of water holes and oases is critical to winning. Not to say that the game plays itself after the leader placement is complete but a weak position will doom even a very skilled player.
The second form of experience can come in a player’s relative position to less skilled players. A big part of the game is weighing the risk of leaving certain areas open to pursue short term goals that will likely be gone by the time your next turn comes around. An inexperienced player won’t always notice and challenge these positions and will often give other players extra turns in which they can be more patient and flexible with their placement.
Both of these issues are not very critical in my opinion because the game is short enough that new players can learn many important aspects of the game that will close this gap in a relatively short period of time. Since I often use this game as a gateway game of sorts I can attest to new players enjoying the game a lot when their isn’t an experienced player dominating the game.
Overall I am very pleased with the way that this game presents both a great simple ruleset that will appeal to new players and leaves vast strategic space for veterans to test their skill with. If the thought of playing Go, or YINSH, or Hive makes you keep a safe distance from all abstract then maybe Through The Desert will offer a safe haven.