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SILK ROAD

Reviewed by Herb Levy

(Z-Man Games, 3-6 players, ages 12 and up, about 90 minutes; $49.99)

 

The “pick up and deliver” genre of gaming is nothing new, whether it’s railroads across the country or trucks barreling down lanes of highway. In Silk Road, the new game by Ted Cheatham and Bruno Faidutti, the venue shifts to the exotic world of camels and caravans as players compete to bring goods to market.

Silk Road comes with a map of the fabled Silk Road trading route, goods tokens (and a cloth bag to hold them), action tiles, wooden “gold” and “silver” coins, player “shields” and other play aids.silkroad

All players begin with 1 gold and 5 silver coins and a player shield which is used to hide their assets during the game. Goods tokens come in five different varieties: ivory (white), silk (blue), jewels (yellow), dried fruits (brown) and spices (red). These are all placed in the cloth bag and all players draw three goods tokens and place them behind their shields.

The board depicts multiple routes from the city of Chang’ An to Antioch. Cities along these routes display a blank (or nearly blank) table upon which action tiles are placed. There are two types of action tiles: orange backed and purple backed. At the start of play, action tiles are randomly placed, face up, on those city tables, orange tiles on orange cities, purple tiles on purple cities, the number of tiles equal to the number of players minus one. These action tiles allow a host of special actions that players need to implement for maximum advantage including:

Seller – You may sell as many goods as you want of the specified type getting 4 silver for the first sold, 3 for the second, 2 for the third and 1 for the fourth and any subsequent goods.

Buyer – Like the seller but in reverse, buying the specified good at a cost of 1 for the first, 2 for the second, 3 for the third and 4 for all subsequent buys.

Trader – You can exchange one specified type of goods for, generally, one or more other goods. (Special Trader tiles allow for trades of two or four goods per exchange.) Trades may be done once or twice.

Thief – Allows the player with this tile to randomly swipe a cube from behind a player’s screen.

Grand Vizier – With this tile, a player chooses a particular type of good and all players simultaneously reveal a number of that type. The player with the most of that type revealed receives 5 silver from the bank; second place earns 3 silver. Should another Grand Vizier tile come into play, that particular good type is not eligible to be chosen.

Crook – Can be used to change a specified good on a tile into any other.

Barterer – For use in a city AFTER chosen. When played, the player may choose TWO action tiles in a row!

The orange action tiles, which come into play during the first half of the journey, are heavy on converting one good into two as well as allowing buying goods with silver. The purple tiles increase the availability of special tiles (including the Grand Vizier) and allowing goods to convert into money. As all the action tiles are face up, players know which tiles may possibly be available depending on the path the caravan takes. With the caravan token beginning its journey at Chang’ An, bidding begins.

Players bid for the right to control the path of the caravan. It is a one bid auction but you may pass if you so choose. When the bids return to the player who is the current caravan leader (randomly chosen on the first turn), the caravan leader is faced with a choice. He may accept the highest bid and exchange the leader token for the money offered OR the leader pays the high bidder the amount of his bid and keeps caravan control. Caravan control is critical because it is the caravan leader who decides the route taken by the caravan this turn. The route from Chang’ An to Antioch contains different branches which lead to different cities along the way. The caravan leader chooses which arrow to follow to the next city which means he will determine which action tiles come into play when the caravan arrives at its new destination.

Some cities display a special action in addition to the action tiles randomly placed there. The caravan leader is awarded that special action as a bonus (another perk for winning the leader auction). Now, the caravan leader takes one of the action tiles in that city, performs that action and now chooses the player to go next by passing along the caravan leader token and turn tokens to his choice. After that player chooses an action tile from that city, HE chooses who goes next and so on, until the last player has no action tiles available but gets the caravan leader pawn for the next turn.

When the caravan marker finally reaches Antioch, the game ends immediately and points are scored. Players get 5 points for each gold coin, 1 point for each silver coin and 1 point for each goods token in their possession. In addition, the player with the most goods token in each color gets a bonus of 2 more points. The player with the highest total score wins!

Silk Road is a game where the goal is to convert goods into money so the Trader tiles are especially important. Perhaps the most important, however, is the Barterer. One player will always be without an action tile to choose. With the Barterer, TWO of your opponents will be shut out from receiving an action in a city. The chaos in the game (an element in all Faidutti creations) such as in the blind swiping of goods by the Thief and the pinball type designation of who gets control of the caravan token after all action tiles are grabbed does not serve the design well. It can be frustrating to find yourself reduced to an action of little or no value to you for a turn (or more). The pertinent question is “Does the chaos ruin the play?”

While the last player to choose does get the caravan leader token, that is a fitting compensation ONLY if you can convert that advantage into a positive by getting get lots of money to yield control OR moving the caravan into a position that benefits YOU and balances the previous turn’s disadvantages. Control of the caravan takes on greater importance when bonus action tiles are available to the caravan leader. The strongest aspect to the game is the need to balance the amount of bids against the perceived value of actions you can expect to take in the city to which you direct the caravan. This evaluation of the worth of caravan control persists throughout the game. So, because the chaos quotient in this game tends to undermine the game player, we recommend playing with fewer players as this seems to mitigate the destructive potential inherent here giving players a bit more control so their plans are not so prone to being thwarted by pure chance.

As a design, Silk Road doesn’t always flow as smooth as silk. Situations can arise limiting your control and you might find yourself carried along from city to city as though caught in an undertow hoping that circumstances will allow you to salvage an action of use to you. This aspect of the game will leave some players decidedly underwhelmed. However, the game does allow for enough maneuvering and evaluation (particularly with three players) so you can glide the action towards a rewarding (for you) outcome, thereby overcoming some of those control issues. Combine that with its overall attractive presentation and you have game that can serve as a nice introduction to the Euro style of play making Silk Road a road worth traveling. – – – – – – – – – – Herb Levy


 

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