It’s time for us to explore a new continent together on our Jules Verne inspired trip around the world. In case you missed the other segments, we have been to Japan and the USA so far! This time we are preparing a virtual games evening based in North Africa. I’ve joined up with a band of bloggers to pitch their absolute best North Africa themed games.
For the ambience, I’ve made a fruity, spicy aubergine tagine with couscous and a flatbread. I’ve put on a suitable Arabian Nights style soundtrack, lit a few candle lanterns and dimmed the lights.
The scene is set, enter the games!
Valley of the Kings is a deck-building game set in ancient Egypt. It takes its name from the burial site where many pharaohs got laid to rest. Death was a Big Deal in ancient Egypt. Their insatiable obsession with the afterlife. Anubis and the feather of Ma’at. Mummification, pyramids, and curses. Pharaohs had objects (and even other people!) buried in their tomb, to assist their soul for its journey through the Duat. Valley of the Kings starts out with a familiar deck-building vibe.
You have a default 10-card deck and you’ll want to spend scarab symbols on your cards to buy better cards. You buy them from a ‘pyramid’ of six cards (buying from the bottom row only), which is neat. Or, instead of currency, you can trigger cards for their unique, specific actions. You ‘thin your deck’ by placing cards into your tomb. But thinning your deck is something of a paradox. At the end of the game, you only score the cards you’ve thinned out of your deck, not those left in it…
The theme marries this mechanism in such a remarkable way. At the end of the game, your remaining hand represents ‘life’. The cards you thinned out – the pharaoh’s staff you’ve entombed for death – are the ones you’ll score. The marvellous thing is you have to retrain your muscle memory. In a traditional deck-builder, you get rid of your weaker cards, right? That way you reap the benefits of your stronger ones more often. Not in this game. Valley of the Kings becomes a question of timing. You’ll want to buy and then use the amazing cards after you’ve bought them. But you’ll only score these if you later get rid of them!
Valley of the Kings flips the traditional efficiency arc of a deck-building game on its head. Your deck doesn’t have an exponential power curve. It has peaks and troughs, and reacting to that is a triumph in hand-management. This might be a small-box game from AEG, but don’t let that fool you. Valley of the Kings walks like a pharaoh among mortals.
Targi is, in my opinion, the best small box dedicated two-player game available. It feels like you are playing a much bigger game that than the components suggest. The choices and strategy within this tiny box are huge. The gameplay is smooth, satisfying and rewarding. The scoring mechanic is such that it is hard to guess who is going to be the winner until the final scoring. At all times, both players are engrossed. P.S. it's set in the Sahara desert and so fits the bill of this North Africa feature.
There is only one small issue some have with this game, which I don’t necessarily agree with, but can understand. Play can be slow, and analysis paralysis can occur during the placement of the Targi. This is due to the decision being very limited and so sometimes hard to make. Also, as the choices are the same for both players, whatever you take, your opponent can’t. Whatever you leave, they can take. Targi: The Expansion improves gameplay and reduces the feeling of action paralysis.
On your turn, you place one of three Targi meeples on a border card. Targi placement is important as you get both the benefit of the card you place your characters on, and cards at which they intersect. Taking a space on the board doesn’t only stop your opponent from taking that spot, but also may restrict their intersect options. With the expansion, there are extra possibilities with the introduction of the Sand Dune cards. The extra options not only provide intriguing new choices, but also free up the battleground around the main border cards.
This game is essentially a worker placement game with set collection. Normally in worker placement games, I like a lot of choice. But here the limited choice makes it tense and the tension makes the game fun. Some critics of the game say this tension creates a quiet game, which I understand. But for me, I am often screaming (in a fun way) at the other player when a certain position is taken from me. The game creates competitive laughter rather than silence. Targi plays in around an hour, and I absolutely love it every minute of every game.
All this for under £20 in small box! Fun, replayable and satisfying gaming as such a low cost. Targi has to be up there in terms of pound for pound value. I would highly recommend it.
I don’t even know why we’re doing this; surely there’s only one game we should be talking about. That's Richard Berg’s The Campaign for North Africa, published in 1978. Classic, yes. But you need 1500 hours or so spare to play. If you still want that Ice Cold in Alex moment, you’ll probably want something a little lighter to play. Enter Undaunted: North Africa.
