Radio Review #51 – Babel

 

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(2014 – Z-Man Games)

 

“I cried, ‘Babel! Babel, look at me now!….then the walls of my town, they come crumbling down….”

 

Many will recognize the name Uwe Rosenberg from some of the German game designer’s more popular economic games; Agricola, Caverna, Le Havre, Glass Road, Ora et Labora, and At the Gates of Loyang. But before he began designing these more complex agricultural and goods-oriented titles, Rosenberg was well known for his simple card games, including the beloved, Bohnanza. Another of his card game designs was Babel. Originally released in 2000, the classic, in-your-face and cutthroat 2-player game is now seeing a new 2nd edition reprint from Z-man Games with updated artwork from Chris Quilliams (Clash of Cultures, Merchant & Marauders). Also of note, Babel received a Spiel des Jahres recommendation in 2001.

Babel is a two player game in which players attempt to construct spectacular and impressive Temples amongst 5 construction sites, one level at a time. Players will play different Nation cards at these construction sites in order to resolve various actions including the actual construction of the different levels of a Temple, as well as using a particular Nations special abilities to alter their opponent’s construction workers and Temples. Players must be able to manipulate their opponent’s Temples while being able to build their own. Players will total the levels of the Temples at their 5 construction sites. The player that can reach a total value of 15, while holding the opponent’s value to 9 or less, wins the game.

 

 

 

Components:

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– Babel Game Board

 

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– Temple cards (comprised of Levels 1 through 6)

 

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– Assyrian Nation cards

 

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– Hittite Nation cards

 

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– Medes Nation cards

 

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– Persian Nation cards

 

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– Sumerian Nation cards

 

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– Player markers

 

 

 

Setup:

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During Babel, players will compete to construct the largest and most elegant temples. The main game board consist of 5 individual construction sites on each player‘s side of the board, each one representing 1 of the 5 nations in the game. Players will shuffle all of the various Nation cards into a singular draw pile and place it next to the board, to be used throughout the game.

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The Start player will draw 3 of these Nation cards into his hand, while the other player receives 5 Nation cards. Players will also receive a Level 1 Temple card that is placed in front of their personal play area to begin the game. All other Temple cards are shuffled and place on a designated space on the left side of the board. These are the cards that will be used to construct the various levels of a temple. The higher the level, the larger and more elegant the pictured temple depicted.

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Finally, both Player markers are placed on opposite sides of the Temple card deck. After initial setup, the play area should look something like this:

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Gameplay:

During the game, players have 5 areas in which they can construct their various Temples. The game will end when the total levels of a player’s Temples equal 15 or more, while their opponent’s equals 9 or less. Players can perform numerous actions on their turn in order to construct and develop their own Temples while vying to disrupt and sabotage their opponent’s. A player’s turn consist of 3 phases: the Draw Phase, the Action Phase, and the Temple Phase. After a player has completed all 3 phases, the next player takes their turn, and so on until the game has ended.

 

 

1.) Draw Phase – At the beginning of a player’s turn, he will draw 3 Nation cards from the Nation card draw deck. The draw deck is comprised of 5 different types of cards, each one representing 1 of the 5 Nations in the game; the Assyrians (blue), the Hittites (yellow), the Medes (green), the Persians (gray), and the Sumerians (red). Each of these cards also provide the player a special ability when used during the Action Phase, which I’ll explain in just a bit.

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2.) Action Phase – After drawing cards, the player can choose to take any of the following Actions, as many times as he wishes, in any order he wishes. A player is allowed to take the same action more than once, except for the Migration Action. Let’s take a look at how each action works:

 

Move Player Marker

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During the game, players are only allowed to deploy workers and build temples on construction sites where their Player marker is currently located. As an Action, the player can move their Player marker to another construction site by discarding a Nation card that matches the color of the construction site they are moving to. Players can move their Player marker as many times as he wishes as long as he has the corresponding Nation cards in his hand to discard.

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For instance, Player A and Player B are both currently occupying the Assyrian (blue) construction site. On his turn, Player A decides that he would like to move to the Medes (green) construction site. In order to do this, he would need to discard a Medes Nation card from his hand, and place it in the communal Nation card discard pile.

 

 

Play a Nation Card

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Players will need to deploy workers to their various construction sites in order to build Temples. To do so, players will play Nation cards from their hand into vertical columns beneath the construction site where their Player marker currently resides. Note that these Nation cards do not need to match the color of the construction site. Players can choose to place any Nation card at a particular construction site, and various Nation cards can be placed on top of each other at the same site.

