Boardgame Review: Pergamon

i-3b620a4d1c2ab098b17f961f86409d12-pic890889_t.jpgThere 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 â¬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.

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Hi there Martin,
As an avid boardgame player I read your articles on both Pergamon and Thebes with great interest. Especially since you are looking at such games from a professional's point of view. It seems you are somewhat upset about the fact that Thebes has more focus on 'Fame' as to gaining knowledge or other more social aspects of your profession.
I respect your view, but we should not forget that 'Thebes' is still a main-stream boardgame, intended to bring families around the table.
In most (board)games the concept of 'winning' or 'victory' are inherent to board- or other games in some tangible form, be it Fame or knowledge. (but yes specific to Thebes, 'knowledge' might have been a better choice over 'fame')

I demo games at conventions, and often break out this game when meeting families with teens who are looking 'for this something else'. I then promote the original theme of this game (there are at least a zillion 'Space' or other simulation games out there) and it's easy access. And as a topper, i very much like to point out that the found treasures within the game are actual real existing artifacts ! I encourage all family-members to read out load what they have found by using the included summary leaflet that depicts the artifact's description and background information.
At the end of such a game-session, those families often leave the table, had a good time over an 'original' game-theme, and have hopefully learned something ; it might even have sparked there interest in learning about a specific artifact !? Who knows, that 10 year old, might want to read up on ancient Egypt ...

So for a 25 or so Euro-game, is that not what counts ? Quality time with your family, and maybe even learn something ?

Keep playing !

Don't get me wrong, I love playing both Thebes and Pergamon. And I definitely think that it's better that people have a romantic and exotic view of archaeology than that they don't care at all. But what I really wish is for more people to take an active interest in the real archaeology of where they live. Interested amateurs are always welcome on my fieldwork projects.

I got a very similar game, by the sound of it, for my son for Christmas, called Ilium. Here there are different museums in competition for a supposedly-representative set of artefacts. They want to be as splendid as possible, but there is also supposed to be a range. The metric is quite odd. The sponsors, the notional museums, get the best stuff from each team, and the scoring is done from what's left. I don't know enough about Schliemann's excavations to know if this is an attempt to work something historical into a ruleset or if it's just for playability, but it's quite a good game or seems so to me.

Sounds interesting! The designer, Reiner Knizia, is known to construct game concepts that barely match any of the story painted onto them. Several of his games have been re-themed when reissued. My favourite example of such a re-theming (though with another designer) was when Cat & Chocolate was reissued as Texas Zombies.