Review of Antiquity – A Blast From the Past

Have you ever thought about the effects of pollution in medieval Italy? I sure hadn’t. But Joris and Jeroen – better known as Dutch design duo / boutique publisher Splotter Spellen – definitely have! And as always, they ended up with a game that is challenging, punishing, and quite different than anything else out there.

I’ve lately been on sort of a Splotter-binge. In a sea of generic and largely interchangeable combo-optimization Euros, cute animal-themed tile layers, and dozens of trick takers, Splotter’s games are a refreshing counterpoint. Sure, they are quite expansive, have a – let’s say – unusual art style, and are often hard to come by, but there is always something unique and refreshingly quirky about them. I’ve previously written about Horseless Carriage and Indonesia, two of my favourite discoveries in recent years. I’ve tried others that weren’t quite to my taste but now am stoked to have found Antiquity, a game I simply adore … despite sucking at it royally!


Unboxing Antiquity is not for the faint of heart. The box contains so many cardboard chits that it even puts GMT’s Mr. President to shame. There are also sets of cardboard buildings, meeples, wooden houses, cardboard houses, a boatload of plastic discs, the list goes on and on. Luckily, Antiquity is way easier to learn than the onslaught of components would lead one to believe. Its depth comes purely from the interaction of the various clever mechanisms.

Each player starts with a city that is represented in two different places: once on the foldable player aid as an empty grid that is used to construct buildings in the city, Tetris-style. For this, each player gets the same set of one-of buildings containing things like a granary, stables, or a harbour that all can be built to unlock new in-game functionalities. There are also a few other buildings that multiple copies can be build of, which are placed into a common supply for all players.

The second representation of the city is as a 7-hex cardboard tile on the shared map that’s assembled during setup. Based on player count, a number of random, double-sided map tiles is arranged in a prescribed layout. Each tile features various terrains like forest which can be chopped for wood or lakes that can be used for fishing. Each map tile also has two specially marked hexes on which so called explorer tokens are placed, more on exploration later.

Finally each player places a numbered set of cardboard houses on their player aid in an odd-looking arrangement of increasing prices. Building new houses costs resources and takes up space in the city but provides additional workers, up to 20 of them. Forget about the usual 3-5 workers of your typical Euro: this is what I call a workforce!

Honestly, setup isn’t bad at all. The longest part of it is the included free mini-game I like to call “how many bloody bowls can you find?”. Antiquity comes with a whopping 10 (!) different types of resources, pollution tokens, a foreshadowingly large amount of graves, a whole bunch of fountains, and so on but it’s mostly just multiples of the same thing. Good organisation with ziplock bags or a custom insert is definitely key! Speaking of which, I’ve designed one myself, you can read about it here: 3D Printed Insert for Antiquity

The Turn

So what does one do with all those glorious components? Antiquity’s turn is split into ten phases, the majority though being simple, quick admin phases. The flow of the game is further enhanced by most of Antiquity’s phases being done simultaneously by all players.

There are two key phases: city and fields. In the city phase, players pay resources to place new buildings in their city. There are refreshingly few rules to this. If one can pay for it and there is space, one can build it, no matter adjacencies, no required building order, and no limit to how many one can built per turn. The city phase is also where workers are assigned to buildings. Each building in Antiquity comes with a function, from simple storage to a university, a dump, or one simply titled “forced labour” that dramatically speeds up resource production. I’ll leave it to the readers imagination which aspect of medieval Italy city life this models.

To activate its functionality, almost all buildings require a worker in them. No worker, no storing of goods this turn, none at all! No worker, and that useful stables you built won’t do nothing. Workers can be re-arranged each turn, but that doesn’t help much when one is constantly struggling to get enough workers to just keep one’s engine humming. This is because a large portion of the workforce is usual placed on buildings called “carts” and thus sent out onto the map.

