Die Kette von Saba / Sheba's Necklace

Published by Queen Games
Designed by Martin Ebel
Reviewed by Stuart Dagger

3-7 players
1-2 hours

This is a very attractive looking family game, first published by Perlhuhn a few years ago as Das Kollier der Koenigin von Saba. When I first read the rules, I thought that it was going to turn out to be more than a family game, that it was going to be a gamers' game, but the box gives the age range as 8+ and the box is right. I don't intend the description "family game" to be a criticism, but you should be aware of what you are buying before you hand over the money: this is a game with more luck than strategy. It also, in my view, has a dodgy front wheel.

The title refers to the necklace supposed to have been given by King Solomon to the Queen of Sheba. Buried with her when she died, it was subsequently stolen by grave robbers and broken up. The story line is that the stones have started to appear on the market again and that a rich sheik is trying to reassemble them. The aim of the players is to acquire the stones and then sell them on to the sheik, timing the sale so as to get a favourable price.

The board shows the layout of the necklace and as the game proceeds, tiles showing pictures of the various gems will be placed on it until the necklace is complete. The design is not fixed at the start but aesthetic rules (each column must consist of stones of a single type, the stones must be evenly graded by size and the whole thing must be symmetrical) mean that by halfway it will have become so.

At the start each player has a hand of tiles and in the first part of the game the procedure is auction off one of your tiles and then pay to draw a new one. The auction is compulsory; the drawing of a new tile optional. After the auction the purchaser has the option of immediately placing the stone on to the board and collecting the money for it. Once the deck is exhausted, the auctions are dropped and it is just a matter of placing the tiles from your hand, one at a time, on to the board. The price that you get when you add a stone to the necklace depends on just how close that section of it is to completion. This gives you a basic price, which is the one paid in the second stage of the game, and, to offset the fact that the necklace is fairly empty early on, this basic price is doubled for stones placed immediately after an auction.

As I said at the start, this reads quite promisingly. There are even echoes here of Modern Art. However, now imagine that you are actually playing the game and it is your turn. What stone do you offer for auction? Presumably one that will attract a good price. It is true that if you hung on to it for a turn or two the price might go up, but every stone in the deck is duplicated and some joker tiles mean that no stone is guaranteed a place in the finished necklace. So you decide to sell now, while the money is there to be had. This is where the problem sets in: You can calculate exactly how much the stone is worth if the buyer chooses to take advantage of the "play now for double the basic price" rule, and so can everyone else. This does not make for an interesting auction. What is likely to happen is that the person on your left will bid one less than it is worth and everyone else will pass, which makes the whole auction idea a bit pointless. For an auction to work there has to be serious uncertainty in the minds of the bidders about the true value of the object on offer. Here there isn't, or at least there isn't enough. It is true that the buyer could decide not to place the stone immediately in the hope of being able to resell it or place it for more later on and there will be times in the early stages when that is probably the best thing for the buyer to do. However, as sections of the necklace start to fill up, the way that the arithmetic works means that placing the stone immediately is often clearly the best bet and when that happens everyone can see it and the auction is a waste of time.

This criticism of the auction doesn't mean that I consider the game to be one you should pass by. Apart from the fact that the game is undeniably pretty to look at, the scoring system is clever and presents the players with some interesting decisions on timing. The problem is that the inspiration that was with the designer and developers when they put together the tile placement and scoring sub-systems gave out on them when they looked for something to strap on the front. If the game is going to be one that your group plays more than once or twice, you are going to have to come up with a better front end. And it ought to be possible. One idea that comes to mind is replacing the rule which says that the purchaser of a stone at auction may place it immediately for double the basic price to one which says that the purchaser may place any stone from their hand at double the basic price. Now the purchase of a stone is not just about the immediate intrinsic value of the stone itself, it is about having more influence on how the necklace builds up. This would at least be a start towards the goal of turning the auction into a real debate about value.

Final verdict: good in parts and the tweakers out there ought to be able to turn it into something better. It is always going to be a game where good and bad luck in the drawing of the tiles has a big influence on the result, but that is not a bad thing in a family game and I am quite happy with it in a gamers' game too, provided there is some interesting play to go alongside it.

The Game Cabinet - editor@gamecabinet.com - Ken Tidwell