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Review: Sultaniya

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Sultaniya - Cover

It seems like palaces are a dime a dozen here in Sultaniya but you’ve got a master plan for how to out from the crowd.  When the Sultan sees the beauty and magnificence of your palace he’ll make you Grand Vizier for sure!  Problem is that pesky Aladin is building his own palace right across the street from yours and he’s hogging all the cupolas and minarets.  Luckily you’ve got a couple of Sapphires saved up and you know a guy that knows a guy that can get you hooked up with a Djinn to do some of the heavy lifting for you, at the right cost that is.  And let’s get some more guards on these walls to keep out the street urchins, maybe they’ll go over and pester Aladin instead.  Whatever it takes to get this palace finished first!

How It Plays

The Setting – Sultaniya, City of 1001 Palaces

Come marvel at the beautiful 13th century city of Sultaniya and it’s many palaces (last count was right around 1001, give or take).  But there’s really only one palace that you’ll need to visit and that’s mine.  Well at least when it’s completed and I’m Grand Vizier that is.  No, stop looking at Aladin’s palace.  It’s not that impressive, really shoddy worksmanship from those cheap Djinns that he’s got bottled up in that lamp of his.  And don’t even waste your time visiting Sinbad or Shahriyar’s construction, they’ve barely even started and who really wants gardens growing all over the place anyways?  Aren’t my cupolas more impressive than a couple of cheap trees and birds?  And just wait until you see what I’ve got up on the roof.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, let me give you a proper tour.  Come in, come in, please.  I know it’s impressive from the outside but there’s no need to stand out in that hot desert all day.  You have your choice of several breathtaking gateways to enter through.  Make your way up to the walls where I’ve stationed only the finest guards to ensure your safety, of course.  You can see many of my fine towers and cupolas from here.  And oh look, there’s even one of our trained monkeys perched over on that one.  Do a trick for our guests chiku, oh how marvelous!  Moving on you can make yourself comfortable in one of our many princely residence.  But I think you’ll want to see what I have in store for you up on the rooftop.  Yes that’s right, we have several mysterious magic carpets over there and a snake charmer to thrill and entertain.  Over that way you’ll see the most exotic animals from all around, the elephant is my personal favorite.  You wouldn’t believe how hard it was to get him up here.  Well, I’m off to oversee the rest of our construction.  Oh, and don’t mind that Djinn carrying that bomb around, he’s mostly harmless I assure you.

The Gameplay – Building a palace one tile at a time with a little help from the local Djinns

Sultaniya is a tile laying game where each player takes on the role of a character that is looking for specific features in the palace that they are building.  Each character is building their own palace and at the end of the game you’ll score points based on how successful you were at placing those features in your palace.  Everyone has four primary categories as well as two secret objectives that are kept face down until they are revealed and scored at the end of the game.  Let’s look at dastardly Ja’far for example.

Sultaniya - Build1

First off there are the two secret objectives (indicated by the question marks) on either side of the player board, we’ll come back to those later and just focus on the four primary categories.  Starting on the left are towers, each one present in Ja’far’s palace will be worth 1 point.  Next up are cupolas which will be worth 3 points each.  The third category, gates, require three tiles to complete so they are worth a whooping 6 points each.  The last category is guards which score a little differently, rather than awarding a number of points per guard the total number of guards in each palace is counted and the player with the most gets 9 points followed by 6 for second and 3 for third.  Ja’far starts with three guards so he’s well on his way towards those 9 points.

Each character has a similar breakdown to their categories: there’s a 1 point feature, a 3 point feature, a large 6 point feature, and guards.  The categories each have two possible features, for example towers and windows for 1 point or cupolas and gardens for 3.  With four characters in the game there will someone else that will also want, and be competing for, each of the features that you’re after (in addition to everyone competing for guards).

So how do you go about the actual building?  On your turn you will be building one tile from a supply that is broken down into four stacks representing the four levels of the palace.  Let’s take on the role of Ja’far and step through how you actually select a tile to build.  Here’s what the stacks look like at the beginning of the game.

Sultaniya - Draw1

The first step is to pick a stack to make tiles available to build from.  To do so you’ll move tiles, one at a time, from the top of the stack and place them in front of it.  You must stop once there are three tiles in front of the stack but you may stop before then if you’d like.  Let’s start on the ground floor (the stack on the left) and look for something useful.  You can always see the top tile on the stack (the tiles are double sided) so you’ll know exactly what the first tile that you’re going to make available is.  In this case the top tile has a tower on in which will be worth 1 point so it’s a great option, let’s bring that one down.

Sultaniya - Draw2

Doing so reveals the next tile in the stack.  We’re in luck because it’s an even better tile with a cupola worth 3 points, much more than the tower from the first tile.  Since there’s only one tile in front of the stack we can keep bringing tiles down.  We want that cupola so let’s make it available too.

