Tuesday, April 3, 2012

2 monks walk into an ancient library....

One of my greatest pleasures in gaming is finding an unknown title that turns out to be spectacular.  It doesn't happen all that often, but when it does I get really happy.  It's like listening to a completely random band that you just fall in love with or that out-of-the-way restaurant you wander into that turns out to have amazing food.  It's a magical experience and it's rare, so you have to savor every moment.  The downside to looking for these diamonds in the rough is that you get let down more often than not.  Way more often than not, actually.  This makes the awesome finds even more awesome.  Way back in early 2009, I saw a post on BGG from a user named "drfinn".  The good doctor was selling 50 copies of his newly made self-published design.  I was lucky enough to get a copy of this game.  I usually save my verdict for the end, but I'll give it to you now:  It's my all-time favorite and a true masterpiece of design.  Since then, the game that started out as Scriptorium and later Scripts & Scribes has found a publisher in Iello and they've done this game justice.  For this review, we'll be reviewing the newest Iello version.


Rules

Biblios is played in 2 phases.  In phase one you're going to be taking cards, giving some to your opponents, and putting some in the auction pile.  In phase two you'll be bidding on cards in the auction pile.  There are 5 different suits (for lack of a better term) and the goal is to win these suits by having a majority in the value of those suits.  Each card has a point value which is used to determine the winner of each suit.  Each suit starts off being worth 3 victory points, but that can change up or down through the use of Bishop cards in the game.  At the end of the game, each suit is evaluated and the player having the highest value wins that suit.  There are letters on the cards for tiebreakers so you'll always have a winner.  The player scoring the most victory points wins.  If there's a tie, the winner is based on a hierarchy of the suits.  There's no ties in Biblios which is quite refreshing.

The Iello rulebook is put together very nicely and very clearly illustrates all the rules.  It's well organized and very straightforward.  There should be no questions about how to play and if there are, you'll have an easy time finding the due to the great layout of the rules.  If you'd like to see the full rules, you can do so here.

The rules get a perfect score of 5 points.


Components

There's not a whole lot of components in this package.  You get a deck of 87 cards, 5 different colored dice, and a Scriptorium which is used to keep the dice organized. 

One of the first things you notice when you pick up the box is that it looks like a book.  It's a great presentation.  It's actually a magnetic box which closes up tightly and looks awesome on the bookshelf.  It's also nice and compact which is always a good thing.

The cards are really solid and actually maybe a bit too stiff.  I usually complain about cards being too flimsy, but these are much thicker and stiffer than Magic or similar CCGs.  If you've collected sports cards then you've got a good comparison for these.  They have a similar semi-gloss finish to sports cards as well.  The art on the backs is full-bleed style with border on the front.  The dark color on the back pared with the finish and the stiffness means the cards are slightly prone to chipping with repeated use.  It's minor, but I'd sleeve these cards if you really like the game.  This sounds like a lot of complaints but it's ultimately pretty minor.

You also get a nicely illustrated "Scriptorium" which is basically just a placeholder for the color-coded dice.  It's a nice touch and makes the game look nice on the table by adding a centerpiece.

The final score for the components is 4.5 points.


Gameplay

It's not pure card counting - If all the cards were in every game you'd have a pretty straightforward counting game.  You'd be able to easily count the cards in your hand and make an estimate on the rest of the cards.  At the start of Biblios you randomly remove a certain number of cards from the game before you start.  You'll never know what's been pulled out so you can't be sure of anything.  Was it gold?  Was it most of the cards from a certain color?  It adds a huge amount of uncertainty and doubt into the game and transforms it into something really awesome.

The Donation phase - The first phase of the game is the Donation Phase.  In this phase you get to look at 1 more card than the number of players in the game.  You get to keep one, you put one in the auction phase for the 2nd phase, and you put out 1 card for each other player face up.  The trick is that you have to look at the cards one at a time.  This creates a huge amount of tension because you have to make a decision on every card. Do you take it?  If you do, you can't take another one.  Do you put it in the auction pile in hopes of getting it later?  If you put it out in the donation pile, which opponent are you helping?  It's full of tension which makes every decision tough.

The Auction phase - In the second part of the game, any cards put in the auction pile are auctioned off.  If it's a non-Gold card you bid with Gold.  If it's a Gold, you bid by discarding non-Gold cards to pay for it.  This phase gives you lots of opportunities to get cards that you put aside earlier.  You also have the opportunity to take cards that would help your opponents.  The real key rule is that you can bid more Gold than you have in those auctions.  If you win the auction, you don't actually win and each of your opponents takes a card from your hand.  This is disastrous when it happens, but it gives you so many more options in bidding.  Do you bluff to try to make your opponents pay more or do you play it safe?  It's such a fine line because bluffs that work usually tilt the odds in your favor, but slip up and you're in bad shape.

