Manufacturer  Fantasy Flight Games
 Year  2000
 Designer  Reiner Knizia
 AKA  Durch die Würst
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Through The Desert


Through the Desert was one of the first "German games" I ever got, and from the start I knew it was a winner. After a few plays, I realized that it is in fact, "The Greatest Game Ever Created!™"

Background

Through the Desert is one of Knizia's "Tile-Laying Trilogy", (the others being Euphrat & Tigris and Samurai, ignoring for now the recent release of the Lord of the Rings card game, which is very similar in "feel" to Samurai...). The distinguishing feature of Through the Desert is that first off, there are no "tiles" per se, and secondly, that there is absolutely no luck involved. Instead of tiles, players are placing pastel camels onto a map of a desert. Scattered across the desert are oases and waterholes, both of which are involved in the scoring. Players take turns placing camels on the board, attempting to extend their camel caravans to oases, to waterholes, and to "enclose" areas of the board.

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The Gameplay

In Through the Desert, there are five different colors of camels. In all but the 5 player version, players will be playing all five colors of camels onto the board. This can present some issues with some, as it is a bit counter-intuitive at first, (much as in Euphrat & Tigris, where each player has leaders of all colors with the same symbols), but most people get the hang of it fairly quickly.

The game begins with the oasis palm tree markers being placed onto the board on specially marked hexes. Thus begins the strategy, as there are more possible locations for the oasis than there are palm trees. The location of the oases will set the stage for the play of the game and the strategies chosen, as closely spaced oases may lead to more "fighting" over that part of the board. After the oases have been placed, waterhole markers are placed randomly, face up, onto other specially marked hexes, and any oasis hexes that didn't actually get an oasis. The waterholes are worth from 1 to 3 points. Getting a feel for which areas of the board contain the highest values waterholes must now be added to the oases locations for determining strategy. Finally, players take turns placing their five "starting camels", (one of each color marked with a colored rider), onto the board. These starting camels cannot be placed next to an oasis, on a waterhole, or next to any other camel. Many times this will be the most crucial part of the entire game, as poor placement may hand a large section of the board to a player, so care must be taken as to where camels get placed in this phase.

Once all players have placed their starting camels, the main portion of the game begins. On their turn a player must place two camels onto the board. These can be of any color, and must be placed adjacent to the player's caravan of camels of that color that had been placed previously. A player may not, however, place a camel next to the caravan of that color that would cause it to touch an opponents caravan of that same color. From a purely technical point of view, this is because it would not then be possible to determine which player any given camel in such a chain belonged to. Play thus continues until one color of camels has been completely exhausted, at which point the game ends.

The Scoring

As is typical of Knizia's designs, there are a multitude of scoring options. During the play, any waterhole marker you play a camel on is yours, and placed face down in front of you. Any time one of your caravans moves adjacent to an oasis, you receive a 5 point "oasis chip". While you cannot score multiple oasis chips for a color at the same oasis, you can have that caravan touch multiple oases, in which case you will get a chip for each oasis. Anytime you completely enclose an area of the board with a single color of camel, (and/or the board edges or mountains in the center of the board), you can take any waterhole chips within the enclosure, and an oasis chip for each oasis within the enclosed area. Finally when the game ends, the player with the longest caravan in each color receives a 10 point caravan chip, and any enclosed areas give 1 point for each hex enclosed.

Why this game is so great

Through the Desert is great because it has simple mechanics, agonizing decisions, is quick playing, can be won with a variety of strategies, and is very replayable. The mechanics, (place two camels), are simple enough that my son has been playing with us since he was three, and while the strategies involved are over his head, the mechanics are not.

The multiple scoring choices, combined with the five different colors of caravans, mean that you are never able to do everything you would like to do during a turn. "I've got the longest purple caravan, but only by 1 camel, and she will probably play two purples during her turn, but if I don't play that blue camel there, I may get cutoff from that oasis, but I really need to stop him from playing two peach camels there and cutting off that whole side of the board, but...". These choices lead to lots of "Oh No!" moments, when the choice you didn't make leads to your opponents making plays you didn't foresee, ruining your plans.

The multiple scoring choices also lead to a variety of strategies. You can try to play for the longest caravan in one or two colors, (not sure if it's even mathematically possible to have the longest in three colors in a four player game), but rarely will that in and of itself provide enough points for a win. Should you try for waterholes, oasis chips or enclosed territories? Should you try to play aggressively, cutting off opponents from oases and trying to enclose areas, or more efficiently, not wasting camels on "fights" with other players? Should you concentrate on one color at a time, or try to play more evenly to all the colors? In addition, your strategies may need to change dramatically as the board develops, and this is one game where you can do this, and still have a chance to win. Many games I have had a plan going in, only to see it thwarted by my opponents. By shifting my plans to another strategy, I have still been able to win. In addition, the ending conditions often impose on your plans, as you may be just about to make the plays that will give you the victory, only to see the other players exhaust a color of camel, ending the game. You can also use this to your advantage, by using camels from a nearly empty color to attempt to end the game early. However, unless you really need to use that color, while you are doing that, your opponents will be furthering their goals with the other colors.

The game plays very quickly, generally running about 30-45 minutes. Sorting the camels after the game has finished and putting them in their own baggies also leads to a quick setup, and seems to work better than trying to sort them before the game. The random setup of waterhole values, and the placement of oases and starting camels leads to no two games ever being the same.

Why others don't agree

The primary complaint against Through the Desert is that it is "dry" and lacking in theme. Of course it's dry, it's a desert! While I can agree with this somewhat, (there is no luck involved), I find the gameplay less dry than other games which have far more theme, (Evo comes to mind here). Others have said, "It's too much like Go, and if I want to play a game like Go, I'd rather play Go". Which is fine and dandy, as long as you only have two players, and you have the time to spend playing, (or even becoming proficient at Go).

Differences between versions

There are only two differences that I am aware of between the German version , (Durch Die Würst) and Through the Desert. The map in the German version appears to be a bit brighter in color, and lacks the "valley" between board sections. In addition, the waterhole markers are of differing sizes between the 1, 2, and 3 values in the German version. As these are supposed to be placed randomly, are placed face up, and are placed before any camel are on the board, I can't see this being a very big issue.

Recap

Strategy:  10
Complexity:  3
Fun:  8
Overall:  10

Buy/Read about Through the Desert now at Funagain

Buy/Read about Durch die Wüste now at Funagain

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