Updated: Oct 18, 2019
Coming to Amul for the first time can be a daunting prospect. Its split rule book (rules / card descriptions), unclear heading font and multiple interjections between each rule in a paragraph can make it a trial to set up and get going. However, after a couple of turns, things fall into place. When the initial confusion dissipates, you'll discover a fast-playing 3–8 player point-maximising set collection game with a strong element of hand management and game-state awareness. Designed by Remo Conzadori and Stefano Negro, Amul takes inspiration from set collection games like Fairy Tale (Z-Man), Archaeology (Adventureland / Z-Man) and 7 Wonders (Repos), and more recent card games like Arboretum (Renegade Studios / Filosofia) and Zany Penguins (Bombyx) where your final hand plays a part in determining the value of your tableau. Play is straightforward enough: get one card, offer one card, draft one card, play one card where, potentially, that could be the same card all along. While you are intent on collecting sets - which have Arab and Mongol factions and other icons that affect scoring - the building pressure is that you want Table cards early and Hand cards late, but you might not have the luxury of them coming out at the right time. 'Hand management' is a much overused game mechanic description but Amul actively demands it.
As well as the turn-by-turn Market, some cards call upon the Bazaar and Palace when played. That's where one-off special cards await, ready to be snaffled on a first-come first-served basis. Being aware of other players' intentions and wants is particularly important here as the perfect card for you could be snatched from under your nose.
An interesting aspect of the game is the differentiation between First Player and having First Pick: the former remains throughout the game, the latter moves around clockwise like a standard marker, but when it returns to the First Player, a new rule kicks in whereby Military Power overrides the standard drafting order and those with muscle get to pick first. In a game of nine rounds, this means that, with the full complement of 8 players, Military Power only affects the last round but it is a much more meaningful - though less punitive - element with fewer players: a nice touch.
Publishers Stronghold and Lautapelit have ensured that the presentation of Amul is solid, with an insert allowing you to sort cards by player count and allowing plenty of room to accommodate any subsequent expansions; although given that speed of play is a selling point, slowing down the game with expansions may be unwise. The art (by Eilene Cherie and Jere Kasanen) is good, evoking the decorative Great Silk Road theme. There's obviously some iconography needing to take in at the outset but that shouldn't overly trouble players. At high player counts it can be hard for everyone to see everything around the table and you may expect to see players leave their seats to wander around to look at the Market, Palace and Bazaar.
One thing that emerged in the games we played was negotiated player cooperation: cards like Gems and Silk score based on the quantity held by you and your neighbours. This means if you can persuade them both to acquire these precious things, theirs will increase in value while yours might double; this little 'cartel' technique can spice up the game. Similarly, a little late 'take that' can occur with other cards (Ivory, Opium) that score based on what you don't have, only for hands to be revealed at the very end to see the values plummet.
Finally, scoring the game is a lengthy process, tho' nowhere near the epic interrogation of Carson City: The Card Game (Quined). The complex scoring conditions which give the game its decision points and flavour come at the cost of ease: cards can score based on yourself, your neighbours, you and your neighbours, either of your neighbours, all players, other cards positively, other cards negatively... and so on; it certainly takes time to work through all the permutations! Lastly the faction majorities kick in, which means one last tally up around the table.
Amul could be classified as a super-filler: too involved to gobble down in 15 minutes; not enough meat to sate a whole hour; but a comfortable and fulfilling portmanteau meal, scaling nicely on its way down. Good and directed play will be rewarded; while a lack of observation and interest in others' plans will probably see opponents outpace you with cards acquired too easily. A sure sign of a well-designed game is that there is satisfaction to be gained from playing, well above and beyond whatever you might gain from winning. And for a set collection card game, Amul delivers on this surprisingly well.
(Review by David Fox)