Babel is the name of a board game
published by the German
. As one might guess from the title, it involves trying to build tower
The game is two-player only, and generally takes under an hour to play, although you can expect to spend longer the first time, as you're learning the rules. It's played on a long, rectangular board, marked with five sites; red, blue, yellow, green and gray. At each site are two squares where the towers will be built (one for each player) and two smaller squares where the players' tokens (made of stone, and shaped vaguely like the obelisk-like tower depicted on the front of the box) can be put to mark their active locations.
There are two decks of cards; one is a small, square deck. This is the tower deck. The cards in it are numbered 1 through 6, representing the different levels of towers. The other is sized and shaped more like a standard deck of cards, and is the people deck. It contains cards of five colors, representing the five sites and their corresponding people. Being a German game, the names of the people are in German. Here are the colors, their people, and the English equivalents:
On your turn, you draw three people cards to add to your hand, then can play cards from your hand to do a number of different things. You can play people cards at your current location (can't change their order once they're down). You can play people cards to change your active location to the corresponding color. You can play the top card from your tower pile onto the tower at your current location, but have to put 2 on top of a 1, 3 on top of a 2, etc. You also must have enough people at the current location (equal to the height of the tower). Once per turn, you can also shift a group of three people from one location to another. At the end of your turn, you draw the top two tower cards and add them to the top of your tower pile (lower one on top).
To make things more complicated, every group of people has a special power. To invoke the power, you must have a group of at least 3, consecutive, of the same color at your active location, and discard one. The powers are:
- Yellow: Steal the top card of your opponent's tower (at your active location) and add it to your own.
- Blue: Destroy your opponent's tower (at your active location) and return the cards to the top of the tower deck.
- Gray: Skip a level in building your tower (e.g. put a 4 on top of a 2).
- Green: Choose a color. Murder all of the opponent's people of that color at your active location (discard them).
- Red: Steal the top group of people (all the same color) from your opponent's people at the active location. Add them to the top of your people pile at the active location.
Additionally, any color of people can be activated in this way to force your opponent to discard half his hand, rounded down.
The game is over when all the tower cards are gone. The person whose towers sum to the highest total wins. In the case of a tie, whoever has more cards in his/her hand wins. The game can also end prematurely if anyone ever hits 20 total tower levels (instant win), or gets to 15 before the opponent gets to 10 (also an instant win).
But is it fun?
It's not the greatest game I've ever played, but it's fast and enjoyable. The game is too chaotic to have any long-term strategy, so it's more about tactics. Towers rise and fall in the span of a turn, due to the blue guys. Your pride and joy level 6 tower becomes your opponent's, due to the yellow guys. Large groups of people are massacred by the green guys. Your carefully constructed death squad gets abducted and turned against you by the red guys. In other words, you can't count on anything being around on your next turn.
I used to play all the time with a friend of mine, named Phil. Phil complained that once you got used to the rules, there was, in any given situation, one and only one correct way to play. The game was, once you got to that stage, just luck. I disagree with this assessment, for three reasons:
Firstly, we were keeping track of our games. I can't remember the exact score now, but it was something like 30 to 22 when we stopped playing. This is outside standard deviation for a series of 52 coin flips, leading one to believe that the odds are not 50/50 for both players. In other words, one player is better. If one player is "better," the game is not pure luck.
Secondly, although it's true that on many turns, there really is only one "right" thing to do, there are also many times when you have a choice of two or three equally appealing (or unappealing) options. The game tree does branch, therefore, and surely those choices have an impact on things down the line. Having limited choices is very different from having no choice.
Thirdly, we both had distinctly different playing styles. I focussed on building my towers, trying to go for one of the "instant win" scenarios. Phil concentrated on destroying my towers and people, hoping that I would exhaust my resources and that he could jump into the lead with a sudden building spree just before the tower deck ran out. If there's only one way to play a game, it's an impossibility for players to have different styles.
So, to conclude, the game may have a large luck element to it, but it is not completely devoid of tactics. It isn't a must-buy by any stretch of the imagination, but it's hard to find good two-player board games that aren't too intellectually taxing. So, if "fast-paced, 70-30 luck and skill, two-player board game" sounds like a niche that needs to be filled on your game shelf, you might consider this game. If you generally have three or more people to play games, stick to Settlers of Catan, and if you want something highly strategic, play Go.