Let’s start by going back to the Bible. In the Book of Esther, we learn that Persian King Ahashverosh married Esther without knowing that she was Jewish. Her cousin Mordechai was also an advisor to the King, and things went well in the kingdom. Except there was another advisor, Haman, who was busy plotting to kill all the Jews in Persia. Esther found out, told the King, and he had Haman executed just before the planned date of the genocide. A grim story, but so much of the Bible is dark and cautionary. Is it the basis of a board game? Fortunately, “Purim” isn’t about palace intrigue but rather the aftermath, when Haman’s ten sons spread throughout the empire, aiming to complete their father’s crusade to rid the lands of the Jewish people.
Designed by Philip duBarry and published by Funhill Games, Purim is a 1-4 player game of low to medium complexity that has you working cooperatively to send Messengers throughout the empire trying to mitigate the nefarious actions of the Sons of Haman. There’s a time tracker and the game ends when you have gone through nine time periods. Time, however, doesn’t advance incrementally so planning your calendar movement is one of the more challenging aspects of the game. When the game does end, you win if every province has at least as many yellow cubes (the Jewish people) as they do black cubes (the followers of Haman). I opted to play the game using the solo rules and worked with a late-stage prototype, so some of the art and design are subject to change. The game will appear on Kickstarter in March 2023.
PURIM: GAME BASICS AND SETUP
The components are basic, but work well together, with a big, bright, and interesting board that offers a stylized map of the Middle East based on Biblical nations:
The black tokens on the very top are the Sons of Haman, and they’ll be randomly placed on the map, along with a black cube for each. The colored meeples (just under the board game name) are Messengers and will also be randomly placed, along with a single gold cube per location. Notice the time tracker on the top right of the board too: Once you get to the end (or run out of black or gold cubes during play) the game’s over.
Random events utilize the Location deck, which is actually left province side up so that you can see what province is next in line to have good or bad things happen. The design helps you find the location on the map too, as this Arachosia card demonstrates:
Much depends on the location cards and every game I’ve played involved me revealing a card and then having a sinking feeling that it was not what I had planned for or anticipated. I’ll talk more about the gameplay experience a bit later, however.
The Messenger card deck doesn’t really need to be in the game because you flip one over and match its effect to the proper meeple (though it’s not obvious which applies to which meeple), but then never flip over another one to change which Messenger has its special capability. A simple variation would be to add another Messenger card into play at the end of each cycle of the game but that would be a house rule at this juncture.
With everything deployed and ready to start, here’s a closeup that offers a glimpse of the fundamental challenge of Purim:
The colored meeples are Messengers, and the gold cubes are Jewish people. The black disks are Sons of Haman and the black cubes are followers of Haman who are violently anti-Jewish. Since the winning condition is for the number of gold cubes to at least match the number of black cubes in each region, Egypt is safe. For now. Judea is in good shape (and that earlier Messenger card means it can’t get black cubes, other than from End Effects). Assyria? That’s a problem with both a Son of Haman and a black cube, but no gold presence yet.
PLAYING THE BOARD GAME “PURIM”
With everything set up, the game consists of players each putting down a single Action card then playing both the good and bad effects on each, in ascending numeric order. In solo mode, you flip over the top card from the Action deck then pick a card from your hand (initially 8 cards) to go with it. My first play was thus:
Notice that each card has a number on the top left: Those are how you sort them low-to-high and it makes a big difference! During regular play, the Loyal Action, then Corrupt Action are played, in order, as much as possible. For example, on the first card, if there are no provinces with only 1 Messenger (because they’d congregated into a couple of provinces) that Loyal Action would be ignored. The Corrupt Action on the first card is a very common one and is endlessly frustrating because as the Sons of Haman move around, they leave a trail of black cubes in every province they pass. If they travel a long distance, they can add 4 or more cubes in as many regions in a single action.
The second Loyal Action is really good, though, because it lets you potentially remove up to 3 Sons of Haman from a single province. Getting rid of the Sons of Haman is a critical gameplay goal and something to always be maximizing. The Corrupt Action on this card is yet another movement, this time predicated on the top Location card, and, again, dropping black cubes in every province through which it travels.
As long as you have cards still in your hand, the End Effect doesn’t count, but when you play the last card in your hand, both the Loyal and Corrupt Actions are ignored and just the End Effect is applied. In solo mode, End Effect play is slightly different: You flip over two cards from the Action deck, add your last card, then pick two of the three End Effects to act upon. They’re rarely good, suffice to say, and are often demoralizing in their consequence.
