It was published by Amigo in Germany, and the board bears the always-gorgeous artwork of Doris Matthaus. But donít let that fool you-- Samarkand is an unmistakably American game. Hardly surprising, since it was created by noted American designer Sid Sackson. Once upon a time, perhaps Samarkand would have elicited some enthusiasm from me. Itís attractive, the rules arenít complex, and it the systems appear to work as intended. In the early 80ís, that might have been enough. But in an era where the greatest cost of a game is the opportunity cost of playing it instead of something else, Samarkand doesnít pack enough punch.
Players assume the roles of traders wandering the desert in search of bargains. The desert is actually a grid of three different kinds of spaces, with movement between spaces restricted in a maze-like manner. At oases players can purchase cards from the deck. At camps players must give a gift (a card from their hand) to nomads, who then allow that player to trade with them. The gift is added to the cards already in that camp, and the player may then take any of those cards in exchange for the same number of cards from his hand. If the camp is maxed out on cards, the player can pay a small fee and take them all.
The cards come in six suits of varying commonality. When a player visits a city, he can sell sets of cards from his hand to the bank. Larger sets earn higher prices, as do sets of rarer cards. In a pinch you can sell off a mixed bag in which no suit is repeated, and the game ends when someone amasses the prescribed cash.
The big disappointment with Samarkand is that itís a trading game which involves no trading whatsoever with other players. In that regard itís similar to Sacksonís Bazaar, and in fact this game was once published under the title of Bazaar II. I liked Bazaar when I was first exposed to it, but not enthusiastically so. Over time, my interest in playing it again has steadily waned. Both games are much shorter than Mayfairís nRails series, but they share the same fundamental problem. Unless the activity is compelling (e.g. Pick Two), I donít want to play multi-player solitaire.
Samarkand just isnít that compelling. Movement around the board is restricted to the maze of pathways, one space at a time, unless you choose to roll a die. In that case you must move the full amount rolled- no less. Indeed, the die might force you back one space, which may actually be what youíre hoping for. But rolling the die costs you money, and youíre stuck with the result of that gamble. Usually, the choice of whether or not to roll the die is an obvious one based on whatís in front of you and whether or not an opponent is poised to snatch a desired card out from under you.
Hoarding cards appears to be a viable, and winning, strategy, which lessens the gameís appeal even more. The mechanism intended to discourage hoarding- forced discards should the deck run out- never seems to have the desired impact. If my opponents sell- and when the deck is low, someone will sell-- I can sit on my cards for a while longer until I max out the set Iím working on. If Iím chicken I can sell a little early, but waiting until the last possible moment before bailing on a set is overwhelmingly worth the minimal risk.
The game therefore is mainly decided by the luck of the card draw and die roll, with no real player interaction and precious few decisions along the way. It certainly feels like a Sackson game, but not one of his more compelling ones.
Samarkand would seem to appeal more to a family crowd, assuming you can get them to sit still long enough to process the somewhat clunky movement rules and the special cases for trading cards with the nomads. In fact, for that audience the lack of direct competition may be a tremendous asset. At the risk of perpetuating a stereotype, Samarkand has many of the attributes that female players often find appealing. Itís non-threatening, non-violent, and non-confrontational- a possible candidate for introducing casual players into the hobby.
If you like Bazaar, youíll probably dig Samarkand. If like me youíve come to prefer more meat with your potatoes, youĎll probably want to give this a pass.