4 Lessons from Imhotep for Aspiring Board Game Designers

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A few weeks into our long isolation, my fiancee and I played Imhotep for the first time. Yes, I know we’re just a few years behind the rest of the world in that regard. But hey, that’s what being isolated for weeks on end is for, right?

In any case, we received this game as a gift from grandmother, who apparently has a really good eye for which hobby board game to buy! Naturally, we needed to set the game up and take a few photos to send to her, if nothing else. We ended up playing longer than expected!

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Like many board games, Imhotep has a lot to teach board game designers. But first, a quick explanation of the rules:

In Imhotep, players become builders in Egypt. You want to build a combination of pyramids, obelisks, burial chambers, and temples. All of these structures will earn you points.

You build these structures with stone. Stone is gathered from a quarry and transported via boats. Collecting stone is a single action, as is loading stone onto a boat, and offloading it onto the structure of your choice. You get one action per turn.

It’s all pretty straightforward euro fare at this point, but one mechanic stands out to me as being incredibly profound. You can’t load stone onto a boat and build a structure in the same turn. That means you can load stone onto a boat and your opponent can move your stone to a completely unexpected place, thus wasting your stone or forcing you to use it in a way you didn’t want to. Keep this in mind for the rest of the article!

1. One way to obscure scoring: count points for different actions at different times.

Anytime you make a “point salad” style game, it’s important to obscure scoring so that there’s no clear winner or loser during the game. (Point salad here meaning any game where you gather points from a variety of sources.)

In Imhotep, this is done in a very simple way. When you build pyramids, points count immediately. When you build temples, points count at the end of the round. Collecting cards, creating a burial chamber, and building an obelisk, on the other hand, are all only scored at the end of the game.

This is hardly unique to board games, but Imhotep does this in such a clear way that new board game designers would do well to pay attention.

2. Use simple mechanics to create options for counterplay.

One of the elements of great game design is interaction. When players don’t interact, this creates games that feel like “multiplayer solitaire.” That’s not necessarily bad, but a lot of gamers don’t like that.

Imhotep, on the other hand, avoids the multiplayer solitaire problem by limiting players actions so severely. This means you can choose to either move stone onto a boat or offload stone from a boat. You can never do both in the same turn.

That means you can place stone on a boat with the intention to move it to a specific place. Your opponent can then choose to move your boat somewhere else entirely, thus thwarting your plan. Even if they don’t do that, the threat looms and that creates a new level of gameplay where you make your moves based on expected countermoves by your opponents.

3. Don’t let players control their destiny completely.

Games need luck to feel fresh. Without luck, you create games that can be completely solved. With very few exceptions, you have to add luck to a game to make it interesting. This is not just true for luck-driven games like Quacks of Quedlinburg. It’s also true for super skill-heavy games like Twilight Struggle.

In Imhotep, the element of luck doesn’t come from the game, but rather other players. Even though anticipating your opponents’ moves is a skill, you can never do so with 100% certainty, so there is always a luck element. There is always chance. You measure risks, move accordingly, sometimes getting lucky and sometimes getting unlucky.

4. Force players to improvise.

Because boats are moved unpredictably in Imhotep, you are forced to improvise. You can’t count on your stones going to any particular place on the board. Because of that, you simply have to load up as much stone as possible and take advantage of the opportunities in front of you.

Sometimes, you can pick up a clean 7 points by moving to the pyramids at the right time. Other times, you can create a horizontal row of four stones in the burial chamber, scoring a cool 10 points at the end of the game. Yet you cannot consistently plan in advance. Every turn, you look at the board in front of you and you make the best move you can.

Final Thoughts

Imhotep is a smart, sharply designed game with a surprising amount of strategy. Because it plays quickly and is easy to learn, I recommend that board game designers pick up a copy to learn from it. It has a lot to teach about creating a strategic game based on improvisation 🙂

Photo credit: Pongrácz Zsolt. CC BY-SA 3.0 license. Source.

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