A bit further along in the game, here’s how one region of the board looks:
Persis looks good, and Aria is a problem with one black cube and no gold, but Arachosia is a much more significant problem with two Sons of Haman and a black cube. Indeed, any time more than one Son of Haman is in a region, it’s a high priority to try and defeat at least one of them through savvy card play. Which, alas, is rarely possible, but again, I’ll talk more about the gameplay in a bit.
Meanwhile, that rhythm of draw Action card, play Action card, implement actions specified continues. Including this rather rough pair of cards:
Notice the wording of the Loyal Action on that first card: “at least 1 gold cube”. Since you have to take this action, it’s possible you’d be forced to remove 3 gold cubes to remove 1 black cube if that’s your best match. Hopefully, it would be a net gain as played, but not always. The Corrupt Action is really important too because it shows a subtle but important tactic that also governs gameplay: How fast the calendar advances. If you think you have things in good shape, moving the calendar quickly forward might be advantageous, but it also seems like the longer you play, the harder winning becomes, so maybe going faster even when things aren’t great is smart. This lets you move it 1, 2, or 3 time units (out of 9 total).
The second action card has a great Loyal Action because you can remove a Son of Haman token. But that card’s Corrupt Action also moves the calendar forward, a minimum of two. If you’re zealous, you could move the calendar 5 spaces forward in this single move and even if you’re cautious it’s going to bump up 3, 1/3 of the entire calendar track. In a single move.
Here’s how the board looked after 8 turns, consuming my entire hand and invoking that End Effects sequence. It was going okay until Assyria spawned a black cube on every adjacent region, which completely changed the west (left) side of the board:
Notice that the right side is pretty well managed, but I have too little presence in the top left region, even while there are three Sons of Haman including two crowded into Lydia. Also notice that there are only 3 more spaces left in the calendar track. This game isn’t going to last another full 8-card cycle.
Sure enough, it’s just a few turns later that the calendar is pushed to the end and the game ends. Here’s my end game map:
I lucked out (sort of) with the last two Action cards, which let me add a lot of gold cubes, one per defeated Son of Haman, so the left side was not quite as much of a disaster as I expected, but there were just enough pockets of the followers of Haman to cause me to lose the game. If I tallied it up, I won 12 provinces, lost 6 provinces, leaving 2 provinces untouched by the chaos. Winning, however, is having no lost provinces, meaning that this was a resounding loss. Oh well.
THOUGHTS AND CONCLUSIONS
There’s a lot about Purim that I like, including the chance to learn a bit more about a Biblical story that’s not well known and to play a game on a historical map rather than one with modern nations. But there’s a fundamental problem with the balance of randomness and ability to plan and use tactics to overcome challenging situations that made it a consistently frustrating and disheartening experience. Game after game I found myself controlling activity in a region just to have a single action card throw all my plans awry. For example, the corrupt action that caused black cubes to be spread to every province adjacent to Assyria added a huge challenge to the game.
There’s also the question of theme. The Biblical story of Esther is pretty grim, with people plotting and assassinating each other even as there’s a planned genocide. Even the simplified gameplay involves Jews essentially murdering all the sons of Haman, who themselves are planning on eradicating the Jews in any area they control. This is fun? If it were aliens it wouldn’t seem so dark, but in a world where people continue to hate others based on their ethnicity, gender, religion, even gender identity, a more abstract theme might be a bit more conducive to fun game nights.
As I said earlier, however, there’s the core of a fun and engaging area control game but there’s just a bit too much randomness to really commit to a carefully planned strategic approach to the game, suggesting that Purim, as is, might be more fun to play with kids as a fast “let’s see how close we can get to winning”. There are ways to mitigate it by having a score of, say, provinces won minus provinces lost on a scale of expertise, which would still place me at a low level, but at least it would be an accomplishment to try and beat, rather than a straight lose, sorry. There could be special powers and capabilities, Messengers could each have different abilities, they could move separately from the Action cards, etc, etc, but… that’s a different game.
Purim, designed by Philip duBarry and published by Funhill Games. 1-4 players. Final price not yet set.
Disclosure: Funhill Games sent me a copy of the game prototype for the purposes of this review. We did correspond to clarify some rules as I continued to play Purim. This represents my own perspective and might differ completely from yours. Caveat emptor.