The Treasures of Ali Baba
By Jean du Poël
Historien Spiele Galerie
Jean du Poël is famous for his game of Carabande, recently re-released as Pitchcar. Jean has also enjoyed some recognition as the author of Wettstreit der Baumeister, a Kosmos release of a few years ago. Other than these two releases, Jean has mostly fallen under the radar of mainstream European game fans.
But for those who delve a bit deeper into the European game scene, Jean has some name recognition. Jean du Poël has operated his own game workshop, Historien Spiele Galerie for several years. All games released through this label feature handmade components, such as hand silk-screened cards & playing mats, custom wooden playing pieces, and notable price tags.
Jean doesn’t generally receive a lot of respect amongst the gamer cognoscenti. His games are frequently criticized for weak rules. Players have often wondered how to properly play several of his games, or even if the game was play tested. But what Jean does do well is capture gamer’s imaginations. He frequently produces games with interesting themes: chariot racing in Ben Hur; adventure in Kolonial Africa; the sweep of history in Mare Meditteraneum; and the battle of Cannae for some examples.
The Treasures of Ali Baba is based on the familiar story from 1001 Nights. Perhaps this will jog your memory…”There once lived in a town in Persia two brothers, one named Cassim, and the other Ali Baba. Cassim had married a rich wife, but Ali Baba was poor, and made his living by cutting wood. One day when he was in the forest cutting wood, he saw a troop of horsemen coming toward him. Fearing they might be robbers, he climbed a tree to hide. Near the tree there was a steep bank formed of solid rock. When the horsemen came up Ali Baba counted them and found they were forty in number. They dismounted in front of the rock, and one, who seemed to be captain, said the words, "Open, Sesame," when instantly a door opened in the rock. Then they all passed through, and the door closed after them.”
The tale goes on from there, but we are more interested of what was within the cave. Players take on the persona of Ali Baba, meaning you wish to remove the most treasure from the cave. In the story, Cassim met with an untimely demise. So one would hope to do better than Cassim…
Jean du Poël often issues tube and deluxe editions of the same game. For this review I had the tube edition of Die Schätze des Ali Baba. The components are rather handsome. The tube itself is black and decorated with the same artwork as the game materials. The play area is a hand decorated faux leather mat. The player’s pawns are impressive two-part wooden pieces, resembling a pawn with a turban. The door to the cave is a rather big rock. The cards are hand silk-screened heavy cardstock. There are four wooden obstacles for placing within the cave, and a wooden tea light holder. In addition, there are a few dice. The German rules are designed to fit into a tube, and offer some nice illustrations.
I was fortunate enough to receive a set of English rules with my game. Even so, I found myself scratching my head after the first reading of the rules. Setting up the game helped clarify to some extent, but not entirely. Consequently, I hope to do a ‘free translation’ of the German rules myself. Partially because the English rules set I received has not been released to the public domain, and partially because many ambiguities need to be resolved for anyone to be able to play the game.
At the beginning of the game each player starts with a pawn in the bottom corner of the board. At the opposite corner of the board is the entrance to the cave. Every turn each player rolls a D6 to move. Players must move their pawns in a clockwise direction along the edge of the board upon a narrow track. At the left-hand corner is a space marked “Wüste” (Desert). Each pawn must stop there. To leave the desert a player must roll an odd number. Upon reaching the far corner players must pause on the corner before opening the mountain.
The heart of the game happens within the cave. The cave is large, dominating the game mat. Up to 40 square cards can be placed facedown, one per space, within the cave. This number will be reduced if the optional obstacles and tea light are used. The cards show the same back, depicting a vase. When a pawn ends its move on a vase the active player may inspect it, and claim the treasure shown. In addition, the player rolls a die to see if they break the vase. If not, they replace the treasure card with a blank card showing the same vase on the back. In this way the gameboard becomes depleted of treasures and filled up with worthless empty vases, or voids where vases were broken.
Complicating the player’s lives is the band of 40 thieves. Really it is just the black pawn, but he travels the board seeking to prevent the players from absconding with the treasures. Combat slightly favors the black pawn, encouraging all the players to give him a wide berth.
As players collect more treasures, they become encumbered, and forfeit movement points as their load increases. This allows the black pawn to possibly catch a player’s pawn. However, some of the treasure cards are empty backpacks and sacks, allowing a pawn to carry more treasure before becoming encumbered. Further, the black pawn is slow, rolling a special die with a top value of four.
In the original story, Cassim forgot the magic word and was trapped in the cave, meeting his demise at the hands of the band of thieves. In the game the thieves aren’t so bloodthirsty, they simply take treasures back from their victims. But the matter of opening the door is still important. The various treasures have the letters to ‘SESAM’ (the German spelling of Sesame) upon them. Only one letter will appear on any given treasure. In order to escape the cave the adventurer must collect the needed letters to spell SESAM for the door to open.
Once a pawn has escaped from the cave, he must continue clockwise upon the track along the edge of the board. At the right-hand corner is a space marked BAGHDAD. Each pawn must stop in Baghdad, and may only leave on the roll of an even number. Should the pawn fail to leave, one of its hard-earned treasures will be lost. Staying in Baghdad is expensive! Eventually the pawn will escape Baghdad, and travel back to the starting corner.
To win the game the player must have more treasures than any other player, and they must also have more treasures than what remains within the cave.
My Initial Evaluation
The game is highly themed. I find this appealing. The game materials are properly made for the tasks they are intended for. Most are quite attractive, although I find the obstacles to be merely functional, and not at the high state of ‘spielkunst’ that I had expected. Unfortunately, the central game mechanics are memory, and roll & move. These are not my favorite design elements in any game.
