Aladdin's Dragons

A board game for 3-5 players by Richard Breese, published by Rio Grande Games.
This review is Copyright 2000 by Steffan O'Sullivan
This page last updated June 15, 2000

Aladdin's Dragons is an excellent board game with a rich setting. As is typical for Rio Grande Games, the game is beautiful: lush color board, handsome plexiglass treasure pieces, sturdy colorful chits and cards, stand-up screens to hide your chits and treasures. All are easy to use and read. This helps set the mood of the game, which takes place in the Arabian Nights era, of course.

(And, as a point of interest, it's an American translation of a German adaptation of a British game ...)

The Premise

Each player in the game has assembled a team of eight adventurers (with a chance to recruit more). There are treasures available to those bold enough to dare the dragons' caves where they can be found. Once you have the treasures, you may try to gain privileges to help you to barter the treasures for magic artifacts in the Caliph's well-guarded palace. The winner is the one who has the most artifacts at the end of the game.

The Board

The board has 15 spaces, in three rows. The bottom row consists of five dragon caves. Each turn, a number of treasures is distributed in the five caves as shown on a randomly drawn card. There are five types of treasure, but not all will be found in any given turn.

The middle row has only four spaces, those of the city streets. Here you can vie with your fellow players for magic spells, the ability to use more than one artifact in a turn, treasure-swapping, and the right to be first player.

The top row has up to six spaces: a guard room and one palace room for each player in the game. In each palace room can be found an artifact - whoever bids the most treasure in each room gets the artifact in that room.

The game is played in two phases: the chit-placing phase, and the room-resolution phase.

Chit-Placing Phase

In the chit-placing phase, each player, starting with the first player, places one of their eight adventurer chits face down in any of the 15 spaces on the board. When all players have placed a chit, one at a time, they place their second chits, and so on. It's best to be last player during the chit-placing phase: you get to see where others are concentrating their forces before having to commit yours.

Each chit has a number, from 1-9 (you don't start with a 3-chit). You can, over the eight rounds of placing chits, place more than one in a given space, if you wish. But you can already see that eight chits to cover 15 rooms means you'll have to decide which rooms to concentrate on, and which to ignore in a given turn.

Room Resolution Phase

Once all chits are placed, the chits are revealed, one room at a time. You start with the leftmost dragon cave, and then go across the whole bottom row. Then you resolve the middle and top rows, one room at a time in order.

To resolve a space, reveal all the chits in that space. Whichever player has the highest total printed on his adventurer chits in the space wins the space. For example, if I put two chits into the first dragon cave, my 4 and my 6, I win if you only put your single 9-chit there. However, in some spaces, the second and even third or fourth place player can win something - this is especially true in the dragon caves, where there may be more than one treasure in a cave.

Ties are won by the first player, or the player closest to the first player's left. Thus it's good to be first player in the room-resolution phase, a nice balance to the chit-placing phase.

The Streets of Bagdad

Next you resolve the street spaces, the first of which is Aladdin's Tent, which allows you to win Magic Spell cards.

There are 21 different spells, one of each, and they can be cast at any time by use of your Magic Lamp artifact, which all players start with. They range from fairly powerful to fairly mild in effect, but are always fun and make the game different each time.

Normally you may only use one artifact each turn. However, whoever wins at the Djinn's house, the second stop in the street-level row, has the right to use two artifacts that turn. Everyone starts with a Magic Lamp (but no spell cards to cast - you have to win those). Available in the palace are five other types of artifacts:

  • a Flying Carpet, which allows you to add a "3" adventurer to a room after the chits have been revealed,
  • a Counterspell token, allowing you to cancel another player's magic spell,
  • a Key to bypass the palace guards,
  • a Doppelgänger, to double any one adventurer after the chits have been revealed, and
  • a Scroll which acts as a tiebreaker at the end of the game.

So winning in the Djinn's House in the second or later round might enable you to use your Key and your Magic Lamp, for example, or to fly in a 3-chit on a Flying Carpet to give you the lead in a room, etc.

The final two street spaces are the Market and the Caravanserai, which allow you to swap one treasure for three, and the right to be first player, respectively. Once those are resolved, it's on to the Palace to barter treasure for artifacts.

The Caliph's Palace

There are ten palace guards, ranging in value from 1-10. Each turn they are randomly mixed, and one is selected for the turn, still face down. When the room is resolved, turn the palace guard face up. Your adventurer must be the same value or higher in order to get into the palace rooms. If you're low, you can bribe the guard with treasure for the difference - or use your key artifact (if you can still use an artifact this turn - see above).

Each palace room has a number of artifacts stacked face down. Only the top artifact in each room is face up, available to be won in a given turn. The player who has the highest value in adventurer chits in the room wins the right to buy the artifact. But ... you have to pay a number of treasures equal to the value of your winning chits! Each chit value must be all the same type of treasure. So if you win with a 2- and a 4-chit, you must pay four of one type of treasure and two of a different type. If you don't have the right amount of treasure, the second-place winner in the room may buy an artifact at their own chit level.

That's a game turn. Continue until all artifacts have been collected (usually six or seven turns), at which point the game winner is the player with the most artifacts. The most scrolls break ties.

Why Wouldn't You Like This Game?

Well ... it's not to everyone's taste, but that's hardly a flaw: no game is to everyone's taste. So I'll try to address why you might not like it, and you can call them flaws or not as you see fit.

First, although you couldn't tell it from the above description, most of the game takes place in the chit-placing phase; this takes up the bulk of the time. Some people simply don't like hidden information games, and all chits are kept hidden until each player has played all eight chits. In a five-player game, this means 40 chits, of course. That's a lot of time spent processing hidden information, and it might drive some people batty.

Secondly, there can be a runaway leader problem. If you win a good artifact early, you can sometimes use it to make sure you continue to win more good artifacts, and to insure that other players win fewer artifacts. This has only been the case in a fairly small percentage of the games I've played, but it is sometimes present, so I thought I'd mention it. This is eventually self-correcting as you learn that Flying Carpets and Doppelgängers are very powerful artifacts (especially to someone who wins at the Djinn's House!), and they become highly contested. That is, if you're going to let your opponent win one of these in the first half of the game, better make sure they pay a lot for it ...

Third, the 21 spells vary significantly in potency. If I get lucky and get three powerful spells in my three trips to Aladdin's Magic Shop, and you get three mild spells, I'll have a significant advantage in the long run. Of course, the way around this is not to let your opponent win in Aladdin's Tent, but that takes a lot of your limited resources ... A better fix might be to read the spells carefully after having played a few games, and either remove or modify some of the stronger ones. I haven't done this yet, but am tempted to - I'm worried the luck factor in drawing spells might ruin an otherwise great game.

Fourth, if you don't allow reaction time, play can get messy. For example, if I cast a spell, I must give the other players time to think about the implications and decide if they wish to use their Counterspell artifact to cancel the spell. Otherwise, if I just bull ahead with the action, people may get annoyed that I've changed the board before they had a chance to think about it. So all players need to be patient with each other - which may not fit your style of gaming.

Finally, I suspect frequency of repeat plays is actually not all that high. I haven't had the game long enough to tell for sure, but I believe this is the type of game I'll pull out once every two or three months instead of weekly. But I'm fairly confident I will continue to pull it out every few months for many years (and I have a lot of games to compete with for play time!), so that's not strong criticism. But to some people, it may be.

Summing Up

Each game is very different, and the game plays well with three, four, or five players. It's not hard to master the mechanics, but it's always a challenge to know where to place which adventurer chit. This is an excellent game that plunges you into an interesting, colorful world of difficult - but rewarding! - decisions.

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