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Samarkand Board Game Review and Rules

Over the last two decades or so the board game industry has gone through a sort of Renaissance. Games released today are considerably different than they were decades ago. Because of this board game designers have really started to make a name for themselves in the industry. This was not always the case as many designers decades ago never really got credit for their work. This brings me to Sid Sackson who is arguably one of the first well known board game designers. Sid Sackson was a prevalent board game designer having created over 100 board games during his life as well as being an avid collector and historian for the industry. While Sid Sackson created a lot of games, I haven’t actually checked out a lot of his games. With most of his games being created between the 1960s and 1990s, many of his games were created before modern game design. Sid Sackson’s work has had a lot of impact on modern game design though. Today I am taking a look at Samarkand (also known as Bazaar) which was initially created back in 1980. With a game that is over 40 years old, I was curious how the game would hold up. While it shows its age in some areas, I was genuinely surprised how well Samarkand has held up as it is still enjoyable 40 years after it was first released.

How to Play | My Thoughts | Should You Buy? | Comments

How to Play Samarkand

Setup

  • Depending on the number of players, remove some of the commodity cards from the deck and return them to the box:
    • 4 players: Remove one of each commodity
    • 3 players: Remove three of each commodity
    • 2 players: Remove five of each commodity
  • Place the game board in the middle of the table.
  • Shuffle the commodity cards and place two face up in each of the trading fields around the border of the board. Deal seven cards to each of the players face down. Players will hold these cards in their hands so the other players can’t see them. The rest of the cards will be placed near the board to form the draw pile.
  • Sort the money by value and place them to the side of the board to create the bank. Give each player 200 Piaster (money).
  • Place the die and transparent markers near the board.
  • Each player will take a playing piece/marker, and a price table.
  • The oldest player will start the game. Each player starting with the first player and moving clockwise will choose a spot on the board to place their playing piece on. Players can place their piece on any space even one that has another playing piece already on it. The oldest player will then take their first turn.

Playing the Game

On a player’s turn they will take two actions.

  • Move their playing piece.
  • Perform an action corresponding to the space that their playing piece is on.

Moving

A player will begin their turn by moving their playing piece to a different spot on the board. A player can move in one of three different ways.

For free a player can choose to move to a neighboring space that one of the arrows leaving their current space point to.

If a player would use the first movement option to move to a Nomad Camp, they can choose to give a card gift to the Nomad Camp. Instead of trading they can choose to take another free move to another adjacent space that an arrow from their current space points to. If this would move them to another Nomad Camp they can choose to give this Nomad Camp a card as well and continue moving. When the player finally stops on a space they will take the corresponding action.

Movement in Samarkand
Using normal movement this player could move up or right one space. They could also decide to give a card to the Nomad Camp they moved to and immediately move onto one of the spaces that their now current space points to.

Finally the player can pay 5 Piaster to the bank. They will then get to roll the die. If a number is rolled the player has to move a number of spaces equal to the exact number that was rolled following the arrows on the board. If the player ends on a Nomad Camp, they cannot use the ability listed above to move onto another space.

Die Roll in Samarkand
This player rolled a four. They will have to move exactly four spaces on the game board.

When the backwards arrow is rolled the player must move back one space to one of the spaces whose arrow points to their current space. After moving their playing piece, they will take the corresponding action.

Die Roll in Samarkand
This player rolled the backwards arrow. They will move one space backwards (against the direction the arrows are pointing) on the game board.

Nomad Camp in Samarkand

Nomad Camps

When a player enters a Nomad Camp they must first offer one of their commodity cards to the associated trading field as a gift.

Giving A Gift to a Nomad Camp in Samarkand
The red player has moved onto this Nomad Camp. They have decided to give the Nomad Camp a grain card as their gift.

If a player enters a Nomad Camp and they have no cards to offer as a gift, they must pay 20 Piaster to the bank and will then draw the top card from the draw pile and gift it to the Nomad Camp.

