I missed the original Age of Scheme. Thus I was rather glad it got reprinted by Queen Games as Samarkand: Routes to Riches. It’s not just a pretty reprint like Chicago Express was, but rather a conversion of a demanding auction game to a German family game. Gone are the auctions, say hello to randomly distributed cards!
The physical production is beautiful, as can be expected from Queen Games. The main components are pleasant to handle and include pretty wooden camels in lovely colours. Colour-blind players might have some issues, though. The game’s also labeled as Queen Green Game, meaning extra steps have been taken to make sure the game is produced in a sustainable way. The art ranges from nice to beautiful; personally I find the sandy colour a bit bland, but since the game’s about carawans in desert, I suppose you can’t really use those lush greens I like.
If you want to see how the game looks like, there’s a very comprehensive image gallery at BoardGameGeek.
Samarkand is about buying shares in railroads and then running them profitably… well, almost. Instead of railroads, you have merchant families representing different nationalities in the Middle-East. Instead of buying shares, you marry into the families, paying the family money for the honour. The “shares” are not auctioned, you just buy what you want.
Buying into families gets you goods cards. Everybody starts with two, and there is a hand limit of 6-10 cards. When you marry into a family, you get three more and must keep at least one of the cards drawn. Once you’re at the hand limit, no more cards! This means discarding cards is a must, unless you get really good cards.
Goods and trading agreements
The cards depict various trading goods which can also be found as tokens scattered around the map. The goods are central to victory. First, you can collect the goods by extending camel routes of your merchant families to the tokens. That way you get to grab the token for one point. If at the end of the game a camel of a family you’re married into is on a good space and you hold a matching card, you score four points. A non-related camel is worth one point, so a good can be worth 0, 1, 4, 5 or 8 points. You can also sell the good for three money (money is points in the end) when somebody else reaches the space, but you won’t score any points for that good in the end.
Another important occasion is when two merchant families meet for the first time, having their camels in the same space. Everybody in the active family gets 3 money, passive family gets 1 money. The player who orchestrated the meeting scores two points in the form of one trade marker from each family. That way players get more money and points and the game gets closer to its end.
The game’s over and scoring can begin
The trade counters are a nice game-end mechanism. The game is over when each family has made at least one trade connection (easy to see, as every family has one trade counter that’s different colour than the others) or when one family has expended all trade counters.
Then it’s just scoring — count your money, goods, trade tokens and then check the cards. A clever player will have lots of 8-point cards, but that’s not always easy to manage and requires some luck with the card draws. Of course, several marriages make sure you get to see lots of cards and can manipulate your luck, but it costs.
Works with 2-5 players
The game seems to work with the whole range of 2-5 players. I’ve tried the extremes, both are fine games. Five players is probably one player too much for my tastes, but still I’d say the game works well with five. I wouldn’t say no.
Two-player game uses some additional rules: each family starts with only one family member tile (usually there’s two). The rest go to bag, where they are drawn after each marriage and if the drawn tile belongs to a family already married to one of the players, the tile comes to play, otherwise it’s discarded. Simple, but works to make the two-player game interesting.
The whole affair is over pretty quickly. The setup takes some effort, as goods tokens must be placed on correct spaces, but it’s not Last Train to Wensleydale complicated or anything. A five-player game should be over in less than hour, setup included, and two-player game shouldn’t take more than 45 minutes. With experienced, swift players, a two-player game should be done in 20 minutes and five-player game might take 40 minutes or so.
Nice change of pace
I like the game. It has many features I like, familiar from Winsome titles like Preußische Ostbahn, which is one of my all-time favourite games. The lack of auctions is the biggest difference. With the auctions, certain level of cut-throat play is gone, making Samarkand a nice and relaxed game to play.
It’s not all luck and randomness, though — underneath the smooth surface is a pretty clever game that seems to require some level of skill and tactical thinking. Getting points is usually very easy, but figuring out opportunities for really good moves is harder.
The big problem for Samarkand is getting play time, as my hardcore gamer friends will prefer the original Winsome titles with their auctions, cut-throat play and more varied texture. I don’t really play games in situatioans where Samarkand would be ideal. I do know that next time I’m taking the kids to see their grandmother, I’ll grab Samarkand with me, as the game sounds like something they would enjoy. Also, the short playing time means Samarkand can work as a filler even for more serious players, as you can’t play Preußische Ostbahn in 45 minutes.
All in all, I think Samarkand is a successful family conversion. It strips many of the more hardcore features of the original game, but manages to keep plenty of interesting detail. Those who have been avoiding Winsome train games because they dislike auctions or games that have zero luck, would probably do well to give Samarkand a go, as it adds a nice dose of randomness and removes auctions altogether.