Board game review: Archaeology, The Card Game

This was the first review I posted over at games mecca Board Game Geek. It’s also on my list of top five card games, so I reposted the review here.

Archaeology: The Card Game (from now on referred to as Archaeology) is a small box push-your-luck and set collection game. It plays in around 20 minutes, can be taught in a fraction of that (the rules are a side of A4), fits in your pocket and is playable with two to four payers.

Anyone used to rummy style games will feel at home. In Archaeology you have a hand of cards you add to each turn. When you have what you feel is enough of a set (from one to five), you lay them in front of you and will score them at the end of the game. The person with the most points at the end is the winner – simple. As always, it’s the little details that make the game.

The game has 86 cards, 66 of which can be laid in front of you to score points. The six different scoring card types vary in ‘cost’ and how multiples of each type score together (once laid, you cannot add to a set). This scaled scoring is key to the push-your-luck mechanic. For example, a ‘talisman’ card costs three and is worth just three if you lay it to score on its own, but if you can lay five talismans at once they will be worth 40 total points in final scoring. A ‘pot shard’ may cost just one, and be worth just one if scored alone, but if five are scored they’re worth a total of 15. You really want to wait for those numbers to mount up – and there is no hand limit. But of course, it’s not that easy.

Instead of a discard pile, Archaeology has a ‘market’ where each card has a cost. The market starts with five cards face up from the top of the deck – think Ticket to Ride – but that number then fluctuates throughout the game. On each player’s turn they first pick a card from the draw deck, but after dealing with any instant actions (see below) they can exchange cards from their hand with those in the market as much as they like, as long as the total value is the same (you could swap three ‘one’ value cards for a ‘three’ value card, and so on).

So what of the 20 remaining cards in the deck? These add the meat to the push-your-luck mechanics that are central to the game. ‘Sandstorms’ force you to discard half your cards to the market, while ‘thieves’ let you steal a random card from an opponent. ‘Maps’ can be used to grab one of three piles of treasure cards set aside at the start of play – the more maps you collect and hand in at once (up to three), the more bonus cards you will get. Again, you want those maps to add up, but with all those sandstorms and thieves around, how long are you willing to risk holding them in your hand for?

In play, all the information you need about the cards is printed on them, including how they score and how many of each is in the pack. Cards you are scoring are played face up on the table, as are used maps, thieves and sandstorms, so everyone knows where the game stands at all times. The game ends when the deck runs out, so that’s clear too, while hand sizes don’t tend to get too big. All this means memory isn’t really required, leaving your brain free to panic about pushing your luck. I think this is a real key to the game’s success.

In a four-player game the 50-card starting deck includes 12 that can bite you – that’s about a one-in-four chance you’re going to have a card stolen, or lose half of your hand, every time someone has a turn (sandstorms and thieves are resolved immediately, you can’t save them). What this means is tension from the first draw to something close to the last, with the bonus of player interaction via the thief cards. But hanging on for extras to a set really pays out (three ‘coin’ cards will score 10, four 18 and five a massive 30, for example), meaning that to win you’ll likely need to take risks. Fifty cards also means you’re only going to get about 12 goes, so you’ll need to make them count.

Archaeology’s only real negatives are the pretty uninspiring card art and the slightly fiddly set up. That said, the card stock is pretty good quality and the theme fits: the randomness of a dig, plus the Indiana Jones-style danger and skulduggery. The randomness makes each game feel different and even if a game slips away from the get-go, it’ll soon be time for a rematch. While the five-minute set-up may seem long for such a short card game, I’d argue the enjoyment is worth the short wait.

I play Archaeology: The Card Game because it packs tension and tough, meaningful decisions into a quick, easy to learn card game. You’ll need to make good decisions on the fly to win more than your fair share of games, but it’s the luck – or likely lack of it – that will cause the laughs and cries as players push for the big scores. The game scales really well from two to four players and is fun and interactive, while also being cheap (under £10 in the UK – you can sometimes get it on Amazon for a fiver), portable and easily accessible to non-gamers. That’s a lot of boxes ticked and more than enough reasons why I’d happily advise anyone to give it a try.