U:NA is a two player war game based on the historical partisan actions of the British forces against the Italians in World War 2. Like its predecessor U:Normandy, the campaign-based play is deck-builder driven. Each player starts with a small deck that represents their forces for that particular scenario. Your deck determines who goes first, which forces move and which attack. You can improve this deck by buying cards from supply to bolster up your forces or discard cards to streamline your deck. As play progresses, Fog of War cards enter your deck. These bulk out your hand and cut down your actions. Successful attacks on your forces mean that you have to discard cards representing those forces from your hand. Once all cards of that type leave your hand, that unit is KO’d.
Undaunted: North Africa has a major addition not found in the Normandy game though – vehicles. Not only do these add variety to the units and strategies you can play, but they also give the game an asymmetric and atmospheric feel. The Italians may have the troops and the tank, but the British have engineers and saboteurs.
To sum up, this is a war game that manages to be historically authentic without being dry or ponderous. There may be arguments about who gets to play the Lawrence of Arabia style Brits to start with. But as the campaign progresses, you might be reluctant to part with your Italian tank crew.
Kemet is fab! It’s a pugnacious, pacey, ‘bods on a map’ game by the makers of Cyclades and Inis. While the depiction of ancient Egypt is a massive, fantasised stereotype, it is lush, dark and evocative. You get to build asymmetry gradually by procuring a range of mostly unique, power tiles from a whopping selection of 48. Part of the game’s joy over repeated plays is finding the combos within and between the three tile suits. The other joy, for me, is choosing tiles that allow you to deploy giant beasts into your armies on the map – and I am a sucker for a giant scorpion!
Gameplay is aggressive. Troops can slog across the desert map but are often teleported across huge distances to obelisks scattered across most zones. Generally, fighting ensues, as success in attack gives instant, permanent victory points. But the combat system is pretty punishing (and enjoyably light on luck) so even winning may leave you with a depleted, vulnerable army. No bother. Another elegant mechanic is that, after a battle, both the victor and the defeated can choose to sacrifice remaining troops back to their god for the complete purchase cost in prayer points! The result is a feeling of dynamic hit-and-run fighting and crunchy decisions. Do you hold onto a space – which if it is a temple will grant you VP in one of two ways – or cut your losses and slaughter your own troops for an economic boost?
It's big, brash and bloody. It smacks of American-Trash and yet I have had devoted Euro players loving it too. It plays best with more, but even three is grand. So my message to you is that if you want North Africa at its most violent and dynamic then buy Kemet. And have fun butchering your friends in the service of ancient gods.
North Africa has thousands of years worth of rich folklore and superstition, none of which have ever captured the West’s fearful imagination quite like the tombs of the ancient pharaohs. Deadly traps, curses and mummies were long believed to guard the treasure of the pyramids. A perfectly horrifying setting for many a board game to date, including the Eldritch Horror expansion, Under the Pyramids.
This big box add-on drops its usual Fantasy Flight bounty into your lap. There are more assets, more spells, and more monsters. But on top of that, it binds its ancient Egyptian theme to your sinister investigations. Of the two new Ancient Ones added to the game, the Dark Pharaoh Nephren-Ka is the only one to use the featured sideboard. This is a good choice that cuts down on component bloating.
This will take you from the bustling crowds of Cairo to the ominous shadow of the Bent Pyramid as you hunt the damned sands for clues and relics. Local Paths, connecting locations, are a new mechanic. These allow you to more freely move around Egypt, without grinding your action points down. Slowly crawling from one faraway place to another while the game smacked you over the head was never its most enjoyable moment. It's great to see it fixed, if only for an expansion.
As with many of FFG’s Arkham Files add-ons, there are aspects to Under the Pyramids that will curdle the blood of some players. The Impairment feature can cripple your already fragile investigators on a whim. That is a particularly nasty addition. The great thing about these add-ons, though, is that these individual mechanics can be swapped in and out to create the game that you want. For me, Under the Pyramids ranks very highly among the Eldritch Horror expansions, second only to the jointly essential Forsaken Lore and Strange Remnants. For a uniquely terrifying North Africa adventure, you can do no better.
Our tour of the world is soon coming to a close; our writers are tired from all their travelling. Next, we have doubled back on ourselves and landed in South America. Strictly, this is not the fastest around the world loop I could have thought up. But we got planes and cars, not boats and horses like Phileas Fogg. I’m leveraging the modern day travel improvements here. South America (the continent as a whole, including all of Central America too) is rich with ancient history. It also has all the most extreme geographies; there are rainforests, mountains, salt flats, deserts, and beaches. It’s a diverse place, so it seems only fitting to offer a diverse selection of games.
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