Byzantium

Reviewer Reviewed On Publisher Designer Published In Rating
April 12, 2006 Warfrog Games Martin Wallace 2005 7.5
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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 game…

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 Byzantine 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"