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Verrat! (In Hof des Sultans). (Treachery in the Sultan's Court), from Winning Moves is apparently not a new game, but was previewed at Nuremburg in the Spring, although neither I, nor anyone else I know, had come across it before Essen. It is a simple game in many ways, but offers the sort of opportunities for diplomacy and backstabbing that I really enjoy.
The first thing that strikes you on getting it is the design. Both box and board are illustrated in what I would describe as a ``nineteenth century European view of the Orient'' style and look very attractive. Once open, you get some very nice bits, starting with the board, which has the Sultan's court in the centre, 12 spaces for Viziers plus one for the Sultan, surrounded by seven cities, each beautifully illustrated and three prison cells leading to permanent banishment in a prison on a lake. Then there are the playing pieces, a black Sultan and the viziers, large wooden figures in four different colours (one for each player) and in three shapes and sizes so that every piece is individual. These are beautifully tactile pieces, rough and with a bit of weight, and offer a lovely contrast to the smooth, heavily laminated, board and cards. The cards come in seven types, six different power cards, (six of each), showing things like horses and ships, essential for any vizier intending a coup, plus six, ``Sultan's Mercy'' cards that allow a player to get one of their viziers back from jail. Finally there are two ``decision discs'' for each player -- one of which is used to choose a candidate for prison, and the other to show where the viziers are to go each turn -- and an egg-timer that is essential if the game is to flow rather than breaking down into interminable negotiations.
The aim of the game is first to assemble sufficient power, (cards), to make a coup possible, and then to move one of your viziers into place next to the Sultan where he can deliver the fatal blow and so take his place. The idea is though, that the viziers can only gain power by travelling out to the towns of the empire, but that while they're doing that, they lose their influence within the court, a neat balancing concept that powers the whole game.
Each turn involves seven phases. Firstly there is a period of negotiation, where the players are encouraged to discuss what they are going to do with their three viziers. The rules set out fairly strict time limits for this, and the egg timer may well be needed to enforce these if the game is to be kept short and tight. Once discussed, each player then uses their decision card to decide in secret where their vizier actually will go, which may or may not have anything to do with the discussions that have just finished. Each vizier may be sent to any of the seven cities, or to any of the twelve spaces within the court, which are each numbered. The numbers aren't fixed though, but are allocated randomly for each game by small number markers, so that the board is subtly different each time. Once all has been decided, the players reveal their choices and, normally after some recrimination, the viziers are moved as shown, except that if two or more viziers try to move to the same space within the court, they don't move at all, but stay put. Then, if any vizier is alone in a city, they take the top card, except in one, where they may look through the pack and choose one.
The next stage is to vote to send a vizier off to jail. A player's viziers are safe from this until they have collected 4 of the 6 types of power card. Only viziers in the court may vote, and the number of votes they get is shown by the number on their space, from 1 to 12. The vizier on space number 1 also has the right to steal a duplicate card from another player, a neat balancing mechanism that also prevents any player grabbing all the cards of one sort and so stopping the others from winning. The chosen vizier goes to jail number 1, and any viziers already there, move from 1 to 2 or 2 to 3 or 3 to the lake, from whence there is no return. Any vizier in jails 2 or 3 has a chance though, since the player can play a ``Sultan's mercy'' card and get them back onto the board. Finally all the viziers in the court move one space clockwise, and then it's time to start the next round. The game ends immediately if a player has all 6 types of power card, which are kept face up in front of them, and gets one of their viziers into the space next to the Sultan's right hand. Wins are generally a matter of a sudden strike rather than a long planned move, and so the end of the game is often unexpected.
As you can probably tell by the length of this review if nothing else, I really like this game. It's quick, 45 - 60 minutes should suffice, beautifully made, has some clever ideas and is relatively cheap, less than 40 marks here. The only negative points that I can see are the fact that it only works with exactly 4 players, the possibility that tedious negotiators might drag the game out, and the rulebook, which is a bit obscure, and in one case completely fails to cover one possible situation, which meant that we had to rule for ourselves, never very satisfactory. But all in all, I think that this is an excellent game, and one that I expect to play regularly whenever I can get the right people together.