I want Painted Wooden Cubes to be about games, rather than about me, so I’ve largely resisted providing justification or explanation regarding the games which I review.
However, the material I cover, taken together, might appear to tell its own unbidden story. I just want to intervene to make sure the story which is coalescing isn’t misleading.
Most of the games I have written about are not fresh new releases. Because of this, there might be the assumption that my goal is to celebrate those games which have resonated with me, whether new or not. That isn’t precisely true. Though a number of the games I have written about are games I love, that in itself is not the reason I’ve felt it valuable to comment on them. What’s more important to me is that I’m well acquainted with a game before I write about it.
And, in that a game collection is more or less unavoidably sculpted in large part by the whims of circumstance – particularly if it is amassed with a spirit of experimentation and exploration, rather than deliberation and trepidation – a number of flawed games can become familiar.
I want, through the process of writing a review, to explore that acquaintance between me, as a player, and the game in question, flawed or not. I believe that when I know a game well, then the game can start to tell me things about myself which it wouldn’t have divulged immediately.
Indeed, this can happen especially with a game I’ve played a number of times but do not entirely love. Amyitis is one example. It has a personality; stubborn, sour sometimes, and a bit terse. But then, how one engages with a difficult encounter has more to say about one’s depth of personality than how one handles a comfortable situation.
Amyitis, with a name like a disease, is a sickening sort of number in large part because it overburdens its two neat central mechanisms with an excess of pfaff, though there’s also something infectious about it. It ostensibly concerns the planting of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon (the titular Amyitis was the wife of Neo-Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II, who supposedly built the hanging gardens for her) – a novel, fertile idea for a game – but mostly reduced here to the ubiquitous exchange of resources; players collect palm, barley, salt, dates and wine, and aim to trade them for plants for the gardens. For each plant contributed to the gardens a player takes a tile which will provide victory points, and may provide another bonus in addition, such as money.
Of the two main mechanisms which co-exist for selecting actions, one sees players selecting cards with special powers from a common pool. Four types of cards exist, though it is not certain all will be seen in all rounds (with two players six cards are offered, with three players nine cards, and with four, twelve). The peasant card, for instance, allows players to collect goods, while the engineer allows the player to irrigate a section of the gardens.
The twist is that the cards are laid out in blocks of three (not sorted by type). The first card from a block is free to use, the second costs one coin, and the third costs two. Players select cards in turn, and can activate as many in a round as they wish (and can afford). In that money is limited, this makes not only the choice of action important, but also timing. If a block of cards comes out with just peasants, and, for whatever reason, it isn’t a good time for other players to utilize the peasant (if, say, they have more urgent goals), a player might be able to take another action first, and still have a free action waiting when play comes back.
This in itself works well. The problem is with amount of added complication to each action. Thus, for instance, using the peasant card does not purely allow a player to take a good. There are two tracks from which goods are chosen, with five spaces each – one for each type of good. A player must take the leftmost available good from either track (marking that he or she took a good with a cube of his or her colour). Wine, it has to be remembered (and explained) is wild.
When a track fills, the player with the most cubes in that track takes a gardener card, helping him or her to plant lower quality plants in the hanging garden. If there is a tie for first place, no bonus is awarded.
All this adds a lot to remember, but little extra in the way of meaningful choice: if I need a good, there are after all of this palaver only two options available (maybe one, if both tracks have the same good on offer). There’s a pretty good chance one will be wine, which it’s pretty much a no-brainer to take (and, on the flipside, if one of the goods on offer isn’t wine, then one of the goods may well occupy the space before wine, meaning you set up your neighbour to claim the wine if you don’t avoid it). The gardener card doesn’t change much in this respect: it’s worth too little to make it a major factor in most decisions.
Instead of selecting an action card, players may activate a space on a rondel. Here goods can be exchanged either for plants (which must immediately be planted in an irrigated section of the gardens – if one isn’t available, then neither is the plant), for cards granting special powers, or directly for victory points. A caravan commonly controlled by all players is moved to a subsequent space by paying a camel token – typically acquired through the merchant action card. Each space requires at least one particular good, and perhaps two, to be activated, so the rondel is employed much less often than the action cards.
As the game advances, players can collect caravan cards, which allow them to skip a greater number of cities when moving the caravan. For much of the game, however, there’s not much to be decided on here either; if it’s possible to move the caravan, through having the required good for the next space, it’s usually best to do so. There is an issue of timing again – while card actions get more expensive as a round progresses, moving the caravan doesn’t. This, though, doesn’t really provoke significant tension; in that one cannot move the caravan without employing the action of the space to which it’s moving, a player must always telegraph a possible movement.
The designer of Amyitis is Cyril Demaegd, whose earlier jewel-collecting number, Ys, I like rather less begrudingly. There’s not necessarily all that much to tie the two games together, however, beyond the very recognizable Ystari artwork featured in each (the artist in question is Arnaud Demaegd, the brother of Cyril). Where Ys is somewhat intricate in its scoring (players simultaneously bid to collect gems, and bid to revalue them), the fundamental gameplay of Ys is very simple: players take turns making one public, and one private bid. Amyitis is arguably simpler in its scoring (though there are a few means to pick up victory points, the primary method is through contributing to the garden), but much more complicated in the playing.
So what is infectious in Amyitis? Its core, for all that obfuscates the fact, is solid. Timing when to select a given action card provokes satisfying rumination, even if the action card itself gives more hassle than genuine choice in its activation. And, while the rondel feels a little peripheral (it’s even on its own small board), it does provide a means by which the immediate utility of a given good can fluctuate which functions well even with just two players.
I so wish a lot of the cruft had been removed from Amyitis before its release; a leaner, fitter, healthier game could have been built upon the same skeleton. But, had Amyitis been such a thing, been a more taut, more efficient composition, it would have communicated something different. When one has to unpack a message, the process of unpacking becomes part of the message in itself. We have, in life, to be ready to deal with meandering and confused communicators as well as smooth speakers. In the way it stubbornly guards the simplicity of its core, Amyitis represents an awkward interlocutor, but one I try to interact with patiently, because it has enough to say to make hearing it out worthwhile.