The 2016 boardgame Imhotep was nominated for the prestigious Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year) award, losing out to Codenames, which was itself a huge commercial success (and a fun party game), but unlike nearly every past winner of the award. Imhotep is at least more in line with previous winners and nominees, a straight-up boardgame with simple rules and mechanics, very little luck involved, and—perhaps unlike a lot of previous winners—a quick playing time, around 30-45 minutes depending on your number of players.
Imhotep’s Egyptian theme has players trying to place their cubes on four different monuments—the temple, the obelisk, the pyramid, and the burial grounds—each of which awards points in its own fashion. There’s also a fifth area, the market, that grants players cards that awards point bonuses or allows players to make two specific moves on a single turn.
The game has six rounds, each of which lasts until the four boats used to ship cubes to the five sites have been used. On a turn, a player may take three cubes in his/her color from the central “quarry,” move one cube from his/her personal board to any ship, sail a ship to one of the five sites, or play a market card that might allow the player to do two of those things in combination in one turn. The ships are open to any player, with anywhere from one to four spots for cubes, and are unloaded from front to back (unless sailed with a market card that says otherwise), so where your cube goes matters—being first is an advantage at the market, irrelevant at the obelisk, and could go either way at the other three sites. You can even use your turn to sail a ship that has none of your cubes on it, sending it somewhere the other players didn’t want it to go.
The scoring of the four monuments is the heart of the game. The obelisk is the simplest, scored at game-end with the most points going to whoever has the tallest tower of cubes on that site, with smaller bonuses for each successive tower. The pyramid immediately awards 1 to 4 points per cube according to the numbers printed on the board, but there’s no real pattern to it, so you’re not necessarily better off being the first cube off your boat. The pyramid has three levels and takes 14 cubes; after that any other cube delivered to the pyramid is worth just one point. The temple, which is scored at the end of every round, has five spaces (four if you have two players) and is scored by looking down from above, awarding one point per visible cube from that bird’s eye view. Once the first row is filled, players start filling the second row, so first cube will be the first one covered and won’t score any further points.
The burial ground is the biggest scoring opportunity in Imhotep, but also the trickiest one to swing your way. It grants points at game-end based on every contiguous group of your cubes you have on its space, which is a wide array of squares in columns of three. The player who sailed the ship to the burial ground unloads the cubes front to back and fills in squares on this site column by column, so where your cube was on the ship affects your point bonuses. If you can place your cubes so that you get five together, you’ll get 15 points; four together, 10 points; and on down to one point for a single cube. You can also score multiple times here if you have separate groups of cubes. There’s more strategy involved here than in any of the other sites, because you’re trying to get your cubes to the right spots, and also trying to avoid delivering a big bonus to any of your opponents.
Ancient Egypt is one of the more overworked themes for Eurogames—Reiner Knizia’s Ra and the complex game Egizia are two of the best games set in that era—so Imhotep treads some familiar ground. We’ve built obelisks and pyramids before, and I think we’ve all mined our share of rocks and shipped them up and down the Nile too. Where Imhotep succeeds, despite the hackneyed setting, is in keeping the mechanics really simple. My daughter, age 10, had no problem understanding what to do and how the scoring worked before we even finished our first game, and asked to play several more times (although some of that may have been a tactic to stave off her bedtime). Setup is very quick, and we haven’t had a game run past 45 minutes. It is very light, and there isn’t much long-term strategy involved here, because the limited number of potential moves means opponents will prevent you from executing much of it, so I wouldn’t recommend it for hardcore boardgamers—check out Egizia if you can find a copy—but it’s perfect for family play or folks looking for a light weeknight sort of game.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.