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[GR] Byzantium

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  • Tom Vasel
    Few games are made about the Crusades, which is probably because it s such a controversial time period - one about which few agree totally. So that was one
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 12, 2006
      Few games are made about the Crusades, which is probably because it's
      such a controversial time period - one about which few agree totally.
      So that was one point of interest when I first heard about Byzantium
      (Warfrog Games, 2005 - Martin Wallace). Granted, I'm extremely
      interested in any game that my favorite designer puts out, but this
      era of history I find rather interesting, and I was eager to see Mr.
      Wallace's unique mechanics used to enhance it. In this game, players
      play both the Arabs and Byzantines, trying to score points with both.
      The game has the feel of a light war game with abstracted resource
      management, with many options.

      While I hesitate to call Byzantium a great game - it's certainly
      good, but not brilliant - it's undeniably fascinating. The Army
      display is an ingenious way of tying army units, support, and movement
      into one clever system. The game features, as many of Wallace's games
      do, more options than a player has time to do, and the way a player
      must balance the points they gain on two different tracks (Arabs and
      Byzantines) makes the game rather interesting. The game will appeal
      to war gamers and/or Eurogamers looking for something a bit heavier,
      yet bad luck can throw a player's forces into disarray. Still, I'll
      gladly give this game a play and enjoy how the theme shines through
      the mechanics.

      (I'm giving a quick rundown of the rules here - not mentioning everything.)

      Each player is given an army display board, which has four spaces for
      each of their two armies - "Elite" units, "Main Army", "Levy", and
      "Move". There is also a treasury for each army and a generic cube
      pool. Cubes of the player's color are placed in each space according
      to the starting numbers on the board (for example, nine cubes are
      placed in the cube pool). The rest of the cubes are placed to the
      side of the board in the "casualty pool". Each player receives two
      field army pawns and two fortifications of their color and places a
      token on each of the two victory point tracks on the board. The board
      is made up of several connected purple (Byzantine), white (Arab), and
      gray (Persian) cities. A pile of city tokens is placed in the
      Byzantine and Arab cities, according to the numbers there. Each
      player is given a specific amount of money for each of their
      treasuries, and the rest of the money is placed near the board in the
      bank. A turn marker is placed on the first of three spaces on the
      turn track, and a few other pieces are placed in special spaces on the
      board.

      The game takes place in three turns. In each of the turns, players
      will be utilizing their cubes to the best of their abilities, until
      they are finally forced to pass, waiting for the next turn. Players
      can use cubes from their cube pool for pretty much anything they want
      at no cost, but to use a cube from the their casualty pool or one of
      their army boxes, they must pay three coins from the treasury of the
      side using the cube. Players have several actions that they can take
      each turn.
      - Take control of a city: The player can place a cube on top of one
      of the unclaimed city token stacks, taking control of it immediately
      and scoring points equal to the number of discs in that city. When a
      player first takes control of a Byzantine city, they place one of
      their army tokens there, representing their Byzantine army.
      - Increase Army: The player can take three cubes and add them in any
      of the army boxes on the army display.
      - Build Church/Mosque: The player can place a cube in the matching
      box on the board, pay six coins, and gain two victory points for the
      side they are helping.
      - Move and/or attack. A player can pay one movement point to move one
      of their two armies. Their Byzantine army is placed the first time
      they take control of a city, while their Arab army is placed in any
      Arab city when moved. An army can follow any path that connects two
      cities (although only Arabs can move on desert paths, and crossing the
      sea requires extra movement for Arabs). When an army moves to a city
      that is not controlled by the same side (a Byzantine army moving into
      an Arab city), they must attack it.
      - Special actions. A player can place a cube into one of the sixteen
      special action boxes, taking the special action therein and preventing
      anyone else from taking it. Special actions include Bulgar attacks (a
      neutral army that attacks northwestern cities), improving cities
      (adding a city token), civil war (allows a Byzantine army to attack a
      Byzantine army, etc.), fleet (change the prices for moving across the
      seas), fortify (add a fortification token to a city), and
      Emperor/Caliph (adds a special cube to a player's army that requires
      no maintenance and adds two victory points).
      - Tax: For each cube a player places in the tax box, they receive two
      coins into their treasuries.
      - Pass: Once a player passes, they may no longer take any actions in
      this turn. The first player to pass is the first to go in the next
      turn.

      A player can never attack their own cities, even with the opposite
      army they can't attack their Arab cities with their Byzantine army.
      Players can attack Persian cities with either army. When attacking
      another army, each player rolls dice - one die for each unit in their
      main army box (up to three total), plus one extra die for each cube in
      the elite box. All dice that roll "4" or higher are hits, causing the
      other player to remove hits from either their elite, main army, or
      move boxes. The player with the highest remaining strength (elite +
      main army) is the winner, and the loser is forced to retreat to a
      friendly city, which could cause them to lose more units.

      When attacking a city without an army, the defending player (if any)
      may choose to use their levy units to defend, which can roll a maximum
      of three dice. After attacking a city (or sometimes, without
      attacking it, if there are no defenders), the attacking army must then
      siege the city. Another player rolls dice equal to the number of
      tokens in the city (or number on the city in the case of a Persian
      city). Hits are resolved against the attacking army; and if they
      still have any units left, they capture the city. The city has tokens
      placed on it of the attacking armies color equal to one les than the
      number that was originally there (one minimum). The player places one
      of their cubes on the city to show that they control it and gains
      victory points equal to the discs placed; although if the city only
      had one token when attacked, the attacker gains no victory points.

