Great Zimbabwe | b

Great Zimbabwe

Nick Arnosti



I recently got the opportunity to play the game “Great Zimbabwe.” I found it to be a very interesting game, with several mechanics that I hadn’t really seen in other games. I don’t think it will ever be a top game for me (for reasons outlined below), but I did find myself thinking about it for days after playing, so I figured I’d share my thoughts. An important caveat to all of the below is that I am a total novice (with one game under my belt, played against other novices), so I definitely don’t understand all of the complexity that attracts some people to play the game repeatedly.


Great Zimbabwe is a race to a specified “victory requirement” (number of points), initially set to 20. On your turn, you are allowed to do exactly one of the following three actions:

These are the only way to earn points.

In addition to earning points, you may claim one card (a God or …) which grants you special abilities for the rest of the game. To claim a card, you must use it that turn, which costs cattle. More interestingly, each card you claim increases your victory requirement. Cards with better abilities tend to increase your victory requirement by more. A player may claim multiple … over the course of the game, but may only claim a single God.

Comments on the Economic System

The economic system reminds me of the game “Container”. In both cases, players set prices for others to use their actions. This creates interaction through mechanisms such as price competition and substitution (i.e. “She set high prices for red goods. I could undercut her by offering them at a lower price, or choose to acquire green goods instead”). In both games, most actions just cause money to circulate through the economy, with a limited number of ways for money to enter or exit the system.

In Great Zimbabwe, cattle spent to bid for turn order, pay craftsmen, or use card abilities are simply recirculated through the economy. New cattle enter the game only through income at the end of each turn (equal to the height of their tallest monument), as well as a few special cards. Cattle leave the game when craftsmen are claimed or when goods are transported through hubs.

In both games, there is a (standard) tradeoff when setting prices: higher prices lead to lower volume but a higher profit margin on each transaction. In Great Zimbabwe, an additional tradeoff is that if you want to use your own craftsmen you must also pay the associated cost. (This is not true in Container, where “using your own” resources is not allowed.)

In Great Zimbabwe, the default is monopoly: in many cases, only one player will be able to make each type of good. It is possible for a second player to join the fray, but this comes at a substantial victory requirement penalty. In Container, several players will generally be able to make each type of good, and players are not allowed to create monopolies or near-monopolies by building multiple identical factories.

Something that Great Zimbabwe has that Container lacks is a strong spatial element: certain goods may only be accessed from certain spots on the board, or might be broadly accessible but have higher costs if accessed from one region than another. This adds significant complexity to the game, which both increases its depth but also can slow turns down significantly, as I discuss below.

What I like

What I don’t Like

In general, games are not fun when other people’s turns take a long time. This is especially true if your best actions depend on their choices, so that you cannot plan your own turn during this time. And things are even worse if they’re not even doing very much on their turn, but rather pondering many options for what they could do.

It feels like Great Zimbabwe has all of these elements. Claiming craftsmen and placing new monuments are relatively straightforward, but upgrading monuments (which is the largest source of points) requires a series of intricate calculations as you determine where you can source raw resources, level 1 and 2 finished goods, how these goods will be transported, and what that all will cost. These decisions are all highly interconnected (you must be able to simultaneously source enough finished goods to upgrade your monument), so you really need to calculate costs for your whole turn up front, rather than simply doing actions that are steps in the right direction. Because your sourcing of raw material will affect what is available to other players, it can be difficult for them to plan their turn in advance (though I could imagine this getting better with more experience). Additionally, scarcity of raw materials means that there is often an advantage to going early in the turn order, so you must carefully calculate costs for several plans not only on your own turn, but also during the auction for turn order at the beginning of each round. This can all make the game feel somewhat slow.

