Like the shuffling horde from a certain Brendan Fraser movie they come, chanting the name of their new favourite game: “Im-ho-tep! Im-ho-tep! Im-ho-tep!” Enthusiasm for the brick-placing, boat-moving, Egyptian extravaganza sprung up like a biblical plague after its surprise nomination towards the coveted Spiel des Jahres prize last year. Is Imhotep the master crafted monument its devotees say it is? Or have they merely fallen under its dark spell…?
Under the glaring sun of Ancient Egypt, the Pharaoh has tasked his master builder Imhotep with the design and construction of 4 great monuments so that future generations will remember his great name for all eternity. Unfortunately Imhotep left you lot with the building work, resulting in “little and large”, the comically out of proportion obelisks, as well as the famous temple of “Argh! Nooo!” I can imagine Imhotep’s face when he comes back to see your handy work…
The work of a master builder, as it turns out, is managing of bricks! You’ll mine bricks from your giant personal pile (your ‘quarry’) to your little cardboard sled, from which you can move them on to the boats lined up on the banks of the Nile, which is admittedly a strange thing to call your dining table, but there you go. The bricks can go into any slot on the variably sized boats and this can be important, as bricks are unloaded front to back when they arrive at their destination. Each round you’ll calmly put out a few bricks, maybe refill your sled, then cry with anguish as one of the jerks you’re playing with moves your favourite boat to the worst possible place.
Yes, being a master builder is simple, mostly honest, work. So simple in fact that you more or less know everything you need to get started playing the game. Seriously. Just do one of those 3 things. Once the boats have all sailed (blocking up the jetties as they do so), flip a card, place out the new platter of boats and away you go again. This really is an astonishingly simple game.
You’ll probably spend more time explaining the different monuments and how they score. You see, in classic ancient Egyptian style, you’ll be competing to collect Victory Points earned by building all the best bits of the 4 monuments: the Pyramid, the Temple, the Burial Chamber and the Obelisks. Each of these score differently. The Pyramid is all about getting your bricks to the best spots, instantly scoring the points inscribed on the space your brick lands on. The Temple, at the end of each round, will score 1 point for every brick on top, that is, those you can see if you look directly down upon it, like the Gods. Later bricks end up covering the older ones. The Burial Chamber awards points for creating areas of connected, adjacent bricks, a real challenge of opportunity and timing. The player with the biggest Obelisk will score the most points and be reminded by the other players that its not the size of your obelisk that really counts, it’s how you use it.
There is also a market that, for whatever reason, uses giant stone bricks as currency. If a boat ends up there the bricks are traded in for one of the choice of cards, offering a free, immediate brick placement (great for sneaking in a high scoring brick somewhere else), some end game scoring options based on the size of the other monuments, or statues to collect. As any miniatures gamer knows, the more statues you have at the end of the game, the better. There are also some action cards you can take to play later, offering more powerful turns when you chose to play the card.
Imhotep is a game of timing. The cornerstone of building many of the monuments is in getting your bricks there at the right time. This is easiest seen in the pyramid, where different spaces are worth between 1 and 4 points, but its true of the burial chamber, where you need to fight to keep your connected bricks from being, excuse the pun, blocked off. So the decision of when to launch a boat is made to feel huge, you want it to get to the right place, before someone else sends your bricks somewhere bad for you.
You see, there is no obligation for you to have a brick on the boat you move, only that it is sufficiently full. You can just hijack your opponent’s boat, gleefully waving at their shocked faces stood back on the bank as they watch you sail away. It is, undeniably, funny! But you soon realise that spending actions launching boats are actions you are not spending putting out bricks, bricks that will score you points no matter where they end up…
When I started playing Imhotep I had great fun moving other people’s boats, and I would desperately move mine to get at the points I thought were key. But I kept losing. I don’t like losing so I changed my strategy. I decided I would play to never move a boat unless I was forced to. I would just put out bricks, and refill my sled. Let others worry about where the boats were going. And I’ve won every game since.
What I’ve realised as I’ve played Imhotep more and more is that the best way to win is to not care about what happens. The fact is, no matter where my bricks get moved to I will score some points, whereas the player moving that boat is sacrificing the chance to put out bricks. Placing all your bricks in one boat will obviously get you screwed as well, so you hedge your bets. You put one brick in every available boat first. Because it is so hard to control where your bricks end up, the game encourages you to hedge your bets as much as possible. But I would argue that this is Imhotep’s greatest failure.
At a casino, it’s not the man who spreads all his chips out across the table that earns cheers and garners excitement, it’s the man who places everything he has on one roll of the dice, one spin of the roulette wheel. Playing blinds in poker is not exciting, it’s going all in that makes everyone sit forward and watch. Hedging your bets for 40 minutes and winning is all wrong! Imhotep should reward you for playing for big points at big risk, because that creates emotion. Cheers when you succeed or groans when you fail. Instead I play this, feel indifferent for 40 minutes, and then win!
Each monument also features a B-side on the reverse, offering a different way of scoring and increasing the game’s variability. The B-sides are interesting, the pyramid and temple, for example offer rewards like free cards from the market or bonus bricks into your supply in certain positions. But by and large they also make arriving at the right time even less competitive than the A-sides. The B-sides are gentle lounge music to the A-side’s tense, fractious chords.
Now, it might not always feel this way. The game’s simplicity and its high level of interactivity (even if it is a kind of take that interactivity) will certainly make it a lot of fun for families. But if you have a competitive side to you, having the best strategy be to ignore the most entertaining and interactive part of the game is ruinous, in my opinion.
I imagine that if everyone plays this way, avoiding moving boats, then it might again get interesting, at least in parts. The final decision of where to move might be key and you’ll run into points where it really is better to move early than to place another brick. I think this comes out even more strongly with just 2 players where the chaos of the 4-player game is absent and the threat of king making in the 3-player game, where one player always takes the move boat action despite it being bad for them, is less apparent. But even so, it’s a lot of time with fairly obvious decisions for those 1 or 2 key choices.
Still, at least they give everyone the right number of bricks…