Dale Yu: Review of Samarkand Bazaar

Samarkand Bazaar

  • Designer: Sid Sackson
  • Publisher: Eagle-Gryphon Games
  • Players: 2-5
  • Age: 9+
  • Time: 30-45 minutes each
  • Played with review copy provided by publisher

Sid Sackson’s classics Samarkand & Bazaar are now combined as two games in one box with this new edition of both games.   There is a nice double sided board, with one side used for each game.

Samarkand is a fast-paced trading and selling game set in exotic Asia Minor. Cunning Merchants buy, exchange, and sell goods to build wealth. Merchants must plan which desert paths to use to travel efficiently between the Nomad Camps, Oases, and Cities so they can earn the quickest (and greatest) profit! Each player starts with 200 Piasters, 7 cubes and a camel placed somewhere on the 4×5 grid of the board.  There are arrows between the spaces showing you the possible paths of movement.  On a turn, players either move one space or roll for movement – taking the action on the space where they end movement. 

When visiting Nomad Camps and after offering gifts for their hosts’ hospitality, merchants trade for the goods they desire. If they choose not to trade (after giving a gift), they can take an additional movement. If a Nomad Camp is completely full, the player cannot skip and must pay 10 Piasters and take all the goods.  When visiting Oases, they must purchase either 1 or 4 random goods. Ultimately, these Merchants travel to the bazaars in Cities such as Samarkand or Isfahan to sell the goods they have acquired; at least 2 goods of one of the two types that the city purchases.  The player screen has a chart outlining the payouts for the numbers and types of cubes sold.  The game ends when someone has 500 Piasters or more.  I suppose the game can also be won by the last person standing as it is possible to be eliminated from the game if you have no Piasters and no cubes to sell.

In Bazaar, players attempt to gain the right combination of colored cubes through skillful trading to purchase the wares displayed in the Bazaar. Trading is governed by the current rates posted at the Exchange; two exchange rate cards are selected at random at the start of each game.  There are four trading stalls, each gets a stack of 5 cards each at the start of the game.  On a turn, players either roll the die to gain a single cube OR they trade cubes they own with the Bank.  A player is limited to no more than 10 cubes at any time.  If a player has five cubes that match the pattern on any card in a stall, they can buy that card.  Values of the various wares are determined by the number of cubes the purchaser has left over following the transaction. 

There is a chart on the player aid outlining the value of each transaction.  Cards might have a star on it; if so, they will score in the more valuable star column.  Once cards in one stall have been exhausted, every Ware card acts as if it has one more star than actually on it.  When the wares from two stalls have been completely sold, the Bazaar is closed, and the game ends. The player with the highest score wins!  Ties broken in favor of the player with fewer Ware cards.

As a surprise, there is even a third game included – called Samarkand Market – and this game is based off of another Sackson game, Business.  In this game, players bid on lots of cubes via blind bidding, with the highest bid getting their choice of the cube lots, and so on in descending bid order.  Then, players can decide to sell their cubes according to the values printed on one of the three current market cards.  At the end of the round, a market card is discarded from the display and a new one is revealed.  When the last card is revealed, the final round is played. The player with the most money wins.

My thoughts on the games

Well, it was a pleasant surprise to see two games from my gaming youth be re-released in a nice compact box.  Both Samarkand and Bazaar are games that still remain in my permanent collection, though the original boxes that I have are a bit worn, and at least one is a touch moldy from some water damage in the past.

We got both games back out onto the table, and I’m happy to say that these classic games still hold up after all the years.  Samarkand was published in 1980 (though I own the 1998 Rio Grande Version) and Bazaar in 1967!  And, to further confuse things… when Samarkand was originally published in 1980 by Pegasus, it was called Bazaar!  This is because the original Bazaar was published by 3M and when it was reprinted in Germany in 1979 by Parker, it was caller Bier Borse.  Confused?  Me too.    Regardless of the name, both of the games remain solid trading games.  

Samarkand is a race to sell goods as best as possible to hit the target score.  There is a bit of a maze/path puzzle in the game as you’ll have to look ahead at the arrows on the board to figure out what spaces you will encounter as you move forward.  The reason this is important is that you are rewarded for larger sales, and you’d like to be able to trade for cubes that you can sell at spaces on your direct path – by not having to waste turns moving thru the arrow maze, you can sell things more rapidly, and this will likely lead to more money.

Though you have to pay a penalty for coming across a filled Nomad Camp; this is sometimes not a bad thing as you get a bunch of cubes which you can then use to gift/trade at other Nomad Camps along your path.  If you’re able to get a large collection of a single color, the escalating payoffs definitely get you closer to the score total.

