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Surviving in 11th Century Italy

May 19, 2008

Antiquity is brutal. That is simply the most obvious adjective to describe it. Antiquity is unrelenting, vicious, and merciless. It is a game of pollution and graves. It is a game of treading water in a small pool teeming with piranhas. It is a game of survival. And itís a pure joy to play.

The introduction to the rules puts it best:

"These fields no longer yield grain the way they used to," complains the farmer. "And people these days don't like to eat plain bread any more. Why don't we start farming olives, like our neighbors?" The cart-driver nods: "We could, but there is no more land. Ever since those city folks started worshipping San Giorgio I have to travel further and further to new building sites. I'm on my way now to that new inn. I'll change horses there. Then Iíll take this load," he gestures towards the pile of wood in the cart with his head, "to the sea beyond. Gonna start some fisheries there. The seas in the South have all been polluted, and the city folks need their fish. You know how it is." As the cart starts moving again, the farmer nods his head in reply, then takes his sickle to harvest the last bushels of grain, growing between the stumps of what used to be a lush forest."

Antiquity is a game designed by Jeroen Doumen and Joris Wiersinga, and published by Splotter Spellen, that pits two to four players against each other (and even more so against the game system itself) on a modular board representing Italy in the late Middle Age. To give you a sense of the variability in the board, given the number of tiles and the variety of configurations, there are over 800,000 different possible two-player maps (and significantly more multi-player maps). To give you a sense of the variability of the gameplay, there are five completely different winning conditions that players can choose from during the game, and each one requires an entirely different approach to the game. There are winning conditions that force you to grow your population, or collect many different resources, or build every possible building in your cities, or expand your territory to surround an opponent. As you can probably tell from just these brief descriptions, those are not remotely similar goals, and having the freedom to determine your own path is what makes this game truly special.

The five different victory conditions (and corresponding special abilities) that you can choose between are based on the five different patron saints to which you can dedicate the cathedral that you build. Those are San Nicolo, Santa Barbara, San Christofori, San Giorgio, and Santa Maria. In the twelve games of Antiquity that I have played thus far, the available victory conditions are impressively balanced, with their viability depending significantly on the way in which the map is laid out for the particular game at issue. I have seen four of the five different saints win (all but San Nicolo). However, I would like to take a moment now to calculate the sheer amount of resources needed to satisfy each of the patron saints.

First, San Nicolo requires you to grow your population to 20, which means you must build all 20 houses. Since you get 4 houses for free, this means you only need to build 16 houses. In addition, this patron saintís special ability is to give you one free house every time you build a house, so you only need to pay for 8 houses to win the game. That sounds simple enough, but since the cost of houses gradually increases, you will end up needing to spend 30 resources in total (roughly 20 food and 10 luxuries). This is because the 8 houses will cost 1, 2, 3, 4, 4, 5, 5, and 6. However, since 2 cities provide 85 squares in which to build, and 20 houses only takes up 20 squares, you should be able to complete San Nicoloís requirement without having to build a third city (as long as you donít get stuck with too many graves). In addition, all of the strategies will need to buy at least a few houses in order to grow their population somewhat and be successful, so the extra amount needed to satisfy this winning condition is slightly less than 30. In order to succeed with San Nicolo it is clear that you will need to build the Faculty of Philosophy, so that you can build a house that costs ď3D Food and 3D LuxĒ without collecting three different food and three different luxury goods. While all of the other strategies can easily get by without this building (except Santa Barbara of course, although itís usually built very late with Santa Barbara), it seems to be an essential building for San Nicolo, at least by mid-game. As with any strategy besides San Giorgio, either the Faculty of Alchemy or the Dump would seem to be necessary to combat pollution in some way, while combining both is probably overkill. In my experience, San Nicolo has actually been the least successful of all the patron saints, probably in part (or perhaps in whole) due to the fact that it simply costs more resources to satisfy. Then again, never having a shortage of population to activate your buildings is certainly a nice advantage of this strategy, although maybe not nice enough to overcome the extra resources needed.

Second, Santa Barbara requires you to build all 18 possible buildings in your cities. This is actually easier than it sounds because buildings in Antiquity are surprisingly cheap. The total cost of all 18 buildings is only 21 resources (i.e., 8 wood, 9 stone, 4 luxuries) because every building except three of them (i.e., Faculty of Biology, Faculty of Alchemy, Stables) costs only a single resource. However, Santa Barbara is the only patron saint that will absolutely necessitate building a third city in order to fit all of the buildings. Since each city costs five resources, you have to add an extra five to the number of resources necessary for Santa Barbara, bringing the total to 26 resources (i.e., 9 wood, 10 stone, 6 luxuries, 1 food). On the other hand, many of the buildings that you will build to satisfy Santa Barbara are also needed to succeed with any of the other strategies, such as Cart Shop, Cathedral, Granary, and possibly Harbour and Forced Labour. This is certainly one of the cheaper winning conditions, but is balanced in part by its weaker special ability, which simply allows you to rearrange the buildings in your city, which is completely unnecessary if you plan ahead.