This reminded me a lot of the final turn or two of Power Grid: you need to take a lot of coordinated actions, each with an associated cost. If you are a dollar or two short of being able to execute a plan, it doesn’t mean that your score is slightly lower, it means that you need to throw away your entire plan and recalculate costs for a new one. Furthermore, your choices about which cities to occupy and how much fuel to acquire affects others’ costs (and thus the feasibility of their plans). To me, the detailed calculations required in the final turns of Power Grid dampen my enthusiasm for a game which I find quite enjoyable in its initial phases.

Observation and possible variant

One of the things I like to do with games is to strip them down to their core elements. That is, ask, how many rules could I eliminate while still keeping many of the essential features of the game? In general, I like games where it feels like every rule has a purpose. The exercise of streamlining rules feels very similar to creating a stylized model for research purposes: in both cases, the goal is to see through clutter and identify a small number of key features which drive the action.

With this motivation, it occurred to me that a version of the game could actually be played without a board at all! On your turn, you would still choose between acquiring craftsmen, placing a new monument, or upgrading existing monuments, but these tokens would be placed in front of you, rather on the map.

Rather than having craftsmen’s capacities be limited by availability of nearby raw materials, each craftsman could only be able to perform a limited number of upgrades (say, 1 or 2) per round. This would maintain a benefit for acquiring multiple identical craftsmen, and also an incentive to bid for turn order.

Because transportation (hubs) is one way that cattle exit the economic system, eliminating it could end up inflating the economy. However, this concern could be easily addressed by saying, for example, that transporting a finished good simply costs one cattle (rather than a varying number based on the map’s geography).

I am not claiming that the game is broken, or that this variant would necessarily be better. I understand that for those who love the game, this change would eliminate central elements related to creating geographic bottlenecks and optimizing resource and monument placement.

However, I do believe that this change would greatly simplify the game, making it much easier to teach and faster to play. Almost all of the rules complexity has to do with connecting monuments to level 2 craftsmen, level 1 craftsmen, and raw materials. Thus, the remaining mechanics would become easier for new players to learn, costs would become simpler to calculate (just sum the costs associated with the craftsmen you need), and thus the entire game would speed up significantly. This variant also keeps many key elements of the game, including:

Even if you wanted to keep the game exactly as is, I think this observation points to a nice way to teach the game. Start by saying nothing about placement and geography. Instead, explain all rules that do not involve the map. For example, “To upgrade from a level \(k\) monument, I need to acquire \(k\) different types of goods. If level 2 goods are available in a type, I need to acquire those, which also requires that I pay for the associated level 1 good.” Only then, once the basic mechanisms for claiming Gods and earning points are solidified in new players’ minds, could you then go into the details of transportation (range), limited raw materials, and so on.

Parting Thoughts

In some ways, the game is very simple: there are only three ways to get points, and you can only do one of them per turn. Despite this, at the beginning of the game, I felt very unsure about which actions would lead to downstream success, and how much of an economy I had to build in order to be able to later earn points. As a result, I focused my early turns on short-term objectives (i.e. “let’s see if I can upgrade this monument”), rather than worrying too much about whether these objectives were the best choice. I think this approach made the game much more enjoyable for me. I also got lucky, in that I did not invest in craftsmen, and other players kept goods relatively affordable for most of the game.

I would definitely play this game again, but it’s hard to imagine me falling in love with it. While I like some true game theory in games (i.e. my best action should depend on others’, and not just be the result of solving an efficiency puzzle), the reality is that the associated politics of lobbying others to do actions that harm somebody else instead of me (i.e. by convincing them that that player is winning) is not my favorite mechanic. Furthermore, sitting and waiting while other players add a bunch of numbers in their head to determine what they can afford to do is not the best.

That said, I loved some of the mechanics from Great Zimbabwe, and could easily imagine trying to incorporate them into a future game. I don’t know how my mapless variant would play (it would almost certainly need some playtesting and tweaking, as I get the sense that the original game was fairly carefully balanced), but I think it would be simple and fast enough to be worth trying.

  1. Technically, this is not quite correct, as bid order for the auction is determined by players’ victory requirements, rather than by their number of points or the distance they are from winning.↩︎