Monday 5 May 2014

Sultans of Karaya

A light, friendly, different and blindingly quick version of mafia (sort of, anyway). It is, quite surprisingly, very effective and a bang for one's buck.

Front cover holds a lot of meaning once you know the rules

Name: Sultans of Karaya (2011)

Publisher: MJ Games (in the US - Asmodee; but there are other publishers as well)

Designer: Alex Weldon (Illustration by Terry Michaux and Alex Weldon)

Players: 5 to 15!!! (but I highly doubt this plays well with more than 8 people; or at the very least, it's far more challenging with more than 8 people!)

Age: 12+

Time to play: 45 minutes +

Price Range (AUD): $13.95 to $22, though on ebay or other sites it may be about $45+ when shipping is included. The game is tiny so is probably not worth paying more than $15.

Availability:  Because this appears to be a relatively lesser-known publisher it seems to be hard to find.

  • Mafia/Hidden Identity
  • Social Deduction
  • Some degree of bluffing

Andre Lim's Rating and Brief Summary:
6.9+* out of 10. (Decent to possibly borderline Great; the latter rating occurs only if the game is played with the right numbers of people - see my Rating Scale)

This is a pretty good game. There are plenty of positive things to say about it.

First, the most attractive element of this game is the fact that it plays very fast, and has several rounds. One other unique feature of this game is that, unlike other mafia games, you constantly change roles and identities and you (eventually) even get to see who everyone is.

Third, there are three teams involved in this game: The Loyalists (who are loyal to the Sultan - ie. the good guys), The Rebels (the bad guys) and the Neutrals. Neutral characters are on no one's side at the start but they can turn sides easily depending on what they do. See rules for further clarification.

Fourth, Sultans plays incredibly cleanly and is relatively simple to follow in terms of your game turn. On your turn you have one of three choices: peek at someone's identity/card, swap identities (cards) or perform a special ability. That's it.

However, one downside is that, from the perspective of a non-gamer, this game plays poorly in large groups. The only reason for this is because there is a lot of memory work involved in this game: hence, it becomes difficult to keep track of who everyone is where there are more than 7 players, and it becomes almost impossible to play the game with 10 or more players.

That being said, large-group games can most certainly still be done - it will just take a rather committed, willing and open-minded group. This point about it not playing well with large groups would apply mainly to those with a bad memory (like myself, to some extent), those who don't enjoy much of a challenge or those who aren't particularly into games.

*September and July 2014: Revised down from 8.25+. This game is too heavily biased towards the bad guys in small groups. With 5-6 players, when I play with my friends we find that the bad guys lose significantly more often than the good guys. The chances of calling a revolution with the slaves OR that the sultan is vulnerable to a kill from the assassin (after he reveals himself for the Loyalist's victory condition) is significantly high. When the group gets too big however (perhaps with 9 players in the group or above), the game is hard to play because it requires everyone to possess fantastic memories. The game requires the right balance of people - as for what that is, I'm not so sure. Perhaps 7 to 8 players fits the bill. With this number, the game can be really fun. However, it's a real shame that the quality of the game is significantly affected by the number of players playing, especially when it proclaims to play 5 to 15 players. That is why I have decided to revise its score downwards. The game has got a lot of things right though; perhaps the execution isn't completely there though. Game mechanics are simple and good in that sense but there isn't much meat in them. But it certainly is a bang for one's buck.

