08 April 2021
A palace-building showdown fit for a queen
Cleopatra sees rival architects vying for the favour of the Egyptian Queen by constructing a grand palace. Whoever makes the greatest contribution wins. But if you want an edge over your fellow master masons, perhaps you’d consider slipping a small tribute to Sobek, the Crocodile God into your carvings? Invoking otherworldly aid will help you build more, faster, but if Cleopatra finds out you’ve got split loyalties you’ll be fed to her sacred crocodile.
At its core Cleopatra is very simple. Pick up some cards and collect sets of resources, then spend those resources to build parts of the palace. Each time you build, you earn points in the form of treasure scarabs. Whoever has the most scarabs at the end of the game, wins.
The core mechanics are simple, but, like a grape in the unforgiving heat of the Egyptian desert, it gets wrinklier. Palace sections score differently depending on what’s already built next to them. When you build is hugely important. A lot of Cleopatra – not always apparent on the first playthrough – is about tempo: gathering resources, gauging what you think your opponents are working towards, then seizing the opportunity to build the final statue or pillar to bag a big payday.
This is where corruption comes in. A variety of special actions are available; for example, constructing a palace section with two fewer resources, or collecting resources and building in the same turn. But if you want to use one, most of the time you’ll have to take some corruption amulets, as you etch hieroglyphs to the forbidden deity Sobek. You can also take corruption to expand your hand size beyond the usual ten at the end of a turn, or to use high value ‘tainted’ resources. These amulets are kept hidden till the end of the game, at which point you pay a penalty for each one. Eight or more, and you’re out of the game.
But wait! Come round four, there’s a blind auction where each player bids treasure scarabs. Whoever bids the most – an offering to the Great Priest – gets to return three amulets to the supply. Everyone else takes extra amulets. This auction happens when Cleopatra reaches the fourth step on the path towards her palace. She advances each time one type of palace section is completely finished.
So now you’re not only interested in scoring at the right time but triggering the auction when you’re rich. Suddenly, you’ve gone from being so corrupt that you’re croc food to only the second naughtiest architect, landing your biggest rival deep in Nile-bank silt (of course if you trick your opponent into bidding way too much, that’s good too).
No review could fail to mention Cleopatra’s almost satirically outlandish table presence. The box is colossal, comprising massive sculpted plastic sections of temples and big minis. The only way they could have gone further is if they’d included a mummified cat. You could almost live in it.
Does it add to the game? A bit. But unlike Santorini, where the tactile stacking buildings lend a sense of epic battle on this caldera raised above the sea, the sheer scale of Cleopatra’s sphinxes and obelisks feel almost forbidding. I felt more like I was assembling a ship in a bottle than making active, meaningful decisions in its construction.
Beneath the grandiosity of its production, there’s a simple, surprisingly interactive, marginally cutthroat game of set collection and timing.
PLAY IT? MAYBE
For the price tag you could get several short games of equal fun. Still, if opulence is what you’re after, Cleopatra is a three-tiered, fondant-edged wedding cake with a jam sponge centre.
TRY THIS IF YOU LIKED Lowlands
Cleopatra has similarities to this sheep-farming/flood prevention game, in that players are all trying to reap the benefits of selfishness but no one wants to be caught out being the most selfish, because then you’ll almost certainly lose.
Designer: Bruno Cathala & Ludovic Maublanc
Time: 60 minutes
What’s in the box?
- Palace Garden Board
- Sphinx Plaza Board
- 12 Mosaics of the Gods
- Worshippers of Sobek Board
- 5 Worshippers of Sobek Tiles
- Floor tile
- 4 Summary Sheets
- 11 Resource Cards
- 30 Artisan Cards
- 12 Tainted Resource Cards
- 8 Cave Cards
- 100 Treasure Scarabs
- 90 Amulets of Corruption
- 9 Columns
- 2 Front Door Sections
- 4 Pillars
- 6 Sphinxes
- Base of the Palace
- Throne and Pedestal
- 2 Obelisks
- Cleopatra figure
- 8 Anubis Figures
- 4 Pyramids
This feature originally appeared in Issue 54 of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
Sometimes we may include links to online retailers, from which we might receive a commission if you make a purchase. Affiliate links do not influence editorial coverage and will only be used when covering relevant products