Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Byzantium 2nd opinion


On 20 Oct 2007 I played Byzantium, designed by Martin Wallace, for the second time, with Han (of course). I have written about Byzantium the first time I played it, here. I quite liked it then and even considered buying a copy myself, even though Han will likely be the only opponent whom I can find and he already owns it. After the second game, I am not so sure I like it that much. I am still wondering whether it's the game itself, or the way that we have played, or maybe the fact that we played with 2 players, that is making the game less enjoyable for me. Here's how my second game went.

Having suffered a Bulgars-conquer-Constantinople defeat in my first game, I now tried to focus more on my Arab points, to keep ahead, or at least not fall behind by more than 5 points. I did not manage to stay ahead, but at least I was less than 5 points behind. This was important because as long as I was not too far behind, Han would still have to worry about me pulling off a Bulgar conquest, and then score the 5 Arab points to overtake him and win the game.

In Round 1 (out of 3), we did the usual stuff, using our Arab and Byzantine armies to conquer Persian cities mostly, as well as some Byzantine and Arabian cities. We claimed Byzantine cities too, and one or two Arabian ones. Claiming cities is a convenient and easy way to own a city. My armies were rather unlucky. Or maybe I should say I was poor at planning my military excursions. I took a bit more risk than I should have, and more than once my armies were unsuccessful in capturing cities, because I lost more men than anticipated. Maybe I should have been more conservative and built up my strength more beforehand. We did this usual stuff up to early Round 2. Han was slightly ahead in Arab points, I was slightly ahead in Byzantine points. Han had used a Bulgar action once in Round 1 and conquered a Byzantine city 2 steps away from Constantinople. Only 2 Bulgar actions were available per round.

Then around early Round 2, everything changed.

Han was in a good position to try the Bulgar conquest again. In fact he also had his Arabian army near Constantinople, on the other side from the Bulgars, across the strait. Arabian conquest of Constantinople works the same way as the Bulgar conquest - game ends immediately, and only Arab points count. So, the game changed to focus on the fall of Constantinople and the effort to prevent it. Han was in a good position to make a gamble. It did not require a big sacrifice to his overall position, and there was not much risk to him, even if his attempt failed. For me, I had to try to prevent it at all costs, because the fall of Constantinople would mean instant defeat for me. Even if it meant investing many resources, I had no choice. Round 2 ended early (as in both of us still had many "free cubes" left), because Han was setting up the stage for the Bulgar attack on Constantinople. He had used another Bulgar action in Round 2, and now the Bulgars were at the gates of Constantinople. He passed, so that he would get the first move in Round 3, and I had only one turn left in Round 2, which was insufficient for me to do anything effective to stop him.

First turn of Round 3, the Bulgars descended upon Constantinople. It was a 50-50 chance again, same as our 1st game. Five dice rolled and if Constantinople cannot roll three with 4 and above, Constantinople would fall. This time, Constantinople was luckier. Just enough of the attackers were killed at the walls of Constantinople that the Bulgars retreated. Disaster averted. Unfortunately, the other looming threat was now at the backdoor - Han's Arab army. We continued the struggle of setting up the final battle of Constantinople. Han recruited for his Arab army, and grabbed control of the Byzantium fleet to ensure they do not interfere with the Arab army (in which case the Arab army would have had to pay 4 cubes for movement along a sea route instead of the already expensive 2 cubes per move). I used the special action to become Byzantine Emperor, which gave me one elite soldier, and also allowed any "garrison" that I had (I don't remember the actual term used in the game) to defend Constantinople if it was attacked. Of course I also recruited some garrison into my Byzantine army. Unfortunately, it was of no use. Han eventually gathered a large enough force that his Arab army would capture Constantinople, even if the garrison and Constantinople itself had rolled perfect dice in defense. He needed an army of 19 soldiers for this. If the garrison had hit with all 3 dice, he would be reduced to 16 soldiers, and if Constantinople had also hit with all 5 dice, he would be further reduced to 6 soldiers (Constantinople does double kill), which would be enough to overcome Constantinople, a size 5 city. So, Han scored 5 more Arab points, and the game was over. He was already ahead of me in Arab points even before the fall of Constantinople.

