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[Review] Thieves of Bagdad

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Joined: 03/23/2011

I have to admit that I came into playing Thieves of Bagdad (Tilsit Editions, 2000 - Francis Pacherie) with a negative attitude. I had read some bad press about the game on the internet, and I wasn’t too impressed when I first saw it; it looked a little gaudy. Still, I love any theme that has the Arabian Nights as its backdrop, and the game purported to be a negotiation game; something I’m quite fond of. I finally got a group together and tried the game out, but with poor expectations.

And I loved the game. The negotiation phase was one of the most fun parts of a game I have ever enjoyed, with outright lying, wheedling, and threatening all occurring with everyone enjoying themselves and having a great time. The decisions in the game were varied, and there seemed to be quite a few different strategies and tactical decisions one can make when playing the game. I like a game that has negotiation, resource management, and tough decisions, and Thieves of Bagdad meets exactly those requirements.

A board is placed in the middle of the table, showing the city of Bagdad. The city is made up of five districts, placed in the city in a clockwise order from least important to the richest: Bazaar, Harbor, Sauk, Kasbah, and Palace. Each district is made up of a grid of hexagonal spaces that are one of two types: city or street. Each district is surrounded by walls, but gates connect each district to the next higher district. A desert, in which all new pieces start, is connected to the Bazaar district. A pile of district cards for each district is shuffled and placed near the board. Each player picks a thief card and matching thief token, as well as a pile of tokens that are the same color as their thief card. A Grand Vizier piece is placed in the desert, and one Grand Vizier order card is secretly given to each player, along with a small black bag. A pile of gems of different types and colors (yellow, gem imitations; blue, sapphires; green, emeralds; red, rubies; and clear, diamonds) are placed near the board. Each player takes two of their caravaneer tokens (marked with an “A”) and their thief and in turn order, then they place them somewhere in the Bazaar - the two caravaneer tokens on a shop hexagon - and the thief on a street space. The youngest player receives an oriental slipper piece, allowing them to go first, and the game begins.

Each turn has three steps, with the first being income. A player receives one trade card that matches the district in which he has a token on a shop space. Pieces that are in the streets gain their owner nothing. Each trade card shows a type of commodity (such as lead or sheep), and the values that the commodity is worth to each of the different thieves. For example, “Lambs” are worth six dinars (coins) to Said, because he deals with animals, while only one coin to Sheherazade, and two to Sinbad. Some trade cards are equivalent to a gem of a certain type, and other cards are known as “Surprises” (one is worth one coin, two together are worth ten coins, and three are worth fifty coins.) Players cannot show each other their cards or tell each other the values on them. They can announce the title of the cards, if they wish, and may lie about what they have.

The next step is the exchange phase. Players can trade or give each other cards, as long as they come to an agreement, exchanging cards face down. When all players have concluded trading (and have finished yelling at the liars), the purchasing phase begins. The player with the slipper goes first and spends one or more of his cards on one of the following purchases: Cards may be combined to get a larger total, but only one thing may be done with each purchase, and no change is given. (The cards are discarded to the bottom of the matching district pile.)
- Purchase a gem: A player may buy a gem with cards worth the correct amount of dinars or more or with the card that allows that gem to be taken. Each gem costs a different amount, with the diamond being the most expensive.
- Purchase a new agent: A player may buy one of four different agent tokens and places it in the desert. They may buy caravaneers (5 dinars), merchants (9 dinars), traders (12 dinars), or assassins (12 dinars).
- Purchase a move: A player may move one of their pieces (or the Grand Vizier) one space for each dinar expended. Moving from the desert to one space bordering the desert counts as one space. Tokens can move in any direction and through other tokens, though they may not go through walls or end their movement on the same space as another token’s. When the piece is moved, it may also utilize a special ability against a piece adjacent to it after its move is finalized. A merchant piece can “banish” (send back to the desert) any caravaneer piece. A trader can “banish” any merchant piece. An assassin can “kill” (remove) any piece on the board but is then banished (killed if the victim is also an assassin). A thief can steal from any other thief piece, by reaching into that players bag and blindly taking one of their jewels for themselves.
When a player is done with their purchase, they may make another one, or pass the slipper to any other player who still has cards. Players must eventually spend all of their cards, or discard them.

The game is over at the finish of the turn when the Grand Vizier is moved to one of the Palace district shop spaces. Each player reveals their Grand Vizier order card. If they have the required jewels requested on the card, they win (a joint victory is possible). If no one has met their requirements, then the player with the highest monetary value of gems is the winner!

Some comments on the game...

1.) Components: All of the components of the game are very bright and colorful, almost garish but certainly remiscent of the bustling ancient Arabian market. The board, while initially seeming very “busy”, is rather simple; and it’s quite easy to distinguish the walls in the city, and the difference between shop and street spaces is quite easy to distinguish. The tokens for the different pieces all have a different portrait on them, as well as a letter, helping to easily distinguish between them. Charts are placed on the board, showing the values of each gem, as well as the cost for the different agents. The artwork on the tokens, board, cards, and especially the thieves is tremendous and certainly adds to the mysterious flavor of the era. The plastic clear jewel pieces really were nice eye candy, and everything fit nicely into a good plastic insert in a decent sized box. (although I still bagged almost everything)

2.) Minor Gripes: I had a few small irritations with the components of the game. The bags for the jewels were very small, and it was quite difficult for some people (me) with their fat fingers to get them into the bags. Also, a pile of district plates was provided with the game in several languages. While this was nice in theory, I could have lived with the name of each district in another language, with the price of the game lessened. I hate having to place them each game, so I’m going to just glue the English versions to the board.

3.) Rules: While the rules weren’t in color, I really liked how they were laid out with excellent formatting. One impressive feature was a two-page illustrated spread of the game board, with different markers, denoting the various features. The back page of the rulebook was also an excellent synopsis of the game for quick reference. I found that the game was simple to teach, although proper values for the cards took a bit to understand.

4.) Strategies: Players have a wealth of strategies to pick from. One strategy can be buying as many caravaneers as possible, moving them into the city to gain that player more money so that they can afford anything they want. Other players are more aggressive and purchase assassins to kill the other’s minions, while using their thief to steal the jewels others have collected. Still others buy amounts of the worthless fake jewels to load their bags up to protect themselves from other pesky thieves.

5.) Fun Factor and Negotiation: This, for me, was the most fun part of the game. It was a real riot to watch players excitedly tell another player that they had an extremely valuable card for that player then give them junk. It was even more fun to watch that player scream about the deal, while just having done the same thing to another player. Of course, this means that thin-skinned people would probably dislike the game, but as long as everyone knows that double crossing will occur every turn (just like in Organized Crime), then nobody should hold a grudge. And players must learn to recognize if it’s more important for them to have a pile of small valued cards or a few large valued cards.

6.) Time: The only negative thing I have about the game is that it can take a good two hours to play. I thoroughly enjoyed those two hours, but this may be a turn off to some players. It’s possible for players to fall into the trap of “analysis paralysis”, and take too long deciding what to do each turn, but I haven’t run into a huge problem with it yet.

Thieves of Bagdad, which is loosely based on the movies by that name, gave me a very enjoyable time, and everyone I played the game with raved about it afterwards. I will state that I played the game with a bunch of thick-skinned folk, and I certainly don’t recommend it for people who tend to take their games too seriously. But if you love player interaction, with a lot of “take that!” play, then this game will be right up your alley. The time factor may be important for some, but there’s usually very little downtime for players (unless analysis paralysis kicks in). The entire game is about dealing with the other players, and the person who does this the best will win!

Tom Vasel
“Real men play board games.”

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