Small footprint solo/partner games are the comfort food of the tabletop realm. They’re easy to break out, quick to engage, and warm the soft edges of the brain’s pleasure center. They feel finite and bounded, and you feel in control.
Shahrazad is such a design as this small box of coaster-like tiles can be pulled out on a whim. The story here–yes, there’s always a story–is that one or two players take on the role of Shahrazad, weaving radical folktales from across the world as you spin yarn for the King. The iconic fairy tales are presented with gorgeous illustrations on the over-sized tiles and are communicated to your liege via laying them out in strategic patterns; all the joys of miscommunication with the satisfying action of tile-laying.
While the story is touching, the theme doesn’t really come through. Shahrazad is a logic puzzle that spits out pieces in a random order and leaves you to assemble the picture. It’s a strategic game with many subtleties, but it could certainly possess just about any other veneer. Still, the illustrations are so phenomenal and pleasing that you can easily appreciate the decision to ground the challenge of play into colorful context.
In terms of categorization, this design slides in nicely alongside Onirim. It’s similarly a bit surreal at times and continually shakes up your tactical foundation, inflicting tough choices. Whether you revel in those difficult decisions will greatly determine your satisfaction with this game.
Describing the mechanisms of this one is somewhat challenging. Each turn you draw a new tile into your hand and then choose to place one of the two you possess. Each coaster has a color and a number, with the number sequence spread in a deliberate way across multiple colors. You will place the tile onto the table adjacent to the ones already forming the foundation of your work.
As the center of play builds, tiles will spread from left to right in a wobbly pattern. When the deck runs out you head to a scoring phase where you alternate between cursing the King and laughing at your own strategic ineptitude. The problem is that you are trying to cluster like colors in continuous strings. However, all tiles touching a higher numbered piece on their left side must be flipped. Thus, the challenge is placing tiles in ascending order from left to right, while needing to form continuous pathways.
It’s a little more subtle in that each tile must connect to a path of adjacent pieces that stretches to the far ends of both sides. Additionally, you are limited to three cards in each column of the chain. These mechanical limitations in combination with the random draw make for a very difficult challenge. The flip-side is that when you eventually pull off a fantastic round it feels extremely satisfying.
Once you’ve scored your assembled narrative, you then wipe most of the board and play through one more round to get your final combined score. Scores are judged on a graded superlative scale–think Hanabi–and you’ll likely score very low as your Shahrazad career begins to bud. You have to get back up on your horse and push forward. As Tupac Shakur poetically spouted, “just cuz you began in the ghetto doesn’t mean you can’t grow.”
The game will also feel extremely random at first as you struggle to come to grips with the stack tossing numbers your way that are difficult to place. If you give in and lose patience it can even approach frustrating. It will not take long though to realize you are probably ignoring the underrated option to remove a tile from the board and then place two in succession. This allows you to re-jigger the contraption in the midst of play, but it will require care and precision to push forward.
Shahrazad’s redeeming personality consists of this revealing of layers over time. You will grow in skill and new depths of play will emerge. You will hit new high scores and your grasp of strategic concepts will blossom like a spring rose. It’s also interesting that the two-player mode doesn’t allow communication between partners (we call this mechanism a “relationship”). This creates an additional vector for skill to develop. You’ll need to feel your teammate out and fall into a rhythm if you want to succeed.
This is a solid entry into the growing sea of small box games. It may be a little wonky and difficult at first as you work to grok the larger picture, but it falls into place and delivers on its promise. Heck, even if the game never sticks, at worst you have a beautiful set of coasters for your glass of Chateau Margaux or can of Natty Light, depending on how you roll.
Do you enjoy small box games? Plan on checking out Shahrazad? Tell your story in the comments below!
Cover Image Credit: Osprey Games
Image Credits: Osprey Games, Charlie Theel