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Player A currently has 2 Assyrian workers at the Hittite (yellow) construction site. As an action he decides to place another Assyrian worker as well as a Sumerian worker at this site, giving him a total of 3 Assyrians and 1 Sumerian at this location.

 

 

Migration

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The only way to move workers from one construction site to another once they are placed during the game, is to take a Migration action. Remember that while all other actions can be performed multiple times on a player’s turn, players are limited to only one Migration action per turn. When performing a Migration action, a player can choose any construction site that contains at least 3 or more of his own workers. The last 3 workers placed at this site can be moved as a group to any other construction site, where they must be placed in the same order in which they were removed from the previous location. Players are not limited to moving workers from a site which contains their Player marker. They can choose any of their sites when taking a Migration action.

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Player B currently has 2 workers at his Assyrian site, 4 workers at his Persian site, 1 worker at his Medes site, and 3 workers at his Sumerian site. He decides that he wants to move more workers to the Assyrian site. He uses a Migration action and takes the top 3 workers from the top of the Persian site and places them in the same order on top of the 2 cards already in the Assyrian site.

 

 

Build a Temple

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One reason players will want to position and shift workers between their different construction sites is that the number of workers at a particular site directly corresponds to how many levels can be added onto a Temple being built at that location. Temple cards are used to represent the various levels of a constructed Temple (the level number is listed at the top of the card). A Temple’s level can range from 1 to 6, and as each level is added, the Temple becomes more grandiose and impressive.

During the game, players can add Temple level cards from 1 of 2 discard piles next to the Temple card draw deck. At the end of a player’s turn, he will draw 2 cards from the draw deck and place them face up onto the discard pile closest to his play area, by placing the Temple card with the lowest between the two, at the top of the pile. For instance, it is the end of Player A’s turn. He draws a level 4 Temple card and a level 2 Temple card from the draw deck (as seen in the picture above). He would then place the level 4 card onto the discard pile closest to his play area first, then place the level 2 Temple card on top of it.

Players can choose to take a Build action on their turn to build a new level of one of their Temples. The player will simply take the top Temple card from either player’s discard pile and place it onto the construction site containing that player’s marker. Levels of a Temple must be built in numerical order from 1 through 6. A player can only build a level of the Temple if that construction site has a equal or greater number of workers.

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Using the previous example, Player B now has 5 workers at the Assyrian site. The current Temple at this site has been constructed to level 3. The two Temple discard piles currently show a level 4 Temple card and a level 2 Temple card. By taking a Build action, he can take the level 4 Temple card off of his opponent’s discard pile and add it to the Temple at the Assyrian site. He would be allowed to do so since his number of workers at the site (5) is greater than or equal to the level being constructed (4).

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Use a Nation’s Special Ability

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While it is not important which Nation cards make up which construction site location in regards to using these cards as workers, players can group cards from the same Nation in order to pull off particular special abilities. When there are 3 or more of the same Nation card at a particular construction site, and the player’s marker is also at the same construction site, a player can choose to perform that Nation’s special ability, as an action. To use this special ability, the player will simple discard one of the Nation cards within the group of cards being used to perform the ability. Each of the 5 Nations have a particular ability that is unique to that nation:

 

 

Assyrians

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The Assyrians special ability is to demolish the opponent’s Temple at the same construction site. All of the opponent’s Temple cards at this site are wiped from the board and placed face down on top of the Temple card draw pile, in numerical order so that the lowest card is placed at the top of the draw pile.

 

 

Hittites

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The Hittites special ability will allow a player to steal the top level of the opponent’s Temple at the same construction site and place it on the top of their own. The newly acquired Temple card must be a higher level than the card it is being placed on top of, and the player must still meet the requirement of having the number of workers equal or greater than the level being placed. However, the rules state that the newly acquired Temple level only needs to be higher than the level it is being placed on top of, not that it has to be the next succeeding level. Therefore, the Hittites ability will allow a player to skip levels when building a Temple, as long as the player can still meet the worker requirement.

 

 

Medes

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The Medes special ability allows a player to name any of the 5 Nations. The opponent must discard all of the cards at that construction site matching the named Nation. This is a great counter ability to an opponent who is keen on grouping lots of matching Nation cards together at various construction sites in order to use their special abilities.

 

 

Persians

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– As with the Hittite ability, the Persians special ability will allow a player to skip levels when building a Temple. A player using this ability will be allowed to place a Temple card that is two levels higher than the Temple card it is being placed on. Again, the construction site must still meet the worker requirement to place the new level.

