There are some good archaeology-themed boardgames out there. None depict archaeology as an activity directed towards the gaining of knowledge. Let’s look at the top three on Boardgame Geek.
- Tikal has a pretty absurd premise. A number of archaeological expeditions reach an area of jungle-covered ruins in the Yucatan peninsula at the same time and realise to their surprise that they all have permits to dig in the same region. The expedition leaders react to this coincidence by ordering an all-out plunderfest where everybody tries to get as much fine loot as possible, employing the locals as manual labour.
- Thebes really makes fun of my whole profession. Sure, you play the role of an early 1900s archaeologist who does research in libraries and goes to the areas of ancient civilisations to do fieldwork. But the goal of the game isn’t to find out about it past: it’s simply to become as famous as possible. When you dig, half of what you find is termed “useless junk” and you don’t even bring it home from the site. You just look for “treasure” that you can exhibit in European capitals. And one strategy that works is to simply go to as many conferences as possible and make sure everybody knows about you — even though you never dig.
- Lost Cities is a fine two-player card game decorated with a thin veneer of archaeological practice. You mount archaeological expeditions to up to five forgotten civilisations, one of whose imagery is heavily influenced by 1st millennium Scandinavia, and try to secure funding from fickle donors who will reward you lavishly if you find anything good but also punish you if you fail. Quite what the victory points you amass here represent isn’t spelled out.
I recently bought a new archaeology boardgame simply on the strength of the theme and its decent BGG rank. A 2011 release from Eggertspiele in Germany, Pergamon received its first review on BGG in February of last year. It was designed by Stefan Dorra (none of whose many other games I have played) and Ralf zur Linde (whose 2009 co-designed game Finca I like).
In Pergamon, the players are German archaeologists in 1878 who compete over excavations at the site of the same name in modern-day Turkey. Here you are only partly competing for fame or fine finds as in the above-mentioned games. Each victory point instead represents an unspecified number of visitors to the Pergamon museum in Berlin. The visitors only want to see well-preserved objects, they prefer older finds over newer ones, and they soon lose interest in stuff that’s been around the museum for a few months. So during each of the game’s twelve monthly rounds, you compete for funding, dig for stuff, reassemble broken objects, and exhibit them in the museum. The dig itself is shown as a kind of mining operation, where the various crews apparently burrow horizontally into the side of a tell.
The game seats two, three or four, is playable to a smart 7-y-o, and takes about an hour depending on how experienced everybody is. The pieces are nice chunky cardboard with a pleasing design, as is the board. There is little down time unless someone gets Analysis Paralysis. There is ample opportunity for strategic planning and decision making. You can get Pergamon for €19 or $32 + p&p depending on where you are.
All in all, a pretty short but still meaty game with an easily understood theme, playable to Muggles but also enjoyable for the game geek. An excellent gift to the archaeologist in your life, who will appreciate the ironic museological slant to it all: whoever gets the most punters to his display cases wins.