      After a turn is over, each player gets two coins for each city token
      in all the cities they control, placing the money in the appropriate
      treasuries. Players must then pay upkeep for each cube on their army
      board (each box has a different cost). Players then take half of the
      cubes from their casualty pools, as well as any cubes on the board,
      and place them in the Cube Pool. The turn marker moves, and the next
      round begins.

      When the final turn ends, players score one victory point for each
      city token they control. Players compare both of their scoring
      tracks, and add them together as long as one of them is not more than
      double the other (in which case a player only scores the higher
      value). The player with the most points is the winner!

      A player can also win the game if they capture Constantinople with an
      Arab army. This is an exceedingly difficult task but is possible.

      Some comments on the gameā€¦

      1.) Components: The board is very nice, showing much of the Middle
      East and Asia Minor in the Middle Ages. The board design is actually
      very economical, as boxes, cities, and other features are all over it;
      but it still doesn't seem very cluttered. My only criticism would be
      that there is very little text, causing players to memorize what each
      space does. In our games, I had to continuously tell players what
      each space did, even though the pictures are fairly intuitive. The
      army display boards are also quite helpful, rather large, and help
      players see at a glance how powerful armies are. The cubes are fairly
      small but easy to use, and the tokens are thick round cylinders -
      almost too thick - a stack of four of them is rather tall and easy to
      knock down. Money is a pile of tiddly winks in two different sizes.
      The artwork of the game, by Peter Dennis, is very evocative of the
      period, and adds to the theme. When the entire game is set up, it
      looks slightly abstract, but well done.

      2.) Rules: There are eight pages of weighty rules, but they are in
      full color with examples and illustrations. What I found quite useful
      was a section with "play hints" that really helped me in my first
      game, and I still explain them to new players when playing the game.
      The game is fairly easy to teach to adults, and teenagers can
      comprehend it, although it's a bit abstract for them. There aren't
      too many exceptions in the game; most of them center around
      Constantinople, so the game rules feel more "Eurogamish" than like a
      war game.

      3.) Cubes: The game system feels slightly like that found in
      Alexander the Great, in which cubes are used as action tokens as well
      as army units; but it's done in a very elegant way here. The problem
      is that players never have enough cubes to do what they want, and
      tough decisions have to be made during a game. Elite units really
      make an army powerful, but they cost three coins to upkeep. Movement
      cubes allow an army to have long range, but might not those cubes be
      better used to take over more cities? What about upgrading your
      cities? I enjoy the game, but often feel a bit of helplessness, as I
      never seemed to have enough for what I needed (this is a good game
      mechanic actually, and just goes to show how poor of a player I am).

      4.) Bulgars: A player can take some of the affluent cities in the top
      northwest corner, but they are easily attacked by the neutral Bulgars,
      which are very difficult to fight. All players must take care when
      using the Bulgars, however, because anyone seeking to conquer
      Constantinople may have to battle through them.

      5.) Arabs vs. Byzantine: At the beginning of the game, the Arab army
      is much more powerful, and players will be able to drive it through
      cities on the board, which is good; since most of them are Byzantine
      or Persian. Later on in the game, a player must juggle their
      resources between the rich Byzantine army and the conquering Arab
      army. A player who concentrates too much on one of them (read: me)
      will find that their final score is too low to be in competition, and
      the only real chance at victory (without capturing Constantinople) is
      to balance your points fairly evenly.

      6.) Special actions: As in other of Wallace's games, there are a
      variety of special actions to choose from. Some of them, like the
      Emperor and Caliph, are very useful and powerful and are snatched up
      quickly. Others are either less powerful, or more subtle; I feel like
      the game may need to be played a dozen times to figure out the best
      strategies. For example, I really hate to play six gold to score two
      points in an area, but I'm sure it's a legitimate strategy (I haven't
      won the game yet, of course). This does cause me to think that the
      game has a fairly steep learning curve, showing its true strategy and
      colors after several games. This doesn't mean that one has to play
      that many to understand the game, but I think experience will play a
      key in winning.

      7.) Luck: No matter how well one may play, if they roll the dice
      badly, they can still have their armies hurt at critical times. I
      didn't mind this much, since I just toss it to the vagaries of war;
      but I can see how some people might get annoyed at how luck plays a
      part in the game. It's no more than other light war games, and losing
      a city isn't too destructive as to cause a loss (unless it's
      Constantinople).

      8.) Fun Factor: For me, the fun in the game comes from the vast array
      of choices that a player is faced with each turn. Not only are there
      many actions that can be chosen each turn, but a player also must
      effectively manage their army board. This can drown the game with
      "analysis paralysis", as I've seen a few games bogged down while
      players considered their options. Still, it delights me to try out a
      different strategy each game, sometimes going for a fast striking Arab
      army, other times trying to simply take and hold groups of cities, and
      sometimes going for Constantinople. Diversity = fun in my book, and
      this game certainly has diversity.

      I think that Byzantium would be a great game if it was slightly more
      intuitive, and even though the theme is laced through everything
      (albeit it is odd to control both an Arab and a Byzantine army), the
      game still has an overall abstract feel at times. The game is full of
      excellent mechanics that add up to an original, good game, but one
      that is heavier and takes a bit of work to do well at. If this era of
      history interests you, and resource management and light war are your
      style of game, then you can't go wrong. The game certainly has the
      feel of a Wallace game - tons of tactics and strategy with a
      smattering of luck. I'll keep my copy.

      Tom Vasel
      "Real men play board games"
      www.tomvasel.com
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