Ali Baba

Abacus, £24
Designed by Ian Livingstone
2-6 Players, about an hour
Reviewed by John Webley

I translated this game before I played it, and at first sight wasn't very impressed, but a couple of games have changed my opinion, and it seems to be shaking down well as a good light trading game.

The board shows a track through the four quarters of Basra, and the very nicely made Ali Baba figure is moved around the track using movement cards. The full set of movement cards moves Ali once around the board, and two such rounds make up one game. Players are dealt a number of movement cards at the start of the game so that they can influence movement during their turn but are at the mercy of others, as we shall see. There are four basic type of square to land on, and at three points on the track there is a choice of routes. On any of the blank squares, the player may choose to take up to three of the bandit cards. There are 64 of these, divided into 4 suits of 16 bandits, each suit having a different colour and value, the values being 20, 40, 80 and 160. Each suit is further divided into 4 families of 4 identical cards, and every card has on it a grid of 36 squares, with some of the squares marked with numbers rather like a bingo card. The higher the value of the card, the more squares are filled. In the first quarter, the bandit cards come free, but the further Ali Baba gets towards the end of a round, the dearer the bandits become.

The fun starts when Ali Baba is moved to a square containing one of the four suit colours. At this point, all bandit cards with that colour are in danger of arrest. Players may choose to return any affected cards to the pack at a cost of 20 Piastres, or they can sell them to other players which often leads to a lot of horse trading. Once that is settled the player who has moved Ali rolls the black die and places it on the matching number next to a 36 square grid in the centre of the board, corresponding to the grids on the cards. Now it is more obvious which bandits are really in danger of being caught, and again the players may throw away cards, but now at a cost of 100 Piastres per card. Then the white die is rolled, the square at the crossing point of the two dice numbers is found, and any cards showing that number on their grids are hauled off before the Caliph. Getting them back costs their owner 200 piastres.

Other squares on the board have various symbols on them, allowing players to take cards for free, or to gain some extra piastres, while the fourth type of square is the start/finish square. At this point, at the end of the first and second rounds, players receive the value of their cards from the bank, 20, 40, 80 or 160, and the payout is doubled for any player who has all four of one family, making such sets very valuable, but very expensive if they all come before the Caliph.

The heart of the game comes in the trading that goes on to make sets, and particularly in the satisfaction of rolling a die and seeing an opponent having to pay out large amounts, especially if you have just traded them that card. It is probably possible to win without ever owning a bandit card, but a lot more fun to trade and trade in the hope of building an unbeatable collection of sets, while dreading the hand on the shoulder that means that your thieves have been nabbed. A game lasts about an hour and plays best with six players who are prepared to trade and take risks. I think that the change of theme from Ian Livingstone's original insurance game has done it good, and it has certainly allowed Abacus to produce a very nice looking game, with the beautifully drawn board, the equally good bandit and movement cards and the aesthetically pleasing Ali Baba figure all combining to make the game look good. About 39 Marks and well recommended.

John Webley

MS: Contrary to what the cynics might think, I am not ducking this review (fearing the Livingstone Hit Squad) on the basis of previous negative comments on Boomtown and Automania. John offered to review it and I always welcome help in this department. In fairness, Ian has always been polite and respectful of my earlier views which is a great help. I would much rather discuss a negative review than fall out over it. So here goes (again).

Judging by John's comments and others I've heard, I understand Ali Baba is a subtle reworking of Calamity, the old Games Workshop design that has been on my shelf for some years. Frankly, I had never played it because a) I couldn't get enthused about the insurance theme (it ranks with planning permission as a game subject - don't rush, it's been done) and b) I thought it was designed by Andrew Lloyd Webber which shows that I should read the box blurb more closely. My loss by the look of it. So what do I think of Ali Baba? Well, it's potentially very good with just a couple of drawbacks, one small and one major (but curable). It is full of clever design features (I particularly enjoyed the Tour-like bingo matrix), offers plenty of medium level strategy, the artwork is great and it represents a fresh slant on the share holding games (Coup/Holiday AG, Acquire, Airlines, the 18xx subgame) that I am so partial to. Importantly, even with the drawbacks it played well and I enjoyed it - please remember the following comments are based on a single playthrough.

The minor drawback, to my mind, is the theme. It is rather tenuous, feels grafted on and very clearly betrays its origins to the extent that you play the game talking about insurance claims, payouts and syndicates. Oddly enough, despite the excellent 1001 Nights artwork, I felt it would more readily fit the insurance theme than the contrived bandit motif. Perhaps there will be a UK version that could be sold to all those poor Lloyd's Names. Overall though, this is something that I can live with. While I'm here, I think one of the symbols mentioned in the rules isn't on the board - where should it be?

The major drawback is the old chestnut of negative cash flow. ie, it suffers from the cynical 'if you do nothing at all, you have a good chance of winning' syndrome as most of the players will be losing money throughout the game. For those familiar with them, the best examples of this problem are Dicke Kartoffeln or Automobile fur die Welt. So as a result, if you do anything much in the game you run the risk of losing money, often in size. Sure, you have to take risks to accumulate cash, and bigger risks do lead to bigger wins but to me the game is, either in reality or perception, biased against taking those chances. Let's take the highest single payout possible: 1,280 piastres (160x4x2 for a set of Red Bandits). To get this set together you could well be on the second lap, you might well have to pay for most of the cards and they run the risk of 800 piastre hits up to ten times on one circuit. With a return like that, it doesn't seem like much of a punt to me. I accept that you can dump them before the big loss hits you, but that way all your hard work is lost and you forego the big payout, possibly to the benefit of other players.

Without extended play to experiment, it may be that heavy trading and a diminutive portfolio might work instead of the sizeable mixed holding, but the play balance is still such that you can be cleaned out in a hurry, especially since the lower value cards carry the same penalties. Also, rather than playing the market you are playing three or four mean gits who will ensure you have plenty of claims (sorry, arrests) on your holdings. The bankruptcy rule section is well thumbed already.

In our first game, five player, all but one had less money than they started with and the winner made just an additional 200 on 2,500 initial capital. In defence of the game, we could all have been playing badly (or just too boldly) and, with experience, we are going to be more careful. However, a game in which you can easily get burned badly for trying anything just feels a little negative. Fortunately, I believe the game could be substantially and simply improved by downscaling the fines to more reasonable levels - say 10, 50, 100 or perhaps even colour linked - this would be a matter of fine tuning to get the exact figures but this should not be beyond the Dagger's Tune and Lubes of this world.

This then leads us into exactly the same discussions we had over Dicke Kartoffeln. I felt that was a good game and personally wouldn't consider 'doing nothing' to win but the counter argument is sound (and tempting for competitive types) and the game almost certainly should cope with this 'stuffing' approach. Whether that makes it a bad game is perhaps moot because while it doesn't really work properly now, it is so close to being good that I am happy to remain positive about it. Emotive to the last. The underlying gripe is that the gamer shouldn't have to do this work and, again, I wonder why it wasn't commented on during playtesting either here or at Abacus HQ - but saying that will only get me into trouble. For these reasons, Ali Baba as it stands is only a qualified recommendation that marks the welcome return of Abacus to 'big' game production but which, with some tweaking and balancing, could easily rank with the better games of the last year or so. It's just a shame we have to do it.

On to the review of Schatztaucher or back to the review of Dambusters.

Sumo - Mike Siggins - Legal Notices and Other Information