A worker in a cart can do many useful things. It can build inns to extend the so called “area of control”, a limited strip of hexes around a player’s city that one can actually interact with, new cities to provide more room for buildings and worker’s houses, but most importantly it can gather resources. The mechanism slightly differs for each type of terrain but the gist is always that one has to pay a resource (often wood) to place the worker in the hex and extract resources from all directly adjacent hexes. For example, a farmer is a worker that’s sent out with a farm good such as wheat and then places the wheat and itself on a grassland hex. Each empty grassland hex around it then automatically gets a wheat chit from the supply and the worker will start harvesting its fields one hex per turn.

The major plot twist of Antiquity is that every hex can only be harvested once in the whole game. To mark this, a black pollution disk is placed under each good immediately when the worker sows its fields. Once the good is harvested, all that remains is – ignoring some exceptions – a largely unusable hex. If a player wants to continue creating new fields, they need to find new grasslands. Same for mines, same for fishing grounds. Forests are slightly different in that working them creates fresh grassland instead of pollution.

Pollution And Other Problems

The element of pollution naturally creates a huge incentive for players to expand quickly, usually towards the middle of the map to claim land before someone else can use it up. The other major wrench in the players’ gears is the limit to harvesting only one hex per worker per turn. Let’s assume one sends out an olive farmer on a 5-hex bunch of grassland, great. The starting cost is only a single resource to get five out of it, which is quite efficient. However, that worker will be locked in for five rounds! Five long rounds where it can’t be used to activate buildings, can’t be used to mine for gold, can’t fish, can’t build a new city, can‘t do nothing except continue to work along and harvest its goods. Five long rounds in a game that usually doesn’t last more than 11-12 rounds. So a player may choose a smaller spot, let’s say a 3-hex group of grassland. Now one resource is only turned into three and sending the worker out more frequently blocks a cart from sending someone else out.

To make matters worse, players can’t keep any unused goods for the next round unless they build storage and keep a worker there to power it. Building storage is typically avoided like medieval merchants would avoid the plague, but sometimes it can’t be helped. For more powerful buildings and for getting new workers, more and more complex combinations of different resources are required. One is quickly in situations where a single additional worker costs two different luxury goods plus three different food or more. Good luck timing your production to harvest that exact combination in a single round without storage.

As a consequence, it can be sometimes opportune to send out workers and place them inefficiently like on a 2-hex range of mountain. You’ll only get two resources out of it and will have had to pay one wood to get the miner started, but that miner together with another one might give you the two pieces of stone in the same round that you need to build lets say a faculty of biology.

That’s the core dilemma of Antiquity: how do you reach new land and get more workers so you can get more resources and continue to do the same more effectively than the competition? Which buildings do you build to help your goals and which are just a waste of resources and personal because you’ll be able to use them once. When does one go for maximum resource efficiency and when is that just to damn slow?

The rest of the round structure basically adds more problems: there is player order to contest, increasing levels of famine to deal with (and the resulting deaths that cause graves to fill up city space), additional pollution each city produces each round, and so on. Life is hard in medieval Italy!

Game End

So when does a game of Antiquity end? Well, as if the mechanisms described above and all the famine, pollution, and death wouldn’t already be enough to spice up the game, here is yet another plot twist: players choose their own victory condition in-game! At any time in the game, they can build a cathedral in their city and then choose one of five different paths: get all 20 workers, completely enclose another player’s area of control within their own, get three of every resource, build every type of building there is, or even do two of those at the same time. You might ask yourself: why should I do two if one is enough? Well, each path to victory comes with a special power. If one goes for 3 resources of each type, one automatically gets unlimited storage! If one goes for 20 workers, the second house one builds is free, and so on. Choosing the path to victory that requires two criteria to be fulfilled simply gives a player all of those juicy special powers!

