Through The Desert – Who’d Have Thought Herding Cute Little Pastel Camels Would Be So Cutthroat?

Some things are made for adults but look as if they’re meant for kids, just as some things are meant for kids but look like they should be played with by adults. No, I’m not talking about handguns or breasts. I’m talking about a Knizia game most recently reprinted by Fantasy Flight Games, the wonderful little area control game called Through The Desert. It contains all the things that you’d expect to see in any toy section at your local Wally World: pastel colors, cute little plastic trees, and even little circus animals. You might even dismiss the game as a kid’s game based upon the rear of the box that displays the cute little pink and purple camels, but you’d be mistaken to do so. This game is about slashing gaping, bloody wounds in your opponent’s throat, all the while singing the theme song to Aladdin and marvelling at the fact that camels apparently come in lime green varietals. This is a nasty, backstabbity game in pastel clothing that has a focus not only on expanding your area of control, but more importantly, marginalizing your opponents’ moves and denying them opportunities. I mean, what other game can have you screaming, “Lalalalalalalalala” after totally hosing over a friend? Epic.

The concept of the game is simple and earnest: there are five colors of camels, and once you’ve placed your caravan leader, on every turn you place two camels adjacent to one of your existing camels or caravan leaders. The freshly placed camels must match the color of the camel you’re placing it next to, and you cannot “cross the streams” by placing a camel of one color adjacent to a camel of that same color that is owned by another player. Points are scored for having the highest number of each color at the end of the game, and during the game you can score points by placing camels on spaces with points markers on them, completely enclosing an area, and finally, moving a camel train to one of the aforementioned plastic trees that represent an oasis. All in all, it seems to be a cute, simple, fun kid’s game on the outside, and it may be, but there’s a much darker side to pink camels; of that I’m sure. The game comes to its conclusion when one color of camels has been spent completely, with a final tallying putting the exclamation point at the end.

The components are the usual FFG quality and the box art is a hair on the bland side for my tastes, but it’s a game about caravans of camels jockeying for position in a desert, so really, there’s no need for art. This may actually be the only Knizia game that doesn’t feel painted on, though. I know it is, and this could’ve easily been rethemed using little Coyotes creating underground tunnels for illegal immigrants to get from safehouse to safehouse, but in Through The Desert the theme really feels to be an integral part of the game. Inside the box you will find a bunch of Caravan Leader clips which you attach to camels, what feels like two hunred camels in five carribean colors, a couple of handfuls of scoring tokens, five two-part plastic trees, a medium sized and incredibly bland board, and finally, a rulebook that is large, but written in six or so languages, with only a few pages being required reading. The overall quality of everything is superb, albeit a bit bland on the artwork, and the price I paid for it, $25.00 USD, was a fair price for the amount of plastic within the box.

Setup is a little bit of a pain in the ass, to be honest, because you need to segregate the camel piles, which is no easy task in itself, but the green and blue camels are so closely pigmented that in a darker room you will have absolutely no possible way to distinguish them. To embellish this point, I’ve painted all the blue camels’ tails in black so that we can actually tell them apart. You must then place your little leader clips on top of a camel of each color as well as upon a grey “extra” camel which reminds you what color you’re playing. Beyond that, you have to place a great deal of the scoring chits face down on little blue dots printed onto the game board. These chits have a number printed on the front with a value of one through three, and as mentioned, are taken by players who place a camel upon them. Finally, you must then place five little plastic trees upon five of the seven printed tree locations to complete the setup.

Once the game’s set up, the game is actually very fast-playing. The first set of rounds finds each player placing one of their caravan leaders on the board. No player may place the same color leader-riding camel as the player before them, and no player may place these caravan leaders upon either a chit or adjacent to a tree. Once all five of everyone’s caravan leaders are placed, the real meat of the game begins. Each player, in turn, places two camels of any color they wish adjacent to one of their existing camels. Placing a camel onto a scoring chit allows you to pick it up and score it, but you may leave this face-down in front of you to obscure your score from wandering eyes. Another scoring move is to place a camel adjacent to a tree, which scores you a fast five points. That being said, you may only score that five points per tree per color, meaning you can’t simply surround a tree and score a total of 30 points, but may instead score that first five and extend your caravan to another tree for an additional five points. The last way to score points during normal play is to completely block off an area. If you can do so, you not only score one point per open space that you blocked off at the end of the game, you may immediately take any remaining chits within that area. This is a tricky thing to do as you may never place one of your camels of a given color adjacent to an opposing player’s camel of that same color, so it’s really a matter of careful planning. Keep in mind that no camel, once placed, may ever be moved, so each camel you place is important to your overall strategy.

At the end of the game, once the last camel of any one color is placed, you tally up your scoring chits. That is, essentially, your base score. On top of that, using the five special colored chits that are included, you hand out ten points to the player who has the most camels on the board of any given color. This is generally a very big deal, so making sure to keep a close eye on the piles of camels will help you determine easily which are the easiest colors to get the advantage in during the final rounds of the game. Finally, you count the spaces that you’ve blocked off and score yourself 1 point per space. Once you’ve calculated all of these scores, the player with the highest score wins.

All in all, this is a ridiculously fun little game for what it is. It’s simple, can be played with anyone, and plays so fast that it can be over in 30 minutes or so, even with 4 players. The most agonizing parts of the game are the setup and the score calculation at the end. Other than that, it’s a definite win, and that’s really saying something for a Euro, at least at my house. The wife loves it, the kids love it, and my group that normally screams for blood, revels in fistfuls of dice, and is overjoyed by the sight of bodies stacked like firewood likes the game. In fact, just last night I was playing this with my wife and buddy Mickey, both of which totally dig Through the Desert. Mickey even commented that, “I can’t believe I like this game…I used to launch missiles at people, through the desert!” I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Reiner Knizia, for the win!

How This Game Deserves To Match “Sonny” Crockett’s Wardrobe:
-Simple rules and easy learning curve make this a total shoo-in for game night
-While it has some depth, even a child can grasp the concepts and play reasonably well
-This may be one of the best $25.00 USD games ever when it comes to replayability
-I have to admit it, the little camels are indeed cute
-The lack of downtime keeps everyone at the table engaged and enjoying the game

What Makes This Game Less Than “Rico” Tubbs-Level Cool:
-It is about camels, and the only camels-related items I find interesting are those that come in tight jeans
-Aside from the cool plastic parts, the board and chits are as boring as David Caruso’s acting in CSI Miami (or anything, for that matter)
-The little caravan leader clips really need to be glued on as they fall off quite often after repeated plays

Overall:
This is a total no-brainer. Unless you are opposed to pastel colors, camels, or simple Euro games, this is a complete win. Yes, I know it’s simple at its core, but it’s so fast-playing and has such an emphasis on smart unit placement that it is just a caravan-sized box loaded with fun.

Rating:
4/5 Stars

To get this game, go to a local FLGS or get it online at the big distributors like www.Coolstuffinc.com, and if you want to check it out before making any investments in camel-driven fun, go ahead and head to the FFG site for more info:
http://www.fantasyflightgames.com/edge_minisite.asp?eidm=35&enmi=Through The Desert

Just make sure that you have the sound on when you go there…their flash ad has some really bizarre Middle-Eastern music that is a riot. It makes me want to go knuckle up some infidels, rafiki!

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