I first heard about Thebes shortly after I became interested in board games.
A game about going on archaeological digs? Hopping the globe to build knowledge, then traveling to ancient sites to unearth artifacts? I never knew it before, but this is what I’d been dreaming about. I wanted to play it posthaste!
However, it was several years before I would actually get to.
Thebes is a slightly adapted version of a 2004 German game called Jenseits von Theben, which actually translates into English as “Beyond Thebes.” Since Thebes isn’t exactly one of the locations you’re going to, it kind of doesn’t make sense that this is the name of the game, but whatever (who knows, maybe the Greek location is supposed to be Thebes? Or the Egyptian location?).
Right off the bat, Thebes reminded me a lot of another 2004 game: the celebrated route-claiming game Ticket to Ride. They look very similar. They’re set in same time period. They both have boards that are maps with tracks around the edge. They have similar art, similar wood tokens, tiny-sized cards that you pick up, other tiny-sized cards that show goals, plus end game bonus points.
Also, both were nominated for the Spiel Des Jahres award (Ticket to Ride won. Thebes lost to Zooloretto.)
Does it go deeper than that, though? There are visual similarities, but Ticket to Ride is a commercial and critical success and playable by almost all ages. How does Thebes stack up in comparison?
Thebes is a game for two to four players from Queen Games. The board depicts a map of Europe and the Mediterranean. Each turn you choose where to move on the map and then either pick up one card or conduct a dig. Digs are conducted by reaching into a bag and pulling out discs, hoping to get discs with points on them instead of blank discs. The more knowledge you have from the cards you’ve picked up, the more discs you get to pull out of a bag on a dig.
There are two key aspects to understanding Thebes: the way the game treats time and the deteriorating returns that you get from digs.
Unlike most games where players take turns in a particular order, in Thebes, the player who is in last position on the time track takes the next turn. Everything in the game costs weeks. Moving from one city to another costs weeks. Picking up a card costs weeks (and more valuable cards cost more weeks). Conducting digs also costs weeks (the more weeks you spend, the more discs you get to draw). When you use weeks, you move that many spaces on the time track.
You have almost complete freedom over how to spend your time. You can invest a lot of weeks amassing a huge amount of knowledge before you dig—or you can try to rush and be the first to each site. Sometimes, if you find yourself really far back on the time track, you can even take two (or more) turns in a row; although using the absolute least amount of time isn’t always going to be to your advantage. Once you’ve gone around the time track two or three times (depending on the number of players), you’re done for the game—and once everyone completes the time track, the game is over.
Each ancient location on the map (Crete, Egypt, Greece, Mesopotamia, Palestine) has a corresponding bag full of tokens. About half of the tokens in each bag have point values on them and about half of them are blank. When you go on a dig, you draw tokens out of the bag. You choose how many weeks to spend and then use a dial to determine how many times you can draw out of that location’s bag based on how much knowledge you have.
You keep any point tokens you draw. The catch is, any blank tokens you draw will go back into the bag. As players collect the point tokens and leave the blank tokens, there will be less and less chance of drawing useful tokens over the course of the game. So, as the game progresses, it’s more and more difficult to dig up anything—just like real archaeology, presumably.
Ticket to Thebes?
One of my reservations about comparing Thebes to Ticket to Ride is that Thebes has more rules and takes much longer to explain.
Thebes doesn’t exactly feel streamlined. Ticket to Ride has three kinds of cards: trains, locomotives, and destinations. On the other hand, Thebes has ten! You’ve got special knowledge, general knowledge, rumors, assistants, shovels, cars, zeppelins, permits, exhibits, and congress cards. If Thebes was re-published today, I wonder if certain card types would be left out, particularly the permits, vehicles, or shovels (shovels and assistants are basically the same thing… does the game really need both?).
Thebes also takes fairly long with four players. But, you know, so does Ticket to Ride.
It’s just hard to shake the feeling that there might be too much going on in Thebes. For example, each location’s bag has slightly different contents. Some locations have approximately equal numbers of high and low point tokens. Other locations have a lot of one point tokens and few high point tokens.
The different distributions are really interesting, but in practice, how much do these sort of wheels within wheels actually influence your decision making?
There are so many other things to think about when deciding where to dig: where you have the most knowledge, where you’ve already dug this year, where you’re at on the time track, how far away the locations are from where you are. I’m not sure it really matters that each bag is different. It’s one more thing to think about, but does it actually make the game better?
At the same time, in spite of how much is going on in Thebes, every element of the game just makes sense. It makes sense that locations would be different. It makes sense there would be extra dig permits. It makes sense how the travel cards work. It makes sense that you can display your artifacts at exhibitions.
Thebes is a game where, yes, you have to explain a lot to get started, but you only have to explain it once because every element of the design just fits together perfectly. I’d guess anyone who can learn to play Ticket to Ride can learn to play Thebes without too much more difficulty.
Ticket to Ride seems very simple at first, but my wife always wins, so I know there’s actually a lot of strategy underneath.
Thebes also seems pretty simple at first, but I’m not sure if Thebes has those same depths, or if there’s just so much randomness in the game that it appears to. Each draw can be a big swing. You might get one point… you might get seven points… you might get absolutely nothing. I’m not sure what Ticket to Ride strategy is all about (seriously, I always lose), but Thebes is all about putting yourself in a position to mitigate randomness.
Even though their rules are very different, both Thebes and Ticket to Ride evoke the same feeling when you play. Both feature a massive amount of tension over getting things before the other players do. In Ticket to Ride, you want to wait until you have enough cards to claim a whole ticket, but you also want to get routes before other people do. In Thebes, you want to wait to dig until you have enough knowledge, but you also want to get to locations before other people have cleared out all of the artifacts.
If you enjoy walking the tightrope of “do I draw more cards or do I claim a route” from Ticket to Ride, Thebes will have you questioning “do I pick up more knowledge or do I start digging.” It’s a great alternative if you want to play a game that puts you in that same frame of mind but, for whatever reason, you don’t want trains.
For myself, I love the turn-of-the-20th-century archaeology theme, but even more than that, I love the intriguing mixture of temporal and spatial elements in Thebes. You’re trying to maneuver around the map, gain knowledge, and dig up the most points possible without wasting your limited supply of weeks. It’s a fun challenge that the whole family can enjoy.