The Race for Atlantis, Maybe

The graphic designers have sadly failed the first rule of cutsey Minoan-era art: The happy dolphin must always dot the i.

History Time! Around 3,600 years ago on the Aegean isle of Thera, during the height of the pre-Greek Minoan civilization, an enormous volcano went off. In addition to totally burying the settlement of Akrotiri beneath volcanic ash that would later become the principal ingredient in pencil erasers and cosmetic exfoliants, the resultant tsunami and altered weather may have also led to the weakening of the Minoan state, prepping them for invasion by the less-exploded Mycenaeans. Some historians even speculate that the complete disappearance of such an important settlement was the inspiration for Plato’s account of Atlantis.

Set around a thousand years later (landing us in Classical Greek territory), Akrotiri casts two players as a pair of humanity’s first archaeologists, scouring the uncharted Aegean Sea for treasure and ancient temples.

How'd they manage to colonize an island in the middle of a bunch of unexplored islands? That's the best-kept Minoan secret of all.

Exploring outwards from the starting isle of Thera.

At first glance, Akrotiri might seem like a simple game. A filler, even. Using chunky map tiles, you and your opponent assemble a crowded Aegean Sea, brimming with sea routes, portages for hauling boats over land, resources to be gathered and sold at market, and landmarks by which to navigate. The visual design is crisp and spare, one might say Spartan (haha!), belying the game’s hidden complexities.

In actuality, this is a tremendously clever game, and it demands clever players to captain its cute-as-hell boats. Later turns can take a good while to complete, every tile’s positioning critical as you trace a path via sea and land to resource-rich islands or prime temple sites. It rarely feels long, however, if only because when your buddy takes a while to figure out his move, at least the pressure’s off you.

Your primary goal is to uncover temples. In addition to being your most reliable source of points at the end of the game, excavated temples also make you a more competent discoverer, permitting more actions each turn and extra goals to complete. More on those later. For now, the important thing to realize is that temples can be tough to find. Map cards give you their possible location, surrounded by landmarks — volcanoes, lakes, big spooky trees, mountains. Find a spot surrounded by the correct landmarks and you can excavate a temple.

This is a many-step process, however. Beyond the mere act of finding a temple, itself a challenge that requires you to cleverly place new islands and beat your opponent to making a discovery there (since only one temple is allowed on each island), you’ve got to scrape together enough cash for both the map cards and the excavation itself. Every placed tile results in a couple new resources to collect, their value going up or down according to their scarcity in the market back home. So while you’re racing to find temples, you’re also racing to gobble up the most valuable treasures, loading them onto your ship and then blitzing back to home port to unload. Sell goods, buy maps and excavations, with hopefully enough left over to fund your next expedition or give you a few extra points.

Even stoic-faced Classical Greeks would probably whistle a ditty at that. I'd rather not learn the words to it though. If 300 and Spartacus have taught me anything, those ancients were hella foul.

Ancient temple discovered, valuable goods taken aboard.

The result is a shockingly multifaceted system where your goals evolve from turn to turn. You’ll spend a couple rounds seeking a fortune, laying a tile that creates a better overland route and lets you beat your opponent to a trove of expensive cubes; then you’ll spend a turn chasing down a tough temple, petitioning an oracle for the location of that spooky tree you need in order to find it; then you’ll buy a bunch of maps and try to block your opponent’s efforts on a larger island by discovering some measly one-point temple before they can complete their archaeological opus. From cash-making to exploration to blocking and back again.

The map itself soon becomes a convoluted mess, and I mean that as a compliment. It takes a while before reading its tangled yarn of sea lanes and portages becomes second nature, especially since you don’t want to make the routes too easy. Much better to create a bedhead of ways to get around and hope you can beat your adversary to the best spots.

Even when you’ve got your nemesis on the ropes, there’s a chance they’re just playing it smart. In addition to the above-board tally of cash and temples, both players also start with a hidden goal card and earn more as they excavate new temples. These are universally tough to accomplish, but their possible yield in points is enormous. For instance, one of the cards gives you six points every time you have a temple on an island with three different types of landmarks. Another gives you a point for every tile that makes up the biggest completed island — provided you also have a temple on it. With only a few goal cards available, this means that when you see an opponent putting together a huge island with lots of landmarks, it might be a good idea to lock it down with a temple of your own. Their crestfallen expression should let you know if you’ve just spoiled two of their goal cards.

Did you catch my Hellenic Pun in the alt-text above? I'm proud like a papa of that one.

Exploring the far reaches of the Aegean Sea.

For such a colorful and otherwise cheerful game, Akrotiri sure provides a lot of ways to jab an elbow into your opponent’s particulars. There are resources to snake, islands to claim, and docks for squatting on. Then again, maybe I just waste too much time undermining my wife’s strategy and not enough pursing my own.

But the best part is that it captures the feel of discovering something. Even though the map is simple, there’s a thrill to figuring out a spot for your seven-point map card, finally finding that single space with two volcanoes to the north, three mountains to the west, and two lakes to the south. Then there’s a very different sort of thrill when you realize you’re short the nine drachmas you need to perform the excavation.

While its surprising complexity and two-player limit means it won’t be for everyone, Akrotiri is a good one.

Posted on August 6, 2015, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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