|Meeple Like Us
|Medium Light [1.68]
I have a secret. I like books just as much as I like board games.
Well, I didn’t say it was a good secret.
At the time of writing (many months before publication) these were the shelves of my study – the place where I spend as much of my life as I can possibly arrange.
These are my non-fiction books, covering everything from alien conspiracies (I was sixteen once) to the history of the television programme Yes Minister (I have been forty years old since I was born). The other side of the room contained fiction, and it’s also where a big chunk of my board-games lived.
Here you can see a lot of Stephen King (the Gunslinger series is amazing), a whole buttload of Terry Pratchett (DEATH IS MY FAVOURITE CHARACTER), a big dollop of Alistair Reynolds (Oh my God, House of Suns) and a wider range of things from Harry Potter to Henry Fielding. It’s a good collection, but eclectic – I have never really focused enough on anything to consider myself much of a specialist. That is, until I played Biblios. Biblios demands you focus your attention with a laser-like precision of acquisition until the time that it demands – equally stridently – that you diversify your interests before your obsession ruins you.
Biblios is a disgustingly simple game about cut-throat ecclesiastical bibliophilia. In it, you play the role of medieval monks competing over the collection of cards corresponding to various categories of power and influence – the collection of pigments, the recruitment of monks, and the procurement of holy books, manuscripts, and forbidden tomes. Each of these is represented by a card which has both a numeric value and an alphabetic code. The latter of these is used for breaking ties, but the former is used for defining the contours of your life during play time.
Players take it in turn to draw cards out one at a time. They can choose to keep one, send one to the auction, and place the rest in a public space. At the end of your turn, the public space cards are divided up, draft style, amongst the other players and play continues until all the cards have been allocated. Or at least, all of the cards in the current game. Not every card is available in every playthrough.
Boom, you just finished phase one of Biblios. It happens THAT QUICKLY. It happens THAT SIMPLY. Except not quite, but we’ll get to that.
Some of the cards you pick up during this first phase of play (known as the gift) are gold cards, and arrive in denominations of one (spare change), two (middle class income) and three (Midas levels of wealth). As you play through the gift phase, you’ll pick these up but you won’t do anything with them. They don’t contribute to your scoring. NOT YET.
Why are you collecting these things? For points! For prestige! For the idle hope the Archbishop will smile upon your endeavours when he comes to visit at the end of the game. In hard, concrete terms you’re competing over who gets to take each of the dice at the end of play. Those are your glittering prizes even if they don’t glitter.
The dice are stored is the scriptorium, and this is what Biblios has for tracking points. Each die shows the victory point value of a particular category – if you have the most points in a category, you get the die and that number of victory points. It’s AS SIMPLE AS THAT. Except not quite, but we’ll get to that.
The core of Biblios then is an extended soliloquy in self-recrimination. You draw a card – it’s a forbidden tome. You eye everyone else around the table – is anyone collecting those? You’re not, but that doesn’t mean you might not want to have one in the bag for later. Even cards that aren’t part of a collection might be valuable come the auction. But it’s still only a value one card. God, let’s put it in the public space. Let’s not worry about it.
Then we draw out a pigment with a value of four. That’s nice. That’s super nice. But you’re not collecting pigments either, and you know Pauline has been picking them up from the public space every chance she gets. You’re probably way too late to begin capturing that category, but then maybe not? It’s something you might want later, but don’t want now. Into the auction pile it goes.
You then draw a final card. It’s a gold card, value one – the spare change from someone’s pocket. God damn it. If you had known, you would have taken the pigment. Now you’re stuck with what is possibly the least useful card you could have had.
See, this is where Biblios’ shines – you don’t draw three cards and then allocate. Oh no. You draw each card one at a time and use up your allocations in turn. Every single draw of the card can bring on these ‘Oh no’ moments – you picked up the three gold, that was smort. You auctioned off the forbidden tome. That was dope. And then OH NO you have to just give away the high value monk that is totally the category you’re hoping to dominate. There are no do-overs, no reassignments. You just watch your dream card disappear into the hand of someone that could never appreciate it the way you do. Why are you such an idiot?
At least though it doesn’t matter, right? After all, each category is worth the same, and it’s not like you’ve just missed out on the juiciest plum in the orchard. Do you get plums in orchards? What is a plum anyway? Whatever, you’re fine – all the plums are equally juicy, right? We saw that right there in the scriptorium.
