Final Thoughts on The Great Zimbabwe
10 years ago I watched a video that changed my life. It was about a board game called Indonesia. I was living abroad and had just come home from a board game cafe. I didn't even know such a thing existed before that night. As soon as I got home I stumbled across Board Games with Scott and the aforementioned video. I was intrigued to say the least. I found a copy of Indonesia online. $100?! "There was no way I'm going to spend that kind of money on a board game," and I moved on to other games.
A few years passed, now fully immersed in the world of board games I heard rumblings of a new game from the makers of Indonesia. Memories of my fledgling gamer self flooded my mind. The Great Zimbabwe? Sounded interesting enough. $100?! My goodness. I was newly married and I wasn't exactly keen to explain why I bought a board game instead of a new blender. And so began my experimentation with smoothies. It was a mistake. The beet and banana smoothie, the board games, the blender. All of it. It was all a mistake.
This is a follow up article to a game covered earlier in the month. As such, it assumes that you are familiar with the game and how it works. If this game is new to you, check out the Initial Thoughts video to see if it's a game you would be interested in.
Splotter Spellen, the publishing team behind The Great Zimbabwe (TGZ), has garnered a cult following over many years. Their games have a reputation for having highly polished systems that favor careful planning and execution over randomness and luck. It's a design ethos that means the better player will usually win and mistakes early in the game can cost you dearly. I like competition and I like knowing that I won because I played better than my opponents. I don't enjoy the act of losing, but it's easier to accept when I know that my loss was the result of my opponent's good play (or, as is often the case, my poor play). It's similar in a lot of ways to sports. The better team should, and often does, win.
But what's the point of playing if you're just starting out and you know that the experienced players are going to beat you? You could say that about a lot of things. Why learn basketball if the guys at the gym are just going to trample you? Why jump into Heroes of the Storm (my current video game obsession) when you're just going to lose? Because it's not just about winning.
Winning is better than losing. It's a bold statement I know. My goal in every game I play is victory. But I know that my first few times with a game will be more about exploring the systems, pushing the buttons and seeing what they do. Honestly, it's my favorite phase with a new game. I want to figure out how this work, see what happens when I try new strategies and approaches. I might win, I might not. The goal is to get comfortable enough with the game, internalize the rules, and play from a place of understanding. If this approach to gaming is anathema to you, I'd wager that TGZ is not a game for you. But if you enjoy the process, exploring, and bettering your abilities, TGZ might just be the perfect game for you.
Baptism By Fire
From the opening turn, the game is wide open. You can place monuments nearly anywhere on the board. You can pledge your allegiance to any of the available gods. And you can place craftsmen with little restriction as long as you can afford it. The only hand holding comes during the setup where you must place your initial monument in one of the prescribed spots on the board. From then on out, you're one your own. Your success and failure is entirely predicated on the decisions you make and how you react to your opponents' actions.
It can be overwhelming to be confronted with so many choices right from the onset. Panic sets in as you realize you've just been dropped into a metaphorical ocean. What do you do? Who will help? Is this right? The first thing you must do is calm yourself. You'll get nowhere and just tire yourself out if you start flailing. The best thing to do is just start swimming.
"But, which direction?" you ask. It doesn't matter, just pick a direction and start paddling.
"But, I might drown! That might be the wrong way and I'll never hit land!" Yes, that's true. But you'll never learn what your capable of if you don't try. And so this analogy comes to an end.
Do you take a powerful god like Obatala at the expense of a higher victory point requirement or take it easy with Xango which actually lowers your victory point requirement but gives you no other benefit? Should you learn the rain ceremony to create new water spaces on the board? How about goods, luxury or mundane? I couldn't tell you for a few reasons. One, I'm not very good. And two, it's highly situational. Every map and every game requires adaptation of strategy and that will come with experience.
The artwork is understated, but attractive.
It's a sand-box approach to game design. The tools of success are at your disposal, but they can also be the tools of your downfall. The upside is that it lends an air of legitimacy to your victories. You won because you played best, not because of the roll of a die or the flip of a card. Those things have their place, just not in the kingdom of Zimbabwe it seems. Of course it comes with the consequence of lopsided victories amongst players of differing skill levels and a feeling of confusion for the uninitiated. These elements don't bother me but, for those that might be turned off, you have been warned.
The Network Effect
I make it no secret that I love creating in board games. Networks are a particular favorite of mine and in many ways The Great Zimbabwe reminds me of a route building game. The major difference being that instead of laying the tracks, your placing the hubs. The connections are created by your mind's eye. It's an interesting twist for sure, but it does take a cognitive toll on me. At the outset, it's relatively easy to visualize which resources can reach which tradesman and, in turn, reach which monuments. But as the board fills up with more monuments and more tradesman, it can be difficult to parse. I distinctly remember getting up from the table to get more to drink and viewing the board from a different angle. Everything became a mess. A simple change in perspective threw everything out of whack. But when I sat back down everything popped back into place and I realized that I could read the board because I was invested.
I was there from the beginning. I saw each placement on the board as it happened. I kept track of all the new connections as they were layered on and spidered outwards. I could make sense of it all because I was there from its inception and, most of all, because I cared. I wanted to win, so I studied the board. I studied the players' moves. I internalized it. I weaponized it. It was tiring, but like a good workout, it was worth it. This was fun.
Turn order is huge in The Great Zimbabwe. It means the difference between placing a craftsman or being shut out for a turn. It means using the natural resources on the board before they're all gobbled up. It often means the difference between winning and losing and it's all facilitated via an auction of sorts. The bid for turn order has a strange result of redistributing wealth. For the player that prioritizes turn order (and can afford it) it means giving up valuable cows while other players get a small slice of that investment. I call it strange because it's an instance where you feel the designers' hands trying to even the playing field a bit and that hand is lacking elsewhere in the game. I can't say it rubbed me the wrong way, but I wasn't impressed by it either. It's more of a note of curiosity than anything.
I don't know if I would have been ready to play The Great Zimbabwe a decade ago in my nascent board game journey. It's unforgiving and mostly hands off. It's a game that would have flummoxed and frustrated me in the past, but it's just the type of experience I'm looking for these days. One that favors clever play and my own smarts to claim victory (however rare it may be). That's not to say you shouldn't consider it if you're relatively new to board games, just that it took me a while to figure out what it is I wanted. If you're tired of being corralled or leaving your fate in the hands of lady luck, then maybe you should plan a trip to The Great Zimbabwe.