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Around the time of the Han Dynasty, from 200 B.C. to around 8 A.D., an overland trade route from the Mediterranean Sea to China developed called the Silk Road. This 4,000 mile (6,000 KM) route ran from the Mediterranean Sea to the early Chinese capital of Chang’an. Not only were goods traded from various European ports to China and the cities in between, but this route played a major role in the diffusion of Buddhism into China.
Silk Road is a strategy game for 3-6 daring adventurers who trade, buy, and sell along this historic trading route from Chang'an in the East to Antioch in the West. Players bid for control of the caravan leader to determine which cities to visit, where players will choose the actions they wish to perform: i.e. buy, sell and trade goods such as jewels, dried fruit, silk, etc.
There have been two games in which I have been somewhat involved from their inception and through their development, culminating in their ultimate publication. One was my good friend Ty Douds’ Victory and Honor, one of the best trick-taking games in existence. The most recent is Silk Road, which began life many years ago as Valencia. Conceived by my good friend Ted Cheatham, Valencia was originally an abstract in search of a theme. When Ted devised the Valencia theme, my wife Gail actually created the artwork for the prototype. Eventually, Ted collaborated with well-known French designer Bruno Faidutti, and the result was Silk Road, which has been published by Z-Man Games.
As the name suggests, Silk Road is set along the historic Silk Road of the Far East. The caravan travels from city-to-city, beginning its journey in Changan and concluding thousands of miles later in Antioch. With each city visited, players will select one of the action tiles, which will enable them to purchase, swap or sell commodities in various combinations. Players best beware, however, as the dastardly thief can foil one’s plans, while the Grand Vizier can grant great wealth to the player with the greatest quantity of the commodity he seeks.
To begin the game, each player receives three randomly-drawn commodities, as well as an initial treasury of ten pieces of silver. Tiles – one less than the number of players – are placed randomly on each of the 18 cities depicted on the board. The start player receives the caravan leader pawn and a number of turn tokens (one less than the number of players). The caravan then sets-off from mysterious China, and players seek wealth and riches.
The first step of a turn is determining the caravan leader, which isn’t necessarily the player holding the leader pawn. Each player can make one monetary offer to purchase the caravan leader token for the turn. The current caravan leader can either accept the highest bid, receiving the money offered and surrendering the leader and turn tokens, or keep the caravan leader token, paying the high bidder an amount equal to his bid.
The caravan leader now moves the caravan token to one of the next cities along the route, as indicated by the arrows depicted on the board. He then chooses and executes one of the action tiles available at that location. In addition, if there is a pre- printed action listed next to the city, he may also execute that action. These cities are particularly valuable, and often result in elevated bids from the players during the first phase.
After making a selection, the caravan leader keeps one of the turn tokens, and passes the remainder to the player of his choice. That player then chooses a tile and executes its action before passing the remaining tokens onto another player of his choice. This continues until no further turn tokens remain. The one player who did not receive an action tile receives the caravan leader token and begins the next turn. This “choosing the next player” mechanism is highly original, and can help serve as a method to reign in the current leader. There is the potential for one player to be constantly targeted, but in practice, wise players will choose to target the perceived leader rather than constantly abuse one player.
The action tiles are the heart of the game. Some will allow a player to trade one type of commodity for others, sometimes on a favorable 1-for-2 basis, while others will allow a player to sell or purchase commodities. When selling, the first good is sold for 4 silver, while each subsequent good is sold for one less. Purchasing works in the opposite direction. A maximum of four goods can be sold or purchased per tile.
There are also a few special tiles, such as the thief, which allows the player to randomly steal a commodity from behind an opponent’s screen. The Grand Vizier allows the player to choose a particular commodity, and each player simultaneously reveals the amount of that commodity that they possess. Silver is awarded to the top two players.
The game continues until the caravan reaches Antioch. Players then receive victory points as follows:
Resource management is important, particularly in the timing of the conversion of cash into commodities, and back into cash. Cash is needed early in the game for the acquisition of commodities, but in the second-half of the game, but conservation of cash is more important as the game enters the second half. Whenever a player can sell commodities, or trade one for two, it is a wise course of action.