After providing a gift, the player has the option to trade with the camp. The player will look at the trading field associated with their current space. If there are any cards that interest the player, they can trade one card from their hand for any one card in the trading field. A player may make as many trades as they want.

Trading in Samarkand
The red player wanted the Nomad Camp’s jewel card so they traded it for a fruit card from their hand.

Each of the trading fields have a maximum number of goods that it can hold which is indicated by the card outlines and the associated number. If the trading field associated with their current space is already full when a player arrives at it, they will not give it a gift. Instead of trading with the camp they will pay 10 Piaster to the bank and will take all of the cards on the associated trading field. The top two cards from the draw pile will be added to the trading field after all of the cards are taken.

Purchase All Cards from a Nomad Camp in Samarkand
The green player has landed on a Nomad Camp whose trading area is full. The camp can only hold four cards and it currently has four cards. The green player will pay 10 Piaster to the bank and they will take all four cards. Two new cards are taken from the draw pile to fill the now empty Nomad Camp.

Oasis Space in Samarkand

Oasis

When a player lands on an Oasis they will have the option to either purchase one or four cards from the bank. They will pay the bank the corresponding amount of money and will take the card(s) from the draw pile and add them to their hand. There is no limit to the number of cards that a player may hold in their hand.

If a player lands on an Oasis and doesn’t have enough money to buy any cards, the player to the right of the current player will randomly choose three cards from the current player’s hand and shuffle them back into the draw deck.

City from Samarkand

Cities

When a player enters a City they will have the opportunity to sell some of their cards to the bank for money. Each city will have two goods pictured on it which show which goods the City will purchase from players. The Gate symbol indicates that the market is willing to take one good of each type.

Gate Symbol in Samarkand
This city features the gate symbol. In addition to selling camels, a player can choose to sell one card of a number of different goods to this city.

The player will decide which of the two goods that they would like to sell. You can only sell one of the two types of goods for each trip to a City. They will then take the corresponding cards out of their hand and count how many of them that they have. They will then consult the price table to see how much the cards will sell for. All sold cards will be shuffled into the commodity deck.

The prices that goods will be sold for are as follows.

 

# of Cards234567
Grain1015204080140
Fruit10203060120
Copper Goods (Lamps)15254070140
Carpets15305080160
Camels2035260100180
Jewels204070120200
Gate (# of different types of goods sold)10152050100
Selling Goods in Samarkand
This player has sold five carpets to the city. For the five carpets the player will receive 80 Piaster.

After a player sells cards they will take one of the transparent chips and place it on top of the good symbol that they sold to their current city. If both chips are on other spots, the player will choose which one they want to move to their spot. When a player sells a good to a market with the transparent chip on it, the amount of money they will receive for the good will be one level lower than it would normally be. For example if you sold five cards you will only earn money as if you only sold four cards.

Good Already Sold in Samarkand
On a previous turn a player sold carpets to this city. If the blue player wants to sell carpets to the city, they will sell them for a value one lower than they normally would.

If a player enters a City and is unable to sell any cards that the City will purchase, they must show all of their cards to the other players so they can verify that no goods can be sold. If the player has two or more of one of the goods that the City takes, they must sell them. If they can’t sell any of their cards, they will pay 20 Piaster to the bank and they will take the cards back into their hand.

No More Commodities

If the draw pile ever runs out of cards, each player must immediately reduce the number of cards in their hand. Each player will be able to keep 12 Commodity cards. If a player has more cards than that in their hand, they must choose cards from their hand to discard. All discarded cards are shuffled to form a new draw deck. The game will then resume normally.

Winning the Game

The first player to have 500 Piaster in their possession at one time will win the game. Commodity cards held in a player’s hand do not count towards this total.

Winning Samarkand
This player has acquired 500 Piaster so they have won the game.

