Review – Through the Desert

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Designer Reiner Knizia

Artist Damien Mammoliti

Publisher Allplay

Category Route-Building

Length 45 minutes

Release Date 1998 (new version in 2024)

Player Count 2-5

Through the Desert is a classic route-building game from prolific designer Reiner Knizia. First released in 1998, it has seen various editions over the years. Now, in 2024, Through the Desert returns — along with a brand-new expansion — from Allplay. Let’s check it out!

Review

Through the Desert comes from a different time. It was one of the early German games to achieve international success, alongside titans like Catan and El Grande. In Through the Desert, players take turns placing camel pieces onto a shared board to form routes. Each player maintains routes in 5 different colors, and their goal is to expand their routes to earn the most points.

To begin the game, players seed the board with tokens in values of 1-3, as well as palm tree pieces representing oases. Then, players take turns placing their 5 starting camels — 1 camel in each of the 5 colors — onto the board. The starting camels all have a rider on them to show which player they belong to.

On a player’s turn, they select any 2 camels from the supply and place them onto empty spaces to extend their routes. A camel can never be placed such that it “merges” multiple routes of the same color. In other words, it must always be clear which camel belongs to which player/route.

If a player places a camel onto a space with a token, they take the token and will score points for it at the end of the game. Players can also earn points if a line of their camels reaches a palm tree, or if it creates an enclosure of empty spaces (basically, if it blocks off a group of spaces such that no other player can expand into it).

Play continues like this until the supply of any single camel color has been depleted. At that time, the game ends and players score bonuses. For each color, the player with the longest route earns 10 points, or 5 points if tied with another player. Once bonuses have been awarded, the player with the most points wins!

Here, red has completed a 4-point enclosure.

In addition to the base game, the new Bazaar expansion offers 4 gameplay modules that players can mix and match:

  • Rival Nomads introduces objectives, which award points to the players who best complete them.
  • Djinns adds new challenges in the form of changing rules. On any turn where the active player reaches an oasis, they flip a card to reveal a new rule that all players must follow. (Each new rule replaces the previous one.)
  • Special Watering Holes changes some of the tokens placed during setup. There are 2 new types of tokens — the first allows players to place an extra camel, and the second awards 10 points for every pair of that token a player collects.
  • Bazaars provides a new kind of scoring opportunity. During setup, stacks of bazaar tokens are added to the board. If a route connects a village (along the edge of the board) to a bazaar, the player takes the top-most bazaar token.

I’ll come right out and say it: Through the Desert is one of my favorite games, and it has been for at least a decade. It’s among Reiner Knizia’s best designs, and it does not feel the least bit dated despite being over 25 years old.

This game’s depth-to-complexity ratio is staggering. Literally all that players do on their turn is place 2 camels, but the surrounding decisions can be excruciating. From the get-go, players feel the squeeze of only having 2 placements per turn. They quickly find themselves racing to reach point tokens, trying to box their opponents out of oases, and fighting to create enclosures, all the while trying to prevent others from doing the same things. Adding to the brain burn, players must strike a balance between trying to extend all their routes equally, and focusing heavily on a couple in hopes of earning majorities. For being as dead simple as it is, Through the Desert packs a huge strategic punch.

The production of the Allplay version looks nice on the surface, but it has some underlying issues. The basic version includes plastic camels reminiscent of those from earlier editions, but unlike those older camels, the new ones are hollow plastic, so they feel much cheaper. Screen-printed wooden camels are available as an upgrade, but when playing with them, it is very difficult to tell which camel belongs to which player, and that makes for a huge usability issue. What’s more, the box feels too small for what goes inside. Even without the wooden camels, it’s a puzzle to fit the game and expansion comfortably into the box. If you have the wooden bits as well, there’s no chance at all — those will need to be stored separately. Lastly, on the “daytime” side of the board, there is a space where a point token should be placed during setup, but the space is not marked appropriately. While the effect on gameplay is minimal, players may be confused as to why they seemingly have an extra token. To be fair, the publisher has created a file that players can print as a sticker for the board, but I don’t know many people who have ready access to a sticker printer. Visually, the production looks nice, but in terms of usability, it leaves some things to be desired.

A sampling of the upgraded wooden pieces.

Regarding the expansion, when I first heard about it, I was worried that it would sully the game by adding excess rules to an otherwise elegant system. I am pleased to see, however, that this is not the case. The expansion modules provide new strategic options with next to no added complexity — exactly what an expansion should do! It’s not a must-buy by any means, but if you want a little extra variety in Through the Desert, you’ll find it with Bazaar.

Bottom line, despite the production issues in this new version, I love Through the Desert now just as much as I did a decade ago. It’s one of Reiner Knizia’s best designs and one of the best abstract games out there. If you have never tried it, I highly suggest doing so.

A review copy was provided by Allplay.

The Bottom Line

Despite the production issues in this version, Through the Desert remains a rock-solid classic. It's one of Reiner Knizia's best games, and indeed, one of the best abstract games ever made. Highly recommended.

 

9

Author: Stephen Hall

A bard pretending to be a cleric. Possibly a Cylon, too. I was there when they dug up the "E.T." cartridges.