Original German title: "Euphrat und Tigris", by Reiner Knizia 1997, published by Hans im Gluck.
I bought this game on trust. I'm glad I did.
It is possible to tell a newcomer to this game all the rules, before the start. There are not very many rules, and they are simple enough. The rule book is, as rule books go, unambiguous. This is a good start.
A newcomer, though, might be confused by how he should play the game. Most of us are familiar with games in which a player occupies territory, defends it, and tries to acquire more. Also, many gamers will be familiar with games where players try to dominate some aspect of the play, such as in a WW2 wargame achieving air-power dominance or the like. In Euphrat und Tigris, however, such experience may prove to be a hindrance.
Players do not 'own' their kingdoms, they merely have members of their dynasty who control some aspect of the running of a kingdom. Consequently, a player may decide that it is not worth trying to gain control over the markets and trade in his kingdom, and may let a leader from a rival dynasty set up shop in his kingdom. Similarly, a player may build up a huge kingdom, and then abandon it entirely, and try to gain control over some aspect of another's kingdoms. This can take some getting used to, and it means that players can invent all sort of strategies which they would never use in other games.
This is a "tile laying" game. Players have a hand of square tiles, which in their turn they may place in the board, to create and expand "kingdoms".
The game is abstract, as ultimately all games are. The board needn't represent Mesopotamia, but could be viewed instead as a grid of squares, with two lines on which only one type of tile may be laid (farming tiles need irrigation, and so need access to one of the two rivers), but the setting is a good choice, as it is a time so long ago that much of our knowledge is vague, and so actual history will not interfere too much with players' expectations. One could say, judging from the symbols, that the dynasties are Persians, Hittites, Babylonians and Assyrians, but these peoples are never mentioned in the rules, and one could just see these as arbitrary symbols to differentiate the players.
The game claims to be playable in ninety minutes. I'd say that this is wildly optimistic, and would allow a fair bit more time than that for a completed game.
As a two-player game, it works well. There is a lot of space on the board in which each player might build kingdoms, and so many options. Much like Settlers of Catan, an early decision is whether to have one grand contiguous kingdom, or whether to have a few scattered kingdoms, any one of which might flourish, or be a hindrance to rivals. As a three or four player game, the nature changes a bit, as the board is more crowded, clashes between kingdoms harder to avoid, and a new type of strategy is possible: start a war between two of your rivals, and sit back and watch them fight it out. Be warned, though: the winner of such a war will become stronger.
The complexity of the game is just about right: players will have to think about what to do, but will not have to concentrate on any one turn so much that they spend ages taking their turn. Turns pass fairly quickly, and a conflict will involve other players.
The game components are nicely finished. The inside of the box has a lining with a printed design - a nice touch. The tiles are printed on VERY thick card, and come with a black cloth drawstring bag. The screens for hiding one's tiles are a bit flimsy, and they have a rules summary on them which is only useful to those who read German, but otherwise the physical aspects of the game are very good.
Looks good, plays well, will last well.
One game aid I've made for this is a one-page summary of the rules. Note that this game aid assumes that you have the game already, and does not tell the layout of the board, the numbers of the pieces, nor does it explain much, so it is only of use to people who have the game. Rules summary sheet.