The Good:
  • This game will keep you guessing. There is plenty of strategy and options involved with gameplay.
  • Victory conditions are quite interesting and unique
  • Games are very quick and relatively clean
  • After first few playthroughs, rules are easy to remember
  • Quite cheap in terms of price
  • Because you play many rounds and score points for each round, there is an opportunity to experiment with many different scenarios. The game (in a sense, but not necessarily) rewards the person who plays consistently and wins with different team members.
The Bad:
  • Plays "poorly" with large numbers of people (probably starts to get "bad" where more than 7 or 8 people play, in the sense of being difficult to newcomers, confusing and a memory-stretcher) - the exception is if your game group has a very very very good memory and does not mind a challenge.
  • As alluded to above, those who have a bad memory will resent this game
  • May be hard to grasp some of the victory conditions and character abilities when first played.
  • Player elimination - but this is a minor problem because many rounds are played and each round doesn't take long.
  • Game may, at times, appear to be imbalanced or favouring one side (especially if there are too many guards)
  • From my experience, bad guys probably win more often with 5-6 players.
  • It's certainly no The Resistance: Avalon, but what game is?

What makes this game fun? 

If you like hidden identity or social deduction (mafia) games, and want to experience a quick and interesting version of it, try this.

- This concludes the basic overview of the game.
If you are interested in reading about the components & rules to the game, please read on -

Rules & Components (Photos courtesy of my mum, Joanne)

There is not much to show here by way of pictures as the game has a dearth of components (not that it really needs any more).


Everyone sits in a circle. The cards (usually N+1 cards, N being the number of players playing) are shuffled. Everyone gets a role card face down. The extra role card is placed in the middle.

What a 5 player game looks like.

The types and numbers of roles present depends on the number of players present.

For example, in a 7 player game this is the set-up:

1 Sultan
1 Guard
1 Assassin
3 Slaves
2 Neutrals

[I will explain what these are under Special Character Actions]

On your turn...

You may perform ONLY ONE of three actions:

1) PEEK at someone's card
2) SWAP cards with someone else
3) Perform a special character action [at the cost of REVEALING YOUR IDENTITY]

Note that, for Action 2), you cannot swap with a person who is already "revealed" (this means their card is face up, usually because they performed a special character action). However, a person who is revealed may choose to "hide" - which means that everyone else must close their eyes and they will swap with someone else whose identity is unknown (this also means that they may choose to not even swap with anyone else and may, for example, make noises pretending that they have swapped with someone else)

Special Character Actions: Explaining the Roles and Sides

Now I explain what each character does.
Note that I have not played or completely understood the implications of all the neutral characters so bear with me here.
The 8 different types of characters that exist in the game
Good guys are Blue (Loyalists)
Bad guys are Red (Rebels)
Green guys are Neutrals (No one's side - can change)
I find it easier, and more intuitive, to explain what the Bad Guys do first.

Bad Guys (Rebels)

The bad guys are trying to overthrow the current government powers above them. They can do this via one of these two ways:

1) Kill the Sultan (Assassin's Special Action) - this is the easiest goal to remember
2) Perform a revolution (Slave's Special Action) - this means that 3 slaves must be sitting next to each other in a row and they must all reveal themselves once a slave has called for a revolution.

Rebel Abilities


i) Reveal yourself to kill a target. This removes the target permanently from the game UNLESS a guard interferes (see below)

Slave (has two abilities):

i) Call for revolution. When a revolution is called, the slave reveals themselves. Other fellow slaves may CHOOSE to reveal themselves (if they are confident or think they can get three slaves in a row). If three slaves reveal themselves and they are sitting all in a row (ie. adjacent or next to each other), then the Rebels win. Of course, this is risky because if no one follows your call for revolution (because they aren't sitting next to you) you might risk being killed by the Sultan or otherwise detained/captured.

ii) JOIN revolution: When another slave calls a revolution, you may choose to join the revolution by revealing yourself. Only do this if you are next to another revealed slave and think there is a good chance of having three slaves in a row.

Good Guys (Loyalists)

The Loyalists wish to retain power via one of these two ways:

1) Neutralise the Bad Guys' methods of winning. Ie. Kill off all Assassins AND leave only 2 slaves or less alive. This is intuitive. It prevents the three-in-a-row victory condition and the kill-the-sultan victory condition.

