Through the Desert Review

Through the Desert mid play

The latest camel-based spatial reasoning game that I had the chance to play was Through the Desert.

In Through the Desert, each player leads several caravans in an effort to get their camels to oases, watering holes, and to claim sections of the desert for themselves. The game is played on a hex-based board, and starts by the players taking turns placing their caravan leaders - one in each of the five camel colors. After this, on each player's turn he is able to place two new camels. If he joins his caravan to an oasis he gains 5 points, if he builds on a watering hole he gains 1-3 points, and if he encloses an area he gains all of the previously unclaimed watering holes and oases in that region (plus a point per hex at the end of the game). Once one color of camels has run out, the game is over. At this point whoever has the largest caravan of each color gets an additional 10 points and whoever has the most points wins.

Now to try to write pros and cons for another spatial reasoning game without making it sound exactly like all of the other ones that I've played... The first thing that I like about Through the Desert is the enclosing of hexes. This is definitely the part of the game where players can make the most points, and so it forces the other players to be careful and not concede too large of an area. This mechanic seems to work very well and without it the game would not be worth playing (as it would just be a race to see who could get to certain points the fastest).

The next thing that I like about Through the Desert is that the starting placement of your leaders is not prescribed. If your caravans started from the same place every game, the gameplay would wind up being very similar from one game to the next. However, one of the key strategies of the game is related to where you place your initial leaders - should you place them where you can easily connect to an oasis and perhaps some watering holes, or should you place them where they are more likely to enclose hexes but have a higher risk of not scoring.  Also, should you place your leader where you can block another player, or should you place your leader farther away from everyone else to try to claim a section of the board for yourself.

As an aside before getting to the cons - the camels all look like candy to me. I think it might be the size of them and the fact that they are pastel. This doesn't really add to or detract from the game, but I thought it was worth noting, because every time I play, I have to quickly remind myself not to eat the pieces (ok, maybe its not quite that bad, but still - worth mentioning).

Now for another aspect that I haven't decided whether I think it is a pro or con. The game plays drastically differently depending on the number of players. I have played it with both 2 and 4 players, and the game's official range is 2-5. With two players, it is pretty easy to claim large sections of the board as each of you will be paying attention to your own areas. With four players the board is pretty crowded, and so it is very challenging to get very many points from enclosed hexes, and I would imagine that five player would be even more crowded. I like when games have a different feel and different valid strategies based on number of players (I feel like Puerto Rico does that very well), but I'm not sure with Through the Desert. As I said, I don't think this game would really work very well without the enclosure rules, so I think that the game probably functions best with 3-4 players.

The main con that I have with this game is in the confusion of colors. There are five different colors of camels, and there are (up to) five different colors of riders on top of them. It is very difficult in the game to see what is going on at a glance; you often have to trace a caravan back to the leader to see if it belongs to you or another player. I also found myself often looking around trying to determine where my riders were. This really caused the game to not feel intuitive to me when we were playing it, even though the rules are very simple.

The next con that is worth mentioning (and is based on the previous con) is that this game is atrocious for color blind players. One of the gamers in my gaming group is red-green color blind, and that has been inconvenient in a lot of games that we play, since things are often color coded. Some games, such as Tigris and Euphrates help this by providing symbols wherever possible. I have never seen a game that has caused him as many problems as this one - between all of the camels being similar pastel colors and the riders sitting on top of them not helping either, he often had difficulties telling the camels apart.

Overall, I give Through the Desert an 8.0/10. It is a solid spatial reasoning game that I will keep on my shelf and play from time to time, but it hasn't left me with the feeling that I can't wait to come back and play it more.

If you enjoy spatial reasoning games like Through the Desert, you might also want to check out Gipf, Zertz, Pentago.


  1. Good review for a game I like a lot, though to be fair I have not gotten it to the table much recently.

    I wanted to comment on the extreme numbers of players. You played with 2 and I'll agree it is more roomy, though the board is smaller which lessens the impact of the wider spaces. It is a little different in feel from the multi-player game, but still a decent game.

    For 5 players, each player drops a color, so only has 4. Thus the number of caravans is the same as in 4 player. Still, that is less room per player and it is quite crowded, but then you have less to concentrate on. I still rate it a good 5 player game.

  2. Hey, thanks for pointing that out. That would definitely help with the crowding problem that I was concerned with.