Game Night Verdicts #23 – Mystery of the Temples, Symphony No. 9

Mystery of the Temples

After eyeing this game way back when it was available in Essen at Spiel 17, I‘ve finally got around to picking it up in a math trade. It‘s an EmperorS4 release (designed by Wei-Min Ling, art by Maisherly) in a deceptively small box. The game‘s footprint is quite respectable, though, taking up about as much space as a 90s Knizia game might.

Cover of the German version from Nice Game Publishing

It‘s a puzzly race to the finish line, with players collecting resources to fulfill specific objectives (breaking curses). There is an element of tactical blocking, as you can‘t share spaces with another player. There is also some small but influential combo building in the game. Most of which helps to speed up the game towards the end, when collecting the resources you need (i.e. crystals) becomes secondary to finding the fastest route to your destination.

The game‘s play area is vaguely reminiscent of a rondel mechanic as you move 1-3 spaces for free each turn. Other players may block spots, which allows you to move forward even faster as you skip those spaces. Resources need to be arranged on your tableau in a specific manner so they qualify for the objective you want to fulfill. The rules are all neatly interwoven without ever feeling as if they‘re creating unforgiving pitfalls you simply have to learn how to avoid.

It is a very well designed game. Its core concept and presentation is accessible. All decisions you need to make are based on readily available, i.e. non-obscured information. You don‘t even need to run through long calculations to figure out the board state. Even the game‘s pacing picks up nicely as you progress. But.. and this is where I might say that it lacks a certain je-ne-sais-quoi… but the quoi it lacks, je sais trés bien.

Mystery of the Temples is calculable. To be clear, it‘s not „solved“; but the only uncertainty factor of the game are the decisions of other players. If you have the mental capacity for it, you can easily plot out a numerous turns in advance as well as alternative routes should one of the other players block a space you need. That is appropriately challenging. It can feel quite rewarding if you manage to react to a change in circumstance with nonchalance. As opposed to the more naturalistic expression of faux (but only kinda) outrage: name-calling. Which is how we handled those moments. Tongue-in-cheek insults, mimicking table-flip movements and announcing that you‘re packing your things to leave now. We knew how to entertain each other.

It is a charmingly colorful and pretty game

But it‘s the low-key nature of the game‘s own humorous moments that is the reason, why it never evoked more than a respectable nod from the table. I doubt any of us would object to playing the game again. I‘m sure I will… if only to see whether some of the basic strategic ideas actually pay off and result in a tenser game. But Mystery of the Temples couldn‘t wow us. To a large part because it didn‘t give us reason to laugh. No surprises that blindsided us or anything to cause an upset.

Mystery of the Temples is a game that is very easy to like. But it didn‘t quite manage to make any of us fall in love with it.

Symphony No.9

symphony-boxIt‘s been a while since I‘ve played this game. It was the very last of my Spiel 18 pile I managed to get to the table, but unfortunately I‘ve FUBAR‘d the rules explanation then. While the resulting experince was reasonable entertaining, it bore only superficial resemblance to how it is supposed to be played. (I suspect my recent play of Captains of the Gulf met a similar fate, which is why I reserve judgement on the game until I get to play it again. Properly.)

Where Mystery of the Temples provides you with a solid framework plot your way to the next VP collection, Symphony No.9 is more like a Rube Goldberg machine of VP conditions, variables and numbers. Operated by a pack of frantic cats (i.e. players) who start off with only the vaguest notion of what they want. Most of this impression comes down to the unexpectedly layered ways of determining victory points. You collect cubes to compete for tiles. Those tiles qualify you to score VP for certain criteria. Owning more than one tile of the same type increases the multiplier for that category. All of which is powered by a two-tier bidding system. First you grab cubes for majority of a color, then you bid blindly to let you pay out certain cubes. The money you get, is in turn used to invest into more tiles…

It‘s a handful.

Photo by Marlon Kruis

Surprisingly, though, it does not result in a purely chaotic experience. The competition for a colored tile (by cube majority) is straight-forward. As is the shared blind bid that follows it. What makes the game unusual is the huge difference in complexity between tactical and strategic decisions. After the first round you pretty much know what your objectives are each turn, how to get to them and when to adapt to new circumstances. Despite its interwoven mechanics, the game keeps you focused on your next short-term objective. But finding a path to get you to your long-term goals, is infinitely more difficult to parse. While there aren’t many variables to consider, they are all fairly non-linear in how they change through the course of the game.

Symphony No. 9 plays very tactically, for the most part. But there is a robust, albeit non-intuitive construct of rules that drives the experience. It‘s one that might allow for deeper, strategic play if you are willing to put in the work for it.

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