Do the words semi-cooperative get your gaming juices flowing? Do the words real-time invoke more than thoughts of Bill Maher? Is your memory not taxed enough? Sidibaba, a new game from the wonderful folks at Hurrican, has all of these and more. It is a game that supports up to seven and plays in under 45 minutes once everyone knows how to play. It is a very nice looking game that offers something a little different than your run of the mill co-op. All of these attributes are things that will draw me like a moth to the proverbial flame.
I believe at this point a quick description of the game is in order. Players select one person to be the “Master of Thieves” (MoT) while the others represent Sidi Baba and his companions. Their job is to break into grotto controlled by the MoT and take back what the thieves have plundered. They are equipped with a dozen lamps to use in the dark maze. Each lamp lasts 3 minutes (as measured by a sand timer) and is used to light the way. Once the companions have found the treasure they must make it back out of the maze. If they can do this before all of the lamps run out then they win. The MoT is at cross purposes to the companions. It is up to him to throw obstacles in their way, steal some of the treasure they have found or otherwise try to slow them down.
I mentioned earlier that the same is “semi-cooperative” and I should explain that term. Cooperative games come in many varieties. Some pit all of the players against the game and everyone wins together or loses together. Others challenge one player to stop a competing group of cooperating players. Still others have two groups of undetermined size simultaneously working together and working against each other so that their side wins. This game is semi-cooperative in that the companions are working together for the greater good but in the end the person with the most treasure wins (assuming they make it out alive!)
The main mechanism of the game is navigation of a hidden map. The MoT, acting more like a DM, picks out a map and sets up the four “loot boxes” and the large treasure chest in the spaces of the map. The leader of the companions (the person at the front of a single file line with a lit lantern) decides which way to go as they walk though the maze. One of the coolest things about the game is that at every step though the maze the MoT shows the players a card that has a picture of what they would see as if they were actually walking though the maze. If there is a turn to the left and right ahead the picture on the card would show that. The maze is a 6 by 6 square and at each step the players have 6 choices that they can make to explore the maze. They can step forward and face either to the left, right or straight ahead. They can also stay in place and face to the left, right or turn around. Staying in place and facing the same direction amounts to doing nothing and while there is nothing in the rules against it it is not very productive especially considering the clock is ticking.
If the players reach a loot box or the treasure chest the players divide up the contents in the order that their player pieces are standing in a single file line with the first player getting the first choice. You can see how this might create some delicious tension amongst the players. When a lantern runs out (at the end of three minutes of play time) players must decide on a new order and line up their pieces accordingly. Meanwhile the MoT has flipped the timer and time is ticking away.
The MoT also has some tools to aid her in her sworn duty to stop the companions and in her promised duty to make the game fun. Each time a lantern runs out she gets a random tile that allows her to do some fun thing. Unfortunately until you have played the game several time you may be forced to stop the timer and look up exactly what that tile does. Some of them are self-explanatory but others simply are not. These include taking treasure from the companions and not leaving until they can roll particular numbers on a die, a rockslide that blocks the route, teleportation, and many more.
The game has some good things going for it. It supports up to seven players and plays within 45 minutes plus or minus. That is a pot of gold that isn’t at the end of very many rainbows. It is also a nice game to look at for whatever that is worth. It is different than other cooperatives out there because there is more of a direct puzzle feel to it and scratches a different itch.
The puzzle aspect, as a companion, can be a bit of a brain burner. Unless you play with Marcus the mighty mental maze mapper from Malabar, it can be difficult to keep the maze straight in your head as there is no note-taking allowed. Now granted the maze isn’t very hard. A first grader could crayon their way in and out in under ten seconds. But most people can’t keep that in their head. In addition the Master of Thieves job can be difficult to properly balance and the game suggests that an experienced player take that role.
One of the hallmarks of a good cooperative is that when you lose you want to try it again right away. Because of the brain-simmer aspects of this game there is no similar drive to go right back into the grotto. I guess that really says something. Like many of those (x-1) vs one type of games the fun can really depend on the one, in this case the MoT. I also suspect, like those other games, that it takes many plays to get that job dialed in. The risk of course is that the game will not make it that far. I suggest that the game is worth it though.
Bottom line is that the game has its place and offers a pleasant diversion from the increasing variety of co-op games. I like it.
