Sheherazade, the sultan’s wife, was a smart cookie. Her husband, Shahryar, had got into a bad habit of executing his wives. Sheherazade wasn’t too keen on being another statistic. So, she started creating stories; wondrous tales, with amazing cliffhangers. Shahryar was a sucker to find out what would happen next in the stories, so he kept postponing the execution. Sheherazade kept this up for 1,001 nights, and after all that time, the sultan decided his wife was worthy of a pardon…
In Almadi, 2-5 players are Shahryar’s architects, vying to compete to build a realm worthy of Sheherazade’s awesomeness. This is a tile-drafting affair from Funnyfox, designed by Matthieu Bossu and François Gandon. So, is Almadi worthy of holding off an execution? Or is it destined for the chop?
The Elevator Pitch
Games of Almadi take place over 16 rounds, regardless of player count. At 2-3 players, you’re looking at 30-45 minutes. At 4-5 players, the game will last longer. Over the game, you’ll take turns drafting from an eight-strong public flop of landscape tiles. You pick one, add it to your realm, activate the tile (if triggered), and then replenish the flop. Once everyone’s drafted 16 tiles, you add up your scores and the most points wins.
That synopsis wouldn’t have cut it, mind, were that one of Sheherazade’s bedtime stories! Let’s zoom in for some juicy details…
A Realm To Honour A Sultana
Each player starts with an asymmetrical starting tile. This is a 1x4 vertical column, featuring one each of four basic landscapes: Oasis, Caravan, Market, and Palace. On the right-hand side of each of the landscapes sits either a leftward-facing arrow or an icon. Each of the five starting tiles is unique. Landscapes sit in differing positions, and the placement of their arrows and icons vary.
The public central board features a 2x4 grid. Eight random landscape tiles sit on here – two per row. (Tiles are Carcassonne-sized squares.) Each landscape tile has a border, with interactions sitting on all four tile edges. The borders all include either an arrow (pointing away from the tile) or an action icon.
On your turn, you pick one of the eight tiles off the central board, adding it to your realm. Pick a tile from the top-most row (1), and you have to place it in your top-most, first row. Take one from the second row (2) in the central board, and you have to place it in your second row. You get the gist! Whenever you place a tile, it has to sit in the right-most position along that corresponding row.
Once placed, you check: does the placement of this tile trigger an arrow facing an activation icon? If so, you perform the effect. Arrows facing arrows cancel each other, and likewise, icons facing icons are void. There are six different action icons: Genies, Marteline tools, Stalls, Moons, Rubies, and Jars. Five of them grant immediate functions, with the sixth (Jars) being end-game scoring. (Jars score 1 point per Jar facing an arrow at the end of the game.)
Arrow, Arrow, Arrow… What’s All This, Then
Triggering a Marteline tool grants you the top Mosaic card from the deck. There’s a range of Mosaics in the deck, which sits face-up, so all players can see which card’s coming next. (You want Mosaics to help with scoring your Palaces.) Triggering Stalls lets you take the top Stall card, which has goods on it. (Stalls help with scoring Caravans.)
Triggering a Moon let you take a public Objective card if you want. Objectives start the game public and face-up. They have requirements you need to fulfil to score their points. They’re like Ticket To Ride tickets: fail to complete one and you’ll lose the points, instead. Instead of taking one from the table, you can steal an incomplete Objective from another player! Once completed though, you cannot nab an Objective off an opponent.
Triggering a Ruby means the player gets to take that number of Rubies from the supply. (In a regular game of Almadi rubies score in accordance with the majority. There’s an advanced rule for them involving advanced Character cards, too.)
The most interesting icon is Genies. If you trigger a Genie, it grants you a wish: you can move any one of your tiles to a new location in your realm! (You have to still place moved tiles in the right-most space in the new row.) The cool thing about this is that now you can trigger that new tile according to its new location! Place it with smarts and this can cause a chain reaction of a second Genie moving another tile. There’s a limit to doing this three times per turn, though. Plus, you can’t move a tile back to its origin using a Genie. Still, it provides a lot of bang for your buck!
Skip To The End: How Do I Win?
Most of the actions work towards targeting various set collection criteria. You score some end-game points depending on the layout of your landscape tiles. Tile placement-wise, you score increasing points for the more adjacent Oases you have. (Also, a bonus for the player with the largest single Oasis.)
You’ll want contiguous Caravans, too. These offer potential points though, not guaranteed ones. The larger your adjacent set of Caravans, the more goods it can transport (which are then worth points). You need to have picked up goods via the Market tiles for this, as well as Stall cards. Collecting Caravans-galore without Markets or Stalls (or vice versa) is a dead-end.
At first glance, I found the Palaces a tad confusing to score, according to the rulebook. I’ve since deciphered them to score 1 point for being next to an Oasis or Market. They score an extra point for every other Oasis and Market tile adjacent. So, in theory, each Palace could score 5 points each (1+4). You can also score Palaces a second time, by placing a mosaic card on top of them. You include points for Objectives, Rubies, Jars (and Characters, if playing the advanced rules), and most points wins.
I Dream Of Jeannie
There are no limitations about your 16 tiles having any kind of structure. You don’t need to form a restricted, ‘Kingdomino-style’, neat square grid. You could, in theory, draft from row number 1 every time and place a row of 16 tiles in one long line! That’s not a wise move, strategy-wise, though. You’ll want to sit tiles in such a way, so every possible tile face has the potential to touch another. That way, you’ll trigger more arrows and actions.
