Babylonia is a new game from legendary designer Dr Reiner Knizia. With over 600 published games, Dr K is the most prolific game designer of all time. With that bulk of ideas come a mix of glorious successes and less glorious experiments. Knizia games tend to have minimal rulesets that generate enormous depth and emergent gameplay. They often lack in theme. Babylonia is firmly ‘Knizian’ in this sense. The rules for Babylonia cover only a couple of pages. Yet within that handful of rules lies one of his best designs in recent years. It's one of the best multiplayer abstract games out there. And it's extremely fast to play, fast to teach, and devilishly clever.
The game board is a map of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers - well-trodden Dr K territory. The art is reminiscent of a Google maps satellite photo. It's slightly murky but simultaneously attractive. The Babylonia board is divided into hexes. Some of these are predetermined set-up spots to place randomly selected farm and city tiles. A smaller number are reserved for nice little 3D wooden ziggurats. You have a bunch of face down wooden discs of your colour and a ‘hand’ of five of them face up in your wooden stand. These are available to play on your turn. So what are you trying to achieve?
Stuck Between a Knizia and a Hard Place
Well, points naturally. Over the course of Babylonia, you will play most of your discs onto empty hex spaces and score points. You want to surround cities, take over farmland, surround ziggurats, and most importantly, build long connections between cities. But in typical Knizian fashion, every time you choose to score one thing, you’re losing opportunities elsewhere. Or you’re benefiting now while sacrificing future opportunity. But if you wait too long, you lose it all. Faced with these choices I often find myself looking to the sky, shaking my fist, shouting “Knizia!!” But always in praise of his evil genius rather than frustration. I always feel like he’s cackling maniacally at me. In reality, he turns out to be a very nice man with a penchant for bow ties.
You want Theme? We’ve Got Pots. And Stars. And Also Heads
You have two general types of pieces: nobles and farmers. Nobles come in three varieties (pots, stars and heads) that match icons on the different city tiles on the board. Farmers are all one type. On your turn, you have enormous freedom. You don’t have any adjacency rules for placement as in his previous related games. You can play any two tiles to any open spaces on the board. Playing nobles lets you score for cities with matching icons (see below). Farmers don’t score for cities. But they’re special because you need them to take over the green point-laden farm tiles. But farmers also have a party trick. On your turn, if you only play farmers, you can play as many as you want. Often you’ll play nobles for several turns as your farmer pool builds up. Then you go on a wild farming spree covering the Babylonia board in connections and opponent-blocking goodness.
Ziggurats - Surround Me at Your Peril
Depending on player count, there will be between 3 and 5 ziggurats on the board. Each of these live on predetermined spots. Every time you place a piece next to a ziggurat, you get points for each different ziggurat you already touch. So once you have a piece at each ziggurat, every subsequent piece is worth 3-5 points. So you want to get to each of them early. If a ziggurat is fully surrounded, the player with the absolute majority gets a special power. They choose from 8 special power tiles, first come, first served. These can be one-time use powers like an instant 10 points or immediate free turn. Or they can be permanent upgrades such as increasing your hand-limit to 7 or loosening restrictions on playing your pieces. These are huge advantages. So clearly the strategy must be “Ziggurats or bust!”, right? Not so fast buddy. The thing about ziggurats is they are scattered across the board. This means your pieces are also scattered. This is actively bad for your main source of power in Babylonia - your city network.
Cities - The Meat in the Babylonia Sandwich
Cities and the connections between them are the lifeblood of Babylonia. This is where the big points are won and lost. City tiles show either one or two icons, corresponding to the noble icons on player pieces. When a city is surrounded, it will be scored and removed from the board. The way this scoring is done is the most novel aspect of the whole game. If you can trace a continuous path of your pieces to the city, then all of those pieces that match the city icon will score (e.g. if it’s a “star” city, you score for every star tile in the chain). If you’ve planned well, these can be enormous chains that cover the board. Diligent opponents should be able to prevent the most egregiously long chains. Let’s just say I’ve not been so diligent in the past and have the scars to prove it. There can be enormous turn angst as you pray your opponent hasn’t seen the mega-move. And the flip-side being the smug pleasure of scoring a 12-long chain of pieces and storming around the score track.
The Twisted Genius of Dr K: All Your Scores Belong to Us
If someone has an absolute majority around a city, they win the city and take it from the board. Then all the players score for all the cities they already own! So an early city win will score for you multiple times, even on other players’ turns. So you want to get cities fast. But your connections will be weak early on, leading to low scores. What to do? This is the type of satisfying mental tug of war Babylonia provides every turn. Something similar happens with the farms. Some farms are simply one-time point-scoring opportunities. But others are ‘city’ farms. Claiming one of these gives you points equal to the number of cities won by all players. So these are worthless at the beginning of the game. But they become progressively more valuable as the game progresses, letting you piggyback off other’s success.
Face-down in the Mud - or How Geography Matters
The rivers provide another deep (no pun intended, maybe..) strategic component to Babylonia. When playing two pieces, you can place either or both of them face down in the river. This of course deprives you of their farmer or noble identity (and I assume their dignity). But it allows you to connect potentially huge chains of your pieces on different landmasses. It also lets you vie for superiority around ziggurats and cities. Although a city only needs to be surrounded on land, face down tiles can skew the majority in your favour.
The Babylonia Experience
The game ends suddenly in one of two ways. Either there are one or fewer cities left on the board, or someone has used all their tiles. There is no end game scoring. Throughout the game, massive point-scoring happens. You may feel your falling behind one moment, only to pull out a huge catch-up turn the next. The freedom of the game, being able to place virtually anywhere, is delightful. Somehow it causes no analysis-paralysis and no runaway leader. And the game is lightning fast; 20-30 minutes for a 2-4 player game. Different regions of the map are used for different player counts. These are delineated by the rivers, as well as removal or addition of some ziggurats, city and farm tiles. There is some degree of luck-of-the-draw when you refill your stand of pieces. But the game is so rich, that no one I’ve played with has ever even mentioned it as an issue. The game is a fascinating mix of strategy and tactics. Strategy is vital. But you often need to tactically pivot to a new idea at any moment.
The Fly in the Production Ointment
There’s one problem with Babylonia that has nothing to do with gameplay, but production. For some crazy reason, the nice wooden stands for your pieces that come with the game are essentially non-functional. They are meant to hold the pieces but instead are designed in such a way that the pieces continually fall over. All. The. Time. This was clearly an oversight by the production company. Fortunately, there is a perfect solution for this. Google “self-adhesive bumpers 8mm” and your problems will be solved. Little rubber feet on the stands makes them work great. Of course one shouldn’t have to do this, but they only cost a couple of quid. This game is worth it. Others might opt to hold the pieces in their hand which works fine too.
A Worthy Place in the Collected Works
Knizia often revisits a core game idea. He’s been here before with the network building games Through the Desert (1998) and Blue Lagoon (2018). These are multiplayer abstract games, with a dusting of theme. Babylonia takes some core concepts from those games and builds something far richer. I should say that I love both those earlier games and consider them classics. But Babylonia adds richness, depth and freedom whilst simultaneously maintaining the speed and ease of teaching of those previous incarnations.
If you need a strong theme in a game to love it, then Babylonia is not for you. If you’re a Knizia fan, you must get this game, even if you have Blue Lagoon and Through the Desert. I consider Babylonia to essentially replace those games for me. If you have none of those earlier games, and like multiplayer abstracts, this is a must-own in my opinion. We may never know what the pots or the stars or the heads really meant. But we’ll remember our victories and defeats in Babylonia.