Liesbeth van Zeir &
Paul van Hove





The game Harem by Liesbeth van Zeir and Paul van Hove won the games authors' contest initiated by Hippodice in 2004. Now it has found a publisher, and under the title Emira it was added to PHALANX GAMES' list of products in fall 2006.

The background of the game is rather uncommon. It is settled in Arabia in the times of the Tales of 1001 Nights, but instead of dealing with fantastic tales the players take up the roles of Sheiks who try to find fitting women for their harem. To avoid the slightest accusation of political incorrectness, the rules set out with an introduction telling the reader that the game should not be taken too seriously and that the women in the game indeed are proud and independent by choosing themselves which Sheik they might want to join. Be this as it may, the game is at least out of line with many of the games published in the previous year or two, and thus I was rather eager to start playtesting...

Already a first scanning through the rules reveals the fact that the game features elements of economic planning and collecting, and the task of each Sheik to appear attractive to influence the women to join his Harem is more difficult as might be guessed when looking at the seemingly light and entertaining topic of the game. At the start, the players each set out with their own playing sheet, featuring a fixed income value for the trade with valuable spices, storage capacities for additional spice, a palace and expansion spaces, an Oasis to store camels and finally four spaces for different attractiveness-markers. On the latter the Sheik can put markers for appearance, manners and clothing, and whenever he has acquired a set of all three of these markers he is allowed to add an additional "+1" marker to such a completed set. These markers represent the attractiveness of a Sheik, and among other factors they will be used during the game to determine which Sheik a woman might join.

The main gameboard actually could be better categorized as an overview sheet, since it is used as a storage space for the different cards and counters available in the game. As starting preparation, the playing cards are separated into decks of women, status, events and victory conditions. Each player receives one event card and draws one of the victory condition cards to determine how he may win the game, whereas the other cards are put at the corresponding spaces on the main board. Each player also receives his playing sheet which also determines his starting benefit. Thus, the players do not all start with the same preconditions but have different starting layouts, with one player having a higher income or others already possessing a camel, a status card or an attractiveness-marker.

The victory condition card received by each player sets out how many women a player will need to have in his Harem to win the game. The card features a higher number which is the number of women the player at maximum needs to win, but it also features a lower number together with some attributes which forms a special victory condition. Each woman in the game has one or two out of four attributes (IQ, Libido, Housekeeping, Cooking), and if the player succeeds in inviting women to his Harem covering the attributes set out on his victory condition card, then he only needs to the lower number of women printed on the card to win the game.

The game then is played in turns, and each turn is split into several phases which need to be played through in a fixed order. In the first phase the players each have the opportunity to play one event card. Some of these cards feature special symbols, and if a card with such a symbol is played no other player is allowed to play a card with the same symbol this turn, since otherwise unwanted contradictory or cumulative effects could be caused. After the event phase comes the income phase. In this phase each player receives a fixed income in gold as printed on his playing sheet, but the players also receive an income from the trade with spices. During the game, the players have the opportunity to buy additional stocks of spice, and these stocks may be sold in different portions over the following turns (depending on size and speed of the portions sold), so that the buying of such a stock guarantees a player a higher income for some turns. This is followed by the preparation phase in which the main board is prepared for the turn. Now a woman card and a status card are revealed for this turn, and together with a camel marker, a palace extension, a large and a small spice stock and a randomly drawn attractiveness marker everything is placed at the appropriate spaces on the main gameboard.

The next phase is crucial for the further development of the turn, since this auction & action phase determines in which order the players may continue. Step by step, the players now bid for the privilege to act, and when all but one player have dropped out of the bidding that player will have to pay the amount of his bid to the bank and may chose which action he wants to perform. Next follows another round of bidding for the remaining players, and that way the phase continues until only one player is left who has not acted yet. This player does not have to bid - he receives his action for free. However, it is beneficial to participate in the bidding contest, since each kind of action possible in this phase is only available once. Thus, the highest bidder has to option to chose from all available actions, and the following players will have to orientate themselves which actions would be left for them. All actions are centered around the cards and counters which were placed on the main gameboard, so that the players may purchase spice stocks, the attractiveness marker, the status card, the palace extension or the camel. Whereas attractiveness and status directly serve to influence the women to join a player's Harem, spices and camels have an influence on a player's income. Thus, a player may reduce his final payment for his bid by 50 Gold for each camel he possesses, and in this way the possession of several camels may lead to a considerable saving in further auctions. The palace extensions are needed to house women (only two women fit into the starting palace), and furthermore they may influence women to join the Sheik since several women prefer a larger palace. Once all players have acted, all unpurchased markers go back into the common stockpiles.

Comming to the end of the turn, each player now has the option to by an event card before the woman currently displayed on the main gameboard chooses a Sheik to join his Harem. As indicated, women in this game have different interests, and thus some may go for the player with the highest attractiveness, others for the player with the largest palace, and even others for the player with the most valuable status card. If there is a draw between two players being equally attractive for a woman, the decision will be postponed and the women will decide to join one of these players once the draw has ended. As a final phase, a player will have to pay an upkeep of 50 Gold for each woman in his Harem, and if he cannot afford the upkeep for all of his women there will be unrest and one random woman will leave.

The game then starts with a new round, and it will continue until one player has succeeded in completing one of the conditions on his victory condition card.

However, the outline given so far only should give some basic understanding of the game's mechanics, and at this point it should be mentioned that a great deal of playing variety and interest is added due to the fact that many women posses a special ability which can become quite beneficial for a player who is lucky to have them in his Harem. Thus, an additional status card or an attractiveness marker may be associated with a woman, and this will make it easier for a Sheik to influence other women later in the game. However, there also is the possibility of negative effects, and thus a player may be forced to miss a turn or pay a higher upkeep for any other woman residing in the Harem. The effects are manifold, and since a likewise broad choice of possible event cards also exists in the game a player never can be too certain to win despite having a well-established leading position.

This factor of uncertainty rather well balances the otherwise quite calculable progression of a player's turn, and to my mind it greatly adds to the game's attractiveness. For this reason, I also consider the included rules for an expanded game quite unnecessary, since these rules only introduce some more details for the calculation of victory points which do not have a significant impact on gameplay.

To sum it up, Emira is a fully grown strategy game as we are used from many other games produced by PHALANX GAMES. You should not allow yourself to be mislead by either title or topic, but if you keep this in mind the purchase will prove to be rather worthwhile since a few of the game's mechanics are quite unusual and supplement the game's good entertainment value.

Looking for this game? Visit Funagain Games!

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Copyright © 2006 Frank Schulte-Kulkmann, Essen, Germany