Sultaniya - Draw3

The next tile isn’t as good as the one we just brought down so we can safely stop at this point and build something from the tiles currently available.  In this case it’s only the two tiles we just brought down but if there were tiles in front of the other stacks we would be able to choose one of them instead, you aren’t limited to the level that you revealed from.  The cupola tile is clearly the best choice so let’s grab that one and place it in our palace.

The placement rules are pretty straightforward.  First, tiles must match the artwork to both sides as well as above and below it.  The tile that we selected to build must be placed so the doorway matches up with either side of our initial building.  The tiles are double sided to provide both orientations so tiles can be flipped as necessary to place them properly.  We’ll come back to the other building rules as they come up, for now let’s place our cupola and wait for our next turn to select another tile.

Sultaniya - Build2

To make this example simpler we’ll simply skip the other players’ turns and keep building.  Normally everyone else would go through the same process that we just did, bringing new tiles down from a stack and building from the available ones.  This can drastically alter what’s available once it comes back to you but, again, for the sake of simplicity we’ll ignore all that.

Let’s venture up to the second floor and look for something worth building there.  The top tile has a tower and sapphire (more on those soon), that works well for us so let’s start by bringing it down and see what shows up next.

Sultaniya - Draw4

Those pillar tops will fit in our palace but what we really want is a gate top to score a completed gate so let’s pull it down and see what’s next.

Sultaniya - Draw5

There’s the gate top that we’re looking for!  Luckily there’s still room to make it available so pull that bad boy down and let’s build it.

Sultaniya - Build3

Now’s a good time to talk about the second placement rule.  Each level must be staggered from the row below and above it.  In other words, you can’t place tiles directly on top of each other, they will instead overlap only half of the tile.  Another requirement for building on the higher levels is that there must be a supporting tile directly below the one you’re building.  Now let’s build our new tile, two pillars and a gate top form a completed gate and will score 6 points for our third category.  Exceeellent!

If there are tiles available at the start of your turn you may decide to not reveal any new ones and simply build from the available ones.  But that’s boring so lets move on to the third level!  I’ll skip ahead a little to show that we revealed three tiles that we’re not interested in building.

Sultaniya - Draw7

Unfortunately the tile with a cupola on top of the stack cannot be brought down because there are already three tiles in front of the stack.  We’re not particularly interested in windows or gardens so let’s build something from the other available tiles.  The first one on the second floor fits well in our palace and scores well so let’s grab it.

Sultaniya - Build4

Notice that this tile also shows a Sapphire symbol on it.  When you build a tile depicting a Sapphire you gain one from the supply for each symbol present.  Tiles can provide up to four Sapphires on the top floor!  Sapphires are spent to hire Djinns which let you take more powerful build actions.  Instead of taking your normal build action you can choose to instead hire one of four different Djinns, each with a unique power.  First up is the Blue Djinn who lets you clear out all tiles in front of one stack, placing them on the bottom, then reveal from that stack and build as normal.  Then there’s the hard working Green Djinn who lets you reveal from two stacks and then build twice in one turn.  The destructive Red Djinn lets you demolish mistakes by either moving a tile to a different location in your palace or simply removing a tile that you no longer want, then build like normal.  Note that you can’t leave a hole in your palace this way as it is one of the building rules that I hadn’t mentioned yet.  Last up is the powerful Yellow Djinn who can search through a stack and pull any tile to build and place the stack back in its original order (giving you a sneak peak at what’s coming up).  There’s one little exception to keep in mind when summoning a Djinn to help you build, if you place a tile with a Sapphire on it while using a Djinn you won’t get the Sapphire as the Djinn greedily takes it.  If at any point you aren’t able to build any of the available tiles (or don’t wish to reveal any) you may pass and simply take two Sapphires to help hire some Djinns on future turns.

Now back to the building.  Fast forward a couple of turns and our palace is starting to come together.  We rushed to the top floor to get some of the high scoring tiles that show up there.  Our palace is a little wobbly but it’s standing alright at the moment.

Sultaniya - Build5

When one player builds all 5 tiles on their top floor (you can’t extend beyond the boundaries of your secret objectives) the final round starts and all other players get one last turn.  Everyone reveals their secret objectives and scores all their categories.  The player with the highest score and most beautiful palace becomes the Grand Vizier of Sultaniya.  Let’s assume that we won that game we were playing.  All hail Ja’far!

That Sounds Pretty Cool, Is it Like Alhambra?

No it’s not much like Alhambra at all.  That’s a bit of a running joke around here, Jason (and now several other folks) likes to mention in passing that Sultaniya is just like Alhambra.  I know, it’s a tile laying game and there are palaces and the setting is vaguely similar and you score points but that’s pretty much where I think the comparison ends.  It was a good joke and we all had a good laugh but I’m sure Jason will show up in the comments anyways with some smart alack remark.  He even tried to change the title on this review to “Just Like Alhambra” but I wasn’t having it.  Alright, moving on to my actual thoughts on Sultaniya.