Jonathan Franklin: I love the idea of this game. It is basically a flipbook with the gamemaster as the flipper In addition, the art is evocative. I have tried it a few times and each time the competitive part fell flat. I almost think it would be most fun as a two player game or as a single player game with an iOS or Android implementation. As a co-op, the person with the best spatial memory often took control and rightly so, as there are right and wrong directions to take to achieve the overall goal. I cared more about the goal of finding the chest and escaping than the leader/bickering over goodies, so I felt that I was not playing the game as the designers wanted me to, but also, I did not really want to play the game that the designers designed.
Nathan Beeler: As an activity, Sidibaba isn’t half bad. I’m drawn to the Bard’s Tale style maze window and the pull to try to navigate around in the cave finding treasures. The theme is awesome and evocative, and right up my alley. But as a game, I think it stinks on ice. First, there is the Master of Thieves, who if playing as a game to be won should drag his feet on every tile flip and everything he does, making the time run out with fewer moves for the good guys. Then, there is the co-operapetitive element, which says that as a team we should be fighting each other for position in the line so we can get good treasures. But we must ensure we don’t fight too much by doling out some of the goodies, so that no one actively sabotages the effort when they find they can’t win. Why anyone would want to play those kind of political games instead of simply crawling around the cave is beyond me. Fortunately, the groups I’ve played this with have instantly grokked that and played the game purely as an experience, or at the very least as a pure co-op. No one cared who technically won within the group, which is as it should have been to begin with, and they all concentrated on getting the group out alive. And in those plays the Master of Thieves has concentrated more on ensuring a good time was had by the group instead of trying to do everything possible to defeat them. If I owned this game I would pare it down to just getting in and finding the stash, and then getting out, with everyone getting all of the treasures collectively (but perhaps keeping the lamps as they are to ensure there is always one decision maker and no one rides rough-shod over the group). The game as printed is not at all for me. Having said all that, I really enjoyed playing as the Master of Thieves, as it was hilarious to watch the group blindly bump around and just miss or spin in circles trying to keep to a right hand rule. It was also just as fun to watch them run from the door directly to the major treasure for some magical unknown reason. Most likely, I would only play this again as the Master of Thieves.
Patrick Korner: I really, really wanted to like this game. I made active efforts to get it to the table, and the first time I did, well, it wasn’t pretty. The leader never changed, made all the decisions and got most of the treasure. About 9 minutes in, all four adventurers voted to quit early. It might be the group, it might be the game, but either way this one’s not for me. I suspect that the ‘right’ crowd will really like this, but that most gamers will find the game’s decision points boring. As Nathan says, this is more of an experience than a game, so if you’re looking for an experience unlike most others, give it a shot. If you want strategy, well, best look elsewhere.
Dale Yu: I love the concept of the game – the idea of converting the dungeon scenes from the Bard’s Tale immediately caught my eye. Yes, the game is semi-cooperative, which isn’t my favorite genre, but the fact the game is played in real time makes the format much more palatable because of the fixed length of the game.
The real-time aspect of the game is one that I wish I could explore more – I think the addition of time pressure is something that isn’t seen much in these games of ours. However, like another recent real-time game, Space Alert, the game suffers from a logistic standpoint. It’s hard to succeed in the game when you first start out because there’s no time to stop and ask questions or to clarify things. Also, if you’re unsure of what you’re doing, you’ll lose valuable time arguing over what to do. Sidibaba raises the real-time level of difficulty because a lot of the burden rests on one player, the MoT. Hopefully, the player chosen to be MoT will be familiar with the game and can make the game run smoothly. If that isn’t the case though, it is really frustrating to watch your timer drip away while the MoT is fumbling around with scene cards and chits.
The concept of the dungeon crawl really interested me, but the actual game experience left me wanting something more. The dungeon is just large enough that I didn’t have any ability to remember my way around more than two or three steps. By the time that our group was in the center of the dungeon, none of us had the slightest idea how to get back out. So, we just yelled out directions as fast as possible hoping to stumble into one of the exits. It was definitely a fun experience but not a satisfying “game” experience.
In the end, this simply wasn’t my type of game, but I’d still be willing to play it again – because it definitely fits into the 30 minute window.
4 (Love it):
3 (Like it): James Miller, Tom Rosen
2 (Neutral): Nathan Beeler, Dale Yu
1 (Not for me): Jonathan Franklin, Patrick Korner