Cynical Boardgame About Archaeology


Thebes is a multi-award-winning 2007 German board game by Peter Prinz. I just bought it on a tip from my buddy Oscar, who found a good offer on-line and thought of me because of the game's theme. It's about archaeological expeditions in the early 1900s. The box is big, the production values are lavish, and I really look forward to learning it. But before I can say anything about its qualities as a game, I have to share an opening paragraph from the rule book with you (and I translate from the Swedish version).

The players travel as archaeologists through Europe to gather needful knowledge for their fieldwork expeditions. With the aid of assistants, the players must get hold of equipment and services for the expedition. Thus equipped, the players travel to Egypt, Crete or Mesopotamia to dig for treasure, which will garner them fame and improve their reputation in the form of Victory Points. Players who can arrange exhibitions and attend conferences will improve their reputation (Victory Points). But all of this costs time, and time of course a scarce resource. The one who plans his excavations and exhibitions best will earn the most Victory Points and win the game.

This is awesome! Peter Prinz is quietly making fun of my whole profession here. Because in Thebes, archaeology's goal is not to find out about the past. Prinz knows something about the sociology of science. The goal here is to become as famous as possible by finding "treasures" among the ruins of past civilisations and exhibiting them in the capitals of Europe! For every excavation you blindly grab a number of cardboard discs out of a bag, and about half of them are "Worthless Junk" that give no fame points! Gathered knowledge about an ancient culture does help you a little in winning the game, but only if you're acknowledged as the top expert in the field -- fame again.

Now, let's see, is there any archaeologist you can think of who practices relentless self-promotion? Hmm...

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The words "Indiana Jones" spring to mind.

Hmm, in keeping with the theme of the game maybe even an Egyptian one. With his own Fanclub. Who manages to be the project director of every excavation in the country once the press releases are issued...

No, I have no idea who you're talking about!

It can agree that it is frustrating to see an archaeology game, get excited, then realize it's just about treasure hunting, but this is based in the early 1900s. At that time, that's what archaeology was for the most part (treasure hunting), and science based archaeology was just in its infancy. It wasn't until around the 1950s that science based archaeology began to really be implemented. Before then, that type of "archaeology" was prevalent - no provenience and excavating with a goal (usually fame) in mind rather than letting the evidence speak for itself. So really, they got this game right if they're placing it in the time frame of the early 1900s. It would be nice if there was a game that was an example of modern archaeology, but I'm not sure that people would find it that interesting. The "Indiana Jones" idea of archaeology is fun and exciting; the reality isn't as fun. As my husband likes to say: archaeology is just a bunch of really smart people digging in the dirt.

This sounds almost exactly like a game called Expedition that I have. IT has the same sort of jokes and very similar sounding mechanics, I wonder if it was revamped into this.

By ArchaeologyKnits (not verified) on 18 Dec 2010 #permalink

Strange, I got the impression that archaeology was getting the past out the way so people could build housing estates on it... Ah well. On a more on-topic note: the boardgame is great fun! I (an archaeologist) own it and enjoy it greatly. As Crystal said: it represents a period when archaeology was more about the treasures you found - something the game manages to convey well. Another nice touch is that there is a good chance that you won't find anything at all - just like in real life!

I have to disagree that real archaeology is not fun and exciting. It may not be a barrel of monkeys 24/7, but most of us have had an adventure, and even made an exciting discovery at one point or another. I participated in fieldwork only for about 10 years, but I racked up a few memories.

Also, give Indy a break! He wasn't all that self-promoting. Back at the campus he was a tweedy fellow in spectacles earnestly teaching the archaeological systematics of his day. If it hadn't been for those Nazis, Commies, crazy kidnappers, and aliens, he wouldn't have done half that treasure-hunting stuff. "That belongs in a museum!"

Anyway, when will they have the Wii version. Then we'll be in trouble.

The board game is a good start to reveal the true identity of the mainstream Archy. Hmm, Lets see... what is the difference between a looter and a mainstream gov. sanctioned Archy?? That would be a college degree.

Strange, I got the impression that archaeology was getting the past out the way so people could build housing estates on it...

Ha! Developing that game should be Martin's project over Christmas.

Actually, archaeology was a serious science long before AD 1900. A lot of people did excellent question-driven work in the 1800s.

A.K., Expedition is a 1996 game by Wolfgang Kramer published by the same company as Thebes. The two don't appear to be formally related.

Nah. You use Victory Points to fund grad students.

By CherryBomb (not verified) on 19 Dec 2010 #permalink

Crystal - I own Expedition and have played Thebes as well. They are actually quite different. Expedition has all those fum/campy cards for doing things that make you famous/loved by your crew - this game is all about planning your 2-year research schedule to acquire enough artifacts

Martin - while I agree that the 'digging' portion of the game is a bit problematic, I actually really liked the set-up! The more time you spend researching in the libraries of Europe before you go on the excavation, the more likely you actually are to find the objects. And you basically have to become a specialist in your region if you want to have a successful excavation.

Junior and I tried the game two days ago. It looks like it will be fun with four! But one detail susprised me: if I want to learn local lore from modern Egyptians or Cretans etc., I actually have to spend weeks talking to them in Berlin and such places.