 

 

Sumerians

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The Sumerians special ability will cause the opponent’s workers to abandon them and instead move to the other player’s construction site. When using this special ability, all of the Nation cards at the opponent’s construction site that match the last Nation card placed onto that site will move to the other player’s side of the board. For instance, Player A has 4 workers at his Medes construction site (1 Assyrian, 1 Medes, and 2 Persians). The last Nation card played at this location was a Persian. If Player B were to use the Sumerian special ability at this construction site, Player A would need to give Player B both of his Persian cards, where Player B would then place them at his Medes construction site.

 

 

Discard Ability

When discarding a Nation card from a particular construction site, instead of using that Nation’s special ability, the player can choose for his opponent to discard half of the cards in their hand. This special action can be done when discarding any Nation card for the purposes of using its special ability. The player simply chooses to have their opponent discard half of their hand instead of choosing to use the card’s specific ability.

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For example, Player A has 3 Assyrians at his current construction site. By discarding one of these 3 Assyrian cards, he could choose to use its special ability, which would allow him to demolish Player B’s Temple at this same construction site. Player B currently has a level 1 Temple here, but he also has 8 cards in his hand. Instead of choosing to use the Assyrian’s special ability, he could choose instead to have Player B discard half of the cards in his hand down to 4. Demolishing his level 1 Temple would not make a whole lot of sense at this point, while making him discard 4 cards from his hand would be a better move.

 

 

3.) Temple Phase – As mentioned before, at the end of a players turn, he will draw the top 2 cards from the Temple card draw deck and place these cards onto the discard pile closest to his play area. The higher of the two cards is placed face up first, then the lower card is placed face up on top of it.

 

 

 

End-Game Conditions:

Throughout the game, players will total the value of all of the levels amongst their various Temples. If a player reaches a total value of 15 or more, while his opponent has a total value equal to 9 or less, the player with the value of 15 or more wins. If a player reaches a value of 15 and his opponent has more than 9, players will continue playing until either one player reaches a total of 20 or a player reaches less than 9. In either case, the player that has the highest total value amongst the levels in his Temples wins the game.

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Player A’s current total value amongst the levels of his Temples is 10 (combination of a level 3 Temple, another level 3 Temple, and a level 4 Temple). Player B’s current total value amongst the levels of his Temples is 12 (combination of a level 5 Temple, another level 5 Temples, and a level 2 Temple).

 

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On his turn, Player B discards a Sumerian card and takes a Move action in order to move his player marker to his Sumerian construction site. This site already has a single Medes worker, but contains no Temple cards.

 

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Player B then plays 3 Hittite workers at this site, giving him a total of 4 workers at the site. Since he now has 3 of the same Nation card at the site, he can discard one of these cards to take that Nation’s special ability. By discarding one of the three Hittite cards, Player B would be allowed to take the top Temple card from Player A’s opposing Sumerian construction site and place it on his own.

 

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Player A currently has a level 3 Temple at his Sumerian site. Player B would remove this card from Player A’s site and place it on his own. He would be allowed to place this level 3 Temple card since he has at least 3 workers available at the site. This action would in effect win the game for Player B. As seen below, he would now have a total of 15 (combination of a level 3 Temple, a level 5 Temple, another Level 5 Temple, and a level 2 Temple), while Player A’s total is now reduced to only 9 (combination of a level 2 Temple, a level 3 Temple, and a level 4 Temple).

 

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Thoughts:

Babel is a ruthless, bare-knuckle brawl between two players. By obligating players to complete a certain number of Temple levels, while suppressing the opponent’s number of levels, the game forces players into a state of hostility and maliciousness. Simply, one does not win Babel by being passive. Almost all of the special abilities available from the various Nations directly impact the opposing player in a conflicted and negative way. Those that enjoy confrontation in the games they play, will find a lot to like about Babel.

It’s important to note that other than the artwork and presentation of the game, there is only one minor difference between the rules of the original and those of the 2nd edition. In the original game, both players started with 5 cards a piece during setup, whereas now the start player begins with 3, the opposing player 5.

Babel is a phenomenal design that mixes hand management, set collection, and confrontation mechanics. Being a two-player game, the enjoyment of the game largely stems from the preferences of the gamers involved, such as how much they enjoy railroading their opponents hard work. For those that love confrontation, love poking, prodding, and destroying their opponent’s best laid plains, Babel will be right up their alley. It’s a game that can last from anywhere from 15-45 minutes, all dependent on when one is able to grab that 15th overall level. The fact that this can happen at any time only amps up an already delicate tension between both opponents. Babel is one of many Rosenberg classics. It’s a testament to his ability as a designer that Babel has aged as well as it has for the last 14+ years.

 

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