Red Nile: Rise of the First Dynasty
Much like the ones placed on a pharaoh’s hidden tomb, there’s this thing called the “Small Box Games Curse.” Whenever a set of three Small Box games find their way into my possession, it’s inevitable that I’ll love one, like another, and hate the third (or at least I strongly dislike it — I’m no hater). It always shakes out that way. It’s uncanny. Don’t believe me? Well, this tale has rare proof. Of the first trio ordered from SBG, I loved Omen: A Reign of War (it’s even one of my favorite games of all time!), liked Hemloch, and hated Tooth & Nail: Factions. From the second set, I loved The Valkyrie Incident, liked Stone & Relic, and disliked Shadow of the Sun. There you have it! Incontrovertible proof!
So if the curse continues for the rest of The Nile Ran Red — and there’s no reason to think it won’t, since I enjoyed Lords of the Sand and wasn’t too fond of Crimson Sun — then Rise of the First Dynasty, the collection’s final game, is predestined to be the best!
The curse continues. Which might be the first time a stubborn curse could be considered a good thing, because in this instance it means Rise of the First Dynasty is the crown jewel of The Nile Ran Red.
The easiest comparison for this game is rock-paper-scissors, but that makes it sound hideously boring, like you’d play it when you’re stalemated about what to play for game night and you need a tiebreaker. And that’s really not the case, so I’ll try explaining it another way.
The goal in Rise of the First Dynasty is to have the most valuable lands at the end of ten rounds. There are four types for you to conquer, each more desirable than the one before it. Deserts are obviously the lowliest. The Nile is better, then Deltas, then the Underworld, which is where this logic-train starts to break down because I’d much rather reside in a Nile-side palace than in the Underworld. Even a non-hell underworld like the Ancient Egyptian Duat sounds pretty dang unpleasant.
Anyway, on the reverse side of each land card there’s a “blessed” version, showing little signs of habitation (if pyramids and obelisks count as “signs of habitation,” anyway). Being blessed improves a land by leaps and bounds, because a blessed Desert is worth more points than an unblessed Nile, and a blessed Nile is worth more than a plain Delta, and so on. Because you want to end the game with lands worth the most points, it’s usually a good idea to have a healthy combination of lots of lands and blessed lands.
Each round the leader flips a card that shows which of these four lands is currently being contested. Then you pick one of your three action cards in secret, Conquest, Command, or Prosperity, and all are revealed simultaneously.
The thing that makes this game sort of like rock-paper-scissors is that each of your three actions becomes more powerful when someone else plays a certain other action. For example, Conquest lets you take one of that round’s contested lands or steal a land from another player. That’s the basic action Conquest always lets you take; the tricky bit is that for each player who played the Command action, you get to conquer an additional land or play one of your special edict cards. So if you played Conquest when you knew your four buddies were all going to play Command, you just potentially nabbed five lands. Or four lands and a played card. Almost any combination, really. The point is, you just played your friends like a Sistrum, which Wikipedia informs me is “a musical instrument of the percussion family, chiefly associated with ancient Iraq and Egypt.” Yeah idiots, you got played like a Sistrum.
Similarly, the Prosperity action lets you bless one of your lands, flipping it over to its more valuable side, or exchange one of your lands for another player’s land, which is hilarious when you trade a crummy plain Desert for a blessed Underworld. That’s already nifty, but it only gets better if someone else played Conquest, because each Conquest lets you bless another land or draw an edict card. Booyah.
This constant guessing at what your opponents will play makes Rise of the First Dynasty a surprisingly involved game, one where you’re watching your friends like a hawk and going through recursive recitations of She knows that I know that she knows that I know that she needs more lands this turn, so she’s not going to play Conquest unless she knows that I know that she might play Command instead…
It’s agonizing, and the only thing more hilarious than those turns when you’ll predict your friends with perfect certainty and pull off an absolutely brutal series of conquests, blessings, edicts, or steals, is those times when you’ll whiff it and hand out bonuses to everyone else while only giving yourself the most basic action.
The edict cards serve to make it more chaotic, since they fire off so many extra abilities. They can protect your lands, steal lands, chain other edicts together — all sorts of stuff. And if you’re holding duds, you can use the Command action to discard a pair to conquer a land and bless it, which can be huge if done at the right moment.
For such a simple game, Rise of the First Dynasty is a ton of fun, and gives you plenty of opportunities to outguess your friends. It can be swingy because everyone’s primary goal is to drag the lead player back into the morass with the rest of them, which makes it more about pouncing at the exact right time than gradually taking the lead. Nabbing a blessed Underworld too early will only make you a target; much better to diversify, with blessed Deserts and Niles and regular Deltas for a while, before leaping in and leveraging your edicts and actions to sprint to an unbeatable lead right at the last minute.
It’s easily the best game in The Nile Ran Red. Just make sure you play it with the full complement of five players for maximum craziness.