The first time you play Babylonia you’ll probably play poorly. Fair warning. I’ve taught this game to at least 4 groups of people and no one has played well. I even warn them: “this game is really about making long, connected groups to score a lot at the end” and no one seems to grasp just how much the game is about that. This isn’t a criticism of Babylonia, a Knizia gem that never seemed to get much recognition after its 2019 release, only an observation. There’s something here that seems foreign to a 2020’s gamer—something that harkens back to the German game boom of the 90’s. There’s a simplicity and transparency to Babylonia that, in a board game micro-era perhaps defined by an attempt to stretch out the “discovery phase” of understanding a game, feels archaic.
“Classic” may be a better adjective. I’ve heard people compare Babylonia to Knizia’s earlier Samurai or Through the Desert. Having never played the former and having mostly forgotten my single, odd play of the latter, I’ll make my comparisons elsewhere. Stephenson’s Rocket comes to mind, with its finale that aggressively crowns a victor in definitive fashion. I’m also reminded of Go in Babylonia’s embrace of area control and subtle tempo plays.
Knizia isn’t directly competing with the great abstracts, but he’s also not making much of a case that Babylonia shouldn’t be seen as an abstract game. Your primary goal is to establish a connective web of tokens to maximize your score in the late game. However, Knizia throws in so many other ways of gaining points immediately that you’re always trying to balance your position against getting points now.
Ostensibly Babylonia is about early mesopotamian expansion, but other than the vague concept of “expansion” you’re not getting any thematic resonance in this game. Each turn you’ll have access to five randomly drawn tokens, and your choice is to either place two nobles or three or more farmers anywhere on the board. The board is populated with random scoring tiles in predetermined locations scattered throughout. Farmer tokens can capture certain “get points now” tiles and have the opportunity to spread rapidly. The three types of nobles score when a scoring token is surrounded. When that happens every single noble of the appropriate type that’s connected to that tile scores. Ziggurats are the third and final method of scoring. Every time you place any token next to one you get a number of points equal to the total number of ziggurats you’re adjacent to.
Every single method of scoring stands in tension to the others. When a ziggurat or noble tile is surrounded, whoever owns a majority of the surrounding tokens gets a special power or additional points, respectively. But if you’re spending turns surrounding tiles you’re already connected to you’re not expanding your area of control outward, meeting additional tiles. You’re also not heading off chokepoints to plan for the late game or getting lucrative farmer tiles. It’s easy to count the immediate benefit from a given play, but understanding the long term implication is more slippery.
As you play Babylonia more it gets more tense and cutthroat. It’s not the sort of game where you can just poke around and see what happens. I mean, you can, but what you’ll see happening is your own defeat. I’ve had a dominant position whisked away from me through my own carelessness by an opponent who noticed my error. It’s not a kind game, even though it often organically and inevitability creates moments where two or more people want a given tile to score.
Unfortunately Ludonova’s art design is weak at best. The board in particular is awful with its muddy figures and unclear graphic design. Colors that need to be distinct for gameplay purposes bleed into the background. There are hexagons that look like they should be water based on the background art but aren’t. Others look like they ought to be land but are marked as water. The tiny symbol designating which spaces are actually water is easy to miss from even a reasonable distance. Heaven forbid you try to play Babylonia in sub-optimal lighting. The tiles themselves are fine and the little stands everyone gets to hold them function alright. But it’s like the entire game has the saturation turned down. It has no vibrancy—nothing to match the electricity of its gameplay.
Similarly, the special ziggurat powers could have been excised completely. They’re underwhelming, like a pity prize for having nothing better to do other than scoring a ziggurat. They seem like something added in development to give players something to work towards in their first play, lest they feel like they don’t know what to do mid-game. Even with the powers you need to buy into what Babylonia’s serving to fully appreciate it. This is an old-school game, simple and crunchy and interactive.
It’s about understanding what a good position is without the game immediately telling you so. Points are held in suspension, not revealing themselves until the late game when tiles start getting cashed in. We’re so used to games supplying us with regular and immediate feedback loops (which isn’t a bad thing!) that we forget the thrill of recognition. We forget what it’s like to be at a critical juncture in a game of Ticket to Ride, realizing that someone is building up towards a route that blocks your plans, wondering if you can push revealing that plan just one more turn. The beginning of any game Babylonia is absolutely critical, though many won’t realize it until it’s too late. Don’t let that drive you away. Learn from it.
Babylonia trusts its players to improve their skills through multiple plays. Many games have moments throughout that obscure hindsight. Through bits of randomness or hidden information they increase the distortion and static that makes such vision impossible. Babylonia is nearly crystal clear. You can, at the end of a game, analyze the board and understand the progression of the game through its newly created geography. You can see the early mistakes that snowballed into an impossible position, and you can learn from those mistakes. I’m not always in the mood for a game like that, where my own incompetence is laid bare for everyone to see, but I think we need those games. It’s healthy; a blade that cuts through the nonsense.