My Thoughts on Samarkand

Heading into playing Samarkand I didn’t know exactly what to expect. Sid Sackson was an accomplished board game designer whose game design had a pretty big impact on modern game design. At the same time though, many of his games are 30+ years old at this point so you always have to wonder how they have held up. Game design has come a long way recently and thus it is hard for games designed 30+ years ago to hold up. While it shows its age in some areas, I was pleasantly surprised that the game has held up better than I expected it to.

For a game that is 40+ years old, it was kind of surprising that the game actually feels like a combination of a couple different genres. The game has traditional board movement mechanics mixed with business/trading, pick up and deliver, and even set collecting mechanics. Basically you play as a trader who makes money from taking goods from a location where they aren’t valued to a space where you can sell them for more money. The more goods you can acquire and sell of a type at a time, the more money that you can make.

What I found interesting about the game is how you acquire goods in the game. The space you land on determines which action you can take on your turn. One of the spaces allow you to purchase random cards from the draw pile. You can purchase one card or buy four cards for a lower cost per card. As long as you have enough money the four cards is usually the better deal. The only time this might not be the case is if the draw deck is almost out of cards which forces players to discard cards from their hand.

The other way to acquire cards is visiting a Nomad Camp to trade goods with them. You first have to gift them a card in order to move onto their space. This is an interesting mechanic as you need to hold extra cards in your hand as you don’t want to give away a card from a set that you are about to sell. This adds cards to their market which you can then trade for. As the villagers seem to value all of the goods the same, you can trade goods that are not valuable for cards that can potentially sell for considerably more. Otherwise you could use trades to acquire more goods of a type that you are collecting. Trading is a key part of the game as it allows you to increase the number of cards in your sets without just hoping to draw the right cards from the draw pile.

I generally liked the trading mechanic of the game. I will admit that the mechanic is kind of basic as there is nothing to prevent a player from trading a cheaper good for one that is considerably more valuable. I also wonder what the game would look like if it allowed players to trade with one another. I still liked the trading though as I think it adds another element to the game while also reducing some of the luck. If you just drew cards from the deck and then sold whatever you got, the game would rely on whoever was dealt the best cards. This would also be kind of dull as there wouldn’t be much strategy to the game. While it is usually pretty obvious what trades you should make, trades make the game more interesting.

There was one thing about the Nomad Camps that I wasn’t sure about though. Whenever a camp gets filled with commodity cards, it basically sells all of its cards to the next visitor for a really cheap price. In theory the camp shouldn’t have great cards as they are the cards that other players left at the camp while they traded for goods that they wanted more. With a cost of only 10 Piaster though it is hard to deny that it is a good deal. Either these cards can be used to trade with other camps, or they can be sold in smaller groups to make some quick money. Outside of rare occurrences this is usually a great deal.

The reason I have mixed feelings about the mechanic is in some ways it feels kind of outdated. It is undeniable that the mechanic adds more luck to the game. Players who land on these spaces at the right time will be able to get a good deal which should help them. Players that are able to take advantage of this mechanic multiple times will gain a pretty big advantage over the other players. Unless you want to alter your whole strategy to avoid placing the last card at a camp, you can’t really avoid setting up the opportunity for others as well. At the same time though, there is a valid strategy of just following behind other players as they fill up these camps so you can then get the good deal on cards. Because of these two conflicting thoughts I am not sure what to think of this mechanic.

After you have acquired cards it is time to sell them off. Each City on the board has it own types of goods that it will purchase. Basically you can enter a City to sell your goods for hopefully more than you paid for them. While you might occasionally have to make small sales, you are generally better off trying to collect large sets of the same good and then sell them together. This is because the value you receive for each card goes up considerably the more cards that you have. If you settle for selling three to four of a good at a time, your wealth will grow slowly. If you can create sets of five or more though the return grows significantly. In the early game you can maybe go for some smaller sets, but towards the end of the game you really need to focus on larger sets if you want to win.