There is an interesting dynamic here: the earlier a player builds their cathedral and chooses a path, the earlier one reaps the benefits of that special power. However, it also signals to all other players what they need to do to block you. And in some cases that single stone needed to build a cathedral is the one stone one desperately needs to build something else, making it sometimes opportunity to delay the cathedral a bit. But again, Antiquity doesn’t last that many turns so the opportunity cost to not building a cathedral early is quite high.

Player Count

Let’s talk about player count: there is no solo mode (there rarely is an official one with Splotter games due to the high level of player interaction) but otherwise it works similarly well with all player counts. I had a great time with two, I had a great time with four. The game’s arc usually allows for the first couple of turns to be played completely simultaneously and once player’s get into each other’s reach it’s often just a question of clarifying some particular claims of contested areas and the rest of the phase can be done by each player on their own. That makes for a surprisingly good flow in such a heavy game. As a result, play length in my experience seems to depend more on how thinky/AP players are than really the player count. I would plan for 2-3 entertaining hours plus teach with a lot of cursing and occasionally a player running into a dead end. Seriously, it can happen that a player misses something and suddenly they have no chance to win anymore. Or it’s not even their own fault but a competitor does something that suddenly renders their path to victory inviable. But with a little bit of experience, this is easy to anticipate and thus rare to happen. As a golden rule: always make sure you have a piece of wood. You have been warned!

Editions and Production

So let’s say all that sounds appealing to you, you’re interested. Where to go from here? First, one has to be aware that this is essentially a 20 year old production and can’t be compared to modern, usually overproduced Kickstarter projects. There is no insert, buildings have neither illustrations nor any hint if they require a worker to be active or not. Even the colour of the lake hexes isn’t always consistent between map tiles. The art style has its own charm though and there are fun elements like the grave tiles that have the names of the designers and playtesters on them for example.

The next thing to be aware of is availability. There exist three editions that have the exact same rules set but some component changes. First and second edition come in a giant Roads & Boats-sized box where third edition comes in a much more compact box, similar in footprint to that of Horseless Carriage or Indonesia. Some cardboard tokens have changed size and others initially only had illustrations on one side, but the artwork is the same. Third edition also introduced the wooden meeples and houses instead of cubes and cardboard inns of previous editions and replaced cardboard pollution tiles with plastic disks. So to the best of my knowledge the actual gameplay hasn’t changed between editions but components and box size have been substantially upgraded, making the third edition the one to get.

The biggest issue of Antiquity though is availability. Since Splotter is a small independent publisher run by enthusiasts with normal day jobs, there are often many years between reprints. Case in point, Antiquity is originally from 2004 with second edition coming on its heels in 2006. But then third edition took until 2017 and no new reprint has been announced yet. At the time of writing, Splotter is busy with a reprint of the excellent Indonesia and who knows what comes after that. Splotter games aren’t cheap to start with and the lack of recent reprints means that prices I’ve seen for used copies range between 100€ for a very beat up one and 200€ for a nice one. Plus you have to be careful when buying used because pieces might be missing that are easy to overlook but difficult to replace. That’s a tough pill to swallow for a game from 2004 that mostly consists of piles and piles of cardboard. Gamewise though, it’s better than a whole bunch of gorgeous Kickstarters I had combined! So it’s definitely worth the money, it will just be tricky for you to try it before you buy.

Finally a word of warning: this game is fiddly. And I don’t mean Horseless Carriage levels of fiddly where you sometimes bump stuff and things slide a little. It’s fiddly to handle pretty much all the time. The resource chits are tiny, the pollution disks slippery, and you’ll with certainty bump parts of the map at some point. It often happens that you have to place a worker on top of a resource chit on top of a pollution chit on top of a grassland cardboard hex on top of a forest map space. Or a worker on top of a fishery that’s going over two hexes where one has a pollution disk on it and the other doesn’t, making the whole thing crooked. However, I’ve never had a situation that affected game play and it was always easy to reconstruct where everything belonged to. So not a huge issue, but not a game to play if you have shaky hands or OCD.