Yes, that’s true.
Laced through the deck like ticking time-bombs are a number of church cards, and when they explode they can incinerate your collection with them.
When one of these is acquired, you immediately act on it – you look at the modifier it provides (+1, -1, or either), and the number of dice it affects (one or two). And then you adjust a die of your choice in that direction. You noticed Pauline was collecting pigments. You just picked up a -1 church card, and you cheerfully turn the value of pigments from a three to a two. Or maybe you pick up the +1 to two dice card, and increase the value of monks and forbidden tomes by one each. You can’t give away too much of your intentions because everyone is watching this tome-based economy expand and contract. Any time anyone gets a church card they’ll be looking to find the point of maximum leverage. If they’re behind, the savvy choice is to reduce the value of tomes owned by their competitor. If they’re ahead, then the clever move is to increase the value of the cards they’re collecting.
And if they’re not sure…
Well, that’s the thing. You’re always unsure because you know just enough about what’s happening to be nervous. You know what you drew. You know what everyone gifted. You know what you put in the auction. You don’t know anything else. Do you actually have the most monks in the game? Remember, you had to give away a monk with a value of four. What if Pauline was already collecting monks? What do you do? How can you know? Prayer, while undeniably a thematic course of action, won’t help you. So you do what any coward does – you defer your decisions by playing uncertain card to the auction, if you can.
Oh yes, the auction. Yesssssss…
Having gone through the process of getting free books and money, the game proceeds into the auction phase. Here, the cards in the auction are shuffled and dealt out and auctioned one at a time. Everyone then to bid gold (for category cards), or books (for gold cards) in an attempt to gain a stranglehold on the key categories they need to win. If you’re short of money, maybe you want to sell off some of the categories you can’t win. If you’re short of a category, maybe you want to make it rain with gold to solidify your position. Floating through that auction deck are those church cards nobody felt brave enough to action. Those also get bought with gold. All the way through the auction phase are these modifier cards that instantly change the value of decision that went before, and the value of every decision that will come after. It’s delicious.
Imagine! The current player flips over the card. It’s a monk of value two.
‘I bid one gold’, you say.
‘I bid two’, says Pauline.
‘Shit’, you think. ‘She’s on to me’
BUT IS SHE?
Biblios’ auction system is excellent because it works for even two players. It’s not just about what you want, but about what you can deny your opponents at a reasonable cost. Pushing up the price in an auction is common, but usually in situations where you know both parties want the item, and where there is a relatively low chance that your behaviour in one auction will impact upon another. You bid, you win or you lose, and that’s about it. In Biblios though, auctions are a weapon – you want to sap enough of your opponent’s cash to limit their effectiveness for when the really good cards come up. The ones that you know you seeded through the auction deck. Maybe she doesn’t want monks at all – maybe she just knows you do. How does she know that? That’s what you told her when you upped the value of the monk category in the scriptorium. That was a foolish move, you know that now. Yes, self-recrimination is a big part of your mental narration of gameplay. Why are you so stupid? Why did you play that church card to increase the value of monks? It’s obvious you were going for monks. It’s obvious to everyone.
You may as well have stapled a sheet of A4 to your head saying ‘Will perform sexual favours for monks. I mean, in exchange for monks. I don’t mean that I specialise in performing sexual acts on religious ascetics. Not that I think there’s a problem with that. I’m a liberated man in a liberated time. I see sexual work as an inherently positive thing, stemming from…’
You can see why you needed the sheet of A4.
Does she actually want that monk, or does she just want you to overpay for it? If she’s really going for monks, is it time to change tack? Maybe you cut your losses now and move on to holy books? You didn’t see her pick up any of those during the gift phase. But then… you didn’t see her pick up a lot of gold, either. How deep are her pockets?
‘I bid three’, you say.
‘I bid four’, she replies.
‘Shit’, you think. ‘I just made everything worse’.
‘You can have it’, you say. She spools out her gold, picks up the card, and slides it into her hand. You stare into her eyes. Is there fear there? Regret? Triumph? Defeat? Or can you perhaps only see what her eyes reflect of your own?
You honestly don’t know, but now you think monks are probably too contentious a resource to seriously consider. You flip over the next auction card. It’s another four point monk.
