Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Quick Review - Sultan's Library - Kickstarter Preview

Sultan's Library
Designer: Ryno Lourens
Publisher: Photon Games
Quick Review - Sultan's Library - Kickstarter Preview

I received a copy of Sultan's Library to review prior to their Kickstarter re-launch.  Their first campaign in March was unsuccessful and they are hoping for a better campaign in June.  You can get the gae for about $18 USD ($22 CAD) from their current campaign here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/369033234/sultans-library-untold-riches-await-within


In Sultan's Library players take on the role of envoys of the Sultan as they explore the realm in search of books of knowledge to add to the Sultan's library.  Players explore various locations, find books, and bring books back to the library, all while encountering various events and trying to undermine each other's efforts.
This is the Sultan's Library, where you are trying to bring books to.

Sultan's Library consists of two decks of cards, a Location deck with location, book, and event cards, and an Action deck with action and journey cards.  There are also four player tokens, a first player token, and a large Sultan's Library starting location card.  The prototype copy I received only had a few pieces of completed art and it was functional, but nothing stunning.  The artwork is done in an awkwardly angular style that reminds me a bit of MTV's Æon Flux.  I like it, but the characters and items are just dropped onto a mainly white background that has a very light watermark of a location in a circle.  The graphic design and layout is very basic, with simply the artwork, name of the card, ability text, and flavor text.  Books and locations also have an icon in the top left to indicate the explore points or knowledge points of the card.  And each card has a simple line and icon separating the main artwork from the text in one of five colors that denote the card type.
Some of the Locations, Events, and Books that already have artwork.

Journey and Action cards that have artwork.

A turn in Sultan's Library consists of players drawing cards from the Action deck, then playing two Actions, which may consist of playing action cards, exploring the location they are in, travelling to another location, and several other options.  Action cards have various effects on either the current player, his opponents, or both.  To explore a location players must spend journey cards that have explore points that equal or exceed the explore cost for a location.  Doing so may result in an event, which gets resolved immediately, finding a book, which can be picked up later for an action, or finding a new location, in which case the player immediately travels to the new location (and discards the location he had just occupied).  The first player to bring three books back to the Sultan's Library triggers the end game (completing the round) and the player with the most knowledge points (based on the books deposited in the library) wins.
The characters you can choose from and the Sultan's Library.

Playing the Game

The concept behind Sultan's Library is simple and the premise is somewhat interesting, however the execution leaves a whole lot to be desired.  The game is 90% luck and only gives the illusion of control or choice.  Part of this is because of the limited creativity in the card abilities, part of this is because the game is wildly unbalanced (or maybe too balanced between good and bad cards), but mostly this is because of the awful location mechanic.  When you explore a location you may find one of three card types, a book (which is good, and there are fourteen of them), an event (which can be good or bad, but with ten bad cards and six good cards, you're more likely to find something that'll hurt than help), or a location.

The Wise Old Hermit may look helpful at first, but looks can be deceiving.
There are thirty location cards, so 50% of the cards are locations.  So there's a pretty good chance that what you'll discover when exploring is another location.  This is great, except for one thing.  When you discover a location you MUST travel to it immediately.  You don't have any choice in the matter.  So if you were thinking you might be able to use a location's abilities to some strategic end, think again.  Exploring a location may just send you away from it.  You have no choice.  Oh, and remember what I said about the game being 'too' balanced between good and bad cards?  Of the thirty location cards, nine are what I would call good locations.  These have abilities like "You do not have to use an Action to Pick Up Books in this Location", or "When you Travel to this Location, draw a card and gain an Action."  Seven are what I'd call marginally good.  These give you a benefit, but require a sacrifice.  Their abilities are things like "As an Action you can gain 1 Explore Point", or "As an Action, you can discard a card to explore the area."  So there are sixteen good location cards, but there are also fourteen bad location cards.  Of these fourteen, only one would I classify as marginally bad (i.e. a big sacrifice gives you a very small benefit).  The Beach Cottage says "When you travel to this Location, discard a card and gain an Action."  It also only costs one Explore Point to explore the Beach Cottage.  The other thirteen locations are harmful, with abilities like "If you start your turn in this Location, lose one Action", "You can not Explore the Area in this Location", "When you Travel to this Location, discard 3 cards", or "When you Travel to the Mountainside Temple, discard all cards."  And remember, most of the time you won't have any control of whether you travel to a location or not.  So, by absolute random luck of the draw, you might be sent away from a good location to one that'll cause you to lose all your cards, be very difficult to leave, or hurt you every round you're stuck there.
Starting a turn in the Farmstead means you only get to draw one Action card.

