The Play List: Cleopatra and the Society of Architects
BY Pete Butler-Davis
Cleopatra and the Society of Architects by Bruno Cathala and Ludovic Maublanc
3-5 players, 1 hour
Some days I really wish I knew what the hell I was talking about.
Here in The Play List, my goal is to turn you on to games you probably haven’t heard of, either because they flopped or came from a small press or are old or just got lost in the shuffle or … whatever. The glorious and terrible thing about the modern tabletop game scene is that there are more games worth playing than hours to play them in. I want to share the obscure nifty shiny things that have crossed my path so that if they someday cross yours, you can say “Ooh, that one guy on the Internet says this is cool!” and take a closer look.
So should I bother telling you about Cleopatra and the Society of Architects? This is where if I were a smart super-connected industry insider, I could hit up my industry friends and be all “Hey, I love this game, what’s the story with it?” And they could tell me how it sank without a trace after its launch back in the mid 2000’s, or how it’s been a slow but steady seller for years, or how unbeknownst to me it’s actually been a raging success all this time. But, no, I’m just some random shmuck who loves games.
I demo’ed Cleopatra at Gencon back when it was new, then picked it up off the el cheapo scrap heap at Origins about six years later. It’s co-designed by Bruno Cathala, a big name who churns out great games with awe-inspiring regularity. It’s published by Days of Wonder, a well-known outfit that values quality over quantity in their catalog. It comes with a crapload of appealing plastic, and makes wonderfully clever use of its own box in-game. And the game itself is great fun.
And yet, I don’t know anyone else who’s played it, unless they played my copy. It’s got over 5000 ratings on BGG, so it’s not exactly obscure, but … still. How was this thing not a smash hit, a mainstay?
And it has the Crocodile Rule. I love the Crocodile Rule.
It’s like a home improvement show with horrifying reptilian death
Photo taken from Shanda Hoover on BoardGameGeek.
Anyway, Cleopatra has decreed that it’s time to pimp her palace, and the finest architects in all of ancient Egypt have come to get monumental with it. Whoever’s the most impressive gets to be Chief Architect! Unless they get fed to the crocodiles.
For real, you guys. The Crocodile Rule is awesome.
To start the game, you set up Cleopatra’s Palace, better known as “The Box.” The bottom half of the box will be the palatial bit, with a big sandy front yard just begging to be all sphinx’ed-up. You shuffle the deck of resources and, in a wonderfully counter-intuitive bit of design, turn half the cards so that they’re face up as you shuffle. You then set up some piles of cards in the marketplace, and away you go.
It is so very easy to talk yourself into becoming crocodile poop.
When it’s your turn, you can either hit the market for raw materials, or build stuff. Hitting the market means picking up one of the piles of cards and then re-seeding the market with fresh cards after you leave. Sometimes, you’ll know exactly what you’re getting because some of the cards are face-up. But you’ll frequently see Mystery Piles of Mystery developing, enticing you with their promise of unknown stuff. Useful stuff? Useless stuff? Dangerous stuff? Claim the Mystery Pile of Mystery and find out!
Once you have enough raw materials, you can instead use your turn to craft the various monuments Her Egyptian Majesty wants. The game rewards you with extra victory points for building lots of crap all at once, but careful — go over your hand limit, and the corruption tokens await.
The corruption tokens. Each player has a little pyramid-shaped piggy bank sitting in front of them. Hoard too many resources, or use dodgy goods that fell off the back of a barge, or use cheap replacement materials, or employ the aid of various sinister underworld types, and into the bank go your corruption tokens, plink plink. Don’t worry about them. They’re harmless — to most of you.
Get enough of the palace finished, and the game ends. You’ll tally up your victory points, just as soon as the crocodiles do their thing.
Open your piggy bank. Tally up your corruption tokens. Whoever has the most gets fed to the crocodiles.
The game winner is whoever has the most victory points and is not dead.
Aw, yeah, check out all that majesty
Photo taken from Magnus Konze on BoardGameGeek.
I love basically everything about this game. Everything you construct is represented by some physical object you get to place into the play area, so you legit feel like you’re building something. The mechanic of half the cards being face-up when you collect them adds a very interesting element of uncertainty and luck to scrounging for resources while still giving you some control over what you’re getting. Yeah, there are six different things you could potentially build each with their own resource requirements, but that’s why you have a cheat sheet; any player that can handle Settlers of Catan can handle this.
And the Crocodile Rule. I love it so much. It creates a corruption mechanic that is both tense and tempting. The corrupt versions of materials are twice as good as their legit counterparts, and the other sources of corruption are so versatile. As long as you don’t have the most corruption at game’s end, you’re fine! And wasn’t the guy across from you going crazy with corruption earlier?
It is so very easy to talk yourself into becoming crocodile poop.
There are entire mini-games devoted to ditching that enticing, terrifying corruption. The “Mosaics of the Gods” monuments are basically five-square Tetris tiles that you’ll lay in the garden. If you can create a good-sized space that no other tiles can fit in, you’ll get to claim it and use it to slough off some of your corruption during endgame.
And the priests will likely come calling, once or twice a game. When they do, it’s time for a secret round of bidding your precious, precious victory points. Whoever wins gets to get rid of corruption! The losers all gain varying degrees of corruption.
And all the while you’re trying to strike a balance of resources in hand that will allow you to have the big productive building frenzy the game encourages, while keeping an eye on what your rivals seem to be up to so they don’t snake those precious obelisks out from under you.
The turns tend to move swiftly, assuming the table is paying attention and not just goofing-off on their phones. By the time it gets to you, either you’ve figured out how to pay for all the cool stuff you’re building and can largely just slam it out, or you have your eye on the pile of resources you’re hoping to snag.
Cleopatra and the Society of Architects keeps you engaged and anxious to see what happens next, forces you to make all sorts of interesting and consequential decisions, and will look great on your table to boot.
It’s a great game that seems to be way more obscure than its pedigree and production values suggest it ought to be. If you have the chance, it’s definitely worth a play.