There are few places that encapsulate the Byzantine Empire like the central market. The sights, sounds, and smells dazzle the eye and captivate the senses. Here, any number of goods can be found, from wonderful fabrics, to precious grains, to exotic spices. Merchants come from far and wide to compete in auctions for different lots of goods, hoping to make a wise purchase, or steal a bundle at a low price. The wisest merchant will make a tidy profit and walk away a winner.
In Byzanz, 3-6 players take on the role of merchants bidding on lots in the market place. Depending on the number of players, the game will last between four to eight rounds.
Byzanz has some elements in common with a typical auction game, but also some ideas that make it unique. The majority of the game is made up of the 96 card Goods deck (some cards are removed from each game). There are six different types of goods like wine, wood, olives, grain, textile and spices. Each type of Good has 16 cards valued one to four. There are also 16 Merchant cards with a value of zero…usually. The Bidder cards drive the auctions, and the Byzantine Market board collects the bids after each auction.
At the start of each round, the Bidder cards are stacked with the highest on the top. You use different cards depending on player count, but assuming it’s a four-player game for example, you’d stack them from number two to number five.
Each player starts the game with four Goods cards in their hand. Rounds are broken up into auctions. The first auction is for a lot of Goods equal to the top card of the Bidder cards. So, if the five Bidder card is on top, five Goods cards are revealed. In turn, players can bid on that lot of cards. The auction continues around until everyone passes and only one player is left.
To make a bid, players can offer any number of Goods cards. At that time, it doesn’t matter the type of good, just the value of the cards offered. Subsequent players have to bid higher or pass, and the auction will continue until all but one player has passed.
The winner places all of the Goods cards they bid below the Byzantine Market board divided by type of Good. They take the winning lot of Goods, but also must sacrifice one of those to the Byzantine Market. Finally, they take the Bidder card for that auction revealing the next lower one down. So, in a five-card auction, the winner loses whatever they bid to the Byzantine Market, plus a card from the lot, banking four cards into hand.
Once a player has won an auction, they can no longer bid that round, so the last player gets the final auction for free. If, like our example of a four-player game, the final auction is for two cards, they still have to sacrifice one to the Byzantine Market.
Now, most of the time players will want to keep the highest value cards and discard lower values to the Market, but certain Goods types will start to build up in the Byzantine Market making them very attractive. Players may sometimes choose not to make a good lot even better. And the reason for that is…
Once the last auction has ended, it’s time for the Byzantine Market. The players with the lowest Bidder card goes first, visiting the Market and taking all of one type of Good. They’re followed by the next lowest Bidder card and so on. It’s a neat little mechanic, where the last to win is the first to take from the leftover Goods. Now sure, there may be Goods that people threw away, but there will also be all the cards used to win auctions, which can have some high values to them.
Once everyone has visited the Byzantine Market, the Bidder cards are returned and stacked and another round begins.
We’ve talked a lot about how you get those Goods into your hand, but how do you convert them into points? It’s pretty simple really, at any time in the game, players can reveal three Goods of the same type from their hand. The two lowest value cards are discarded, but the highest value is kept face down in a scoring pile, earning players the face value points at the end of the game.
Here’s where Merchant cards come in handy. Normally they have a value of zero and can’t be used in auctions, but when discarding cards for points, they count as wild cards and can be added to Goods cards to make a grouping of three. A grouping of three Merchants can be discarded and if a player does that, they keep one of them worth five points at the end of the game.
There is a hand limit of seven cards, so players are encouraged or even forced at times to discard for points. However, each time that happens, they’re also giving away their bidding power, so striking a balance is key.
Based on the number of players, the game will last a certain amount of rounds, and every card will be auctioned off. Players get one more chance to sell and then it’s time to count points. The best wheeler and deal wins the day.
I really like Byzanz. It plays very quickly, the rules are, simple, the art is nice, and the whole package has a throwback feel to games like For Sale or Jaipur. That is not to say I’m very good at the game, but I’ve enjoyed losing. Like any auction game, there is a bit of a learning curve, as you assess the value of a group of Goods. It may be worth three to you, but is it worth five? The only way to get past that is to play over and over, until that value is more clear. The lucky thing, is that Byzanz doesn’t outstay its welcome and you’ll want to revisit this market often.
A review copy of Byzanz was provided for this article by Renegade Games.