BrettSpiel is a blog about board game design, written by game designer Brett J. Gilbert.

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Game Review #007: Archaeology: The Card Game

Archaeology: The Card Game by Phil Harding, published by Z-Man Games, is a quick and simple set-collecting game for 2–4 players, aged 8 and up. The players are archaeologists digging for treasure in a somewhat windswept Egyptian desert, each hoping to collect and display the most valuable sets of artifacts.

I got a chance to try out the game a couple of weeks ago when Martin and Lucy, who previously introduced me to Dominion, came to town on their holidays. Martin brought the game with him on the off-chance that it would get some table-time; and in this case the table in question was one in the lobby of the local Travelodge where they were staying — an unlikely, if perfectly servicable venue for some serious gaming!

I feel compelled to point out, as I did in my review of Dominion, that I won the game, but for reasons that I shall herewith seek to expound, I hardly felt victorious.

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The game comes in a compact, sturdy and easily portable box that contains the 87 playing cards and a full-colour rulesheet. The graphic design and production values of the cards, rules and packaging are excellent and represent good value for money, especially since in the UK the game currently sells for the very reasonable price of just £8.99.

The Z-Man edition is a republication of Phil Harding’s original edition, self-published under his own Adventureland Games imprint, which in turn was a reimplementation of his earlier game, simply called Archaeology. That game included, in addition to a deck of cards, a board that was used to organize some of the cards during play, along with some money tokens. Although helpful and decorative, the board added nothing meaningful to the gameplay, so rationalizing the game’s presentation to create a pure card game with no ancillary components seems a wise decision.

However, it’s important to point out that differences between Archaeology and Archaeology: The Card Game are not purely stylistic. The game also underwent substantive gameplay changes, including the introduction of ‘sandstorm’ cards, of which more later.

At the beginning of the game the players must spend a little time sorting the cards and setting up the deck. First the hazard cards (thieves and sandstorms), the maps and the single pyramid card are set aside; then all the remaining treasure cards are shuffled. From this deck the pyramid’s treasure hoards are dealt (face-down piles of 3, 5 and 7 treasure cards) and 5 treasure cards are dealt face-up in the centre of the play area to create the initial marketplace. Finally, after adjusting the number of sandstorms in the game based on the number of players, all the remaining cards (including the hazards and maps) are shuffled together and a starting hand of 4 cards dealt to each player. The game is now ready to go!

Image: Examples of the game’s treasure cards, each showing a different archaeological artifact. Each has a face value (for example the Talisman is worth 3) and has a series of sale values for different multiples along the bottom (1, 2, 3 or 4 Pharaoh’s Masks are worth 4, 12, 26 or 50 respectively).

Dig for victory!

Gameplay is straightforward. At the beginning of each turn you ‘dig up’ a single card from the top of the deck: treasures are simply added to your hand; if you draw a thief or sandstorm you must show it to the other players and act on it immediately. A thief lets you randomly take a single card from another player’s hand; a sandstorm is bad news for everyone and forces all players to discard half the cards in their hands (thankfully rounded down!) to the marketplace. Ouch.

During your turn you can trade freely with the cards currently in the marketplace, exchanging cards based on the individual face values of the artifacts, and at the end of your turn you have the option to ‘sell’ a set of matching treasures to the museum, locking in their value until the end of the game. The player with the highest value of these sold artifacts at the end wins.

And that, more or less, is it, with the exception that at any point in the game 1, 2 or 3 maps can be exchanged for the hoard of 3, 5 or 7 cards stashed at the pyramid. It probably sounds rather simple, and indeed we all found it rather too simple. It’s clear that the game is only intended to be a light, breezy affair, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t aim to deliver a little tension and drama, or to provide the possibility of some interesting tactical decisions.

Sadly, for us, these experiences failed to materialize. Was our ‘group think’ at fault? It’s possible. Perhaps our collective expectations of the game were simply out of kilter with the experience that the game was designed to provide, in which case: no harm, no foul. From the ratings and comments on BoardGameGeek it’s clear that there are plenty of other people who have found the game entertaining and enjoyable, and you might well be one of those people!