It's not pure card counting - If all the cards were in every game you'd have a pretty straightforward counting game.  You'd be able to easily count the cards in your hand and make an estimate on the rest of the cards.  At the start of Biblios you randomly remove a certain number of cards from the game before you start.  You'll never know what's been pulled out so you can't be sure of anything.  Was it gold?  Was it most of the cards from a certain color?  It adds a huge amount of uncertainty and doubt into the game and transforms it into something really awesome.


Every card matters - The 2 types of auctions  is fantastic because it means there's no such thing as a dead card.  You need Gold to buy cards, and you need cards to get more Gold.  Since you're trying to get majorities in certain colors, you'll likely have cards that aren't in colors you think you can win.  Those are naturally the cards to get rid of when Gold comes up for auction.  Odds are you'll run out of those cards pretty quickly so you'll need to start digging in to the cards you want to keep and that's when things get really tough....

Playing the majority
As mentioned above, you're trying to get a majority in a color to score it's points.  Also, some cards are removed you can't be sure all the cards in that color are even in the game.  This forces you to try to make a good estimate of how many points will be required to win the color.  When you combine that with needing to ditch cards to get more Gold you've got the recipe for some serious decision making.  How many points do I need to win the color?  What if the cards are evenly distributed amongst all the players?  What if I've actually got no competition in this color?  How many cards do I need to keep? 

The tie-breaker letters
Nobody likes ties.  It's anticlimactic and just not fun.  Give me an honest loss over a tie any day.  Each card in a suit has a letter on it for tiebreaker use.  If the suit is tied, the person who has A or the closest letter alphabetically wins the suit.  This adds some extra weight to the lower value cards because those have the better letters.  You'll have situations where you'll take a lesser card just because it gives you the tie-breaker advantage.  This also plays into the Gold auctions because you'll bid differently based on what you've got in terms of letters.  You can play the majority a bit closer when you know you've got the tie-breaker.

The Bishop cards - This game would be fairly boring if each suit was worth a fixed value.  It would play fine that way, but the Bishops really spice things up.  Some of the cards increase the values of suits while others decrease them.  One of the cards even gives you a choice of increasing or decreasing one suit.  If you don't win any of these cards you're going to have a hard time winning because manipulating the values is really important.  Is someone obviously dominant in a suit?  Grab the Bishop to decrease the value of their suit and gain the upper hand in victory points.  Another great thing is that you don't know how many of these will even be in the game so you need to figure out how aggressive to be when bidding. 

Player numbers - Biblios truly plays perfectly with 2, 3, or 4.  Each player count is slightly different in terms of feel, but the game is excellent at all numbers.  The play length is relatively similar and should clock in around 20-30 minutes.  This game flows very nicely and you won't have any slowness even with 4.  Every time I play with 2 I'm amazed at how well it works at that number.  You'd think that you'd lose something with less players but you don't.  The game still feels tight and you've still got tons of choices.  The experience is a bit different, but it's just as good as with 3 or 4.  I think 3 is the best number but it's just as good with 2 or 4.

Gateway game - Okay, maybe it's not a gateway game, but it's a perfect choice for a 2nd level of complexity.  I like to use For Sale to introduce people to my hobby.  This is a natural progression of that game and it's been very successful for me.

I could go on and on here, but I'll stop there because I think I've given you plenty of reasons why the gameplay is awesome.  Obviously it scores a perfect 10 points.


Overall

Biblios scores an awesome 19.5 out of 20 points.  I have to take off a tiny bit because the cards aren't perfect.  They're actually too good for practical purposes so the game loses half a point.  The gameplay is so good though that it should score a perfect 20, but nothing is perfect even as good as Biblios is.

On the "I want to play it" scale, Biblios is a perfect 10.  It's a truly perfect blend of mechanics which are so much more than the sum of their parts.  I love this game and always want to play it.  It will always have a home in my collection and is one that I'll suggest and never turn down.  I'm honored to have this in my game and can't imagine a time that I wouldn't want to play it.

Compare it to...

In my mind, it really feels like a meatier For Sale.  The two phases feel similar in both games, but Biblios offers so many more choices that its almost not comparable.  If you like For Sale and want something similar but more robust, check out Biblios.

Conclusion

I'll be honest....I love this game. I have since the first time I played it.  For me, it's the perfect blend of meat and time.  You can't cram any more decisions into a game than what you've got here.  It's easily teachable but rewards shrewd gameplay.  You'll be faced with constant agony as you try to navigate choice after choice, but it's the awesome kind of pain that you really appreciate when you're done.  It won't burn your brain, but it sure will make you think.  It's actually my favorite game of all time, replacing the mighty Carcassonne as my #1 game.

Biblios is the very definition of a super-filler.  It packs a ton of game in a small window and delivers a very satisfying experience.  You can play a couple games in just over an hour and get the same feeling as a medium weight/length Euro or you can start or end your evening with it.  It's a perfect game to ramp up your brain or cool down from something really tough.  The bar for fillers has been raised incredibly high.

If you're looking for a meaty filler that's got a ton of game in a small package, look no further.  This game is a winner in every possible way.  I can't possibly recommend this game enough.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of the original game and also of the new Iello version from the designer for review purposes.

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