Let's get this out of the way: Nile is good. I like it.
Nile is also exactly the kind of game that's mocked mercilessly on Fortress: Ameritrash. It may as well be wearing a “kick me” sign on its back. This tiny box of 96 cards is freighted with a laundry-list of Eurogame signifiers, including (but not limited to):
- an ancient Egyptian setting
- a theme involving the appeasement of a tyrannical, undeserving authority (in this case, Hapi, the god of the Nile)
- a five-suited deck in which each suit is an agricultural commodity (flax, wheat, papyrus, castor, and lettuce)
Now, I'm as big a fan of lettuce as the next guy, but a cliché is a cliché.
Many years ago, there was a running gag on rec.games.board that Reiner Knizia was so prolific that he couldn't be just one man. Instead, Knizia was a pseudonym under which a committee of game designers published their work collectively. There was a Knizia who specialized in auctions, for example, and a Knizia whose expertise was tile-laying games, and countless other Knizii covering all of the other sub-subgenres within the Eurogame canon. In retrospect, the gag turned out to be almost true: today, Knizia has many admirers and emulators, and Nile establishes the author of Nile, Daniel Callister, as a member in good standing of the Reiner collective. Most conspicuously, Nile uses the signature Knizia scoring rule: your final score is determined by the number of points you've attained in your weakest suit.
Aside from the Kniziisms, Nile bears a passing resemblance to Uwe Rosenberg's Bohnanza. In fact, while teaching the game to my playtest group, I resorted to the use of terminology from The Bean Game for the sake of clarity and familiarity:
- cards are “planted” in homogeneous columns; Nile's rulesheet calls these “fields” be we know that they're beanfields
- beans – um, I mean “crops” - are harvested from the fields and set aside into a “storage pile” that will be used to calculate your score
Despite these similarities, Nile really isn't a clone of Bohnanza. For one thing, there's no trading between players. For another – and this is what makes Nile really interesting – no two players can farm the same crop at the same time. This means that if I have a flax crop growing in my little plot on the Nile delta, then you can't grow flax at all. Since the Knizia scoring rule is in effect, that means that your score will be zero for as long as I hold onto my flax monopoly.
Fortunately for you, I'll be forced to harvest that flax eventually, and the rules that govern the timing of the harvest represent another departure from Bohnanza . Each player begins his turn by flipping over the top card of the face-down draw pile. This card becomes the active “flood card.” The commodity shown on the flood card is harvested, regardless of who owns the corresponding beanfield. Further, the crop that is currently flooded cannot be replanted for as long as it remains underwater, so new beanfields of that type are forbidden until a different flood card turns up. Unlike Bohnanza, only a single card is harvested from the flooded beanfield. The rest of the beanfield stays planted; if my flax field is big enough, it will take several floods and subsequent harvests before it's entirely depleted.
It may seem, at this point, that I've royally screwed you with my flax monopoly. After all, it could take a long time to clear up my flax pipeline so that you can finally plant some flax of your own. There are a couple of rules, though, that mitigate this. One is the “Offering to Hapi” rule, which allows you to discard any two cards from your hand and/or storage pile and then replace the current flood card. Another is the Plague of Locusts card which, when drawn, immediately causes the biggest beanfield in play to get scrapped. My flax empire could collapse at any time, without warning.
There are some other minor rules limiting what you can plant, and when, and there are 10 “speculation” cards that can help you replenish your hand faster than normal, but they're not interesting enough to describe in detail. If you don't want to offer your unwanted cards to Hapi, you can spend them in pairs to buy new cards from the draw pile.
As in Bohnanza, you remove cards from play whenever you score points. The game ends once you've cycled through the constantly-diminishing draw pile as many times as there are players. There's exactly one Plague of Locusts card in the deck, so you know you're going to see it five times in a five-player game, and it will appear with increasing frequency as the game approaches its conclusion. Watch those offerings to Hapi, as cards discarded from your storage pile will be shuffled back into the draw pile at the start of the next cycle; you might be better off sitting on those cards so that another player doesn't score them in a later round. This implies that clever players will wait until the final round to make offerings to Hapi, but that will accelerate the endgame. It's trade-offs like these that make the game a winner.
Nile is a game for 2-5 players, aged 8 and up. The box says it takes 30 minutes, and I'd say that's about right. It's the best Knizia game Knizia never made. If you're allergic to the idea of a Knizia-designed bean game then avoid this one like a plague of locusts, but this Nile floats my boat.
DISCLAIMER: the copy of Nile that was play-tested by the author of this review was graciously provided free-of charge by the publisher, Minion Games.