The 1997 game Tigris and Euphrates, by prolific designer Reiner Knizia, is an all-time classic in the genre, an abstract strategy game that’s easy to learn but that involves plenty of strategy and differs every time you play. It’s the second-highest rated game on BoardGameGeek among titles published before 2000—only El Grande, which is long out of print, rates higher—and is one of my top 12 games published in any year. Fantasy Flight Games has reissued Tigris with new graphics and a double-sided board (introduced in the mid-2000s) to allow for advanced play, and it’s an essential purchase for any boardgame collection.
Tigris and Euphrates is a tile-laying game with a clever scoring mechanic that rewards balanced play. Players draw tiles at random from a bag, with hands of six tiles hidden from other players, and lay tiles to create chains of tiles called Kingdoms, gaining points by placing their own Leader tokens in those Kingdoms and adding tiles of specific colors to the chains. There are four colors in the game: red Temples, green Markets, Black somethings, and Blue Farms, each of which has one special characteristic. Each player has four leaders, one per color, and may place any leader next to a red Temple to start earning points for every tile in that leader’s color added to the chain. If any player completes a 2×2 square of tiles in one color, the player may then convert those tiles into a Monument, flipping over the tiles and placing one of the six two-colored plastic monuments on top; at the end of a player’s turn, s/he receives one point for any of his/her leaders connected to a monument of the same color.
The heart of the game is the conflicts that arise between Kingdoms when the chains are connected—if you’ve played Acquire, there’s a little hint of that game’s mergers between hotel tile chains—or when one player places his leader of a specific color into a chain that already has another leader in the same color. Connecting two chains with at least one leader color in common is called a War, and the two affected players must compare their strengths in that specific color, adding up the tiles in that color in their respective chains, then adding tiles from their hands, with the attacker stating how many tiles s/he is adding first. The player whose leader wins the war gets one point for the victory and another point for every tile in that color in the vanquished kingdom, after which those tiles and the opposing leader are removed from the board. If the War connects chains with multiple leaders in common, the attacking player chooses which color to resolve first.
Placing your leader into a chain that already has another leader of that color is called a Revolt, and the results are settled with red Temple tiles—each red tile adjacent to your leader, plus however many you choose to add from your hand. The conflicts are central to the game; without them, players would build runaway leads in certain colors by racking up victory points from monuments every turn. Sometimes it can pay to start a War even if you know you’ll lose one of the conflicts within it because you’ll knock something else off the board.
The scoring system also helps mitigate those runaway leaders, because it’s not just a game of who has the most victory points. Points are awarded by color: add a red tile to a chain that contains your red leader and you get an “amulet,” which is a red victory point. At the end of the game, you add up your victory points in each color, and your score is the lowest of those four numbers. The player with the best such score—the highest lowest, to put it in the most confusing way possible—is the winner; ties are broken by moving to the second-lowest score from each player, and so on. There are a handful of treasure tokens you can gain during the game using your green leader, worth one wild-card point each at the end of the game, but otherwise you are stuck with what you earned from tile placement and monuments, so you’d better play a balanced strategy.
Tigris and Euphrates plays best with four players and almost as well with three, as the modest-sized board forces players into conflicts and it’s harder for any one player to rack up a large victory point total in multiple colors. With two players, it’s still playable, but players can create unassailable positions in larger chains that make the outcome of the game hard to alter past the midpoint. A full game takes 90 minutes to two hours, and the play itself is fine for kids eight and up, although some of the strategy involved in resolving conflicts would probably require an adult’s guidance. It’s one of Knizia’s crowning achievements, the start of his “tile-laying trilogy” along with the superb Samurai and Through the Desert, and, now that it’s back in print with bright new graphics, one of the first games I’d suggest to anyone interested in something a little more complex than Settlers of Catan or Ticket to Ride.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.