Like a man trapped in a dream I stumble Through the Desert of new board game releases, my lips cracked, parched, desperately searching for elegance. That ephemeral quality that so often seems to appear on the horizon in a new game, only to vanish mirage-like upon contact with the rule book. Dice Forge: clunky. Century Spice Road: yes, but without the depth to make me wonder at its elegance. We live in a gaming landscape in which a monstrous box of pieces like Gloomhaven can be called elegant by Shut Up and Sit Down (and I don’t disagree, Gloomhaven is elegant, for its size). But it wasn’t always this way. In Through the Desert, I have at last found a long lost oasis of elegance from which I can draw deep.
Through the Desert is a game as old as the sands themselves… it’s from 1998! But it’s just been released in a brand new edition from Z-Man games and it is as sexy a herd of camels as you have ever seen.
I bet you didn’t realise you needed so many camels in your life, did you? These pastel coloured morsels may look good enough to eat but… don’t. They’re plastic, and you’ll completely unbalance the game. For Through the Desert is the first and, to my knowledge, only game of camel placement. You’ll be constructing caravans of these camels across the great hexagonally-gridded desert… for points! A noble pursuit indeed that, much like the actual Sahara Desert, will result in a landscape overflowing with camels! You won’t be able to move for the furry water tanks.
Importantly, as the opening paragraph implied, Through the Desert is an incredibly simple game. Each turn you place two camels. That’s it! You’ll start with a single camel in each colour on the board, and from there you’ll expand your camel clusters. A camel must be placed next to a matching one in your collection (indicated by your rider sat on the caravan’s starting camel) and not next to one of the same colour controlled by your opponent. Mechanically this ensures you can always distinguish who owns which camel. Experientially, it means you can savagely block your opponents from where they want to go.
So where do you want to go? Well, to the places that get you points! Sprouting from the desert sands like little point oases are the watering holes, each netting you a tile worth between 1 or 3 points, or the actual oases scoring you 5 heady points and leaving Brit-pop echoing in your ears. A more subtle approach involves lassoing a great patch of land by surrounding it in a string of (identical) camels. Players at the edge can use the edge of the board, letting them grab even bigger areas, others can use the mountain. Not only is every patch of sand so surrounded worth a point, you’ll also hoover up any waterhole tiles in that region all at once. Who knew the desert got so territorial?
Let us take a minute to appreciate how elegant and clever this scoring system is for both giving you direction, as the player, and giving you options. Imagine trying to choose where to go on a featureless piece of paper. That’d be boring right? So the randomly valued waterhole tiles and the oases create clusters of attractive, high scoring regions. There are almost always spots with two 3-point tiles next to each other, or close by an oasis. These nice spots will usually attract the first few camels for obvious reasons, but such areas (especially around oases) will often end up densely packed with camels. If this was all the game had, you’d have vast tracts of the board that were unappealing. So you get the lasso mechanic, this actively encourages you to find regions where there are few camels, so you can loop off as much of the board as possible, and feels very different to the points grab behaviour in the high camel density areas. Now you have mechanically different reasons to be in all areas of the board which creates interesting decisions.
The depth that arises from these simple rules is all because of the other players. You are racing to the best spots, to carve out your areas of desert and make them the biggest areas. But you can’t defend everywhere at once. You need to constantly evaluate where your opponents can reach, what you most need to defend this round, what you can afford to sacrifice. It’s easy to see (dim pub lighting allowing, those pastel colours can blend together sometimes) but not easy to work out.
But it is also a perfect information game. That is, like Chess and many other abstract games, the entire game state is trackable by players. I can see where all the camels are and, in theory, I can find an optimal move given the likely future behaviour of the other players. Add to that the large number of possible options, it is quite possible for a player to slow the game down to crawl as they investigate them all. It is not as bad as Five Tribes or Yamatai for this, but it is a consideration. A more frustrating issue is that it can become quite clear that you’ve lost, or at least that someone else has won, around the halfway point. While the waterhole tiles ostensibly keep things secret, there is a clear sense of your chances based on board position, especially with regards to the enclosed regions.
The openness of the early game obscures another potential issue you might have with the game. That your choice of starting position is incredibly important. While having 5 camel trains somewhat mitigates things, you simply don’t get enough turns to invest fully in all of them, it is still a trap for new players to fall into. The fact is, after only playing the game once, I was at a tremendous advantage over the new player in my second game. There is such a benefit to knowing how the game plays out. Again, as with many abstracts, an experienced player will dominate an inexperienced one. I would almost recommend not playing before you pick up a copy for your group, as the likely imminent defeat might not be the best first experience of the game.
But that is often the price to be paid for depth. And it is a price worth paying! I have thoroughly enjoyed cameling Through the Desert. Finding a game that offers the deep, interesting puzzle that it does, for such a simple set of actions and rules, has been a treat. It leaves me wondering where board game design has gone wrong in the 20 years since its original release. In many ways the cultural zeitgeist has changed to variability through components and powers, which all add rules overhead, or a heavier emphasis on story, which requires many more elements. Through the Desert reminds us that you don’t need all that to make a great game.