While the decisions to be made along the way are not often taxing or difficult, one does derive the feeling that your actions are responsible for your ultimate fate, and that wise moves at the right time will spell the difference. Some of a player’s plans can be hindered by the passing of the turn order tokens, and a perceived front-runner will likely be passed-by when passing the turn tokens. However, the clever balancing mechanism of crowning this overlooked player the caravan leader on the following turn appears to be ample compensation.
Silk Road is a game of decisions and resource management that is easy to learn and play. The rules fit easily on the front and back of a single page, and the game plays to completion in just over an hour. While the system includes familiar mechanisms such as quick auctions, it also has some clever and fresh innovations. It is a game that can be played and enjoyed by both families and serious gamers, which is a big plus. I’m happy to see this entertaining game finally published.
I enjoy teaching ancient Chinese history to my students, if only for the fact that I don’t remember it being taught to me in high school – all I recall is talk about the Great Wall. So I was pleased to see a game that focused on the Silk Road of the Han Dynasty – one of the major trade routes of the first millennium. Silk Road (Z-man Games, 2006 – Ted Cheatham and Bruno Faidutti) was also high on my interest list if only for the combination of designers – Mr. Faidutti, who has designed some classic games such as Citadels, and Ted Cheatham, one of the biggest game enthusiasts I’ve ever met.
Upon playing the game, I was really surprised at the smooth, flowing sensation the game produced. There is none of Bruno’s classic chaos (well, maybe the thief), and it includes a good mechanic to force players to get involved, rather than take a more benign role. Silk Road is probably overpriced for the components you get, but it is a good solid game – nothing fantastic or new, but more of a nice easy-going experience. I enjoy the aspect of bidding in this version; and while I feel that replayability won’t offer too many different choices, it’s certainly a nice medium weight game for occasional play.
A map shows twenty different cities that are aligned along the Silk Road, starting from Chang’An and concluding in Antioch. Cities have one or two arrows extending towards the next city, allowing choices to be made as the caravan moves along the trail. A large token is placed in Chang’An to represent the caravan, and piles of action tiles are randomly placed on the board, with one less than the number of players placed in each city. Half of the cities are colored orange and get orange tiles; the others are purple, where the purple tiles are placed. Each player is given one gold coin (worth five silver coins) and five silver coins, three random resource cubes (white – ivory; blue – silk; yellow – jewels; brown – dried fruits; and red – spices) and a shield to hide them behind. A random player is given a caravan leader pawn and as many turn tokens as there are players, minus one. The first round is ready to begin.
In each round, starting with the player to the left of the person with the caravan leader, each player must either bid higher than the previous person or pass. Once this is done, the caravan leader can either accept the money offered by the highest bidder, giving them the token or pay the same amount to that person, giving them the token. The caravan leader then moves the caravan pawn on the board to one of the next possible cities. The player then takes one of the action tiles in that city and either utilizes the action or discards the tile, passing the caravan pawn and all of the turn tokens except one. This continues until all players but one have taken an action – leaving no action tiles on the city. The next round then begins, following the same pattern.
The action tiles are:
- Trade one specific type of good for two other specific goods (this can be done twice by the acting player.)
- Buy as many goods of a specific type as the player wants to, paying 1 silver for the first, two silver for the second, etc.
- Steal one good randomly from behind another player’s screen.
- Barterer: This tile can be kept and used in a later city, allowing the player to discard it to take two tiles and actions, keeping two players from completing an action that city.
- Switch up to two goods of any kind for two goods of a player’s choice.
- Same as above, but up to four goods
- Sell as many goods of a specific type as the person wants, receiving four silver for the first good, three for the second, two for the third, and one for every one after that.
- Crook: This tile can be kept for a later turn and allows the player to change a goods type on an action tile to a different type.
- Grand Vizier: The player who chooses this tile picks a good type. All players reveal as many of that type of cubes as they want to, with the player who has the highest receiving six silver, and the player with the second most receiving three. A cube of this type is then placed on the tile to show that the Grand Vizier can not be used for that specific type of good for the remainder of the game.
Some cities have an extra action tile imprinted onto the board. When a player chooses to go there, the first player may take that action along with one other action tile. The game continues until the caravan reaches Antioch, at which point the game ends, and all players score their points. Each silver coin is worth one point; gold coins are worth five points, cubes are worth one point, and the player with the most goods tokens in each type receives two points. The player with the most points is declared the winner!
