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Are you attractive enough to convince the princess to join your house and provide you with the skills you need to achieve your secret goals? Only a lucky or resourceful sheik can hope to welcome an Emira into his palace. Because in this distant desert land, it is the princess who chooses which palace she will join!
As a desert sheik, you will need to invest in the lucrative spice trade to furnish you with the wealth to improve your appearance, enlarge your palace, and expand your status in the kingdom so that the princesses will choose you instead of another sheik. But you will have to mind your funds carefully: these independent and self-confident princesses will not stay if you cannot provide them with the life of comfort that they have come to expect!
Emira is a satirical, historically themed game about desert nobles trying to attract princesses to join their household. While we neither glorify nor recommend setting up a harem, it sure is fun to watch those sheiks try to win over the self-confident and emancipated princesses!
Well, the number one topic when talking about Emira (Mayfair and Phalanx Games, 2006 - Liesbeth Vanzeir and Paul Van Hove) is going to be its theme. "Which Sheik will attract the Princess?" asks the cover, and indeed, the game is about players acting as sheiks to attempt to finish up their harem as quickly as possible. From the provocative cover to the mechanics of the game (women throw themselves at the sheiks for shallow reasons), someone is bound to be offended by it. It certainly is a unique theme, but what about the gameplay?
Setting aside the theme, which really does work with the game's mechanics, I find Emira to be a very enjoyable game. It has the appearance of an auction game, and indeed there are many auctions in the game; but there is more to it than that, with a "building" feeling to it. The theme made me a bit uncomfortable (although I laughed at it several times), and might turn some away; but for those who don't mind (or like the theme), Emira is a fresh feeling, intriguing game. It might go on a bit long for some folk, but it's a fulfilling, fun game and stands out against many blasé games that have been produced this year.
A board is placed on the table which holds a deck of Emira cards, status cards, and has places to put several other tokens. Camel tokens, palace section tokens, appearance "+1" tokens, and small and large supply pieces are placed in piles next to the board, while decks are shuffled and placed in the correct spaces. A pile of gold pieces and a deck of event cards are also placed on the table (with each player taking 750 gold). A pile of appearance counters are mixed into a bag - being of three types: beauty, manners, and attire. Each player takes a player board of a random color (each color starts with a different advantage). These boards have eight spaces on the bottom for palace sections, four spice supply tracks on the side, boxes for appearance counters in the middle, and an oasis spot for camels on the other side. A token of that player's color is placed on the first space ("50") of the camel track. Several goal cards are shuffled, and one is secretly dealt to each player. Each player is also given three event cards, of which they may keep one. One player is given the first player marker, and the game is ready to begin.
In each round, players first have the opportunity to play one event card, going in player order. Players then receive their permanent income, which is printed on their card (usually 250 gold), and any income from their spice trade tracks, moving each of them one space to the right. The top Emira card is flipped over, showing the princess who is to be wooed this round. Each princess shows two things that she is looking for in a man, with one of them the dominant trait. The top status card is flipped face up, and one palace section tile, one camel tile, and one small and large spice caravan tokens are placed on the main board as well as a random appearance token from the bag.
A bidding phase then begins, starting with the first person. Players
bid until all but one player pass, who must pay their bid to the bank
and choose one of the available actions (each action can only be
chosen once). The actions are:
- Buy a Camel: For 150 gold, a player can buy the available camel token. In future auctions, players pay 50 less gold for winning an auction for each camel they have. The amount of gold per camel can be changed by some event cards.
- Buy a Palace Section: For 500 gold, the player can buy the available palace section and add it to their palace.
- Improve your Status: For the amount of gold shown on the status card, the player can buy it, improving their status by "1" to "3", as directed on the card.
- Improve you Appearance: For 350 gold, the player may buy the appearance tile available. As soon as a player gets one of each of the three types of appearance tiles, they take a "+1" appearance token and place it on their card.
- Buy a Small Spice Caravan: A player may take the small spice caravan and place it on their "slow" track (which costs 450 gold, but pays them 150 gold for the next eight turns), or the "fast" track (which costs 550 gold, and pays them 300 gold for the next four turns).
- Buy a Large Spice Caravan: A player may take the large spice caravan and place it on their "slow" track (which costs 750 gold, but pays them 250 gold for the next eight turns), or the "fast" track (which costs 900 gold, and plays them 500 gold for the next four turns).
Once a player takes an action, they are out of all future auctions, until each player has taken one action. Players are free to pass and take no action and can even take 150 gold from the bank if they meet some requirements that prove they are fairly poor. At this point, the princess who is face up decides which sheik she is going to live with. First, only sheiks who have enough room are considered (each sheik can support up to two princesses, plus one for each palace section they have). Then, amongst these sheiks, whoever has the highest amount of whatever the princess desires (money, largest house, "+1" appearance tokens, or status) gets the princess. If there is a tie, then the secondary desire of the princess is examined. If there is still a tie, then the princess goes to an "undecided" pile, which she leaves the moment the tie is broken.
All players must then pay 50 gold coins for each princess in their house, or else one of them will randomly leave; and then first player passes to the person to the current starter's right, and another round begins.
Some of the princesses provide bonuses or negative modifiers (some give a "+1" status, others require 100 gold coins for upkeep, etc.). Each princess also has one or two abilities (such as singing, romance, cooking, etc.). As soon as a player meets one of the two requirements on their goal card (get a certain amount of princesses, or get a smaller amount but with a certain number of abilities), they win the game.
