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Subject: Byzantium Review rss

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Michael Longdin
England
Crawley
West Sussex
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Warfrog / Martin Wallace games are normally high on my radar to play quickly. I'm not too sure why though as other than Age of Steam my ratings for his games are not as good as this statement would imply. Way out West is a bit dull, Liberte and Princes of the Renaissance both seem a little too clever for their own good, Runebound is banal and Struggle of Empires, although good, has recently been banished to my loft as my enthusiasm to play it wanes. Hell, for the first time ever I didn't buy the Warfrog game at Essen this year - Perikles - even though we played it and it seemed ok. This may explain why it has taken so long to get Byzantium, the 2005 Essen release, to the table.

There's nothing wrong with Byzantium. It has the usual strong historical theme, clever mechanisms, limitations on decisions etc that Wallace seems excel at, it's just that for some reason I am not particularly enamoured by it. Now this may be down to the fact that our one game ended prematurely with the fall of Constantinople - something which came about easily even though everything I've read suggests it is difficult to do. Had I read the rules properly then we would have realised that each defensive hit by Constantinople on the attacking army causes double casualties which would have meant that the attacking Bulgar army was not strong enough to bring the city down and the game would have continued. In part, this is one of the problems with Wallace's games - there are a lot of exceptions (or fiddly rules) around, many of which are buried in the text and until you're familiar with them all, the chances of playing something incorrectly - a crucial mistake in this case - is high. Of course, if you play the game regularly and often (as I do with AoS) then this is not a problem but this does not tend to be our style and it therefore makes me wonder if his games are suited to our group.

The game itself is set in the 7th Century and the fall of the Byzantine and Persian empires. Each player is an independent entrepreneur trying to manipulate both the remnants of the Byzantine empire and the emerging Arab armies. The board depicts a map of the middle east with various Arab, Persian and Byzantine cities connected by roads, sea routes and caravan trails. The map is surrounded by various action boxes and two scoring tracks - one for the Arabs and one for the Byzantines. Whoever gets the highest combined points on these two tracks after three rounds of play is the winner - except if the score on the lower track does not reach 50% of the score on the higher track then the lower track does not score at all. This forces you to concentrate on either the Arabs or the Byzantines (either of which seems difficult) or, as is more likely, a balanced approach between the two. There is one other route to victory - if Constantinople falls then the game ends immediately, the Byzantine scores are ignored and the winner is the player with the highest Arab score. As I indicated, this is difficult if you play to the correct rules but is achievable and is a typical (and I might add, welcome) Martin Wallace design trait.

The game lasts three rounds each of which sees multiple turns for each player and the rounds are separated by an income and maintenance phase. There is money (in the form of Bezants) in the game but the key resource revolves around the use of cubes which are used to represent pretty much everything including ownership of cities, number of troops and actions taken. Because players are trying to influence both the Byzantines and the Arabs they keep separate records of each treasury and army. Each turn, a player can take one of a multitude of actions - claim ownership of a city, increase the size of an army, raise taxies, donate to the church/mosque, move and/or attack with their Byzantine or Arab army. With the exception of raise taxes, a player can perform these actions as many times as they wish each turn. Or at least as many times as they have spare cubes to do so. You can buy more cubes from one of your treasuries but this is not always affordable and / or desirable. The final action possible is a 'special' action which also has multiple options e.g. increase city size, become the emperor / caliph, invoke the Bulgar nation, improve fortifications, instigate civil war, command the navy. The only difference here is that there is a limit on the number of times each action can be taken in a round, between 1 and 3 as dictated by the appropriate boxes on the board.

Combat occurs when an Arab army moves into a Byzantine city or vice versa. Wallace always uses simple dice based combat mechanisms and this is no different. Depending on the size of the city under attack, between one and four dice are rolled and the attacker loses that number of casualties from their army. If they still have a bigger army than the size of the city then they are victorious, the city is reduced one level and the attacker claims ownership and gains cash plus VP's. There are a few more complications around the use of elite troops and levies and if other armies are present but it's still fairly straightforward.

At the end of the round, players gain income for every city they own and must pay maintenance for all their troops. Again, it is important to separate out Byzantine income and maintenance from Arab ones and if you can't pay all your maintenance then you not only lose troops but VP's as well. Victory points are scored through the initial claim on ownership of a city, sacking a city, becoming the emperor/caliph or donating to the church/ mosque. In addition, ownership of cities scores again at the end of the game.

There are a number of hints and tips at the back of the rulebook which I recommend all first time players read. They all make sense and give you some direction because at the start of the game you are probably not going to have much idea what to do.

I am a bit loathe to write a review of such a game after only one play particularly when I have yet to give it a chance to flourish – there is a better game in here than we experienced and it is a bit unfair for me to rate it a 5 because I am sure that with more plays we could get something good out of it. However, our one play resulted in a very disappointing game and the competition for my gaming time from other games is so strong that I rather doubt it will see the light of day again.
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Corey Butler
United States
Marshall
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100%Blade wrote:

I am a bit loathe to write a review of such a game after only one play particularly when I have yet to give it a chance to flourish – there is a better game in here than we experienced and it is a bit unfair for me to rate it a 5 because I am sure that with more plays we could get something good out of it. However, our one play resulted in a very disappointing game and the competition for my gaming time from other games is so strong that I rather doubt it will see the light of day again.


This is an important point. I think more so than in most games, you have to play Byzantium once or twice before you really get a feel for it. I've decided that I'm not even going to try to teach people and then play a regular game. My plan is to teach them the rules, play a practice game of one turn, and then play a real game after they have a better idea what is going on.
 
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Pedro
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100%Blade wrote:

I am a bit loathe to write a review of such a game after only one play particularly when I have yet to give it a chance to flourish – there is a better game in here than we experienced and it is a bit unfair for me to rate it a 5 because I am sure that with more plays we could get something good out of it. However, our one play resulted in a very disappointing game and the competition for my gaming time from other games is so strong that I rather doubt it will see the light of day again.


I think this is especially true for Byzantium. It's a hard game to digest because it's very unusual. Most of the players have no idea of what they're doing in the first game or two, and they only start understanding what one needs to do to win on the 3rd or 4th game. For some people that's not tolerable, and that's why this is one of the more underrated wallace games and it's doomed to stay that way. It's too bad, because I think it's one of his best games also...


 
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Edward Bosco
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100%Blade wrote:
Warfrog / Martin Wallace games are normally high on my radar to play quickly. I'm not too sure why though as other than Age of Steam my ratings for his games are not as good as this statement would imply.


Age of Steam is licensed from Winsome Games, it is not like the other Warfrog games. The best Martin Wallace games are the ones that have some mention of Winsome or John Bohrer, like Railroad Tycoon or Struggle of Empires.

 
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Stephen Shaw
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milspec wrote:
100%Blade wrote:
Warfrog / Martin Wallace games are normally high on my radar to play quickly. I'm not too sure why though as other than Age of Steam my ratings for his games are not as good as this statement would imply.


Age of Steam is licensed from Winsome Games, it is not like the other Warfrog games. The best Martin Wallace games are the ones that have some mention of Winsome or John Bohrer, like Railroad Tycoon or Struggle of Empires.



Wow -- or the ones that have nothing to do with further development-for-hire by John Bohrer, like Brass, Liberte, Princes of the Renaissance, After the Flood, and Tinner's Trail.
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