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Sumer: Eurogaming Meets Platforming In Mesopotamia

Divine strategy

While over at GDC I stopped to check out digital board game Sumer [official site]. I feel like a fair few games have billed themselves as digital board games in recent years but Sumer is the one which caught my attention, partly because I liked the aesthetic and partly because anything that wants to offer me a Eurogame* experience without me needing to read a rulebook is Of Interest.

Developer Misha Favorov describes Sumer as a worker-placement platformer.

"It's a game where you play as a bunch of Sumerian nobles trying to compete to win the favour of Inanna to become the first ever king or queen of ancient Mesopotamia," he explains.

To gain this favour you go through yearly cycles, accruing and spending resources in the hope of scoring the highest number of victory points and thus pleasing the goddess. Points come from things like participating in rituals, playing a kind of bread betting game, going to bed the earliest of all the Sumerian nobles and so on…

You play using an Xbox controller. Analogue stick to move, A to jump, and hold down on the stick while pressing A to fall. The board is arranged as a kind of vertical slice of a ziggurat which is divided into floors. You jump or fall between them to move about. Each noble has a bedroom in their own team colour near the base of the ziggurat and dotted around the various floors are shops. A floating icon tells you what the shop will produce and outlines on the wall tell you how many workers or other resources you must spend in order to get that product.

We played the version of the game which runs for about 10 minutes and takes two in-game years. It's a kind of intro mode which is intended to function in place of reading a rulebook.

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At first, play revolves around the manufacture of barley. I wake up at the beginning of a turn and then race to the shop which I want to use. At my disposal are two workers who run behind me until we reach the shop. Pressing X slots them into the outline on the wall and I have "spent" that resource for the day. The shop also has the outline of a goat which is another of the game's currencies so a goat is deducted from my goat-purse.

"We had shekels for a while but they're not nearly as charming as goats," says Favorov of the choice of finance system.

Once I am out of workers or places to put them I scurry back to my bedchamber and hop into bed. When everyone is finished the turn ends and the workers produce whatever the shop displayed. In the morning you wake up and the workers have returned, ready for you to assign them to the shops for new tasks.

But before I do that I dash to the top of the ziggurat to add my newly arrived barley to the altar so I can sacrifice it to Inanna. There are two rituals which run each in-game year and you earn points by contributing. If you contributed the most you will get bonus points so I'm determined to ram as much barley into the ritual as possible and be the best at sacrificing.

When both rituals are complete the game moves to an auction phase. You use a track slider to indicate how much you want to spend on an item – some are objects that will give particular benefits like bestowing extra victory points at the end, others are shops like the pottery or buildings like the clay pit which, if you own them, means there's no goat charge to use them. A timer ticks down and whoever is furthest to the right when it stops must pay that many goats for the resource. There's capacity for messing with people at this point, pushing the price of a resource they want up or screwing someone over by moving your marker back to the left at the last moment leaving them to fork over their goats.

"We wanted to make a game that had a lot of passive aggression," says Faverov, smiling.

Once the shopping spree is over you'll get a chance to place those buildings to try and give yourself optimal access to the ones you need. Then it's on to the next year. The basic shape of the first year is repeated but the rituals now demand a second type of object – pots – and the clay pits and potteries introduce the idea of tiers of resources. What I mean by the latter is that Inanna doesn't give a hoot about lumps of clay, but if you invest in producing clay some nights you can then spend other nights (and workers and maybe goats) producing pots. Inanna is really into pots. Presumably they are useful for storing all that barley she's got lying around.

In addition to Inanna's general pleasure there's a point advantage to pots. If you put barley into a ritual you spend fewer resources but you only earn 2 points. If you go through the palaver of pot-making you spend more but you earn 7 points when you add it to the ritual.

The other big difference in the second year is that we get a kind of big communal bakery in the middle of the board. The idea behind this is that if you are the player who has contributed the most barley to the bakery at the end of the game you get a really big victory point boost, but if you're not you get nothing. It's far more of a risk than participating in the rituals but the reward is proportionally greater. I was bad at bread gambling, but I did find myself with excess barley at points due to being beaten to the ritual barley spaces by other players and thus I sort of found myself chucking grain in every now and again just on the off-chance. I should probably have doubled down on the bakery. That's good advice for real life too, by the way.

We also start earning bonus goats by being the first to finish our turn and go to sleep. I'm guessing this is a way to try and guard against people faffing about trying to make barley/worker conversions in their heads for a millionty years.

At the end of our second year this game finishes but other modes will run to four and six years, lasting 20 and 30 minutes respectively. Our Sumerian nobles rise into the sky with the distance from the ground symbolising the victory points accrued. You can keep track of these as you play but with each new year the counter on screen resets and so you either need to make an effort to remember them yourself or you have a vague idea but the exact final tally is a surprise.

I am in second place by a single point. A single point! INANNA, WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME?

"One of the big goals for this game was to take Eurogames - which are really good and fun but have this awkward read-to-earn-the fun thing and this time commitment - and make it into something that's much shorter and more accessible," Favorov says.

He adds that, in addition to board games, the turn-based strategy game, M.U.L.E., was one of the inspirations here. "It sounds a little bit weird saying this game is trying to take Eurogames and make them into videogames and also bring back M.U.L.E. because they're not really related but they're also identical because M.U.L.E. came out [twelve] years before Catan but everything that's amazing about Catan, M.U.L.E. did first, kind of."

Sumer is on Steam Greenlight at the moment as a game for 1-4 players. The multiplayer side is strictly local, though and thus the developers are also gearing up for a Kickstarter campaign which will mostly focus on bringing online multiplayer options.

"We are extremely happy with the game but we have increasingly realised that this needs online play," says Favorov. Or, to put it another way: "nobody owns four controllers!"

*Eurogames are a branch of boardgames which tend to involve economies and strategising over luck and conflict. I know that's a really nebulous description so perhaps it's more helpful to say they're the ones which tend to involve building cities or developing farms or investing in resources and then totting up a whole bunch of victory points at the end. I think the first one I ever played was Power Grid where each player is trying to build up an electrical power network.

UPDATE: The developer has contacted me to explain that the official purpose of the Kickstarter will actually be to pay for tutorials, game variants, remaining art assets and polish for the final release of the game. Online play was brought up in our GDC conversation but in reality won't be part of the Kickstarter, at least not the initial launch.

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