Some comments on the game…
1.) Theme: Let's get this out of the way in the beginning, since it's certainly going to be a conversational point with gaming groups, if nothing else. Despite the fact that harems were a historical reality, and despite the fact that the game tones down on the theme quite a bit (and even goes against it to a degree, by having the women choose the sheiks, and not the other way around), this game is going to offend folks. Not everyone will be offended, to be sure, and the game is fairly tasteful in portraying what could have been rather lewd. Some folks found the game distasteful, others found the game hilarious, and indeed we made jokes about the gameplay as it went on. Still, like another reviewer stated, the theme made me uncomfortable, and the provocative cover doesn’t help much. I didn't even attempt to play the game with my teenagers and can think of other situations where it wouldn't work very well. Still, the theme does fit the mechanics well (the only alternative I thought of was attracting friends in high school), and each person will have to decide for themselves whether or not they should play the game.
2.) Components: Emira comes chock full of components in its plastic insert. Piles of different cards (differentiated by different color backs, counters, player boards, and more all come packed in, and setup actually takes a little while. The counters are of high quality and have excellent artwork on them, as well as the cards. The money is sometimes easily confused (as all denominations use the same color), but that's necessary since players can usually keep it hidden. Everything fits on the player boards well, and I can see at a glance what my opponents have. A couple niggling problems are evident: I'm not sure why the main game board doesn't have a place for event cards when it has room for all other cards; and the caravan tokens are cylinders, which keep falling over - why didn't they use cubes? Still, these are minor - and the way everything works together, especially the player boards, is well handled. Everything fits inside the typical sized box, and very few plastic bags are needed.
3.) Rules: I was a bit overwhelmed by the twelve page rulebook with a LOT of text when I first read it and actually had to set the game up to get a full grasp of what was going on. It's full of illustrations and explanations; but there is a lot going on, so new players may be confused, especially since princesses start moving on the very first turn. Once the game goes for a few rounds, everything becomes evident; so I usually play the game a little to teach it to new players.
4.) Money: Money is used to auction with in the game, although some players find that deliberately passing on all auctions keeps their money supply higher. I personally enjoyed the camel feature, and how it inflates the cost of auctions. Some may find this artificial and forced, but it allows a player to go first with little opposition, which causes camels to have an increased value. I wasn't so fond of the fact that the only way to increase the value of individual camels was through an event card, that one only got by luck of the draw, but found that it wasn't as powerful as I thought. One interesting money mechanic is the annoying upkeep of the princesses. If a player gets two or three princesses quickly, they can find themselves struggling to stay afloat monetarily. The caravans will help a player, but cost initial money to begin with, and keep the player from choosing other, sometimes more important options.
5.) Choices: To me, Emira is a game about choosing, rather than auctions. Yes, the auctions determine who gets to choose first, but the amount of money a player has to spend is often just as determining a factor. Status cards are sold for a varying price and are often the most contested feature; while appearance takes a while to increase, as a player has to buy three different tiles to increase it by one. A few of the shallow princesses are attracted by money, so sometimes the best choice is no choice, as players simply increase their cash on hand. The building option is necessary, as players need to increase their palace size to add more princesses, but is costly, at 500 gold coins a section. I found the choices in increasing one's stature to be fascinatingly interesting and the best part of the game.
6.) Princess: One small drawback is that players have to plan what they are doing, and then hope that the princesses will fall in line. It's a bit annoying to have a princess come to you who has a negative modifier, and there's no really easy way to get rid of her (other than to not pay upkeep, and hope she's the one who randomly runs away). Each turn a new princess is turned over, and players adjust their tactics accordingly. I've seen some variants on the 'net in which players turn princesses over a turn ahead of time, allowing players to work towards a goal - and I'm not sure that's a bad idea. For now, players have to work towards a goal of their choosing and hope that the princesses fall in line. There is a fairly even amount of princesses who are attracted by each feature, so odds are that you'll get your women eventually. (I'm having a hard time typing some of this with a straight face.)
7.) Events: At the end of each turn, players can pay 150 gold to buy two event cards (picking one) or 250 gold to buy three (still only keeping one). This is an interesting mechanic, as some of the event cards can be really helpful for your specific strategy, while it also can be a waste of money if you don't get any cards you need. I've found that the 250 gold is usually not worth the one extra choice, but I like the event cards enough to throw away the cash whenever I get a chance.
8.) Fun Factor: Setting aside the theme, which will probably contribute to/detract from the fun for many players, I enjoyed the aspect of building up my features. It's hard to decide what to do, as you simply don't have time to increase everything - but must choose what is more important. I've simply concentrated on one aspect (such as having a huge house), and hope that it brings in the winning combination; but I've also lost every game I've played, also. But even in the losing, I've had a lot of fun, so I know the game is good.
Emira is considered long by some - at two or so hours - although I found it engrossing the entire time. Others will be turned off/on by the theme. But taken for what it is, there is no denying that the theme helps the game mechanics make sense, and the way players build up - especially with the clever money making mechanic of the caravans (choose the slower ones!) is something I enjoy. Will I play it often? That is a question I don't have an answer for, as the theme keeps it from coming out more than it should. But the delightful time I had playing also is tugging at me, and we'll have to wait until the future to see whether the theme beats out the mechanics.
"Real men play board games"