Finding old games
Desert Island Games
Letters to the Editor
Richard Breese was kind enough to send me a copy of his game Keydom for review shortly after its release in 1998. I never reviewed the game, for three reasons. By the time we played the game it was already sold out, and therefore a review was of less practical use. Had the game been spectacular Iíd have reviewed it to encourage people to seek out second-hand copies, but while I thought the game had some good parts, it also had some serious flaws that soured the experience. The combination of these flaws and the gameís length meant it never got played enough for me to write a fair review.
Fast-forward to 2000 and the release of Aladdinís Dragons, a reworked version of Keydom by Hans im GlŁck and Rio Grande. Thanks to my lack of enthusiasm for Keydom, playing Aladdinís Dragons wasnít a high priority. I missed the chance to do so at The Gathering of Friends, and it didnít make my purchase list. Iím usually the advance game scout in my group, so 99 times out of 100 if I donít get a copy itís not likely to show up around here. This happened to be that 100th time, however, and I tried a friendís copy. My order went out the next day.
Aladdinís Dragons is a textbook example of how additional development can transform a game from lackluster to superb. Itís still recognizably Keydom, but everything that was broken has been fixed. Some new problems have replaced the old, but theyíre in a completely different weight class. A game with interesting ideas but fatal flaws got refined into a shorter, more entertaining game where all the pieces hang together for a satisfying finish.
The central mechanic remains unchanged. Each player has a set of tokens numbered 1-9 (minus the three), and on each turn he places one face-down onto one of the boardís fifteen areas. After eight rounds, all players will have placed all of their tokens and the tokens are revealed, with the players with the highest sum of token values in each area winning rewards. Some areas reward a single player, others multiple players. The first five caves contain color-coded treasures, the currency of the game. The number of winners varies from cave to cave and turn to turn (determined by card draw before tokens are played), but players with higher sums walk away with more treasures. Treasures are vital to success, so acquiring as many as possible is never a bad idea. Of course with fifteen areas, deciding where and how to allocate your eight tokens is a difficult task.
The last five areas depict the sultanís palace, where valuable artifacts are kept. It is these the players are really after, since the player with the most at the end of the game is the winner. The highest token sum in each room gets first crack at the artifact on display there. To take it, he must pay treasures equal to his token valuesóbut each token must be paid with a different treasure color. A player with a 2 and a 4 in a room could claim a treasure by paying two blues and four reds, but not six blues. Proper management of your treasures is therefore an ongoing concern. With strong tokens carrying commensurately high (and difficult to amass) costs, artifacts are typically bought with sets of lower-valued tokens while the big guns are deployed elsewhere.
A playerís palace tokens are completely worthless, however, if he doesnít get past the guard. The guard has a secret value from one to ten, chosen randomly each turn. To enter the palace, the sum of a playerís tokens in the guardís area must equal or exceed the guardís value. If a player comes up short, he can make up the difference by bribing the guard with a treasure for each missing point. Getting shut out of the palace can be a disaster, since it means having no shot at any artifacts, so most players will pay the bribe rather than be denied access. Hopefully this wonít mess up the playerís carefully laid plans for paying for artifacts later.
Besides tracking playersí scores, artifacts come in six flavorsóeach with its own special ability. Some, such as the flying carpet that lets a player add a virtual 3 token to any area even after all tokens in that area are revealed, are very powerful. These are usually more hotly contested, which leads to some interesting strategic choices in the palace. Do you go for a powerful artifact that you might not win, or try for a lesser artifact that you have a better chance of grabbing for less? Each player can only use one artifact per round, however, so players must choose wisely. If you use your flying carpet, for example, you canít also use your key to bypass the palace guard for free.
The flipside is that obtaining a powerful artifact early in the game provides a tremendous advantage over players who donít. This can create a rich-get-richer scenario where the haves steal the goods out from under the have-nots. While doublers and carpets are clearly worth more than other artifacts in the early game, players are limited in how high they can bid. With only one turn of treasure-nabbing, the price of a good artifact just canít get very high. And, since itís relatively easy to get more treasures each turn, spending a lot isnít even much of a deterrent. Though itís better to get two artifacts cheaply than one dearly, a good artifact is well worth any price.
The middle four areas provide special benefits, such as changing the starting player (and tie-breaker) or swapping a treasure for any three others. Most interesting is the magicianís tent, which awards magic spells to two winners. These spells introduce a variety of effects into the game, from benign (adding more treasures to the caves) to mischievous (all 9s count as 1s and 1s count as 9s) to vicious (all players must discard 7 treasures). Spells canít be cast unless you use your magic lamp artifact (everyone starts with one), which counts as your artifact for that round. The most powerful of them are almost guaranteed to be zapped by a counterspell artifact, however, and are therefore rarely used. Paradoxically then, only the weakest spells tend to actually take effect.
The game ends when all artifacts have been claimed. This is an enormous improvement over Keydom, where the ability to steal artifacts from opponents combined with the requirement of one artifact of each type to win meant a potentially exhausting, tail-chasing endgame.
The allocation of tokens among the various areas involves bluff, commitment, analysis of how important things are to opponents, and chutzpah. A player can make educated guesses, but thereís no way to know for sure whether an opposing token is a 1 or a 9. If that kind of blind bidding frustrates you, Aladdinís Dragons is probably not for you. This is one of those processional games where each round is more of the same, with the overall game state having fairly little impact on the proceedings. Strategies donít shift or evolve as the game progresses, and things donít build to a crescendo. Itís a half dozen rounds of place tokens, rinse, repeat. If the core mechanic doesnít appeal, thatís a recipe for torture.
While I tend to prefer games that have early, mid, and late games, I found enough variation in a playerís growing pool of artifacts and spells to keep me interested throughout. The choice of which artifact to use each turn and when to use it is pivotal. Players must not only choose well, but early. Formulating tactics at the outset of each round which include a plan for artifact use is where the excitement begins. In this regard, the player is much like the coach of a sports team or the general of an army. As the plan is put into action and players deploy their forces, situations alter and a good general will adapt. Riding these winds of change gives each round its own character. Not enough to make a difference if you donít enjoy the process to begin with, but ample to keep interest alive through the final turn.
The Game Report Online - Editor: Peter Sarrett (email@example.com)