Some comments on the game…
1.) Components: The large square box feels lighter than it looks – mostly because there really isn’t that much there – well, not enough to warrant the large box. The coins are nice wooden discs that are easy to handle and use, although there’s really not enough of them for a five or six player game; we constantly had to make change to keep from running out of silver coins and finally resorted to using the turn tokens (large orange discs) as “10” value coins. Speaking of the turn tokens, they felt a bit unnecessary; and as I said, we simply use them for money now. I also wish that the caravan leader token wasn’t the exact same large wooden token as the caravan itself – people kept grabbing the caravan token by accident. Still, the rest of the components are nice – the board is a longer thin one, the action tokens are easy to read and understand – with pictorial references that make sense, the cubes are colorful and easy to handle, and the player shields are handy to hide one’s money. My only concern is that the price seems to outweigh the components inside.
2.) Rules: There is only one sheet of rules, on both sides, and it is accurate and clear. A few details are not addressed, such as what one does when a certain amount of cubes is run out of (tough luck), and what happens in a Grand Vizier tie (hooray for everyone), but most of these are common sense and can be worked out, although they should have been included in the basic rule set. The game is much easier to teach than I expected, teenagers and adults took to it easily, and both games I’ve played have come to just over an hour.
3.) Auctions: Some folk don’t like auction games, but in Silk Road, even though the auctions are important, they aren’t tiresome and repetitive. Players can’t simply drop out of the bidding, because they may end up without an action tile! One can afford to miss one or two action tiles over the course of a game, but missing more can be disastrous. An interesting effect that occurs because of this happens when one player is being offered a bid that will drop them out of taking an action. Is the amount of the bid worth them not doing anything that turn? This decision process is my favorite part of the game and can be quite interesting later on. Controlling what city the caravan goes can change the course of the game and help yourself while hurting others. Short, important bidding is a nice addition to the game, especially when you consider the fact that you’re basically bidding away victory points. I’ve seen a bid of “5”, but never anything higher, and usually bids end up at “3”.
4.) Thief: This certainly feels like a Faidutti mechanic, as I’ve seen it in several of his other games, such as Dragon's Gold; but it does help increase player interaction. This is good, because even though the auctions matter quite a bit to who doesn’t take a turn this round, the game still doesn’t always feel very interactive. In fact, there are some who considered the theme to be a bit listless and dull; and while I disagree, I enjoyed the trading aspect in this game. I certainly understand their point of view.
5.) Fun Factor and Trading: Players must control clever players, as trading is ALWAYS beneficial – getting two cubes for one, or four dollars for a cube you only paid one or two for. That’s a cheery feeling, and even players who lose will end up with more than they started. This, combined with the quick feel of the game (any longer and it might get monotonous) keeps the game enjoyable for me. I liked the trading aspect with the game itself, even though it would have been interesting to make deals with other players. What’s neat about Silk Road is that you can look farther ahead down the path and see which cities are coming up and plan your trading accordingly. Buying two cubes for three silver and then trading them for four cubes, which you then sell two of for seven silver, gives one a bit of satisfaction and kept the game enjoyable for me.
6.) Players: I’ve seen some that think that the six player game is too chaotic. I can understand that the three player game offers up some fairly deep strategy (it probably is the best number for Silk Road), but I just enjoyed the bidding process with six players and the slight trash talking that ensued during the process. It was enjoyable, and the chaos wasn’t as bad (I didn’t even consider it chaos!), as I’ve read.
All in all, I found Silk Road to be an enjoyable game, although I fear that it may be forgettable in the long run. It’s an interesting theme, but the theme isn’t deeply rooted enough into the gameplay to keep players’ attention for many games. Games tend to feel the same, even if they’re not, so Silk Road will remain a nice diversion for me. I won’t hesitate to bring it out for non-gamers, as it’s very understandable, and there is a bit of strategy and long term planning in the game; not to mention a reasonable time limit. It just lacks that spark of absolute fun that I’m looking for, so for now I’ll play it only occasionally.
“Real men play board games”