When I first heard about Sultaniya and read through the rulebook I was drawn in by the simplicity of the gameplay and puzzly nature of building your palace efficiently to maximize your scoring categories.  I was a bit worried that maybe it was too straightforward but wanted to give it a fair try before passing judgement.  After playing it I can stand by those initial observations though my concerns turned out to be wrong.  Most surprisingly however, there were a number of things that struck me about the game that I hadn’t expected.

The Artwork – Capturing the beauty of Sultaniya

I could see the artwork being a big draw for people but for whatever reason I skimmed passed it while trying to figure out how the game played.  It wasn’t until I sat down to my first game that I discovered just how gorgeous this game is.  First off you have the wonderfully illustrated player boards that you start the game with.  They really immerse you in the role of these storybook characters that have just begun work on a palace with very specific features in mind.  The tiles themselves are beautiful and fill your palace with lots of personality from guards to nobles to animals.  Each floor has it’s own animal and the rooftop in particular had my favorite tiles with the animal party being the tile that I always grabbed when I got the chance.  Watching your palace slowly take shape and eventually, at the end, be completed was extremely enjoyable just to experience even if you ultimately lost.  The artwork does an incredible job of giving the players a sense of accomplishment as their palace comes together throughout the game.  The components are all high quality and to top it off you get shiny sapphires and sculpted Djinns that you can pick up, hold, and admire.  These touches are unnecessary but make the game all the more enjoyable, and this is coming from a guy that doesn’t traditionally care that much about this kind of stuff.  The reason why it works so well here is that it makes an accessible game even more appealing to just about everyone.  I demoed Sultaniya at Origins and you could see people drawn in and intrigued by the game set up on the table.  Just about everyone that I taught the game to mentioned how beautiful it looked and how nice all the bits (especially those Djinns and Sapphires) were.  Oh, and they thought the game was a lot of fun to play too.

Sultaniya - Completed Palace
A completed palace showing off the gorgeous artwork

At A Glance – A Simple, Constructive, and Puzzly Game

I’ve had two completely different experiences with Sultaniya based on the group that I played with, both were equally enjoyable.  The first experience is with a group of casual players or perhaps with people playing the game for the first time.  The other experience is with a group of competitive players that already know how to play and are familiar with the distribution of tiles.  I’ll start by looking at the first one since that’s likely to capture what your first game of Sultaniya will be like.

I found the game to be incredibly smooth to teach and the concepts were easy to grasp.  In essence you are placing a tile every turn and the Djinns let you manipulate the way that you would normally do this in some way.  Pulling tiles down from the stacks is very intuitive once you’ve experienced it (though it can be tricky to pick up from the rulebook).  Then there’s scoring based on your personal categories which are all incredibly simple and the secret objectives fall into one of four types that are easy to explain and referenced on the back of the rule book.  The only thing that I needed to remind people of was the cost of the Djinns and what they did (it would have been really nice to get a quick reference card for that) but seeing them in action was usually enough to help most people remember before the end of their first game.  That’s pretty much it, keep building tiles until someone has their rooftop all filled up.  The artwork makes matching up the tiles very easy so the actual placement of tiles is also very intuitive.  This is one of the biggest draws of the game, ease of learning and simple intuitive gameplay.

Sultaniya - Animal Tiles
These animals add a lot of character to your palace, the camel is my favorite

After learning the game I found almost everyone naturally enjoyed the constructive nature of building your palace.  Chances are you can find something in one of the stacks that will fulfill one of your scoring categories so you’ll be grabbing things you want and earning points throughout the entire game.  This culminates in the rooftop where you’ll find the best of the best goodies.  There are unique tiles that simply score points on their own regardless of your categories as well as already completed gates and minarets for big points.  It’s fun to reach the roof and discover all the great things that you can build up there.  Now, you still have other players that are going after the same features as you so you get a sense of interaction as you race for the key tiles but there’s plenty to go around when you’re first learning the game so you won’t feel like the other players are always grabbing exactly what you wanted and leaving you with the scraps.  It’s this constructive play that people are naturally drawn towards and the game really reinforces the enjoyment of building something grand.

Sultaniya - Bonus Tiles
The coolest tiles are all found on the rooftop. ANIMAL PARTY ON THE ROOF!!