One major problem I had was divining the exact intent of the designer. This shows up in a few places, but significantly with the black pawn. Most of the game play is within the cave: finding treasures, and attacking other players with the black pawn. The questions around the intended use of the black pawn strongly color my reaction to the game.
At the start of the game, one player is assigned to move the black pawn. I found it unclear if the black pawn was subject to all the normal rules that other pawns adhere to. The black pawn starts the game in front of the cave, yet the instructions never say that the pawn should go straight into the cave. (I guess it does.) Absent definitive rules, I was left wondering how to properly use the black pawn. It’s role might be intended to explore the cave, gather treasure, and become encumbered, much like another player; OR it might be intended to simply patrol the cave causing players grief.
The band of thieves (the black pawn) wins by retaining treasure in the cave. So it seems unlikely the band of thieves would want to take treasure out of the cave. The black pawn may apparently roam the entire board. But why would he leave the cave, and why would he ever visit the desert? Rules mention how to deal with the black pawn’s visit to the desert, yet he starts by the cave, and should never need to go through the desert… I can understand that the black pawn might wish to leave the cave, and pursue the escaping player’s pawns through Baghdad. If he does this, should the treasures the black pawn holds count towards what is retained by the cave? The author clearly states that the black pawn rolls a special black die numbered from 0-4, but little else is told. I wish the author had given more commentary on the black pawn’s role.
I was unimpressed with the author’s decision to assign a single player to control the black pawn. A few rules are offered on how the black pawn selects its victims, indicating the author had some concerns about the power to move the black pawn. I wonder why the author did not choose to rotate control of the black pawn amongst the players?
The game begins with a short race to the cave entrance. It is a mere five spaces to the desert, and an additional five spaces from the desert to the cave entrance. This first part of the game seems trivial. Leaving the desert and then leaving Baghdad rely on rolling odd or even numbers. This is 100% random, with no opportunity to apply skill.
Within the cave there is the memory game, paired with a random roll for movement. While astute observation will help, there is a great deal of luck – either the card you land on is valuable, or it is not. I do respect the memory element of the game, even if it isn’t my favorite game mechanic.
The tea light and the obstacles are an interesting nuance. The designer mentions you might want to play in a darkened room, placing the tea light in the middle of the game mat. The shadows thrown by the obstacles provide safety from the band of thieves (they can’t see you).
While this might lend some atmosphere to the game, it does not really add any new mechanics to the mix. The playing spaces on the game mat are decorated with the light rays from the central spot for the tea light. It is entirely possible to incorporate the concept of safety spaces without lighting the candle.
The escape of the cave is nice feature. A pawn may not leave until it has captured at least five treasures, probably more, allowing them to spell S-E-S-A-M. This lends some uncertainty to the hoped for escape, and looks like a good addition to the game.
Leaving the cave, five spaces lead towards Baghdad in the right-hand corner of the board. Every pawn must stop in Baghdad, and risk losing some or even all their treasures in Baghdad. This is a random roll of a die, determining if you escape or must lose a hard-earned treasure. Finally five more spaces lead to the start/goal space, which brings the game to an end.
So the game finishes with a final burst of die rolls. Either you escape Baghdad relatively unharmed, or you don’t. It’s all in the dice…
But how does it play?
After reading the rules ahead of time, I finally got to play. Six of us gathered for the game. While the game is rated for 5 players, adding a sixth player is mentioned by the rules. The sixth player can be the band of 40 Thieves, operating the black pawn. I opted to take this role, and taught the game, as best I understood how to play. I forewarned everyone that we were going to have some ambiguities come up as we played.
The race to the cave is trivial, and rather silly. But it did cause the adventurers to straggle into the cave. I took the black pawn, which starts at the cave mouth, directly into the cave and began to gather treasures as quickly as possible.
We broke vase after vase, leaving few unbroken vases on the mat. The memory element of the game didn’t pose too much of a challenge to any of us. Many of the players were having trouble finding the needed letters to reopen the cave mouth. I patrolled the cave with the black pawn attacking everyone I could, and began to gather a fair bit of the treasure. Eventually the players began to attack the black pawn, as it was deemed I was a rich target.
One player finally gathered a bit of treasure and the needed letters to make his escape. With the black pawn, I pursued him out of the cave. The other players were now stuck in the cave, as there were not enough letters left in the cave to escape… Since the game supposedly doesn’t end until all the Ali’s get back to the start, we managed to create a never-ending game! I should mention we had placed the four obstacles and the tea light on the game mat, meaning five fewer cards were in the mix, exasperating the letter shortages.
Lots of other ambiguities came up. Too many to enumerate.
The Treasures of Ali Baba is a family-style game. The game is entirely random. Although there is a memory element to the game, it is largely undermined by the random breakage of the vases. The minor amount of skill (through good memory) employed during the cave portion of the game can be wiped out by a bad sequence of die rolls while in Baghdad.
On the positive side, the game is heavily themed. Game actions make a lot of sense with relation to the story. The game is quite handsome, making it an event to play. In addition, the game plays quickly. Six of us played in about 30 minutes.
Bottom line - this is a flawed game that fails to adequately inform the players how to play the game. Even if all ambiguities were ironed out, anyone who wants any degree of control in a game will hate this game.
I will be keeping The Treasures of Ali Baba in my game library, but will not be recommending it to anyone but game collectors.
- Last edited Sun May 20, 2007 6:06 am (Total Number of Edits: 1)
- Posted Mon Dec 20, 2004 7:31 pm