11th Feb2019

‘Passing Through Petra’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

petra-box

Bearing in mind that some of my defining memories of childhood come from playing board games that predate even 8 Bit videogames, much of my fascination with ancient and fantastic worlds came from board games. The first time I saw Petra was probably in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but it wasn’t long after that when I found myself exploring suspiciously similar ruins in Tomb Raider, and even reconstructing the famous city in Sid Meier’s Civilization. Despite these appearances in more popular media, I’ve yet to see Petra appear in a board game at all. Passing Through Petra changes that by making the ancient city and its famously imposing entryway (a ravine known as The Siq) the absolute focal point of the gameplay.

Blending elements of spacial movement, forward planning and even a bit of abstracted roundel play with a very clear point scoring mechanism, Passing Through Petra is a very interesting challenge that doesn’t yield its secrets until players have experienced it a few times. It’s quite a simple game at heart, but a lot of impressive physical and visual elements can distract new players and lead them to the wrong conclusion. On that note, let’s discuss the elephant in the room - Passing Through Petra features an amazing looking board that comes complete with some rather unusual plastic and cardboard pieces.

The most prominent of these is undoubtedly the set of plastic rails that represent the famous Siq ravine. Consisting of five pieces of moulded plastic, these unusual pieces are sort of clipped (a little bit awkwardly) into the board in order to form a single queue of trader tokens that will file up the middle. Not far from the head of this queue, the board also features a three dimensional, asymmetrical card holder into which two decks of cards are pressed. The overall effect is fairly striking, especially given the cards and tracks that also flank The Siq. Overall, Passing Through Petra uses colour, height and understated artwork to deliver an impressive and unusual looking product.

In addition to all this, there’s also a really, really – possibly even really – nice embossed felt bag that is used to house merchant tiles in various colours, as well as a double thick player board for each player. These player boards feature indented slots for coloured influence cubes and permanent outposts, which I’ll explain in a little while. Around the player boards, each player will have several merchant tiles dealt to them, some of which sit above and some of which sit below. Thanks to the expectation set by everything else in Passing Through Petra, I wish that there were indents or runners for these tiles thanks to how they are used in game, but the reality is that they are entirely functional.

With all this to take in, the initial setup looks beautiful, but busy. As I said earlier though, the game itself is quite simple, with the actions that players will perform being driven by where each player’s merchant pawn is on a three by three grid. Every turn, the active player will move this pawn in one direction – up, down, left or right. Depending on which direction the pawn moves in, the player will take the action shown on that side of the grid. Consequently, if a player finds their pawn in the corner of the grid, then she will only have two options available to her – by moving out of the corner in one of those directions.

The purpose of the actions in Passing Through Petra is quite simple – collecting points through making favourable trades, based on pairing merchants of different colours (which is somewhat randomised based on player board.) Each merchant belongs to a particular colour, that in turn represents their origin and what they are able to trade in. Mechanically, players attract merchants to their settlements (on the top of their boards) and in the form of passing trade, which is represented by the merchants underneath the player board. When a merchant is added to the row below the player board, then that player will multiply the number of merchants of the incoming colour by the number of merchants in the settlement column that trades with it.

With the sum of these numbers calculated (it’s usually two times two or three times four, for example, so relatively simple) then the merchants in the settlement are spent and return to the bag, whilst the ones in the row below the player board continue to roll on. The actual value calculated through this multiplication is then used to move the players pawn on the track that matches the colour of the column that was traded with. This all sounds a bit confusing in a review, I imagine, but with the board in front of you, it’s super easy to follow. What’s interesting about each track is that it’s possible to work your way around them multiple times even in a single turn, with each movement potentially unlocking one of several bonuses when passed.

The Siq and Plaza actions simply allow players to take merchants either from the spaces closest to the end of the Siq, or anywhere on it, with the former (The Siq) meaning that the player can only draw one merchant, albeit anywhere in the row of merchants waiting for entry. The Plaza action, on the other hand, allows the player to take two merchants from the six who have made it all the way through – which more often than not means that they were less desirable for some reason. The market action is when a player places a worker token under the column on their player board which they want to trade with (which is when the multiplication puzzles comes in.) The final action is visiting the village, which allows the player to retrieve their spent workers and to draw villager cards, depending on how many workers they retrieve.

Among all of this, players will be aiming to place each of their nine influence cylinders. This is usually achieved by meeting the objectives shown on some of the in game cards, as well as by rounding the various trading circles. The pawns that each player moves around these tracks is double sided and only certain spaces allow an influence cube to be placed. The game more or less forces players to spread their efforts across several of the circles, but it is possible to make a concerted effort to circumnavigate a given circle at least a couple of times in one turn with great effect. Because these mechanisms are quite unusual, I found that new players took several turns to warm up to Passing Through Petra, but once it was understood, the game tended to fly by.

Between its unusual and generally exceptional production quality and its unusual mechanics, Passing Through Petra delivers a rather compelling experience. Lasting only an hour or so and feeling as rewarding to play for complete newcomers as it is for a more experience hand, it’s also quite an interesting game to bring novice players into once the traditional gateway games have began to lose their shine. Passing Through Petra is definitely not a gateway game in its own right, but the actions are simple and the win condition clear, meaning that it can be understood by anyone and enjoyed by almost everyone.

***½ 3.5/5

Passing Through Petra is available online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator.

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