The last aspect that will appeal to a lot of people on their first play is the puzzly nature of picking optimal tiles, placing them in the best spots in your palace, and figure out when it’s best to cash in your Sapphire for the Djinn’s useful powers.  The gameplay is very straightforward but you’d be surprised at how tricky it can be to place that perfect tile that’s available now and still make sure that you can match it up with another great tile that just showed up.  Tile laying by nature is pretty puzzly and Sultaniya does a great job of giving the players overlapping goals to consider along with the configuration of their personal palace board when deciding on which floor to pull from and ultimately which tile to build.  The Djinns add another level of complexity by letting players manipulate the available tiles, their board, how fast they build, or simply allow them to take whatever they want.  Djinns are fun to use and give you some more interesting choices to break up the build-a-tile-a-turn structure.

Going Deeper – Unlocking the power of Djinns, pacing, and tile distribution

The great thing about Sultaniya is that you can continue playing casually after your first game and enjoy those aspects for a long time.  You don’t need to know the tile distribution or keep track of what the other players might be after if you are content building up a nice looking palace and seeing how well you score at the end.  It’s a blast to grab your favorite tiles or see how many gardens or guards you can cram into your palace.  You can build with the sole intent of having a nice looking palace and get a lot out of Sultaniya.

But players that want to go deeper and get competitive will be surprised at the hidden depth in Sultaniya.  It’s by no means a heavy game but there’s much more to consider once you’re familiar with the game then you may initially notice.  Most of the depth has to do with the unique tile revealing system, using the Djinns effectively, and paying attention to the other players.  We’ll start by looking at the push-your-luck element that is introduced in the tile revealing mechanic.  Giving players control over how the tiles come out adds an interesting (indirect) layer of interaction to the game. In order to increase your odds of getting better tiles (by revealing more tiles) you provide the other players with more options and information. The Djinns allow players to manipulate what’s available (Blue) and gain information about the order (Yellow). It’s nice if you can get what you want without having to hire the expensive Yellow Djinn but being able to know the order that things will come out is incredibly useful. Which Djinns to utilize in relation to how the tiles are revealed is perhaps the most significant and non-obvious decision in my opinion especially once you add in the tempo-controlling Green Djinn as another option.

This touches on the importance of using Djinns effectively but there are other aspects to consider when hiring Djinns and constructing your palace, namely pacing.  There are two main tempo control aspects involved: racing to trigger the game end before your palace is all filled out and using the Green Djinn to place more tiles than your opponent. Both things let you win through playing fast rather than hunting for the highest scoring tiles. If one or more players are playing fast then the other players will have to react and potentially change how they are playing. Gaining access to the top floor early can be particularly important in that regard. I like the tension between playing fast (Green) and playing well (Blue and Yellow).

Sultaniya - Djinns
Djinns are happy to lend a hand, of course they’re not going to do it for free

Finally it becomes increasingly important to pay attention to the other players not only to get a grasp on the pacing of the game but also for competing over features.  You will always have another player that wants the same features as you in a 4-player game. This is very important for the 6 point features (gate and minaret) since there are 5 in total so you will be splitting them 3-2 most of the time unless another player interferes. The 3-point features can also make up a decent portion of your score and they are not as prevalent as I first thought (there’s only 1 on the first floor and 2 on the second). The top floor opens up this competition to all players with the 4 and 5 point tiles that everyone will be going after. The Yellow Djinn can be crucial for winning the race to the key tiles before your competitor can get them and gain knowledge of when the other ones will come up. The last factor are the guards who can represent a significant swing (3-9 points) between you and another player. Knowing tile distribution is incredibly important here and makes me think that the game will play best with a group of experienced, cut-throat players (hopefully inferring that it has lasting value).

Summary – The bottom line on Sultaniya

I first experienced Sultaniya while demoing it during the Origins Game Fair and the reception was overwhelmingly positive.  It was a great game to teach to new players because of the ease with which players could pick it up and play a quick and rewarding game.  It’s very accessible for a casual atmosphere but when I took it home and played it more I was happy to discover a far deeper game than I was initially expecting.  This beautiful game caters to two completely different styles of play at the same time which is an incredibly feat indeed.  I wouldn’t recommend Sultaniya to players looking for a heavy game but I believe it will satisfy a wide variety of different gamers.  If you’re looking for a new and gorgeous tile laying game or something different to try out with your family then you can’t go wrong with Sultaniya.

 

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Asmodee for providing a review copy of Sultaniya.

Summary

  • Rating 8
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Summary

Pros

  • Beautiful artwork
  • Easy to teach and very intuitive
  • Constructive gameplay leads to a rewarding experience
  • Djinns add in depth and set apart from simple tile laying

Cons:

  • Doesn't play as well with 2-3 players
  • Some concepts are a little unclear when learning from the rulebook
  • Would have been nice to get quick reference cards with cost and abilities of Djinns
  • It's not like Alhambra
8 Very Good

I love optimization and engine games with tableau builders and card driven ones being my favorite. This usually means medium-heavy euros and medium-light card games.

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