The shuffled nature tiles entering the central board always cause a problem for you to solve in Almadi. Considering you want to place a certain tile next to another, you cannot rely on luck alone. You could wait it out and hope the central board replenishes come your next turn. It might reveal the tile type you desire in that convenient row. Or you can make your own luck…
The genies help with this. The powerful djinns have two purposes. Yes, they offer the amazing ability to move tiles to trigger actions a second time. When you pull off a chain reaction move like this, it’s awesome! Another angle is the benefit of them moving tiles into long-term scoring positions. “Oh, dang! That Caravan’s in the wrong row on the central board for me right now… And it’s the only one on there, among the eight!” No matter. Draft it anyway, place it now – in the ‘wrong row’ in your realm. Later on, you can use a genie to relocate it into a better scoring spot!
Of course, during set-up you pick equal quantities of the four landscape tiles. So, there are only so many Caravans, Oases, Markets and Palaces to go around. A quick scan of your opponents’ realms shows you who has the largest Oasis. This might lure you into hate-drafting! There are 22 of each landscape tile, and only in a five-player game do you use them all. Considering each tile has a different array of actions/arrows around its borders, you’re guaranteed a modular set-up.
Stealing Objectives? That Rubs Me Up The Wrong Way
The Objectives range in difficulty, and their points value reflects this. Taking an Objective early via a Moon gives you a goal to shoot for, and time to complete it. Some are tile-specific layouts, or a requirement of Mosaics, Jars, Rubies, or Goods. Once completed, you can relax!
But the fact that instead of taking a public Objective you can steal one off an opponent didn’t sing to my own tastes. You could spend a vast percentage of the game trying to achieve one. But if someone steals it off you moments before you complete it? This particular option wades a little too deep into ‘take that’ waters for my liking. Would you and your gaming group have an issue with this? That’s for you to decide.
What this does is amplify and double the urgency to complete Objectives. You need to decide if the 6-9 points are worth the hassle, or if you can sneak those points elsewhere. At least in Almadi there are plenty of ways to score points. Like any kind of ‘point salad’ game, you’ll need to dip your toe in a couple of points pools to do well here.
Islamic Tessellations Woven Throughout
Component-wise, the cardstock is solid. The plastic-moulded insert is perfect for housing the tiles by category. Set-up is all the quicker. The Mosaics cards are colourful, more so than the Stalls. The Objective cards are clean but rely on iconography. There’s a spread in the rules explaining them, though. Most gamers would be able to take correct guesses for them. There are five categories of Objectives, which gives each game a variety of goals.
There are double-sided player aids, with references to scoring, and the six action icons. Thank goodness for this; I’d hate to have to teach this game to newbies without this!
There are 26 asymmetrical Character cards you can add to the game as a variant. There’s an almost 50|50 split in genders represented. Victor Dulon’s art style is cartoon caricatures in generic poses. A close inspection will show geometric tessellations in the background on all cards. This nudges in a flavour of Islamic ornamental decoration.
Players get three Characters at the start, pick to keep two, and discard the third into a public row. You recruit Characters by paying their stated cost in Rubies. You have to judge how valuable hiring the Character is to you. Then you get to enjoy their unique ability from a point-scoring perspective.
Character abilities aren’t displayed via iconography. They’re written, so easier to grasp. I wouldn’t suggest these for your first time playing. Seasoned gamers wouldn’t feel swamped with their addition, mind. But like many in-game modules, they work best introduced after your first couple of games. Characters add a lot more depth, variability and replayability into the mixer.
Final Thoughts On: Almadi
One thing’s for sure: there are a lot of ways to score points in Almadi. A tad too much going on for casual gamers or for those discovering board games? I’d say so. Almadi isn’t a gateway game; it’s a next-step experience. For tile placement gurus who are looking for more of the same? They’ll find Almadi a pleasant, head-scratching puzzle. The theme is light and bolted on to a degree, but the mechanisms – especially those genies – make up for it.
With its blue box and 1,001 Nights Persian set dressing, it’s fair to want to draw comparisons to Five Tribes. Both games differ from a mechanical point of view, but theme aside, they do share other parallels. I’ve written about Five Tribes which you can check out here, and that too is a game about a series of set collection goals. Almadi and Five Tribes are also both about reacting on your turn. Neither allows you to plan ahead. Games, where you react, require a certain approach in philosophy.
This might frustrate a few players. The central board is a constant state of evolution. You can’t pick one tile, planning to place it next to another sitting on the board later on. Because your opponents might (hate-)draft that tile by the time your next turn comes around. Depending on whom you play Almadi with, gameplay can grind if they’re reanalysing the central board each turn. As your realm grows, so too do the possible locations for your next placement. Deciphering which is the best tile to draft for maximum efficiency could lure out dreaded analysis paralysis. This is especially the case planning mega-moves with the genies!
Trying to figure all that out at the start of your turn is very different to planning it between turns. As a result, I can’t say I’d want to play Almadi at five – or even four – players. For me, it shines as a 2-3 player game. Otherwise, the downtime between turns starts to feel like it’s been 1,001 nights since you last took a tile…