Shop flaw

The game gives the impression of being a market-driven one. All the cards have individual face values, along with a range of differently scaled values for different multiples of each type of treasure. By trading in the marketplace you can aim to improve the collective value of your cards; but at what cost? Perhaps the cards you place there will benefit your opponents more than the exchange benefited you? Doesn’t that make choosing the best time to make trades a tricky proposition?

Not for us it didn’t. The big problem seemed to be that players only draw a single card per turn. The face value of each card (which is the ‘exchange’ value when interacting with the marketplace) is in the range 1 to 4, which makes some cards four times as valuable as others. The cards are the only resource players have, so any player picking up even a little less than their fair share of the high-value cards has almost no chance of victory. Their opponents can simply outspend them.

Image: In addition to all the artifacts, the deck includes a single pyramid card, plus sandstorms, maps and thieves. When the sandstorms and thieves are turned up they are laid out at the side of the play area so all the players can see how many of them are left in the deck at any time.

Ill winds

Now, admittedly, the thieves and sandstorms can mix things up a bit, but relying on crime and natural disasters to bridge the gap between rich and poor doesn’t seem terribly egalitarian to me. And while a spot of petty crime might just allow the lower classes to gang up and preferentially grab the crumbs from the tables of their financial superiors, those pesky sandstorms really are the illest of winds, blowing nobody any good.

The only way to win against a richer opponent would be to get lucky and hope to collect larger sets of a few types of treasure, thereby exponentially improving their resale value. Unfortunately the sandstorms are just too common, too unforeseeable and too devastating to take that risk. It seemed to us that the only strategy that made any sense at all was a drastically more conservative one, and we simply ‘banked’ smaller sets as soon as we acquired them, without even considering the notion of holding out for the larger payouts.

Pyramid scheme

Finding your way to the pyramid (courtesy of the limited number of maps) was an equally capricious enterprise. Lucy didn’t dig up or thieve a single map for the entire game, so the collective stash of 15 treasure cards at the pyramid was completely out of her grasp. Martin and I were therefore lucky enough to carve this up between us, massively unbalancing the split of resources available in the game.

Each map has a face value of 3 and cannot be sold for more than that even in combination with other maps. Trading your maps at the pyramid is therefore a no-brainer since you gain 3, 5 or 7 artifacts for 1, 2 or 3 maps. The same logic means that it would be madness for any player to use a map as payment at the marketplace; far better to simply hoard it until the end of the game and hope that it doesn’t get stolen.

By my calculation the average face value of a single artifact stashed at the pyramid is around 1¾. So at the top end, 3 maps (face value 9) can be directly exchanged for 7 treasures with a likely face value of at least 12, possibly much more. The very worst you could do is gain treasures with a face value of 7, but the increased number of cards collected in these exchanges massively offsets any risk, since the low-value artifacts can be worth a lot more than their face value when sold in larger sets.

Here’s the thing

I think we all really wanted to like and enjoy Archaeology: The Card Game; that we didn’t and that other people do is of course all part of life’s rich pageant. For us the whole thing seemed too scripted, with too few decisions and too much blind luck. And the unavoidably one-sided maths behind most choices simply seemed to strip them of any genuine tension or meaning.

The final spread of our three scores was broad, something like 90-50-30 (in my favour), but I didn’t feel that I had really done much to deserve victory, which left me, and my compatriots, dissatisfied. As I said at the top of the review, the game is a well-produced and reasonably priced package that may yet reveal its gaming value to us. I do wonder, however, given the enormous selection of games in our combined library, whether we’re likely to ever give it much of a second chance.

As a consumer and game player I can reflect on any disappointment engendered by trying out a new game as a necessary part of the hobby; there’s no pleasing everybody all at the same time, after all. And no game, not even the very best, will scratch everyone’s itch. This is, of course, just as it should be.

But as a designer I feel bound by a different covenant. The only reason I can even have an opinion about the game is because Phil worked hard to design and create something personal and important to him, and had the determination to see it published. His endeavours are therefore to be loudly and thoroughly applauded, and I wish him well with Adventureland Games, with Archaeology: The Card Game, and with his latest game Cannonball Colony.

Bravo, Phil, and good luck!

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