So, what could I have done differently to prevent this defeat? That was the same question I asked the last time I lost. It is important for me to answer this question, because if I have no answer then maybe there is something wrong with the game design. Even during the game, Han and I spent quite some time discussing what I could do in that situation, and also what he could do to ensure a successful conquest of Constantinople. One of the things that I could have done, which we have also thought about after our first game, was for me to earn more Arab points, and to be ahead by more than 5 points. In this game I did focus more on Arab points, and although I wasn't successful in taking the lead, at least I stayed within 5 points. I think this should be a reasonable goal for all players - trying to be in the lead, but in the worst case trying to stay within 5 points. All players (this game supports 2 to 4 players) staying within 5 points mean there is always a threat of another player pulling off a Bulgar victory. Only if you are more than 5 points ahead of everyone else then you don't need to worry about it. I'm not sure how easy it is to be ahead by that much. I guess when everyone's Arab points are close, then everyone will be wary of setting up the next player to conquer Constantinople, i.e. the Bulgars will be kept 2 steps away from Constantinople, and players will be reluctant to take the Bulgars one step closer, unless they are very confident it will be beneficial to them.

Another thing I probably should not have done is to conquer that city across the strait from Constantinople. Han had earlier claimed it when it was a Byzantine city, so the rules forbade him from using his Arab army to conquer it. So it would be impossible for his Arab army to approach Constantinople from that direction. I hadn't thought about this, and I used my Arab army to conquer that city, making it an Arab city owned by me. Then Han's Arab army could go via that city (which was Arab now) to attack Constantinople. However, this city is probably not that big a factor in the consideration for whether Constantinople will fall. This city is originally Byzantine anyway, so any Arab army that manages to reach this city can conquer it and subsequently attack Constantinople. The thing that a player should not do, if he/she has any plan to attack Constantinople from that direction, is to claim it as his/hers, because your Arab army is not allowed to attack your own Byzantine city.

After the game, Han also thought of a few other possibilities for me. Building a mosque (cost is $6 for 2 Arab points) and becoming the Arabian Caliph (2 Arab points) can help me with gaining Arab points. That may not be enough for me though.

It seems this time I could not find a satisfying answer to this question of "What could I have done differently?" like last time. After this second game, I felt that we have spent too much energy and effort on the battle of Constantinople, and I had this feeling of inevitability as we danced around the preparation for this battle. It seemed futile. Was it something I could have done much much earlier to prevent this? But if it takes so much energy to prevent this, then is this a problem in the game design? Because this much energy required for this aspect of the game seems to make the other aspects of this interesting game not important anymore. E.g. why waste time on Byzantine points? Or, should the fall of Constantinople be treated as a very central part of the game, rather than an interesting twist or an interesting alternative victory condition. Maybe this should be treated as an equally likely game end condition rather than the rare exception that I have assumed it to be.

Another thought that we have is maybe this is a problem that happens when we play it as a 2-player game. I read an article on Boardgamegeek where a fellow geek commented that the problem with the 2-player game is once one player passes, the other player can only do one more action for that round. In the 3- or 4-player game, if the first player passes, the others can still continue taking actions, until everyone has passed except one. Then this last player will have only one more action. So, in the 3- or 4- player game, players will be reluctant to pass too early because the other players will be able to take many more actions.

Of course, yet another possibility is that I still have not learnt all the intricacies of preventing the fall of Constantinople to cause instant defeat for me. At the moment it really takes a lot of effort to think quite a few steps ahead to determine whether Constantinople will be a risk to me or not. So, until I get to play Byzantium more and discover more (if there is more to discover), for now my feeling is the fall of Constantinople dominates a larger part of the game than I'm comfortable with. Now Han and I are interested to try a 3-player game of Byzantium. It may be quite different.

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