This illustrates a really interesting dilemma in the game. To do well in the game you need the right mixture between cards and money on hand. Acquiring more cards allows you to create larger sets which will sell for more money. You don’t want to run out of money though and miss out on an opportunity that otherwise could have really helped you. It is nice to have a large hand of cards, but you can’t hold them forever because you will risk losing some of them should the draw pile run out of cards. There is some risk/reward to the game. You want to hold cards for longer in order to create larger sets, but you don’t want to have to discard cards or sell to a market that will pay you less for your goods because someone has already sold that good to the market.

Honestly for a game that is 40 years old at this point, I was genuinely surprised by how well it has held up. Most games created in the early 1980s or even earlier haven’t held up all that well. A lot of this has to deal with mechanics being more basic back then as well as the industry building off of previous games to improve on mechanics. Based on how well it has actually held up, I would say that it was probably one of the best games released around 1980. Many of the mechanics present in the game were not that common and were kind of ahead of their time. Sid Sackson deserves credit for Samarkand as it has held up considerably better than most of its contemporaries.

That said there are areas of the game that do feel somewhat outdated. I don’t know how much of that you can blame on the game itself though as it is 40 years old. If you compared the game directly to a more modern game with a similar premise, there is a good chance that the modern game may be better designed. Part of that is due to impovements made on the mechanics due to games like Samarkand being made in the first place. There are elements of the game that feel a little basic, and some of the rules could be a little more elegant. Those that like player interaction will likely be a little disappointed as there isn’t a whole lot of interaction between the players in the game. Outside of taking goods from the Nomad Camps that another player wants or putting the transparent chip on a good that another player wants to sell, your actions rarely have a direct impact on the other players.

Probably my biggest problem with Samarkand is that it relies on quite a bit of luck. There is strategy to the game as you need to plan out where you are going to move to acquire the goods you want and reach a City to sell them in. Luck is going to play a role in how well you end up doing though. This comes from which cards will be available to you. The cards you draw from the draw pile are completely random. You could draw the more valuable goods or goods that you need. You could also draw cards that you really have no use for. As for acquiring goods in trades, you kind of have to be in the right place at the right time so the camps have the goods you want available for trade. No matter how good your strategy is, you are going to have a hard time winning if luck is not on your side.

While I haven’t tried it out yet, I wanted to quickly talk about the fact that Samarkand actually received a mini-expansion around 19 years after it first came out. The Isfahan expansion is completely free and can be printed off the internet. Basically the expansion eliminates the transparent chips and instead has the goods that each City will purchase rotate as goods are sold. I am not sure how much impact this has on the game, but it seems to be well liked where a lot of players won’t play the game without using it.

Finally I wanted to quickly talk about the game’s components. My copy of the game is actually the second edition which was released back in 1998. I thought the components for the second edition were fine even though they also probably could have been better. I will give the game some leniency as game components have come a long way in the last 20+ years. I thought the artwork was fine. It isn’t particularly flashy, but it does a good job giving the players necessary information without having to rely on text. Basically the components are made to be more functional than “pretty”. I wouldn’t say that the components live up to more modern games, but they do their job well enough that they don’t become a distraction.

Should You Buy Samarkand?

Generally I am a little cautious about games made 30+ years ago as they rarely hold up as the industry has come a long way in the last 20 years. I was surprised by Samarkand as the game has actually held up pretty well. In some areas the game feels a little outdated where a more modern game may be better. The game doesn’t have a lot of player interaction and it does rely on a decent amount of luck at times. For its age though the game feels like it was before its time in many ways. The game basically feels like a combination of a pick up and deliver game mixed with a set collection mechanic. Basically you buy and trade for goods and then try to sell them for more at a different location. Acquiring more of the same good is important as large sets will be worth considerably more. The game has some interesting trading mechanics and it is fun taking goods and turning them into more money than you paid for them.

My recommendation for Samarkand comes down to your thoughts on the game’s premise and older games in general. If you generally don’t like older games or aren’t intrigued by the premise, you likely won’t like Samarkand. If the premise intrigues you though, I think you will enjoy Samarkand as it holds up surprisingly well for its age. If you can get a good deal on the game I think it is worth picking up.

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