Review: Sultans of Karaya

Sultans of KarayaDespite my personal aversion to classic “find the traitor” games such as Mafia and Werewolf, my gaming group has recently become infatuated with The Resistance, a simplistic but challenging hidden traitor game.  While it has become a weekly “warm-up game” staple, The Resistance tends to be a bit dry, and several group members have voiced their desire for a better-themed, more interesting game with similar mechanics.

Enter Sultans of Karaya, a small-box hidden role game designed by Alex Weldon.  It is published by MJ Games and distributed in the United States by Asmodee.  5-15 players are supported, with play times around 45-60 minutes.

Gameplay consists of five rounds with a running score determining the final winner.  Each round, players are dealt role cards belonging to a specific faction.  On one side is Loyalists — the Sultan and his Guards — a corrupt government that wishes to oppress the people and live in opulent luxury while the masses suffer.  The Rebels consist of  Assassins and Slaves, whose goal is to overthrow the government either by direct means (murdering the Sultan) or via popular uprising.

Complicating things are the Neutrals, a rotating cast of characters with conflicted or shifting loyalties.  Most Neutral characters can choose to win with one side or the other, and their presence adds an interesting twist to the standard Werewolf-style two-team system; it’s no longer a simple matter of “are you for us or against us?”.  For example, the Belly Dancer can either stay hidden as a faceless citizen and win with the Loyalists, or she can publicly support the Rebellion and use her seductive skills to distract Guards that may otherwise prevent an Assassin from completing his task.

Gameplay is quite simple.  Each player gets a single action in turn order.  Possible actions include peeking at another player’s role card, swapping with another player’s face-down role card, or taking a character action.  Using a character’s action results in the role card being turned face-up, so everyone at the table will immediately become aware of a player’s current loyalty.  This often leads to chaos as other players respond — either by supporting the player or by using the opportunity to eliminate an enemy.

Here’s a reminder of the elements we look at when evaluating games:

Components – Does the game look nice? Are the bits worth the money? Do they add to the game?
Accessibility – How easy is the game to teach, or to feel like you know what you are doing?
Depth – Does the gameplay allow for deeper strategies, or does the game play itself?
Theme – Does the game give a sense of immersion? Can you imagine the setting described in the game?
Fun – Is the game actually enjoyable? Do you find yourself smiling, laughing, or having some sense of satisfaction when it’s over?

Components: Sultans is card game at its core, but the cards are oversized squares approximately four inches by four inches.  It gives the game a unique look but causes a few serious problems.  The role cards are thick enough to resist bending and creasing, but the glossy finish makes them especially prone to scratches.  After just a few plays on a clean dining room table several of the cards were already “marked” if one looks closely enough.  I like the square cards in theory, but the problem is that they can’t be sleeved — and this is exactly the type of game that becomes ruined as soon as a single face-down card can be distinguished from the others.

Accessibility: Sultans is quite easy to teach, as there are only three possible actions each turn.  The eight different role cards may be difficult for new players to keep straight at first, and the specific details — such as when the Sultan can reveal himself — usually take a couple of rounds before everyone catches on.  Fortunately, the game is fast enough at around 45 minutes that it can be played in a “learn as you go” environment.  I’ve played with a few people who aren’t serious gamers, and they picked up the rules and strategies fairly quickly.

Depth:  Make no mistake: “traitor” style games (with the notable exception of Battlestar Galactica) are generally not very deep, and Sultans is no exception.  There are only a few available actions, and most games are going to end up with similar sequences of events: usually the Sultan will reveal or be found by another player’s peek action, a cascade of responses will occur, and the round will end quickly.  There’s definitely some strategy to be found, and I’ve seen several instances where one side was able to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat through clever politicking and a timely swapping of role cards.

Theme: The idea of a corrupt government against a popular revolution fits wonderfully with the intrigue and betrayal found in this type of game.  The art style is well-implemented, with colorful and cartoony depictions of each character on the respective role cards.  Some of the design elements, such as the borders on the cards, look a little unpolished, but overall the visual style of Sultans is consistent with the theme.

Fun:  After several plays with groups of varying size and composition, I find that Sultans usually offers a genuinely fun experience.  The table is often full of chatter and accusations, and even players who don’t generally like betrayal-style games have cheerfully jumped into the fray.  The best action usually isn’t obvious, and the threat of imminent destruction at the hands of an opportunistic rival keeps the game exciting.

The ability for a game to support up to fifteen players is always welcome, although I find that the “sweet spot” tends to be right around eight.  Any less and strategic options become limited (there’s only one each of the key Guard and Assassin cards in play), and above ten or eleven the game becomes overly chaotic, with too much downtime between player turns.

Unfortunately, Sultans has a few gameplay flaws that prevent it from becoming a weekly favorite.  A major complaint is that play often feels too “gamey”.  For example, I may take an action that hinders my own team to prevent a point leader from scoring, but this seems contrary to the spirit of the game. Kingmaking becomes an issue in later rounds, as several players will generally find themselves out of contention for first place, and a single role’s action (or inaction) can swing the game one way or the other.

The ability to swap out role cards with other players can be frustrating; I’ve often been on the winning team, only to be swapped with and have the round end before my next turn.  There’s no defense against this other than a persuasive argument.  Also, Sultans includes my least favorite game mechanic, player elimination.  Rounds are fairly short — lasting five or ten minutes at most — so this doesn’t completely ruin the experience, but there are few penalties less fun than actively not being allowed to play a game.

Overall, Sultans of Karaya offers a unique take on role-based traitor games, and despite a few fundamental flaws often shines through with moments of brilliant and rewarding gameplay.  This is certainly not a game for everyone; Euro-game purists won’t find much to love, and the game desperately needs a second printing that resolves the issues with the physical components.  Still, if you have a large group that enjoys role-based games like The Resistance and Citadels, Sultans is worth checking out.

Rating:

3 out of 5

1 comment to Review: Sultans of Karaya

  • Thanks for the review. The criticisms are all fair and as you say, it’s not a game for everyone; it’s a party game, with politics in abundance, so those with a more competitive disposition will no doubt be frustrated by the extent to which everyone is at the mercy of the other players. The main fun in the game comes from the hilarious twists of fate that are possible, but only if you’re cool with the fact that things are often out of your hands.

    As for the cards, we felt that we needed to make them big because there are only 16 of them; it’s not a game with a lot of components, and even though the price is very low as games go, we didn’t want anyone feeling disappointed with the amount of “stuff” they got for their money. But you’re right that the impossibility of sleeving them is an unfortunate side-effect. At the very least, I’ll recommend to the publisher that we go with a matte finish for subsequent printings.

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