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Vince Londini
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The Horsemen of Buzkashi
A Review by Vince Londini

Background: Bushkazi is a game played in Afghanistan that reflects the way of the horse-mounted warrior. Originating from a time when horsemen swept into villages to raid livestock or other possessions, this contest of strength and skill seems to reflect a Mongol raid. The Boz (a prepared calf or goat carcass weighing perhaps 170 pounds) is the “ball” that has to be snatched from the ground by a rider on horseback and carried some distance to achieve victory. Apparently there are many versions of this game. The Horsemen of Buzkashi represents the more complex Qarajai version. The goal is to grab the Boz, race across a field, round a pole, return to the region the game started, and toss the Boz in a team-specific victory circle called the Hallal. Visit http://www.afghan-web.com/sports/buzkashi.html for an excellent summary of the game and its variations.

Components: Assembly is straightforward. Simply acquire a package of Avery 8371 sheets (standard business card) and print the three files contianing the 184 cards onto those sheets. Separate the cards. Acquire two bits (a nickel and a penny will do), one to represent the Boz and the other to indicate the player has rounded the flagpole. Rummage up a six-sided die.

The cards look nice (see pictures). Each team is distinguished by a full-color nationality flag. It would be nice if the strength, speed, tactics, and boz values were color-coded (and/or in distinguishing shapes such as circle, box, triangle, star) for faster recognition, but they work as they are.

Game Setup: The 30 action cards are shuffled, 10 are discarded, and the remaining 20 are placed face-down at the side. They will be drawn, one each turn, to provide a target number of victorious riders needed to make progress in each of the three stages toward a goal. If playing with the Combo cards, these are now shuffled and dealt.

Each player then takes a team and sorts the 30 riders. 20 riders are divided into the three piles: Starting Circle (Strength), Field (Speed), Hallal (Tactics). The remaining 10 are placed in reserve. All five of the named riders, the Chapandaz (professionals) must be in play unless injured. No pile may have more than 10 riders.

Game-Play Overview: To score a point, a player needs to win in three successive areas: the starting circle, the field, and the hallal. These three areas are abstractly represented by 3 piles of cards in front of the player. A 4th pile represents the player's reserves, usually full of poorly skilled riders who remain unused except in case of injury.

On a given turn, an Action Card is revealed providing a threshold of victorious riders required in order to make an attempt to progress. Players will now arrange (in any order) the cards from one of their stacks (depending on the location of the Boz), and then play them one at a time, comparing the relevant number against their opponent's card (just like the old card game War). Higher number wins each individual match-up (ties are mutual losses). Each player hopes to accrue enough victorious riders to meet the Action Card number.

If the Boz is on the ground, players contest for the right to make an attempt to grab the boz in the starting circle, using the first stack and comparing strength numbers.

When a player with the Boz is racing to round the flagpole in the field (or trying to earn the right to attempt to unhorse the Boz-carrier or steal the Boz from the Boz-carrier) players use the middle stack and compare speed numbers.

When the Boz-carrying player tries to earn the right to drop the Boz in the team's Hallal (or trying to block the boz-carrying team's approach) players use the third stack and compare tactics numbers.

When trying to pick up or steal (in the Starting Circle and Field, respectively) the boz, players who have enough victorious riders to meet the Action Card number select one rider and roll against his Boz score.

Generally, a player that can successively win each skill contest scores a point. Each player then reorganizes the riders (rebuilds the 3 stacks), and the process starts again. The game consists of two halves of 20 turns each. The team with the highest score at the end of the 2nd half wins.

Balance and Advantage: Three of the teams excel in one trait ( either strength, speed, or tactics). The fourth team is balanced between the three. To randomize things, some action cards contain special events that supercede the normal turn. Also, combo cards offer opportunities for either offense or defense to make up for unbalanced matchups.

Observations:
This system draws from some card games (according to acknowledgments in the rules) that I've not played (except War). The system took some getting used to because it was so completely different from my previous gaming experiences. We found that after a couple of tries, the turns got faster (as one would expect).

We like the concepts of this game and feel it excels in three areas.
1) It represents the large number of horsemen in a Buzkashi in a very fluid and manageble way.
2) The use of card piles provides the imagination with exactly enough information to form a compelling model - without a gameboard.
3)The "war" competition in each phase allows for interesting psychological confrontation as players try to guess where their opponent will place their strong cards (hoping either to avoid them in their own stack arrangement or confront them).

There are two things we don't like.
1) The game takes two hours, at least it did for the two of us. This might go as low as an hour with familiarity, but it's still 40 turns. (We haven't figured out how to retain a good mix of Action Numbers while using fewer action cards - say 10 - as an optional rule to shorten the game).
2) The game can stagnate when a team's strength makes it easy to win battles in one pile, but almost impossible in the others. Combo cards probably even this out, but we haven't played with them much.

Questions:
1) When a team scores, players may freely reorganize their 20 active riders in their three piles. Shouldn't the "Start Combo" and "Move Horsemen" phases of the next turn be skipped after each score, just like they are on the first turn and after the half-time?

2) We understood that only "victorious riders" were eligible to compete in any further test of skill after the Action Card contest in a given area, but this isn't specifically required by the "Grab the Boz" rules like it is in the "Steal the Boz" and "Block the Path" rules. Should this be spelled out more clearly?

3) Aside from notes indicating that phase 1 and 2 are skipped, we didn't see any rules about starting the 2nd half. Is the Boz placed where it ended the 1st half, or does everything start over back in the Starting Circle? Either way would work, it should probably just be spelled out.

4) A couple of rare occasions (such as when the Boz is dropped in the field) call for two piles to be switched. Presumably the process now starts over, with a team needing to win in the "Starting Circle" to pick up the Boz and start the run again. Thus, the switched stacks represents the situation that each team's riders are out of place for this development - thus the turns of unoptimal contests and rapid scrambling to rearrange stacks that follow. This should probably be spelled out, since once the concept is grasped the rules make more sense (if, indeed, we've grasped them correctly ).

The Bottom Line:
The mechanic is interesting, new, and stimulating for us. Our only qualm is the time.
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Tom Decker
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I really appreciate the review and your thoughtful analysis and helpful comments. I certainly recognize there are some rough spots in there and I'm glad you took the time to get through it.

For your questions:

1. With the 1.1 rules, decks should be re-shuffled after a score as in the start of each half. And yes, it makes sense that phases 1 and 2 are skipped after a score. I will add that.

2. Yes, that needs clarifying. I've really come to appreciate those who write rules well. It seems the more time I spend trying to make something absolutely clear, the more long and confusing it all gets. But specifically here, yes, only victorious riders are eligible to grab the Boz in the Starting Circle.

3. Yes, the Boz starts over in the Starting Circle at the beginning of the second half. I will clarify that.

4. You've grasped this perfectly. Yes, while the cards in the piles swap completely, the "types" of piles remains static. And yes, if the Boz drops, then the next turn takes place in the Starting Circle.

The intent of the new rules is to create more unbalanced piles with much of the strategy then spent on building good piles each turn...of course, that can get all messed up on occasion, which is good for the chaotic nature of the sport.

Great review...thanks again!
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Vince Londini
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Absolutely our pleasure!

Looking forward to the update!

Vince
 
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