Third, San Christofori requires you to collect many different resources. Specifically, you must collect three of every different food resource (i.e., Grain, Olives, Sheep, Fish) and three of every different luxury resource (i.e., Wine, Pearls, Dye, Gold). The cost of this is obviously the easiest to calculate since you merely need to multiply three by eight, and get a total of 24 resources to satisfy San Christofori. In addition, itís worth noting that this patron saint definitely doesnít require building a third city, in contrast to Santa Barbara. In fact, your second city with San Christofori may not even be that full (except perhaps with graves if you donít get your food production going fast enough to avoid famine). The special ability associated with San Christofori is certainly one of the most powerful in that it allows you to have free unlimited storage of resources. This is significant because not only does it save you the early wood cost of building a Storage building, but it also saves you both the room in your city for placing such a building, and the cost of using a man to activate the Storage building. Free storage may not be something that you absolutely need if you can be perfectly efficient and time all of your harvesting to match your resource needs, but that is certainly an extremely challenging feat (much more so than simply planning out your buildings to overcome any need for the special ability provided by Santa Barbara).

The remaining two patron saints do not actually have resource costs that are calculable. San Giorgio requires you to expand your territory to surround an opponent, and Santa Maria requires you to satisfy any two other winning conditions (but at least provides you with every special ability to help you on your daunting quest). As you can tell, the cost for San Giorgio depends entirely on what your opponents are doing and how the map is laid out. In the end though San Giorgio will certainly cost fewer resources than any of the other strategies because it will require approximately six or seven inns, each of which costs one food. On the other hand, San Giorgio will require speed, spatial awareness, tactical placement of inns, and flexibility to adapt. San Giorgio may be the cheapest patron saint to satisfy, but the most vulnerable to being frustrated by an opponentís decisions. As for Santa Maria, I have only seen the requirements for that demanding patron saint satisfied once in twelve games. You definitely have to take advantage of getting all four special abilities make this saint feasible. You also need to decide early which two victory conditions youíre going to try to satisfy. It would seem as if you would want to only pick on the resource intensive conditions (i.e., Christofori, Nicolo, Barbara) and pair any of those three with Giorgio. Otherwise youíll need to collect a ton of resources to build all the buildings and all the houses, or do one of those things and save 24 resources to satisfy Christofori. The free storage, free houses, and free fish that come with Santa Maria certainly do give you a jump on the competition, but that wonít mean anything if you arenít able to capitalize on that edge to get a sizeable resource production lead on your opponents.

In the end, I donít have specific strategy advice on which patron saint to pursue, except to say that it depends. Thatís possibly not the most satisfying answer, although it is the answer that will allow you to keep returning to the game for countless repeated plays. I think your patron saint will have to be dictated by the map and your opponents. Long stretches of water may be conducive to pursuing San Giorgio with an early Harbour. Large amounts of stone may be conducive to pursuing Santa Barbara since none of the other patron saints require much stone at all. Then again, a popular strategy has emerged in my recent games of Antiquity, in which players tend to build an early cathedral dedicated to San Christofori in order to get the free unlimited storage, but they never set out to complete that patron saintís goal. Rather, they aim towards completing Santa Barbaraís victory condition, and use the Faculty of Theology to raze their cathedral and rebuild it on the last turn. This has recently proven to be a remarkably successful strategy, although hopefully still beatable, at least by a fast and aggressive San Giorgio approach. Iíll have to keep playing to try all of the patron saints out more to see for sure.

Turning now from the end goal of the game to the opening turn of the game, Iíd like to think a bit about how many ways you can use your first six wood and four people that you begin the game with. There are obviously an enormous number of opening turns, including many different approaches you can take in the first City phase and the first Field phase, but I think the first question is how many cart shops to build, which will dictate how many men you can send into the field to gather resources on the first turn. I will break down the possible first turn openings by the number of cart shops built.

