Shahrazad is a new puzzle game for one or two players from Osprey Games, publisher of the two-player Agamemnon that made my top 10 games of 2016. Featuring gorgeous artwork by Kotori Neiko, Shahrazad takes some very simple mechanics around tile placement and creates a tricky puzzle where finishing the game isn’t difficult but scoring well is.
Originally released in Japan in 2015 under the name “Tarot Story,” Shahrazad places the player(s) in the role of the famous storyteller from One Thousand and One Nights, trying to craft a story to please the king so he won’t have her killed. A story is a collection of tiles of the same color, and the stories must “make sense,” with tiles in increasing number from left to right on the table.
Whether as a solo game or two-player cooperative game, Shahrazad’s core rules are the same. There’s a deck of 22 numbered tiles in four colors, each depicting some image from a popular fairy tale. Players place tiles on the board one at a time from their hands of two tiles, either placing a new tile adjacent to what’s already on the table or replacing a tile on the table with a fresh one from their hands. Although you can put a tile anywhere as long as you adhere to the maximum of three tiles per column (or four for a solo game), you want to keep tiles in ascending numerical order from left to right as you build out the tableau, because any tile that has a value higher than either tile to its right is flipped over – and thus useless – when you score.
To score the tableau once you’ve placed all tiles, you flip over those tiles with lower values to their right, and then flip over any other tile that isn’t part of a direct line of tiles from the left column all the way to the right – a complete “story” in the game’s theme. Then you count up points by looking for the largest contiguous set of tiles in each of the four colors, subtracting one point for every tile you’ve flipped over and every gap between tiles in a column. If the result is positive, you play a second round, removing all flipped tiles from the board and putting them back in the box, keeping one column as is and shuffling the remaining tiles into a new deck. If the result is zero or negative, you have displeased the king and will be executed (it’s a tough game.)
The trick of Shahrazad is balancing between getting all the tiles on the table without invalidating more than one or two of them and still building the largest groups you can of each color. Any contiguous group counts across rows and columns; each color has a different number of tiles in the set, and it’s not possible in the two-player game to assemble a complete set of each (you can in the one-player game because of the four-tile max per column). And because tiles come up in random order, with every player required to play one tile from their hand of two each turn, you may find yourself forced to place tiles well out of your desired order – and once the draw deck of tiles is exhausted, you can no longer replace any tile on the table. The deck is trying to screw you, and it’s better for everyone involved if you just accept this and move on.
Playing solo, I found it was pretty easy to minimize the number of tiles I had to flip over after each round to one or two, but in the two-player version we had a few rough goes where we lost more tiles than that or lost the table entirely, which happens if you have to flip an entire column and can’t create contiguous paths from left to right. The scoring cards suggest you can get into the 30s in the two-player game and over 40 in the solo game, but other than one two-player game with a 30 (that’s combined across both rounds) I haven’t reached those heights yet. That’s the challenge of Shahrazad, since after a while the basic strategy to avoid zeroing out becomes obvious, while figuring out how to increase your score and prepare for those last two or three tiles is the real center of the game.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.