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Muscat is a tactical tile-laying game in which players try to work their way up a social ladder and where, as with real-life social ladders, the rewards for success and the penalties for failure are greater the higher you go. The setting for what is basically an abstract game is an Arabian Nights style sultanate and the story line is that entertainers, newly arrived in town, are trying to work their way up from being the sort of act that busks on street corners to the sort that is invited to perform at the palace itself.
The tiles represent the entertainers and they are of four types: pipers, snake charmers, elephant trainers and fire eaters. Each player has 4 of each and the game revolves around the pecking order that exists among them. Unlike most pecking orders, this one is circular. Pipers outrank snake charmers; snake charmers outrank elephant trainers; elephant trainers outrank fire eaters; but fire eaters outrank pipers.
The board is divided vertically into "levels" and within each is a collection of squares with spaces for one entertainer of each type. Between each level is a "street", which is where you end up if your act finds itself being thrown out of the theatre. At the start of the game each player mixes their tiles face down and then turns one of them face up.
On your turn you may do one of three things. The first is to take either your face-up tile or a randomly drawn face-down one and place it in an available space on the lowest level. The second is to resolve a power struggle and the third is to do something fancy with a tile that had begun to climb but which has met with a reverse.
A power struggle is something that can happen if a square somewhere on the board contains three tiles. (Squares are not allowed to contain more than three.). The fact that there are three tiles there means that the circular nature of the precedence chain has been broken, to be replaced by a simple linear ordering. So, for example, if there was no elephant trainer in the square, you would have an ordering with the fire eater at the top and the snake charmer at the bottom. If a player chooses, they may use their turn to resolve things. What happens if they do is that the square is emptied, with the top two being moved up a level and the bottom one being placed on the street immediately below the level from which it was ejected.
Resolution of a power struggle is something that you will normally want to do if your man is in one of the good positions but not if he is in the bad one. In that case you will be hoping that something can be done to change things. This is where the vagrants, the entertainers who have already been put out on to the street, come into play. The third option you have in your turn involves moving one of these. The simplest and least aggressive choice open to you is to "reinstate" the tile. This means taking it from the street and placing it in an open space which is of the appropriate type and on the adjacent level. The other three are more hostile and, if you are entering into the spirit of things, will often be directed towards getting revenge on the player who put you out on to the street in the first place. They involve various types of switching, such as replacing an opponent's tile with your own. There is a price attached to these revenge manoeuvres, which is that you have to remove one of your tiles from the game, but it will nearly always be worth it, since not only will your position be improved but any power struggle positions that the manoeuvre produces are resolved immediately, thereby almost giving you an extra turn.
The ultimate aim is to get your pieces up to the top level, which is the sultan's palace. Once there they are safe. The game ends when a certain number of entertainers have reached this level, just how many depends on the number of players. Each tile you have on the board is now worth points, positive ones for tiles in the palace or on one of the squares in a lower level and negative ones if they are on a street. The points, both positive and negative, increase in magnitude the higher a tile is up the board.
This is a neatly constructed little game that will appeal to those who like slightly intricate, tactical struggles and who can live with the fact that the game also involves a certain amount of good and bad fortune. Whether your current face-up tile is the one that you would like to be holding is in the lap of the gods. So too, for the most part, is whether it is your tile or someone else's that loses out in a power struggle, since in my experience players are usually more concerned with moving their own tiles up than with which other tile is promoted with them or with which one loses out. However, if you are willing to accept such good and bad breaks and don't mind the inevitable dryness that comes with abstract games, Muscat will reward you with some interesting play.