I am, unabashedly, a fan of cube-pushers. Zero abashment. Not only do I tolerate the little colored wooden cubes that characterize heavy euros, I actually prefer them over finely sculpted plastic minis.
Why? I guess it has something to do with efficiency of expression—or the honest, bare-bones exposure of the inner workings of a game: playing a good cube-pushing euro is like taking the face off a pocket watch and marveling at all those little gears that, incredibly, make the whole system go. I confess it—I admire the mechanisms of a game (those lovely levers, switches and gears) more than I admire the thin veneer of story or theme.
So here I am, ready to accept my rightful place in the minority of gamers who secretly, perversely, love the colored wooden cube, who listen to the Ameritrashy Secret Cabal podcast with the distant admiration of a nerdy outcast who will never be one of the cool kids, when along comes Phil Walker-Harding with his game Imhotep — a Spiel-nominated game that is about nothing other than, literally, pushing cubes.
Big cubes—herculean cubes—like the 1950s drive-in horror movie version of cubes—Attack of the Giant Euro Components! And colored? Just barely. Your four choices are white, black, gray and brown—as though the game is forcing you to acknowledge it as a pure set of mechanisms. “I’m a cube-pusher. Look me in the face when I’m talking to you.”
So here’s the story veneer, for those who care about such things: You and your friends play as master architects in ancient Egypt, and together you are using the power of slavery (not rendered) to move massive stone blocks into particular positions in order to construct pyramids, temples, burial chambers and classical phallic obelisks.
You turn is very simple—you do one of four things. You can:
- Resupply yourself with stones
- Place a single stone on one of the ships that hasn’t already left for a building site
- Sail one of the ships to a site
- Play a bonus card that usually lets you do a better version of the first 3 actions
The trick is that you may place your stone in a boat hoping that it will go to the pyramid, but someone else might decide to send that boat to the temple instead. Which leads to the central tension behind the entire game: Do you want to be the one who gets a lot of your stones into the sites, or do you want to be the one to control where those stones end up? Because you probably aren’t going to be both.
And it matters—because the boats unload their stones in a fixed order. So if you put a stone in the back of a boat so that it will unload in just the right place at the pyramid, that stone is likely to be in just the wrong place when another player sends that boat to the temple.
The gameplay is pure. It makes sense that it’s a cube-pusher, because it’s a game that’s distilled down to essences, like they’ve burned off everything unnecessary or inert to the mechanics of play. It is, as the archetype of redundant sayings goes, what it is. Personally, I think it’s incredible in that meditative, zen-like way. I found myself trying to think a few steps ahead but also not really being bothered if my plans didn’t come to fruition. Hey, at least I got some blocks out there—I contributed to some monuments of human ingenuity.
No matter where the block goes, it does something for you. In that way, the game felt generous to me—and I wasn’t preoccupied with how many points I might have lost because my block didn’t go where I wanted it to. The quarry has plenty of stone left! On the other hand, some players might be frustrated by the lack of control they feel. The same nihilism that gave me a peaceful and shrugging comfort (“Well, hey, no worries, there’s nothing I could have done about that!”) might give other people the mean reds (“Goddamnit, there’s nothing I could have done about that!”).
Which kind of person are you—pyramid half-built or pyramid half-unbuilt?
The other completely unnecessary (but wholly welcome) aspect of the game is that each of the five building sites is double-sided—and on the reverse side is a different way of scoring those sites. So if you get tired of side-A scoring, you can switch to side B—which will likely change your stone delivery strategies.
Or you can mix and match. Personally, I don’t mind either way since, in a world of chaos and anxiety-easing inevitability, we’re all going to end up dead and buried with our cats—no matter which side of the game board we use.
The only real objection I have to the game is about the packaging: the box comes with this odd off-kilter insert that I suppose is meant to be whimsical but actually just makes all your components sit catawampus in the box. If you store your games vertically, the insert makes it feel like there’s no actual upright. And while, in this game, I can ease my analysis paralysis with the heady balm of nihilism, while I can be proud of any haphazard stone that contributes to the grand monolith of an ancient civilization, I still have no patience for a disorganized game shelf.
This most minor of quibbles aside, Imhotep is an absolutely fantastic abstract game. Sure, it may lack any semblance of theme at all, but honestly, it’s the cubes that will withstand the passage of time, irrespective of the motives of those who heaved them into place.
(Gameosity received a copy of Imhotep for review. We were not otherwise compensated.)