‘Shit’, you think, because if you get this one you’ll completely undermine her collection – there are only two of those in the deck. You know she probably doesn’t have enough in that category to beat your current in-hand monk total plus this new one, and she just spent four gold on the last card so probably can’t outspend you here. Ha, it’s all going to work out after all.
‘I bid one’, she says.
‘I bid two’, you reply.
‘I bid three’, she says.
Shit. Shit. Shitting shit.
‘Take it’, you say. And she does. She does it right in front of you. If she wasn’t seriously scoring monks before, she absolutely is now. Your own uncertainty was a self-fulfilling prophecy.
And then she turns over a -1 church card.
‘I bid one’, you say, mutely cursing the genie she obviously press-ganged into service. How can you out-spend someone that clearly found the infinite money cheat?
‘I pass’, she says.
Wait, what? Did she just pass? Did she just pass on fiddling with the levers of the economy?
You pick up the card and adjust the value of monks down, eyeing her suspiciously as you do. You flip over another card. It’s also a -1 church card.
‘Pass’, she says.
She’s out of money! She’s totally out of money! You gleefully turn down the monk value again. And then you look cheerfully at your cards and realise you don’t have a chance of being competitive in any other category. There are five cards left to auction. What the hell are you going to do? Can you win? If not, can you make sure that you stop other people winning?
The final card gets auctioned off, and then the categories are totalled up. Everyone claims the dice that they won, and total up their points. The winner is, unsurprisingly, the player with the largest sum of points at the end.
That’s it, that’s the game over. There’s nothing more for you to worry about other than how the only contributory factor to your humiliation was your own uncertainty and hubris. ‘I’m not taking this card I can use, because a better card surely lies elsewhere’. And then you find yourself drawing trash you can’t use, knowing that you just gifted the best opportunity you had to someone else. Seriously, forcing people to allocate cards before they know what’s to be drawn has such comical repercussions that it makes me want to use it in every single card based game I play.
The scriptorium too is wonderful, because it forces opponents to decide on the economic context of the entire game rather than what is in their own hand. Unless you are spectacularly lucky, your hand will not be a slam dunk in any given category. If it is, you can’t even just merrily adjust the scriptorium, secure in your success. All that will happen is that everyone else hauls the value back down if they get a chance.
More than that, the scriptorium gives a modulating value curve that reverberates throughout the entire game. Someone puts your category from three to two – your cards are now worth two thirds of what they were but that’s true of everyone. So maybe next time the auction comes up you get to pick up a new one at a bargain price. And then maybe you get an opportunity to push the value up once more when another church card appears. Unlike in games such as Splendor, where the economic modifier implied by nobles has a fixed curve, in Biblios the value can adjust on a turn by turn basis. It makes available risky plays, like allowing your key stock to be devalued in the hope that you pick up bargains. It also means that the relative value of everything is in flux.
The church cards can even be played aggressively. Rather than pick one up or throwing it to the auction, you might pass it on to an opponent in the public area. Oh god, why would you hand over that kind of control over scoring to an enemy?
Easy – to see what they’ll do with it!
Will they discard it without making a change? They’re either playing it close to their chest or unsure of where to best invest the power. Did they increase the value of a die? It might be a category they’re seeking, or one they want you to think they’re seeking. Did they reduce the value? That’s the one they think they’re most likely to be giving up to an opponent, probably. It’s all just probably.
Biblios gets a lot of fascinating gameplay out of its church and auction mechanics. It turns what is an astonishingly simple game into a fascinating exercise in economic brinksmanship. Everything becomes a game of clerical Trading Places, with everyone trying to desperately short the stock to reap the overall benefits. Everyone is a Gregorian Gordon Gekko, trying to leverage the limited evidence they have to ensure they’re on the right side of the final reckoning.
It’s a good game, Bront. It’s a very good game. However, it’s important not to overstate its qualities – it is at heart a filler game with which you can spend a wonderful thirty minutes. You can invest thirty minutes into the game many times, and not resent a single one of them. The things I like the most about it though are the things I can imagine other people liking the least. I enjoy games that give me just enough information to think I have a handle on things. Coupled to that, I enjoy games that don’t give anyone enough information to genuinely have a handle on things. However, if you don’t enjoy that sweet-spot of control and unintentional comedy I think you could easily find Biblios to be immensely frustrating and random.
Still, at this price, at this time commitment, and at this sheer density of intricately interlocking mechanics, I have no hesitation in recommending this game to almost anyone.