Babbling for Babylonia
I’m under no illusion that Babylonia is a perfect game. Far from it. The map has too much detail. Don’t mistake this for a nitpick. The only thing more frustrating than thinking you have one more hex with which to surround a city only to realize the hex in question is beyond the edge of the map is when you realize you’ve misapprehended whether you were looking into the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates or a patch of shadow on the riverbank. In a tile-laying game, these things matter. I might even go as far as to say the map would look better had it been barely illustrated at all, except that would make me sound like Don Draper mooning over a Hershey’s bar.
Everything else, though? Perfection. I’d even call it Reiner Knizia’s finest work. Let me tell you why.
It may be a cop-out to call Babylonia a bidding game. From a certain perspective, any game could be called a bidding game, one in which actions, resources, even gestures and facial expressions become the currencies in our ever-shifting bid for victory. See, I said “bid.” We’re halfway to an auction.
But that’s exactly how Babylonia feels. It’s redundant to talk about Knizia’s talent for simple rules that belie great depths, so we’ll skip the particulars except to say that Babylonia is no exception. A turn consists of either placing any two tiles or placing three or more peasant tiles all at once. There’s more, like how farms can only be claimed by a peasant and only if you’re already next to it, or how anything can be placed face-down in the river, or that ziggurats dole out points based on how many ziggurats you’re already adjacent to. But calling those few extra rules complicated would be like saying a handful of soil can muddy the whole Tigris River.
Every placement is an investment, one whose ultimate payout is never certain. Sometimes these investments are immediate, as when a farm is claimed or a ziggurat is partially surrounded, trickles of points exchanged for your tile. Other times investments are recurring, in particular when cities are claimed by whichever merchant prince happens to control the most adjacent spaces. In such a case, every claimed city scores yet another point for its owner. The very first claimed city, even if worth nothing in its own right, might be worth a game-swinging quantity over time.
And sometimes these investments are even subtler, a tile played to bridge regions or head off opposing offshoots. How cities score is the crucial tidbit. There are three varieties of priest in Babylonia — pots, suns, and the immortal likeness of Ashurbanipal. When a city is surrounded on land (another rule to consider! how they accumulate!), it scores points for every connected priest of the same type. Adjacent priests, yes, but also any priest chained via friendly tiles, sometimes far away across expanses of dirt or water, sometimes via hard-fought routes, sometimes nearby thanks to clever preparations. Early cities tend to be worth a handful of points. By game’s end, strands of priests and peasants can cover as much ground on the scoring track as in a half-dozen of those early turns.
Which is why Babylonia is a bidding game, right down to its cadence. When someone plays their two chips, carefully arranged to score a few points now and prepare something for later, the entire board is rearranged in light of this new information. The next player places two chips within reach of disparate cities. Someone adds a rush of peasants, blocking the previous player’s hopes of unfettered expansion. Every overture is deliberate, betraying something of its maker’s designs. Around and around it goes, escalating with the same pitted anxiety of a wager gone too far.
What makes all these investments manageable is how Knizia doles out your options. Rather than slapping you with an entire stack of thirty tiles, you’re limited to the contents of your rack. Five tiles. Seven if you’ve claimed a particular ziggurat power. Enough to chew on, not so much that anyone will choke. And it works for two major reasons.
First, your pool of tiles is entirely your own. Each player has twelve peasants and six of each priest. That’s a small enough pool to tabulate against what you’ve already placed on the table, if you’re so inclined. Which might not be a bad idea. Because you’re always presented with a choice between placing any two tiles or placing a group of three or more peasants, refilling your rack at the end of the turn carries real tension. Any tile can be used to bridge gaps or block enemy placements, but Babylonia comes alive when you realize you can often fulfill multiple goals at the same time. Why merely block somebody when you can also expand a score-worthy network of priests? Why secure only one city when a rush of peasants will let you claim two cities and a farm besides? This generates internal friction your rivals might overlook, such as pondering whether you should dump a peasant into the river to make a bridge or hold out for more of the poor dupes.
More importantly, Babylonia is a game about peacetime. Unlike Tigris & Euphrates, there are no conflicts, neither civil wars nor clashes between cities. Which also means there’s none of that game’s focus on spending tiles to support your claims in a fight. This isn’t a criticism of Tigris & Euphrates, but its clashes were chancy affairs, liable to occur at the very moment when you weren’t hoarding the proper tiles — if you’d drawn them in the first place. Babylonia doesn’t bother with that sort of thing. Its version of chance is entirely about paving the decision space, not determining how a conflict shakes out. That’s all on you and how carefully you place your tiles. This helps its pacing; Babylonia is a remarkably brisk game. But it also keeps the focus where it should be, on your rack’s limited selection of tiles and what you can accomplish with them. And it’s never more interesting than when you’re working through how to use the hand you didn’t hope to draw.
Yet of all the traits that define Babylonia, I think my favorite is how carefully it defies expectation. It’s a bidding game that contains no bids. A game of chance that never lets an outcome hinge on chance. A race to seize essential milestones — ziggurat powers, early cities, high-yield farmlands — that refuses to lock you into any one avenue. A competitive wrestling match that both rewards and punishes too much jostling. Its generosity with points even calls to mind a point salad game, although here every action not only matters in a way that most point salad games can’t compete with, but also tends to spool outward in importance, one point turning into three points into ten, no placement seeming trivial, minor decisions carrying major import many turns down the line. The effect is wondrous. Early moves matter, but more for how they come together over time than for any immediate advantage they confer.
In other words, Babylonia reflects many things without succumbing to the temptation of emulating them. Some may complain that it doesn’t contain the thematic sharpness of Tigris & Euphrates, Modern Art, and High Society, or the hobby-changing innovations of a dozen other classic Knizias. The extent of its commentary seems limited to a contrast with its earlier Mesopotamian sibling, that to lose in prosperity is more profitable than to win in war. But those are conversations for another day. For now, it should be stated that this is the work of a master designer, a work so competent and so seemingly effortless that to some it will undoubtedly seem like a trifle rather than the masterpiece it is.
So I’ll spell it out: Babylonia is one of Knizia’s finest. Where few enough games understand the importance of tempo, it strikes a cadence that’s nearly lyrical in its salvos of escalating bids and exchanges of position. Where some games lean on mounds of plastic to lend volume to their whimpering, Knizia compresses thunderclaps into the muted clack of wooden chips against cardboard. May it dwell alongside the rest of his pantheon for an age.