I seem to spend a lot of my game time with really complicated games that have hundreds of parts and rule books that span 5-10 pages or more. Lots of fiddly bits, as gamers say, and it can be really fun to play a game like Dark Souls, as I did last weekend, but there’s also a certain joy you can find in a simple game that doesn’t aim to consume four or five hours of your life but just a few minutes.
The team at Osprey Games sent me a game that beautifully fits into this category, called Shahrazad. It’s a tile placement game that uses beautiful tile art inspired both by the Tarot and by classic fairytales. Note: If you’re looking at the name and thinking it’s misspelled, it isn’t. Non-Persians generally write and pronounce the word “Scheherazade” but “Shahrazad” is in fact the proper transliteration from the Arabic.
The artwork, by illustrator Kotori Neiko, is really lovely and the parts are aesthetically nice too, thick cardboard with a nice finish. Durable, they’re going to last quite a while. What makes the game interesting, though, is the gameplay, as it’s deceptively simple. Designed by Yu Ogasawara, Shahrazad is all about placing tiles so that each matches certain basic rules.
You can play the game solo or as a team. Let’s step through the solo game first. To start, you have a starting tile on the table and two tiles in your hand:
The starting tile here is The Hermit. What’s important for the game, however, is that it’s tile #9 and that it’s part of the black color group (the background color). In my hand are both The Lovers (#6, red group) and Wheel of Fortune (#10, red group). Your task is to place each tile so it’s touching at least one of the other tiles already on the table such that lower numbers are to the left, higher to the right. As you do so, you’ll create color areas and will gain points based on how large your color areas can be.
But the number rule isn’t hard and fast, because it’s not until the end of the game when all 22 tiles are on the table that you analyze number sequences, layout and color groups. A bit further into this game, my table looked like this:
You can still see The Hermit all the way to the right edge, but notice how other cards have been played. What I am trying to figure out here is where do I put The Emperor, card #4?
I can’t just place it where I’ve temporarily dropped it because there are lowered number tiles to its right; that’s a fail when the end move is taken. I could put it above card #5, The Hierophant, but cards that aren’t “in the midst of things” are dumped at the very end, so that’s not good. I could put it below The Empress, card #3, and that might be my best move: to its left is #0 and to its right #8. That works.
Note: I’m using tile names in this review, but you can easily ignore the names and even the pictures. It’s really about colors and numbers. Just in case you’re thinking “not so into Tarot, don’t want to be telling anyone’s fortune!”
Tiles are placed so that they stagger adjacent tiles (e.g., each is touching two on both the left and right) and when playing solo, a column can have a max of four tiles. In team mode, it’s a max of three.
After a while, I’ve placed all 22 tiles and here’s my final layout. It’s not as good as it looks:
By numeric sequence, they’re all fine, actually. Using your finger, you can trace a path from any of the leftmost tiles directly thru to the rightmost tiles without ever moving from lower to higher values. For example, along the very top, it’d be 1 -> 5 -> 6 -> 10 -> 15 -> 19 -> 21. That’s good.
The problem is with the adjacency. See card #17 on the lower right, yellow? It doesn’t allow a path all the way from left to right, so it’s flipped over. Because it’s flipped over, so is #14 behind it: once #17 is flipped, #14 is isolated on its right too. Those cards are out of the scoring.
And now scoring is calculated by figuring out the largest adjacent color group for each of the four colors, blue, black, red and yellow. Above I count 3 as the biggest blue group (8, 11, 14), 4 as the biggest black group (9, 13, 18, 16), a whopping 7 as the red group (0, 3, 6, 10, 15, 19, 21) and 3 for the yellow (2, 4, 7). You subtract your facedown cards (14, 17) and lose points for any gaps you might have created. All told, this layout earns me a respectable 15 points.
Each game has two rounds and on the second round you lose all the face down tiles (which can hurt!) and pick up and shuffle all the other tiles with the exception of one column that’s now the starting column for round two. Same basic idea, and when you’re done you add up the two scores and see how you did: 0-9 is pretty poor, 20-29 is “not bad” and 40+ is “truly wonderful”. The two player game has slightly different score expectations, as detailed on the scoring tile:
As you saw with my 15 point score, it’s not so easy to get everything laid out so that they all count at the end of the game. Still, my first full solo game got me a score of 31, so I think that’s pretty decent.
The two player game is more challenging because, as detailed in the instructions, you can’t share what tiles you have, so each of you is basically playing blind. Once a tile’s on the table you can discuss optimal placement, but my daughter and I found it more fun to play open tile. You might want to stick with the official rules or not. Try it both ways, see what you think.
I really like Shahrazad. It’s simple, easy to understand and quick to play, particularly the solo game. It’s going to be a keeper for us, and at a bargain price too: $20.00 through Osprey Games. My only wish is that they had included a cloth, silk or velvet drawstring bag because once you get the hang of it, this is a solid travel game that doesn’t need to live in its box.
Shahrazad, by Osprey Games. $20 on their Web site.
Disclaimer: Osprey Games sent us a free copy of the game in return for this review.