Saturday, July 22, 2006

The Blind Leading the Blind ( Through the Desert x2, Aladdin's Dragons x2)

JayWowzer, in addition to bringing Antike last week, generously left us his copy of Aladdin's Dragons to play in his absence. After a few quick games of Through the Desert we gave it a try.

Aladdin's Dragons is a rather interesting and odd game. Thematically, players are trying to steal treasure from dragons, find useful wares at a market and ultimately try to purchase magical artifacts from the califf's palaces. However, if you strip away the theme we are left with a game where players are placing markers numbered 1-9 face down in different areas in the hopes of having majorities once they are revealed. In other words, it's a huge exercise in blind bidding.

After two plays, I'm not sure what to make of it.

The board is split into three main regions (caves, market, palace) and these cleanly describe the three main aspects of the game. The "caves" provide currency to spend later on, but those treasures are of no value in and of themselves. The "market" provides players with the opportunity to "bend the rules", such as aquire spells (powerful special action cards), alter the turn order, exchange currency at a profit or use more than one magical artifact a turn. Again, these abilities are important, but do not directly contribute to winning the game. The palace is where currency gained in the caves is spent to aquire magical artifacts. The artifacts confer special abilities onto the players, and are also the only source of victory points.

There is interesting tension on many levels. With 8 tokens and 16 spaces on the board, it's obvious that there are more things you'll want to do than you are able each round. The decision to focus on aquiring treasure in the caves vs. manipulating the board and/or aquiring spells in the market vs. aquiring artifacts in the palace (or to go for a little bit of everything) is the first of many tough decisions. Second, winning a space is not as simple as placing a token there... you have to have the highest total in the space! This means that you effectively can only place in a select few spaces, because you find yourself bolstering your presence in areas you really want to win (and occasionally slipping a token into a space others are ignoring). Lastly, since the pieces are placed face down, there is opportunity to bluff by placing tokens in areas you don't care to win just to force the opponent to commit more resources there.

All these layers of decision making are interesting, however in the end things felt a little unsatisfying for a couple of reasons:

1) The blind bidding needs to be offset by enough "public" information so that players have something to go on when placing their bids... otherwise the result is complete chaos. In Aladdin's Dragons, players can see the number of chips on the board from each player, and this gives valuable clues about their intentions. Other than that, there is very little to go on! In a game like RA, I can look at a set of tiles and approximate it's value for the other players, since I know what they are holding. This allows me to mitigate the randomness of that game by using educated guess about how they might play. Here, I didn't really feel I could do that to any degree.
2) The spell cards are quite powerful, introducing a little too much chaos in the game. For example, the ability to force every player to discard 7 treasures is devastating! I realize that the "counterspell" artifact negates this to a certain degree, but each player can only use a single artifact per round, so it's big sacrifice by an individual player to use it. I never really like it when one person needs to bite the bullet in order to protect him/herself while giving the rest of the group a free pass (sort of reverse king making). I did like the concept of "spells", though, so I wish they were just a little less impactful. By contrast, I thought the artifact special powers where very well implemented, since a player must choose a single artifact per round to use. I wonder whether the game would be any good if the spells where removed, but the artifact powers remained.

Our first game was extremely chaotic, and we mostly flailed around trying to figure out what we were doing. Everybody except Kozure, that is, who masterfully swept just about everything he wanted from under our noses. He won by such a large margin that the result was pretty obvious halfway through the game. On the strength of the first game, I wasn't a big fan. Still, there was enough time so we played another.

Our second game was much better. We anticipated each other a little better, and we fought more competitively for the important spaces each turn (now having a better feel for the spaces that are more important at different stages of the game). I focussed largely on aquiring goods early on, hoping to spend the last half of the game aquiring artifacts with them (this strategy seems both obvious and basic, but I had to try it to see if I was right in that assessment). I was having reasonably good luck with the strategy, even claiming a few cheap artifacts along the way. When I switched gears and started purchasing more heavily, I was able to grab a fair number when I needed them. When all was said and done, Luch and I tied on artifacts AND on scrolls, but he had more of everything else you might use as a third tiebreaker, so he won. A very tight game!

I think it's entirely possible this game gets MUCH better with repeated plays, particularly with the same group. Judging by the improvement in our second game, I'd guess that much of the "Chaos" I'm seeing is really caused by my lack of familiarity with the system (for example, it occurred to me as I wrote this that the purpose of the "eliminate 7 treasures" cards might be to prevent players from adopting the strategy I used... gathering treasure in the beginning and spending them at the end... every game). So it's possible that behind the surface chaos there is a system here which self balances with experienced players.

Damn, now I want to play it again.

Aladdin's Dragons: 7.5

1 comment:

  1. I'm sort of two minds about Aladdin's Dragons right now. I admire its unusual mechanics and general concept, but as Easy mentions, some of its specifics seem over or under powered.

    I was pleased after what seemed like a convoluted ruleset that it plays relatively smoothly, but I didn't come away from it wanting to play again immediately. It didn't leave me cold, but I wasn't excited about it either - sort of lukewarm.