Highland Days turned to Arabian Nights as a host of would-be sultans sought to win over the Five Tribes of Naqala. Among them were many familiar faces, including three of last year’s finalists Michael Huggins, Luke Koleszar, and Dominic Blais along with more than a few returning semifinalists. There were also a number of newcomers to the event. Wednesday’s demo was well attended with at least 7 or 8 novices playing their first game in the heat immediately thereafter. Overall, fifty-five contenders played twenty-two games in the preliminary heats, yielding twenty unique winners including four double winners. Two preliminary games ended in a tie for first place. Stephen Aslett and Christy Applegate tied in the first heat, while last year’s finalist Dominic Blais and last year’s semifinalist Angela Bender tied in the third heat. Coincidentally, the winning score in both of these games was 142-142! As per the new tiebreaker rules instituted this year, both tied players were credited with a win and all four advanced to the semifinals.
All four double winners and twelve of the single winners presented themselves for the semifinals. Among these were two alternates, 2015 finalist and hard-working Assistant GM Denise McKibbin, and Chris Trimmer. The top four semifinalists, Randy Martin, Christy Applegate, Laura Miller, and Michael Huggins, were seeded at the four tables while the remaining players were seated randomly. At Table #1, Nick Henning cruised to an easy 165-137-126-124 win, aided in part by a massive 42 point builder turn. At Table #2, double-winner Laura Miller hosted Dominic Blais and Angela Bender in a rematch of their heat 3 tie. This time Dominic won convincingly (156-128-127-106) with a strategy which focused on improving his tiles with palm trees and palaces. At Table #3, event newcomer Allan Jiang ended the game with an astounding 99 gold coins for a 149-115-111-111 victory. At Table #4, Eric Wrobel relied upon builders and viziers to defeat Philip Preston and 2015 champion and two-time finalist Mike Huggins 155-141-137-90. Collecting builders and judicious bidding seemed to be a popular strategy among the semifinal winners this year. All four winners ended the game with the most gold coins at their table and three of the 4 ended with considerably more than their starting allotment of 50.
The start of the final match was postponed until midnight by mutual agreement of the finalists. Dominic Blais, 2016 runner-up, was the only repeat finalist facing off against the three newcomers of Nick Henning, Eric Wrobel, and Allan Jiang. Despite the late hour, or perhaps because of it, the table was lively with good-natured table-talk and laughter. In spite of the jovial atmosphere, each of the finalist brought their best game and in the end only 15 points separated first place from fourth.
The opening board appeared promising, with two tiles offering three meeples of the same color, red and green. The opening market, on the other hand, was a bland one dominated by wheat and fakirs. Dominic bid 5 gold coins for the first move of the game and immediately cleared three green meeples for control of a 6 point tile and 5 cards from the market. Eric and Allan each claimed three viziers, which began a heated contest for most viziers which would last until the end of the game. Finally, Nick collected 3 white meeples.
Despite the promising start, rounds 2 and 3 settled into a defensive waiting game as the players bid the minimum amount possible and patiently waited for an opportunity to appear. Eric collected two more viziers, for a total of five. Nick claimed 3 land tiles during the two rounds and used his white meeples to purchase the djinn Monkir. Allan collected builders twice for 12 points and 6 points and claimed control of an 8 point tile with a palm tree. Dominic claimed an 8 point tile with a palm tree and then looped to place an additional palm tree on his own tile while collecting two viziers.
On the last move of round 3, Eric collected 3 builders for 16 points, leaving one white meeple on the 15 point tile. This presented the opportunity which the players had been waiting for, as was reflected in the bid for round four turn order. Allan bid 8 gold coins but Eric outbid him with 12 to finish the move he had set up for himself. Eric claimed the 15 point tile, collected two white meeples, and immediately purchased the djinn Jafar, which tripled the point value of the five viziers he had previously collected! Allan, denied the first move, nonetheless managed to execute a looping move to claim the 10 point tile and two white meeples, which he used to purchase the djinn Boaz, which protects viziers from assassination. Dominic, who had only bid 1 gold coin, studied the board for a considerable time before collecting two white meeple and purchasing the gold card which had appeared in the market. Finally, Nick used 2 assassins to claim two more 6 point land tiles, for a total of five.
After the excitement of round 4, the next two rounds once again settled back into a defensive game. Dominic continued to collect land, placing his camels on a 5 point tile with a palace, adding a palm tree to his own tile, and assassinating to gain control of the 12 point tile. Allan claimed three more viziers, for a total of 6 and leaving only two on the board, then collected builders for 10 points. Nick placed his sixth camel on an 8 point tile with a palm tree and then collected three white elders, which he used to purchase the djinn Shamhat, which doubled the value of his remaining elders. Finally, Eric took an interest in the market, purchasing spice, fish, and paper as well as the djinn Al-Amin, which allows sets of fakirs to count as wild-card goods at the end of the game.
By the start of round 7, it was evident to all that the end of the game was approaching. Nick bid 5 to collect two white elders, worth double points to him because of his djinn, and to claim his seventh tile, worth 5 points, with a palace. Eric bid 3 coins and collected two white meeples to take control of a 4 point tile and to purchase additional goods at market. Dominic collected red meeples to assassinate for an 8 point tile and purchase paper and fish at market. Finally, Allan collected two more builders for another 10 points.
Round 8 was the last full round of the game, with few opportunities left for any of the players. Eric bid 3 for the first move and purchased ivory and cloth at market. Nick collected builders for 9 points. On his last move, Allan collected two builders for no points, declined to purchase any goods at market, and claimed a 4 point tile. Finally, Dominic claimed an 8 point tile. This left only one legal move left at the start of Round 9, for which Nick bid 1 gold coin to assassinate one of Dominic’s white elders.
As the clock approached 3 am, the scores were tallied and the winner revealed. Dominic Blais ended the game with 59 points worth of land and improvements and another 33 points from market goods, but only 135 points total to finish in fourth place. Nick Henning and Allan Jiang finished third and second respectively by a margin of one point, 145-146. Nick ended with 56 points worth of land and improvements, while his djinn Shamhat earned him another 24 points for his 6 elders. Allan, on the other hand, used a builder strategy to end with 79 gold coins while his 6 viziers were worth another 36 points. Eric Wrobel finished the game with only 20 gold coins but used a late buying spree at the market to accumulate 53 points worth of goods. Together with 35 points for viziers, as multiplied by his djinn Jafar, 27 points worth of land, 11 points for his djinns, and 4 points for elders, Eric accumulated 150 points for the win. Overall, it was a very tight game, with only 15 points separating first place from fourth. Congratulations to all of the finalists for a well fought battle and hope to see all of you again next year.
Looking forward to next year, GM Michael McKibbin is considering making a minor change to the tournament: eliminating the tie-breaker for winning the first heat played. Instead, only margin of victory would be to rank single game winners. Any thoughts or input on this subject would be appreciated.