Sunday, February 19, 2006

Review: Byzantium

Byzantium is the latest game from Martin Wallace and Warfrog. It supports 2-4 players and plays in roughly two to three hours.

Martin Wallace has become one of my favorite game designers. Every game he designs is deep and highly strategic. His games tend to run on the difficult side and Byzantium is no exception. While the rules aren't terribly hard to understand, they do require seven full pages of small type to explain. In case it isn't obvious, this is not a beginner's game.

Byzantium is a very unique war-game/euro-game hybrid set in 632 AD. The Byzantine Empire is reeling from a war with Persia and the Islamic Arabs have just begun a conflict that threatens to destroy the empire completely. In an attempt to profit from the conflict, players control not one but two armies (one Arab and one Byzantine). By playing the two sides against each other and wresting control of cities for themselves, players gain influence and wealth.


Inside the box you'll find a large, high-quality game board depicting the eastern Mediterranean and surrounding lands. Each player also has their own mini-board used to keep track of the strengths of their armies along with the wealth in their respective treasuries. The artwork is very good and appropriate to the theme.

The majority of the space inside the box is taken up by well over three hundred wooden bits in various shapes and colors. There are dozens of cubes (it wouldn't be a euro-game without cubes) in each of the four player colors. There are pawns to represent each player's armies. There are dice. And there are disks used to represent the strength of each city as well as how many victory points the city is worth upon capture.

All of these bits are great with only two minor exceptions. First, and this is truly picking at nits, the city tokens are round disks, roughly a centimeter thick and 1.5 centimeters in diameter. The unfortunate side effect of these dimensions is that they tend to roll when first dumped out of the bag. Had they been thinner (or at least not round) this wouldn't have been a problem. The other exception is the coins which are the same cheap flat plastic disks that we've seen in other Martin Wallace games. Again, this is just being picky. The disks work well enough and we never use them anyway, since we have a nice set of poker chips we use whenever we play a game that requires money.

The rules are printed in three languages (English, German, and French) on a thirty page, full color, full size glossy rule book. This is a welcome improvement from earlier Warfrog games. The rules are clear, and complete. There are few illustrations but those are well done, in full color, and relatively easy to understand. My only complaint with the rules is that there were a few instances where the rules referred in passing to concepts that were only fully explained later. The rules are rather dense and it takes a little bit of effort to go through them the first time but once you've read them over once or twice they make sense and the game isn't all that difficult to understand. Do be aware that it will take some time to go through them all thoroughly before you play with someone who is just learning the game.

At the end of the rules you'll find a nice player aid sheet which does a good job of summing up all of the important rules. You may wish to make a copy of this sheet for each player but we didn't find that necessary. It was enough to leave the rules open to this page for reference.

Game Play

The object of Byzantium is to gain victory points for both the Arabs and the Byzantines. Each has its own victory point track and players must try and balance the points between them. If, at the end of the game, your Arab points are more than twice your Byzantine points (or vice versa) then you'll only score the higher amount of points. If, on the other hand, you keep them balanced then both of your scores will be added together. There is one exception: if Constantinople should fall, then the conqueror earns 5 Arab victory points, the game ends immediately and whoever is highest on the Arab scoring track wins the game.

Points are scored primarily by controlling cities. Early in the game, players have the easy option of seizing control of unclaimed cities. Each time you do, you'll score victory points on the appropriate track. Later in the game you'll need to wrest control of a city from someone else in order to score points. And at the end of the game, there is one final scoring where players earn points for each city they control.

The game is played over only three turns but each turn consists of a large number of player actions. Actions include things like taking control of cities, reinforcing armies, laying siege to cities, and so on. Actions are limited by action cubes. In many ways, Byzantium is a cube management game. Players are given a set number of cubes which they distribute on their game boards. If a cube is in an army box then it represents unit strength. If it's in an army's caravan box then it represents a movement point which can be spent to move the army. If a cube is in a player's free pool then it can be spent to take one of several special actions such as taking control of an unclaimed city, causing a city to revolt, reinforcing a city, taking control of the Byzantine or Arab fleet, and so on. Any time a player takes an action he needs to use an action cube. Action cubes can come from the free pool or they can come from somewhere else at a cost of three bezants from the appropriate treasury. Eventually players will run out of cubes in their pool and gold in their treasuries and they'll be forced to pass.

Combat is deliberately kept very simple. If two armies face each other then they each simultaneously roll a set number of dice based upon their strengths. Each die roll has a 50% chance of resulting in a casualty. Each casualty results in a cube being removed from the army. After casualties have been removed, the stronger force wins. If an army lays siege to a city, then the city rolls a number of dice equal to its strength. If, after removing casualties, the army is stronger than the besieged city, the city falls; otherwise the army must retreat. It's a very simple system with just enough luck to keep things interesting but no so much luck as to make combat chaotic and unpredictable.

Byzantium is a perfect knowledge game. No player has any hidden or privileged information. One common problem with perfect knowledge games is that they can tend to encourage "analysis paralysis" and Byzantium is prone to suffer from this as well. There are a lot of strategic and tactical choices to be made and the game is difficult enough that the strategies are definitely not obvious. I enjoy the deep thought and analysis required to play this game well but I can understand how that might not be for everyone. If you're looking for a light game, you'll want to look elsewhere.


Byzantium is a very meaty gamer's game. Having to manage armies and treasuries on both sides of the war is very unique and makes for a game that isn't quite like any other. The strategies are deep enough that they continue to elude me after several plays and I'm eager to play more. It's not a game for everyone because it's long, dense and relatively difficult, but for those who enjoy a deep perfect-knowledge game, Byzantium is an excellent choice. I love Martin Wallace's games and Byzantium is no exception. This is an excellent game.


Post a Comment

<< Home