One Sentence Synopsis: Who knew libraries could be so dangerous?
Sultans generally get what they want, and in Sultan’s Library from Photon Games(currently on Kickstarter), the Sultan wants books. Lots of them. Acting as Envoys of the Sultan, 2-4 players are tasked with traveling the world seeking knowledge to ultimately return to his library. Each manuscript acquired by players in their travels has a knowledge value, and after one player has deposited three such items into the library the knowledge points are totaled and the Envoy who has delivered the most valuable finds wins the game.
The journey is not easy, however, and players face many complications and tribulations during their travels. Striking out from the library with two cards, and drawing an additional card from the Action Deck each turn resulting in exploration points or in an action card, each Envoy is allowed to take two actions during their turn:
- Players may use exploration points from their hand to draw a card from the Exploration Deck which may result in revealing a book, in moving to a new location, or in an event card of varying negative consequences or helpfulness.
- Spend two more exploration points than an opponent’s location indicates(the number at the top left of a location) to travel there.
- Pick up and hold one book from the current location, up to a maximum of two at any given time.
- Deposit a book if the player is at the library
- Play an action card, which may be used to help one’s efforts or hinder others.
- Use their character’s special ability.
- Spend both actions to draw an additional card from the Action Deck.
Turns progress quickly as people move between new locations, pick up books, and attempt to deliver them to the library to put themselves in the best possible position for the game’s end. Sultan’s Library is extremely heavy on “take-that” elements, so players should be ready for a rough ride from both the game and each other regardless of what actions they’re taking. Location cards sometimes have a benefit that comes with a price, but many impede players’ progress through detrimental effects. Players additionally have to contend with potentially damaging event cards floating around the Exploration Deck, including sandstorms which essentially waste an action, and ruffians who destroy books not-yet deposited in the library. Even if the fortunes of the draw shine upon them, a player’s good luck may be overshadowed by their opponents who have cards that stop actions, or even let them burn a deposited book. It’s a rough life out in the desert, but somebody’s got to do it.
Although I usually enjoy elements that let players stick it to their friends, an attribute which has gained me many titles including “merciless” and “vengeful,” I find they’re most effectively implemented in combination with a push-your-luck mechanic. The aforementioned “book burning” cards disrupt that mechanism’s inclusion here to a degree, as books simply switch their potential source of destruction rather than becoming protected once they’re deposited. There are guard cards which can be discarded to negate a book burning, but it still leaves players vulnerable and, given smart use and coordinated efforts, can actually extend the game past its ability to remain fun. An additional strategic aspect is lost as a result, though making efficient use of movement and deciding when to return to the library still contribute towards winning.
That said, there’s certainly a benefit to being able to knock out previously-deposited books. It’s very difficult to run away with the game without getting smacked down by other players, either through book burning or from cards that cancel actions or even deny one of a person’s two actions entirely. The latter has the potential to be a little troublesome, as some players may go multiple rounds without being able to do much else besides draw a card depending on their location and what’s in their hand, but turns cycle so quickly no one is ever out of the action for long. Scores at the end of the game are pretty tight as a result, and the smart use of action cards can quickly turn the tide in a game that seemed like it was one turn away from completion.
Sultan’s Library is generally well balanced, which is extremely important in a game with so many potentially damaging occurrences; players all draw from the same decks of cards so there’s an equal chance of getting screwed or pulling something beneficial, and the unique abilities for each character are all useful in different ways. The only real imbalances that came up during my plays were with location cards, which sometimes seem to hit extremes with being both helpful and cheap to explore, or having an extremely negative effect while also costing a large number of exploration points to try and draw a book from without any potential for added profit. In those instances it’s generally better for players to simply return to the library and strike back out from there, rather than attempting to deal with the location they drew.
COG Takeaway: If your group enjoys games with heavy “take that” gameplay and is not opposed to the elements of luck inherent in drawing random cards from decks, then Sultan’s Library is probably a game you’ll want to take a look at. The art and graphic design are beautiful, and may even make you forget momentarily that the game and your fellow players are constantly out to get you. Turns happen quickly so downtime is kept to a minimum, though the sheer amount of negative occurrences in the game may make some sessions run longer than they otherwise feel like they should. If you’re ready to compete with your fellow Envoys for the Sultan’s favor, be sure to head on over to Visit the Kickstarter and give the project a closer look!