Not Sure What a Cartouche Has to Do With It
Another year, another trio of small box games from small box games king John Clowdus, proprietor of Small Box Games. Except this time I’m so far behind that he has some other games out, which pretty much makes me a filthy truant, and—
Deep breath. One thing at a time. First up, Cartouche Dynasties. This is a single-deck ditty about building a kingdom in Ancient Egypt. It has nothing to do with either cartouches or dynasties.
Now let’s uncover what else it’s been lying about.
Much like every other game about Ancient Egypt, Cartouche Dynasties revolves around appeasing the gods in order to reap some material benefit. It’s an idea so old that it doesn’t even count as tired. Dusty, maybe. Desiccated, mummified, its brain ripped free of its cranium through its nasal cavity.
Both players want to found the coolest kingdom, that goes without saying. Laid out between them are four stacks of cards, layered like four cobb salads of followers, scarabs, structures, and statues, each with their own benefits and means of scoring. As has been one of John Clowdus’s hallmarks since the dawn of time, each of these cards can be used in a few different ways. The main division is that everything is worth something in your kingdom, but likely worth more in your pile of scrolls — though scrolls won’t sit around generating ongoing benefits. For example, an obelisk will be worth two points as a scroll, but one point for every follower if it’s built physically rather than on papyrus. Striking the right balance between all those different scoring options, combo opportunities, and complementary card types is what will set apart the kingdoms housing the pyramids of Giza from the ones in Meroë.
Where Cartouche Dynasties comes to life, though, is through the way you gather and play all of these kingdom cards by supplicating the gods of Egypt. There are six of these animal-headed deities, and each round sees four of them drawn at random and alternately deployed to those four stacks of kingdom cards. Placing a god blocks that stack from being selected again until next round, but lets you activate one of its two abilities. For the most part each god’s two abilities are identical — one lets you take a card and the other lets you play something into your kingdom — but every god offers their own twist, like Sobek sending cards directly into your scrolls pile or Anubis letting you draw double cards but from the bottom of his chosen deck.
The trick is that even these gods are something you can eventually grow more familiar with. Not just in terms of understanding how to make the most of their abilities — though of course that’s important to playing well — but also by erecting statues to those gods. This will let you use both of that god’s actions. It’s an enormous advantage, only slightly offset by the fact that statues aren’t worth many points unless they’re rolled into your scrolls where their perks are useless. As with everything else in Cartouche Dynasties, there’s an art to balancing which statues to hold onto and which ones to wrap up into points.
There’s a lot to like about Cartouche Dynasties, though there’s a reason for that. Many of its best features — the excitement of uncovering new kingdom cards, the back-and-forth dynamic of claiming gods and blocking your opponent, the way points are slow to come at first only to eventually crash like a river far more thunderous than the Nile — are reminiscent of one of John Clowdus’s finest games. In a lot of ways, Cartouche Dynasties plays like a streamlined Neolithic, with a single deck split into four rather that game’s multiple distinct sets of cards, and with a diminished emphasis on bullying the center row.
Of course, the real question is whether Neolithic required streamlining in the first place. It was already rather trim, to the point that its own expansion felt about as necessary as rewrapping a mummy. In that sense, Cartouche Dynasties feels like a second-stringer, recycling many of the same concepts. It doesn’t mishandle the tools it’s inherited, though I would have rather seen some of its ideas pushed deeper into uncharted territory rather than smoothed out and transplanted to a less-interesting setting.
That’s harsh. I found lots to like about Cartouche Dynasties, not the least of which is the way a single action somehow morphs into three or four, and feels so utterly rewarding in the process. It’s hard to beat Clowdus’s sixth sense for why multi-use cards are so endlessly compelling, and this game reveals a designer in high form, providing a tight little race where every card’s placement must be made with utmost precision, the gods can be tricked into doling out double blessings, and piles of scarabs translate to piles of points.