  1. Three Cart Shops - Spend three of your six wood on three cart shops, and spend the other three wood on sending people into the fields to collect resources. This is not a conventional approach since most people seem to prefer two cart shops, so that they can build other buildings on the first turn, but a third cart shop can quickly increase your resource production. Then again, the third cart shop will end up being idle for a sizeable chunk of the game since itís unlikely to be frequently used again until much later. It seems as if missing out on other buildings for your first turn may be too big a cost, such as the Harbor, Explorer, and Granary, but this is nonetheless one possible opening.
    1. Three Woodcutters - I am going to rule this option out because it just seems excessive. While itís certainly fatal to run out of wood without having an existing woodcutter, two woodcutters on the first turn may not even be necessary, let alone three.
    2. Two Woodcutters - What to spend the third wood on?
      1. Mine - This would likely be a stone mine rather than a gold mine, but determining what to spend the early stone on is a tougher decision. An second turn Cathedral can be powerful if you know going in what patron saint you are going to pursue since the early use of the special ability can give you a nice edge. Alternatively, that early stone could be used too quickly stem the tide of pollution with a second turn Dump or a third turn Faculty of Alchemy, either of which would be very useful to anyone except those pursuing San Giorgio.
      2. Fishery - An early food source is very good for both fighting famine to reduce graves and also for building early houses to increase your population. This makes the choice between a first turn mine and a first turn fishery a difficult one, as both stone and fish provide a great benefit. If pursuing San Nicolo, I think the stone is actually necessary first since that first house shouldnít be built until after the Cathedral (because 8 of the 16 non-free houses must be built normally, and 8 out of 15 would still need to be built if one was built before the Cathedral). On the other hand, San Giorgio might prefer the food, as stone is much less necessary for this approach, whereas the stone could be useful for both Santa Barbara to begin building the stone buildings and for San Christofori to activate free storage as soon as possible.
    3. One Woodcutter - What to spend the other two wood on? While youíll likely want a second woodcutter by the second or third turn, you could get away with only one woodcutter on the first turn, in which case youíll have to decide how to spend the other two wood on your first turn.
      1. Two Mines
      2. One Mine and One Fishery - I think this is probably the best option regardless of the patron saint you plan on pursuing since any of them can definitely use early stone and early fish, and since the choice above between one or the other was tough, it seems logical to want both stone and fish if possible. This is only possible with the three cart shop approach because otherwise with only two cart shops you will need to build a woodcutter and pick between a mine and a fishery, so this may be one reason in favor of three cart shops, although not necessarily a strong enough justification.
      3. Two Fisheries
    4. Zero Woodcutters - I am also going to rule this option out since it is suicidal.
  2. Two Cart Shops - Spend two of your six wood on two cart shops, spend two more wood on sending people into the fields to collect resources, and spend the remaining two wood on buildings in your city. One of the cart shops will have to be used to build a woodcutter, but the other one can be used for a second woodcutter, a mine, or a fishery, and that is not an easy decision. Any of those choices could be right depending on the circumstances. Youíll need all of them eventually, so itís just a matter of prioritizing additional wood, stone, and fish to determine the order in which you need them. The decision should be made in light of the buildings that you build with the other two wood on your first turn, which are discussed below.
    1. Explorer - This is a good way to both make use of one of your leftover people on the first turn and to obtain grain, olives, sheep, or wine. The only other way to acquire these farming resources is either to build a Faculty of Biology or a Market, and both of those methods are more expensive, costing two stone (and a lot of space in your city) for the former, and one wood and two other resources to trade for the farming good with the latter. The Explorer is very useful for all of the patron saints. For example, San Giorgio needs it to quickly start producing food to build inns and San Nicolo needs it to build houses. It may be counterintuitive, but San Christofori may not actually need the Explorer as much since the Faculty of Biology is already a must. However, the Faculty of Biology will likely come a few turns later, so the Explorer can help this patron saint begin collecting the resources needed to win early. Obviously the decision to build an Explorer will depend on your starting city placement, and in placing your starting city you should have already decided whether you will build an Explorer or not.
    2. Harbor - This is another building that will depend greatly on your starting city placement (and how the map is laid out). There are certainly games where the Harbor is not very useful at all, but other games where it is extremely useful. San Giorgio in particular can benefit greatly from the Harbor as long as the map is favorable for such an approach. Building an Explorer and a Harbor on the first turn can certainly be a powerful opening if the map works to your favor.
    3. Granary - The Granary is one of the only buildings that is pretty much an absolute must for everyone. Reducing famine by 3 without needing to be manned is extremely useful, and definitely needed for anyone not pursuing San Christofori, and still probably very helpful even if you are pursuing San Christofori. However, the Granary may not be needed on the first turn, depending on how many players build an Explorer and discover resources besides wine. In a four-player game it is much more likely that you will need a first turn Granary than in a two-player game. If you donít build a Granary on the first turn, you should already be planning to set aside a wood on the second or third turn for the Granary since youíll need it eventually, and sooner rather than later.
    4. Storage Ė The above buildings are more likely useful on the first turn, whereas the Storage can almost certainly wait, and may never be necessary if youíre pursuing San Christofori (or Santa Barbara via San Christofori as discussed above). You should try to spend every resource that you collect for the first few turns so as to avoid the need to build and man an early Storage, although that will preclude building up two stone to build a quick Faculty of Alchemy or Biology unfortunately.
  3. One Cart Shop - Iíve never actually seen anyone attempt to build only one cart shop on the first turn. Iíd be interested in hearing if anyone thinks this is a viable approach, but it seems unlikely, given the fact that there really is no need to have four wood available to build other buildings on the first turn, so you might as well start harvesting more resources as quickly as possible.
  4. Zero Cart Shops - I am also going to rule this option out.

I hope that this article has inspired you to try or revisit Antiquity or at least has given you a sense for the game even if it doesnít sound like your cup of tea. I admit that itís definitely not a game for everyone, just as some of my other favorites like Age of Steam are not for everyone, but itís a gem of a game for those who enjoy a challenge. I look forward to exploring it much more in the years to come.