I’m probably in the minority when it comes to Splotter fans, but for me Horseless Carriage, Indonesia and Antiquity are Splotter’s finest works. I still haven’t had a chance to play Bus, that might also be another contender, but Roads & Boats was too harsh in its player interaction for my taste and with Food Chain Magnate I didn’t have enough plays of it to be able to see beyond the mechanisms and enjoy the game play. It also seemed too mean for me.

Antiquity has the great benefit that it starts players off with their own safe space (at least for a few rounds) and the puzzle is immediately obvious: you’re running out of unpolluted land fast, so you need to build new cities and inns. Famine is increasing, so you need more food. And whatever you do, you’re usually short on workers and resources. Even if you have workers, they are often tied up in doing other things. There is a tightness to Antiquity’s economy that I otherwise only know from Vladimir Suchy games.

The early rounds can be frustrating because there seems to be no way to get your production up to a sufficient level. But then you’re 3 turns in and realise how much stuff you’re already doing. 6 turns in, you’re deep into the meta game on the map, trying to cut off others while famine really kicks in hard. All the time you have a surprising amount of freedom in for example adding buildings to your city while struggling all the same to get the resources to do so.

What’s also interesting is how many viable ways there are to achieve the same thing. Take for example farming which requires a single seed to be able to create a farmer. Players only start off with a couple of pieces of wood, so where to get that first olive, wheat, sheep, or wine from? You can build and use an explorer to discover farm goods at random on the map. But that costs you a building (=the explorer building), increases famine, and you’re at the mercy of Lady Luck on what you will find. You could also try to get two stones in one round somehow and build the facility of biology which just gifts you a free seed each turn. But that locks in workers to actually mine for the stones and then run the faculty. You could also build a market and trade with other players or 2:1 with the game. We have a meta in my group where we prefer the faculty-way, but there are totally valid reasons to go one of the other routes.

In general, the variety of special function buildings is a bit overwhelming during the rules teach but on subsequent plays gives a lot of room for new experiments. For example, we had come to the conclusion that harbours aren’t really worth it until one play a friend realised harbours extend the area of control around inns as well (and not only cities), and suddenly he was all over the map within just a few turns. It was really impressive and none of us had thought about doing it like that before!

Antiquity’s biggest weak point – if I might even want to call it that – seems to be the explorer mechanic. It’s fun to use the explorer and as a side effect increase the famine level for everyone, but it feels too luck dependent. There is a 1 in 4 chance that you’ll get the luxury good wine when you needed something that your citizens could actually eat. Or you draw the third olive in a row when you were looking for something, anything beside that. To us, it often didn’t seem worth the risk and on top of it having to spend a wood to place a separate building that occupies valuable city space just seemed like a bad deal. But that’s really the only thing that somewhat stood out negatively to us in an otherwise surprisingly consistent set of very different building functionalities.

I can best describe Antiquity in that it warms my Euro-gamer’s heart and that despite me having lost every single game of it so far. That’s quite rare for me. It’s a tight and punishing game, and somehow my friends seem to have gotten the hang of it before I have. I also still haven’t finished exploring all the depths of it and it truly feels like a game I’ll be enjoying in five years time as much as I do now, something that I can rarely say about more modern releases. I’m still unsure how well balanced the different paths to victory are, but we haven’t found anything that was clearly OP. Forced Labour and/or Faculty of Biology seem to be used a lot in our group. On the other hand, we hadn’t had someone win by building all building types yet. So I would guess not everything is perfectly balanced but balanced enough. We always had plays that felt different, and that’s the important bit. We have found good uses for pretty much all buildings one time or the other and I rarely had such interesting post-game discussions about what one could try and what could and could not work.

If you are looking for a Euro-esque game that’s clever, punishing, and will have you talk about it on and off the table, take a look at Antiquity. Skip on one more blinged out Kickstarter and just get something that’s so good, it still shines 20 years after its initial release. Antiquity’s looks might be dated, but its gameplay definitely is not!

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