2) "Proclamation": I made this term up, but the Loyalists win if a) the Sultan proclaims the throne by revealing their identity at any time (or if their identity is revealed for any other reason) AND b) the Sultan survives one whole round of turns (ie. the Sultan makes it back alive to the start of the player's turn when the Sultan was first revealed)

The Sultan has just revealed himself. A white token is placed there to indicate the "starting point" of the victory condition. If everyone else (after the person who has the white token) takes their turn once and it reaches the white token again, the Loyalists win.

At this stage the Rebel team has to ensure that the Assassin is in a good position to kill the Sultan (by ensuring the Assassin isn't next to a guard) OR they must be ready to perform a Slave revolution.

Loyalist Abilities

Sultan: Has quite a number of abilities

i) Claim the throne: Can reveal himself at any time to start the "timer" on Victory Condition 2)

ii) Execute: Can kill any one KNOWN rebel. Cannot kill hidden players

iii) Avoid Detention: If a guard accidentally detains the Sultan, the Sultan can avoid detention by revealing themselves

(This too also triggers the Victory Condition 2 timer, even if it isn't the Sultan's turn!! In this case, the white token will be placed on the guard that forced the Sultan to reveal themselves - the white token symbolises the "start" and "end" of how long the Sultan must survive for if the Loyalists are to win: in other words, the Sultan must survive one whole round of turns and be alive at the start of the player-with-the-white-token's turn.)

Guard: Has two abilities, one automatic and one that must be chosen

i) Prevent assassination attempt (automatic, but you must reveal yourself to activate it): If you are ADJACENT to the TARGET of an assassination OR ADJACENT to the ASSASSIN, you not only STOP the attack, but you kill the assassin in the process. This is a very powerful automatic ability. You must reveal yourself though obviously to do this.

ii) Detain: Can detain anyone. When someone is detained, a grey counter is placed on them and it means they skip only one of their turns. (It is unclear to me whether a slave can still react to a call for revolution - would it not defeat the purpose of this ability if a slave could still react to a call for revolution? Or does the ability still have use because it prevents a call for, but not the act of joining, revolution?)

Neutral Characters

Belly Dancer:

When hidden, with the loyalists. When revealed, with the rebels. This is because when she reveals herself, she dances: This causes guards adjacent to the belly dancer to be vulnerable: such guards cannot use their detain or "prevent assassination" ability!

Slave Driver:

If revealed, he is with the Loyalists. This is because when he reveals himself he may perform two actions involving capturing slaves:

i) Capture: The slave driver may capture any KNOWN/REVEALED slave then END his turn (compare this with the hunt ability). This involves placing a black token on that slave. So long as the black token is there, the slave cannot take their turn nor can they join a revolution.

ii) HUNT: The slave driver may take a GUESS as to whether a person is a slave. If they are a slave, he captures them with a black token (same rules apply as above under capture) and then gets to make ANOTHER GUESS. This keeps going until he guesses wrong.

If hidden, with the bad guys because he isn't capturing slaves.

Fortune Teller:

Can look at 3 player's identities and make a prediction as to who will win. If they are right, they win points. If they lose, no points. If it comes to their turn again and no one has won, they must hide.

The Vizier (complicated - I've never played with this guy, properly anyway):

Manipulate: Declares which team he intends to support (by grabbing a blue or red token, blue for the good guys, red for the bad guys - shares their victory if correct). Then he reveals a hidden player and forces them to use their Special Character Action immediately (by placing a yellow token - the forced player still chooses how they use their ability). This same player that is the victim to the Vizier's manipulation may not use their action again on their next turn, but may do so after that turn.

However, if hidden (chooses not to manipulate), he wins if he's next to a player who has won two points.

Scoring at the end of a round..

You win 1 point if you are on the winning team, even if dead.

You win 2 points if you are on the winning team, revealed yourself and you made an active contribution to your team's success. This rule is vague. I assume it means you actually took an action at the very least -- but how does one measure whether this contributed to your team's success?

I find it hard to enforce this rule about 2 points.

You can play as many rounds as you like - highest scoring person wins.

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