And to top it off, the location you were previously at gets discarded.  This means in a four player game you'll have, at most, four possible locations to choose to move to if you decide to move during your turn instead of explore.  But this number could be even less because it's possible for several characters to be in the same location.  The only permanent location is the Sultan's Library.  So if in a four player game one player is in the Sultan's Library, two are in the Beach Cottage, and you are in the Thick Jungle, you'll only have the choice of traveling to the Beach Cottage or Sultan's Library.  And as soon as you move the Thick Jungle gets discarded, leaving other players with even fewer choices.
Searching for books to add to the Sultan's Library.
So, with sixteen good locations, fourteen books, and six good events that makes thirty-six beneficial cards in the Location deck. Fourteen bad locations and ten bad events makes twenty-four harmful cards in the Location deck.  That means two out of five explorations are going to hurt you, and possibly even higher since some of the events tell you to discard cards from your hand and then reveal another location card, which could be another harmful event or a bad location.
When the Poet leaves this location it'll get discarded, even if he's
forced to leave because of exploring and finding a new location.

Now, let's look at the Action cards that you may have in your hand to use as an action, since you've realized that exploring an area is pretty risky.  In the Action deck there are thirty-three Journey cards that will give you from 1 to 6 explore points.  There are also twenty four action cards.  These action cards fall into four types.  There are nine helpful actions, three mildly helpful actions, six attack actions, and six defense actions.  In all there are eight different cards with three copies of each.  So in actuality there are only three helpful actions, one mildly helpful action, two attacks, and two defenses.  That's not a whole lot of choice when it comes right down to it.  And the attacks are pretty vicious - one makes an opponent discard a book that they've already deposited and the other makes an opponent lose one of their two actions on their next turn AND discard two cards (that is a lot when there's a five card hand limit and chances are you'll only have two to three cards left at the end of your turn).  The mildly helpful action lets you discard up to three cards to gain that many actions, but remember, it takes an action to play that card, so in reality you can gain up to two actions by discarding four cards (the Motivation action card, plus three other cards).
Actions aren't always helpful, and can sometimes destroy your opponents.

The good cards let you explore or travel without spending explore points, draw extra cards, or deposit a book even if you're not at the Sultan's Library, so those are very nice, even if they do take an action to play.  The defense cards are pretty standard, letting you discard them to avoid an attack action or event card; however, with six attack actions and ten bad events with only six defense cards you're still way outnumbered (and the defense cards do nothing to offset a bad location).  Additionally, one of the defense cards (Extra Guards) tells you to also flip the top card of the Location deck.  It's unclear if that card's effects happen to the defender or the attacker in the event the Extra Guards was played during an attack action, but regardless, with so many harmful cards in the Location deck it's likely that playing that defense card is going to hurt someone.

Final Thoughts

With so much going on in this game to hinder your ability to accomplish its goal, it's amazing that anyone is able to deposit the three books in the Sultan's Library.  There is a lot of conflict and setback in the game, but unfortunately most of it is due to just random card draws and not any real strategic planning on the part of the players.  Each turn felt more like an exercise in trying to mitigate the bad luck than in actually trying to accomplish anything.  I felt like my character was being sent from location to location without any real reason and I couldn't go back to a location I liked because it disappeared as soon as I was forced to leave it.  There is no real sense of exploration or gaining knowledge.  This is a game of having stuff happen to you rather than a game that you control.  And very little of what happens to you is helpful, or even interesting or fun.
Sultan's Library is an exercise in letting stuff, usually bad stuff,
just happen to you without any rhyme or reason.

The theme of the game also seems to get lost in the debilitating mechanics.  As envoys of the Sultan players shouldn't be quite so destructively competitive.  If the Sultan has tasked all of us with finding books, why is Book Burning an Action that I can play?  I could see that as an event that happens to you, but as an Action it seems to be directly contradictory to the theme of the game.  I also have a big problem with how often and easily the Location cards get removed from the game.  If the theme is to travel about the land searching for books, forcing players to leave their locations and then removing already visited locations from the game just doesn't mesh with the theme.
Two players can share a location, but as soon as they both
leave it (probably against their will) the location will vanish forever.

So while the general idea behind Sultan's Library is mildly interesting, as a pick-up and deliver type game, it plays poorly.  The games needs a lot more playtesting to work out ways to make the decisions and interactions between players interesting and meaningful and make the game feel less like a nightmarish ride through randomness.  At a cost of about $18 US ($22 Canadian), this won't hurt your wallet too much, but for me it's still a pass.  There are a lot of much better games that you can spend $20 on.  If you are still interested though, you can check out their campaign here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/369033234/sultans-library-untold-riches-await-within
You get 4 Knowledge Points for the Forbidden Journal,
but better to just save your money.

Preliminary Rating: 2/10
This review is of a prototype game.  Components and rules are not final and are subject to change.

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GJJG Game Reviews are independent, unpaid reviews of games I, George Jaros, have played with my family and friends.  Some of these games I own, some are owned by friends, some are borrowed, and some are print and play versions of games.  Where applicable I will indicate if games have been played with kids or adults or a mix (Family Play).  I won't go into extensive detail about how to play the game (there are plenty of other sources for that information and I'll occasionally link to those other sources), but I will give my impressions of the game and how my friends and family reacted to the game.  Quick Reviews will only get a single rating of 1-10 (low-high) based on my first impressions of the game during my first few times playing.  Hopefully I'll get more chances to play the game and will be able to give it a full review soon.

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