Bazaar is a bit more abstract, as there is no moving – you simply draw a cube or make a trade.  Much of your time is spent examining and re-examining the two Exchange cards as you try to make trades to get you to an efficient state.  If you can get to only 5 cubes, which exactly fulfill a Ware card, you’ll get the highest payoff.  Of course, as you do this, you risk someone stealing it from under you AND you also then have to slowly build yourself back up as you’ll have no choice but to draw a single cube on your next turn and then hope it’s something you can quickly trade into lots more.  These days, the term “cube-pusher” is used a bit derisively, but Bazaar is an example of a game that needs not much more than some cubes and a few tiles to mentally challenge you.   The game is really mostly about the timing – but it moves along quickly with not much downtime between turns.  Sure, there are plenty of things to think about and calculate; but usually most of your cogitation can be accomplished while your opponents are taking their turn.

Samarkand Market was a nice surprise, and gave us one more game to play using the components found in the box.  Interestingly, the rules to this game weren’t even in the rulebook – but were included in the card deck.  The rules cards and the market cards can be easily segregated into their own baggie keeping everything in a nice little pouch.  This is by far the simplest game of the set, but still pleasant and challenging.  You are trying to get the best cubes you can, but if you offer too much money to get the most desirable cubes, you might not get enough back in profit when you sell them – so you must strike a nice middle ground. Though it is a bonus game, it might actually be the one that has the best chance of being regularly played here – my entire group really liked it, and the short game length was a big plus in that regard (not that any of the three are overly long).

The production quality in this set of games is great.  The artwork is well done, with everything easily visible/legible.  Instead of paper money, there is a small deck of cards that is printed to look like money.  A mild quibble would be that the money cards are double sided which makes hiding their identity slightly harder in the closed bid in Samarkand Market.  But, having cards is a huge step up from the paper money of olden times.  Interestingly, the Isfahan expansion is included in the box, but the rules for this are on a separate looseleaf page – I almost missed it when we played; only when I found unpunched components after playing all the games for the first time did I realize there was even more in the box!

While I won’t sell my old 3M game (because I have a nice collection of them), this new version does offer a nice slim replacement for my german versions – and now – no mold!  I’m very happy to have had a chance to try this out, and I’m keeping this 2023 version in the permanent collection for sure.  For those that don’t already have the game, it’s an exceptional value (both money and space wise) to have these games all in a single box.

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers

Mark Jackson: Bazaar is just a little too abstract for me… but Samarkand has the right balance of good decision making and occasional flirting with probabilities that appeals to me. 

Joe Huber (42 plays of Samarkand; 8 plays of Bazaar; 4 plays of Business, all via prior editions): This is a nice set of games, and some of Sackson’s better designs, to bring together.  While I’m least fond of Business, it’s still a fine game, and it will be nice to see it introduced to many more people.  Bazaar is, as Mark notes, too abstract – but it’s still fun; I’m happy to play it when I get the chance.  Samarkand, on the other hand, is a favorite.  And – unlike the majority of games, in my opinion, it’s improved by the expansion (Isfahan).  Further, my understanding is that this expansion is included with this set.  As Dale notes, these games all have a comfortable length, never outstaying their welcome.

Dan B. (many plays of Samarkand, a few of the others): Samarkand is a decent light game which still sees a fair amount of play around here, and which I still own. I agree with Joe that the expansion definitely improves it, so I am pleased that it’s included in this new edition, although I would have made it the standard way to play. Bazaar I never warmed to but it’s decent and I would be willing to play it. Business was decent and I would certainly play it again but it didn’t make the cut for keeping in my collection in its original overly-large form.

I note that this edition changes Business (aka Samarkand Market significantly). The original game only used one market card at a time, but you could see the next two. The new version lets you use all three visible cards at the same time. It also lasts fewer rounds (10 instead of 12). Maybe it’s better this way. (The new edition also changes the rules of Samarkand, but in a bad way – the rule about removing goods based on player count was dropped for some reason.)

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it! Joe H. (Samarkand)
  • I like it. Dale Y, Mark Jackson (Samarkand), Joe H. (Bazaar), Dan B. (Samarkand w/Isfahan)
  • Neutral. Mark Jackson (Bazaar), Joe H. (Business), Dan B. (Bazaar & Business)
  • Not for me…

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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2 Responses to Dale Yu: Review of Samarkand Bazaar

  1. Stephen Glenn says:

    What a nice surprise. I don’t own any of these games anymore for the simple fact that I’m a player not a collector and those game just didn’t get played.
    Business was my favorite of the three, but yea that huge box.

  2. huzonfirst says:

    I’ve never played Business and only played Samarkand a couple of times–I thought it was pretty good. Bazaar, however, I played a lot growing up, as my family owned the newly published 3M version (we had just about all the 3M games). Something about it struck a chord in my young mathematical mind and I always enjoyed it. I think it would probably still hold up well today as a family game. When you realize this is a 55 year old game, it’s yet another reminder of how talented a designer Sid Sackson was.

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