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Atlanteon

Designer: Reiner Knizia
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
Players: 2
Time: 10 minutes
Reviewer: Greg Aleknevicus

There was a time when Reiner Knizia games were considered "too mathematical". That is, they had excellent (and simple) rules but they lacked "soul". There was very little story or narrative to the game and you were just fiddling around with numbers, more or less. This may have been true but fortunately they were great games even if they suffered from this "failing". The reason I mention this is because Atlanteon is a re-issue of Revolution, a 1992 title from Abacus that is a prime example of this.

The board is a 5 x 5 grid and each player has 11 pieces numbered from 0 to 9 along with a King. Before the game begins the players will place three towers (two white, one black) on the board and will then alternate placing one of their pieces on any unoccupied spot on the board. Once an occupied space is surrounded on all four sides (including the edge of the board), you determine who controls it. Each player totals the number of points on pieces surrounding the space (including the piece itself) and the player with the higher total places a marking stone there. (Ties go to the player owning the piece in question.) Note that this marking stone does not have any effect on who owns that piece, it merely marks that space as having been won by one side or the other. The towers are won in a similar fashion except that it's the player with the least number of points who wins the black tower and, for the white towers, you do not get to place a marking stone if you win. This continues until one of the three victory conditions are met:

  1. One player wins all three towers.
  2. One player places one of his marking stones on the opposing King.
  3. One player places all 11 of her marking stones.

In actual gameplay it seems very unlikely that either the first or second conditions will ever be satisfied (they're very easy to defend against). They seem more to guide your actions and force you into certain situations rather than actually providing you with a way of winning the game (unless your opponent is very careless).

That's it and so we have a very abstract game of no luck and this should provide you with a very strong clue as to how the game plays. It's very Chess-like in that you need to look several moves ahead to anticipate your opponent's moves and reactions if you hope to succeed. Actually, it would be far more accurate to say that Atlanteon is Go-like as you concentrate on influencing surrounding spaces. There's a real struggle between grouping your pieces together (so that they support each other) and spreading them out (so that they control more space on the board).

Another aspect that I quite enjoyed was the issue of timing. It's relatively easy to secure certain squares simply by placing your pieces so that your opponent cannot exceed your total. However, your opponent will then have very little incentive to place a piece there and so you're faced with a dilemma - do you "waste" one of your own pieces or continue to fight over another part of the board? This isn't always an easy decision particularly in the endgame when both players are close to placing their 11th marker. (Technically, you can only win at the end of your turn and this seemingly innocuous condition can have a profound affect on the outcome.) What I soon learned is that in order to play well, you need to place pieces that help you in multiple ways (again, similar to Go). Where the game really shines is that these are not necessarily all that obvious. It may appear to make very little difference if you play your 5 or 6 in one corner but in actuality it will have serious consequences on the other side of the board. Brilliant! Games tend to be very close and I was surprised at how often a seemingly hopeless situation was able to be salvaged. There is definitely more to Atlanteon than the simple rules would indicate.

The production is very nice and it appears that Fantasy Flight is improving with each new title. The counters are of decent thickness (although still not up to German standards) and the die-cutting is much better than in previous releases. The towers are wooden and the simple board is unobtrusive. The artwork is certainly attractive although I'm not sure that the underwater theme really engages all that much. Not that it really matters though as it is very abstract. The important bits of information (the values of the pieces) are clear and easy to see although it is easy to confuse the 6's and 9's.

There is one small issue that the rules do not address. Technically, you may only win if you have 11 of your influence markers on the board at the end of your turn. This specification is important and can make a difference between winning and losing. (This is the issue of timing that I mentioned earlier.) However, there is the possibility that the player who places the last piece will not have 11 markers on the board (thereby guaranteeing that his opponent does) but since his opponent does not get another turn, technically he does not satisfy the victory conditions. We played that in these cases the player with 11+ markers won.

The rules suggest playing multiple games and keeping a running score (you score a point for each marking stone you place) but I did not find this to be necessary. A single game felt satisfying to me and I could not discern any advantage to going first. Atlanteon is short enough that multiple playings are common and I preferred to play a simple "best of 3" match.

I found Atlanteon to be very challenging to play. Although the rules are quite simple, the gameplay is not. There's a lot to think about when placing a piece and the game presents you with a wonderful puzzle-like feel. Very often it seems that you can force a win with the proper placement and this is a quality that I love in a game. Working through the various moves and countermoves is a delight. However, if this sort of process is not to your liking then Atlanteon will likely fall very flat for you. For those who are inclined to play a simple but challenging two player game, Atlanteon is highly recommended and I thank Fantasy Flight for re-issuing this overlooked gem.

- Greg Aleknevicus

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