I had a fab weekend at Jyväskylä. The games were good, too. I had given my copy of Samarkand to my mom when they visited few weeks earlier, so they could play it couple of times before I get there. Busy as they were, they managed a couple of two-player games, so we only had to teach the game to Severi.
It turned out Samarkand is a pretty snappy game when you have experienced players and don’t wait too much while other people choose which cards to keep (sure, playing ahead is a bit of a bad habit, but it didn’t affect our games adversely). In fact, we were able to play a complete game in about 20-25 minutes average. Some were a bit slower, some a bit faster. All in all we played eleven games during the weekend. There was a certain tone in the question whether I was taking the game with me or not… (I did take it, because I want to play it more. With that sort of length, Samarkand should make a good second game on a game afternoon.)
Not a bad run, no, and it did wonders of my understanding of the game. I appreciate Samarkand a lot now, and upped my rating from 8 to 9. This is a great game, I like it a lot. It’s demanding enough to be interesting and easy enough to be accessible. Teaching this game to most people shouldn’t be too hard — the lack of auctions does wonders to make the game more easy to approach.
Here are some observations from the games:
- Despite the cards and all family game softness, there’s definitely some skill involved. How else can you explain the way the wins were split 6-4-1-0? I calculated the average scores, and I — with the six wins, of course — scored almost 10 points more per game against the weakest player (47.7, 45.3, 43.5, 39.8).
- I don’t think the cards determine the winner — but they do have a lot to say about how the game can be won. With the right cards, you only need one family tile to win, as I found out. I got couple of central cards, chose blue, drew good cards (I had 16-17-18 and something else), connected to those for 20 points and scored enough money and connection tokens to score 41 points — that’s what, three active connections and two passive, which made blue run out of connection tokens to end the game while the others were struggling to get to 30.
- Winning with just one family certainly required a good matching set of cards. With weaker cards, you need two or three families. The fourth is in most cases too much. I don’t think I ever bought into four families.
- Getting a partner in a family seems more like a curse than a blessing. With the cheaper and poorer families it can help do more double moves, but in most cases it comes to race over who gets to place the camels (and those come in short supply) first according to personal needs — and those rarely match. Family feuds…
- Highest score to win was 62, the lowest 38. I think the best hand of cards we saw was worth about 36, but unfortunately it was matched with only a few connection bonuses and little money. Getting double cards for 8 points is less significant than it first seemed, as it’s fairly hard to do and consumes a lot of time. Reaching out to a new goods space is better, because it scores 5 points, not 4.
- Cashing in cards for 3 money is a pretty good move, as you’re unlikely to fulfill every card (getting 4-5 cards seemed more typical), but it was still fairly rare. It’s usually not worth it to hoard cards in the hopes of getting paid for them, as the other players are usually busy enough chasing their own targets. Only do it for goods that neighbour family starting positions, as those usually (but not always!) get grabbed.
- All here is valid for 4-player games, by the way. I haven’t tried with three, but I’d still say four is the sweet spot. Seven-card hands are good, there’s enough action on the board but not too much.
- Don’t bother to place the goods tokens on the board. It’s a waste of time. It’s easy to see which goods are available: there’s no camel on the space. This idea was faced with some initial resistance, but that died out after the first game.
All said, Samarkand comes highly recommended. It’s an excellent game that packs plenty of punch in a fairly short game. There’s room for clever play, while you can blame the losses to bad cards. An ideal mixture… If you don’t like the profitability calculations involved in the share auctions but enjoy the other aspects of the Winsome style train games, Samarkand is a must have game for you.
For hard-core business gamers something like Preußische Ostbahn (which is coming from Queen at Essen this year, by the way) is the better game, but sometimes even the hard-core crowd wants the shorter, simpler version.