Sobek: Two Players – A four-sided review

Sobek: Two Players is (you guessed it) a two-player tile-based rethinking of 2010 card game Sobek. It takes less than 30 minutes to play and is listed for ages 10+, but I’m sure 8+ gamer kids will be fine.

It’s a small box game costing around £25 (find it via Board Game Prices). The colourful cartoony Egyptian-themed art won’t win any awards and has no wow factor. But the iconography is fine and everything works well enough. In the box you’ll find the main game board, two thin player aids/scoreboards, 65 cardboard tiles (and a cloth bag to put them in), 30 cardboard tokens and a little wooden ankh.

Like the original, Sobek: Two Players is very much an abstract set collection game. And again like the original, what makes the game tick is being able to delay taking a turn by playing a set, potentially leaving your opponent to take something they don’t want. That said, you need to play these sets before the end of the game. Because if you don’t, you won’t score them at all. Timing, and a little bit of luck, is everything in Sobek. You can play the game for free online over at Board Game Arena.

Teaching Sobek: Two Players

When the game begins, the 6×6 board is full of tiles. These are either goods (face up) or characters (face down). Each player starts with two randomised goods tiles. The starting player puts the ankh on one of the four central spaces and takes the tile that was there. As they take the tile, they note the orientation they need to leave the ankh in. Each goods tile shows either an orthogonal or diagonal direction. If you take a character, you get to choose the orientation.

The next player can now take a tile in the direction the ankh is pointing. If they take a tile directly next to the ankh, no problem. But if they take one further away, any tiles (gaps are fine) they pass over are removed from the board and added to their corruption pile. At the end of the game, the player with the least corruption will get a few bonus points. The amount will depend on the difference between the two players, so you need to keep an eye on it.

If your ankh placement means there are no tiles to collect (and you want/need to collect one), the board is refilled and you take one of the four central tiles. Once the tiles run out, you’re near the end of the game. But you continue until neither player is able to take any of the three types of action. Speaking of which…

Alternative actions

If you don’t want to pick up a tile on your turn, you may have one or two other options. You can instead play a character, if you have one. These have various abilities, but also a goods type, so can be used as part of a set. But of course, as they’re face down, you never know which one you’re going to get when you collect them.

Speaking of sets, the last thing you can do is lay one. This is the main way to score points. As you collect goods tiles, some will have scarabs on them. to lay a set, you need to have at least three of the same type of good (or character – and there are also some wilds). Your score will be the number of tiles in the set, multiplied by the number of scarabs on those tiles. If you complete two sets of the same goods type, bingo – you add them together.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: Sobek: Two Players is an interesting beast. The tile collection and direction system are much more nuanced than the original game’s card mechanism. And this feeling of a layer of extra care and attention to detail runs throughout the design. But importantly it doesn’t take away from the cutthroat fun, luck and tension that made the original a fun, light filler game. It feels like a tighter, cleverer design and I can’t see many people preferring the original over this one. It’s just a shame it is only for two players. But I’m not sure it would really work with more.
  • The thinker: There are some nice touches here that elevate the game above the original. Yes, there is still quite a bit of luck. But there are some useful extra mitigations. For example, some goods tiles have a marker on them and you can just trade those in for points. This can be useful if you’re forced to take something you really don’t want. but equally, it gives you the option to take something you know your opponent wants. Important in any head-to-head game where there’s always an element of zero-sum. So while it wouldn’t be a game I’d look to own, I certainly see its merits and will happily play it on occasion.
  • The trasher: I’ve enjoyed Sobek: Two players more than I thought I would when I saw the cartoony art and trading theme. It’s totally about timing – and screwing over your opponent by doing the right things at the right times. You want to save your sets, so you can use them at the optimum time – and get the most points. But there are five ‘piroque’ (bonus) tokens placed face down next to the board at the start of the game. When you first play a set, you pick up these tiles, choose one and play it, then put the others back. This knowledge is big, as those tiles can make a big difference! So you want to play sets early too. Cruel!
  • The dabbler: I really enjoyed this. Its bright and colourful, the rules are simple, but you have genuine choices to make. Non-gamers will probably take a full play to catch on to what’s going on, but I wouldn’t be scared to teach this to anyone. The set collection bit is nice and easy, while the clever bits (deciding when to play characters and sets, as well as corruption) help promote it above the competition. A keeper for me.

Key observations

I quite enjoy the original Sobek, but it’s hardly a classic. While I doubt anyone kept it for the art. You can read co-designer Bruno Cathala’s reasoning here (in his designer diary). But if it had been me, I’d have moved away from that IP and started afresh. That said, the game does feel very similar. The set collection, and tension of when to lay sets/play characters, remains very much intact. The tile board mechanism is a definite upgrade and I certainly don’t miss the icon-based scoring idea from the original. Overall, I see this update as a clear improvement.

It’s fair to say that this isn’t going to appeal to players who like their two-player games low on luck. As you’d expect from Cathala, there’s plenty of chaos. And the end game can completely catch you with your pants down. But in a 20/30-minute game, I view that as a positive. Also on the plus side, there are 12 piroque tiles in the box and you only play with five each game. It doesn’t sound like much, but the mix of these that comes out adds a surprising amount of variety to each play.

Conclusion – Sobek: Two Players

Sobek: Two Players is a really good two-player filler game. It takes the good ideas from the original Sobek and replaces the worse ones with clever new ideas, making for a really enjoyable two-player abstract experience. I’ve enjoyed all my plays so far and I can see this staying on my shelves for many years to come.

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