Thebes board game: A four-sided review

Thebes is a light family board game for two to four players that takes around an hour to play. It was released in 2007 but is still in print and easy enough to find.

In the box you get the main game board, 100 small (Ticket to Ride sized) cards, more than 100 cardboard tokens, 10 wood pieces, five cloth bags and four cardboard time wheels (think of those typical FFG hit point counters).

The art style is right on theme: Indiana Jones-era archaeological adventuring. Right down to the player pieces having little Indy hats on (sadly we’re still waiting for the zombie/nazi expansion). Everything is well laid out and perfectly functional without knocking it out of the park. Making it good value if you can pick it up for around £30. Age is listed at eight-plus, which feels about right.

Teaching the Thebes board game

While in essence a simple set collection game, Thebes has just enough bells and whistles to make it stand out from the crowd. But teaching it is easy, as the trickier/cleverer bits can be worked through as you get to them.

Players largely take it in turns moving to European locations to collect cards. Most cards (some are wild, or special items) will colour match a more exotic location (Egypt, Greece, Crete etc), giving that player knowledge of that particular dig site. Once a player thinks they have enough knowledge to visit a site, they move to it and try their luck at plundering these ancient monuments.

The story unfolds using a clever timing system. When a player moves/collects a card, they add the amount of spaces (locations) moved to a research number on the card they collect. This combination of travel distance and research is the time it took in weeks. You move that far along the 52-week time track (the game lasts several ‘years’, depending on player count), then see who is now further back on that track. If it is still you, you go again – in a similar way to much more recent hit Patchwork.

‘It belongs in a museum!’

Hunting for treasure works in a similar way. You move to the location, then grab your time wheel. Turn the outside to the amount of knowledge you have, revealing how many ‘picks’ you’ll get for the amount of weeks you want to spend there (one to 12). Add the amount of weeks it took you to get there, and advance along the time track. Then, you can go hunting for the Grail (or whatnot).

And here is where we lose the ‘serious’ gamer. Each dig location has a bag filled with 30 cardboard tokens. Just under half of these (14/30) have something useful printed on them. The rest are worthless debris/dirt. so you simply grab the right bag and ‘pick’ the right amount of tokens from the bag. The good ones go into your score pile, while the dirt goes back in the bag to be sifted once more by the next player visiting the location.

While items you find have a base victory point value, they can also be used to fulfil exhibitions. These are cards which crop up and put down the side of the main board, each needing a number of items to be met by a player. For example, you may need one treasure from Greece and two from Mesopotamia. At the end of the game you add these points together, plus a few from other areas (some basic majorities scoring), and the winner gets to be Han Solo (or something).

The four sides

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

  • The writer: Thebes is a wonderfully daft and evocative family board game. The luck of the draw can totally hose you, meaning it’s anyone’s guess who’s going to win. But the processes are fun enough that it doesn’t really matter. After all, this is very much a family game. Which should mean anyone in the family (whether eight or an adult) has a chance of winning.
  • The thinker: In theory, it should be possible to mitigate the luck. The more knowledge you acquire, the better chances you have, right? Not necessarily. Because the law of diminishing returns from the bags can make this a moot point. It’s all well and good collecting lots of knowledge for later digs – but if someone lucks out on the big treasures early, you’re left with scraps to rummage for. This is actually a clever balancing act in terms of game design, but sadly leaves little to play for if you’re a strategy fan. Not a game I’d choose to play.
  • The trasher: Thebes is just fun – but there are definitely significant tactical considerations to make on every turn. Sure, the random may still scupper you – but you have to give yourself the best chance, right? If you boil it down, there’s a lot to think about every turn. Who has the majorities of knowledge for end game scoring? Can you squeeze in a sneaky extra turn? Which dig sites have the most left to take? There’s no direct interaction, but plenty that can swing things in your favour through clever play. I like it, despite myself.
  • The dabbler: “Dirt, dirt, dirt!” If a game gets everyone chanting around the table as you pick treasures from the bag, it’s doing something right! While the components are pretty basic, it gets the important things right. The fedora wearing meeples, the airship and rumour cards invoke movies and underhand tactics. And the dig bags perfectly reflect the randomness of an archaeological dig. Even with a tonne of knowledge, you may come up empty handed. But a bit of luck could uncover the secrets of the ancient kings… Brilliant!

Key observations

Thebes is rated in the Top 500 games on Board Game Geek, and the Top 100 for family games. It has been around for over a decade and remains popular to this day. And it does so by beautifully blending theme into its mechanics, despite them being a little at odds with modern gaming conventions.

Predictable low ratings come from those who don’t like the luck. One particularly funny one also accused the game of being “incredibly mathy”. If you’ve recognised the high luck factor, but are still AP-ing for hours, you may be the problem… I also don’t think the game “wants to be strategic”, as another detractor claims. In fact it couldn’t be much more tactical. But the amount of luck really bothers some people.

I think what they’re getting at is this. Do the amount of decisions you make add up to the amount of control they give you? Especially over a game that last an hour (or more if people are taking it too seriously). In truth, probably not for those players. I can see that the illusion of control through popular euro mechanics can be misleading. But hopefully the majority of players see the game for what it is early, and adjust their ‘serious’ gaming expectations accordingly. As with many more thematic ‘experience games, the enjoyment comes largely from the taking part.

It’s also worth noting the game comes with an info sheet naming all the artefacts from each of the dig sites, along with the year they were found. It doesn’t go into details, but is a nice touch and means you can easily head to the internet to discover more if you’re so inclined – another nice family/educational feature.

Conclusion: Thebes board game

Thebes is fast and fun to play while being easy to teach. For the right group. Right off the bat, tell people they shouldn’t worry about winning. Then do your best to ramp up the atmosphere (the evocative game components should help with that no end). Do all this, my friend, and I very much expect you’ll have an awful lot of fun. And as you’re pulling those dirt tokens from the bag remember X never, ever marks the spot…

* Looking for more games? Check out 150+ more board and card game reviews.

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