Sid Sackson did for games a bit like Noam Chomsky did for grammar – ok, except for the politics. Like Chomsky, Sackson’s thinking was based on logic, and so he invented and adapted games with a decidedly formal-logic approach, with no or little luck factor involved.
Bazaar is one of those games – a genuine classic and an absolute favourite of yours faithfully. While having been out of print for quite some time, the game which was originally released in 1967 still represents a treat for all gamers into a fair amount of mental activity and pre-planning on a primarily abstract level.
If no actual version of the game is at hand (and it might well be the case), the game can also be played at the Brettspielwelt online platform, where it was actually one of the first games to be implemented. This online version deviates from the game board rules on a few minor details, so even though they don’t change the game’s complexity in general be sure to be familiar with them when playing. This review, however, will look at the board game version.
The game itself consists of (1) a jewel case (although that name may be pushing it a tad), which come in five colours (red, white, yellow, green and blue), (2) a die featuring these five colours along with a joker, (3) a stack of ‘car(d)pets’ – cards with combinations of five jewels depicted on each, (4) several barter tables with five exchange rates each, and finally (5) pen and paper to keep track of the scoring.The goal is, put simply, to score points by accumulating jewels and using them to acquire car(d)pets, getting points for each purchase; game ends when the last of the 24 carpets selected for this game ends, player with most points wins.
Now what’s so interesting about that?
Let’s start with scoring. Points are awarded for buying a car(d)pet, paying with the kind and respective number of jewels depicted on them, putting the stones back into the jewel case and taking the car(d)pet. The exact points one scores depends primarily on the number of jewels the player retains after paying for the car(d)pet, with more points awarded for fewer stones left over. Which means: you score highest with zero stones remaining in front of you.
Yeah, but what’s the deal when all you need to do is collect stones and pay for car(d)pets?
This is where the rules for obtaining (and getting rid of) jewels come in to play. First note that there in every round, you can do either of the following two:
- Roll & draw
Well, there is the die. which upon rolling allows (more usually however it is: ‘dooms’) you to take one of the five colours from the case, as indicated on the die; if you are lucky and roll the joker, you have free choice of any one stone from the ‘bank’. Thus, you will have one additional stone and, if you are good (aka fortunate) at rolling, you will be one stone closer to your scoring points. Straightforward.
Swapping, on the other hand, usually is anything but straightforward.
More often than not, rolling will not lead you to where the car(d)pets need you to be. While keeping on rolling will eventually get you somewhere, in order to get good points you will need to check with the barter tables early and often. And again. All the time, actually.
Before the game, choose randomly two barter tables and place them in the middle of the table or bazaar or whatever. Together, these two cards give you ten swapping possibilities (all of which are two-way!), and are valid for all players alike. Some of them allow you to swap equal numbers of jewels, but mostly swapping will in- or decrease your jewel total, sometimes as much as 1:4.
Since the barter tables are different from game to game, the ‘changability’ of the different colours varies from game to game, making colours hard to get in one game, and extremely hard to get rid of in the next. Therefore, there is no inherent value to any colour, as this depends on the swapping options and obviously the car(d)pet requirements. The only constant is that you will never find a colour on both ends of the same swap.
What is interesting about these two options, and therefore Bazaar as a whole, is the combination of rolling and swapping, and the interplay of the various swapping options. Since swapping is luck-independent, this is an aspect you can pre-plan, and actually invest plenty of deep thought into the various combinations, routes and paths to not get the most stones, but the most suitable stones out of what you have.
Well-applied, swapping will mostly be the better option in the long run. Obviously, you need to be ready and willing to invest some systematic thinking into Bazaar (and probably have a liking for this type of game), and even then things are not always going to work out, since there is (a) either no way to get what you want, or (b) the path would be simply too time-consuming. And sometimes, after buying a car(d)pet straight up, you will have nothing left to swap, period. Those are the time when you will have to subject yourself to the randomness of rolling, like it or not.
Having just scratched the surface of tactical consideration above, let us get back to the rules. We already established that in each turn, you either roll or swap, and whichever you choose you can and must do exactly once (so even using the same combination you can only use the barter table once per round).
After that move, it is the next player’s turn unless you can and want to purchase a car(d)pet, which is a free additional action (but also a maximum of once per round only). You pay jewels, take the car(d)pet, score your points and then the next player is up. Remaining stones stay with you, and you can use them / have to keep them until you swap them or purchase with them. So while there is no jewel limit, those can be quite pesky.
For each game, 24 car(d)pets are arranged in four stacks, which means that four (or fewer, later in the game) combinations are available at any given time. Once the final car(d)pet has been acquired, the game immediately ends and the highest scoring player wins, with no tiebreakers applied.
That is, basically it, but let us revisit the scoring once more.
We mentioned that fewer stones remaining equals more points. At game start, five points are awarded for a spot-on landing, three with one left, two for two remaining and with three or more jewels left you get no more than a measly point. We call this the basic scoring level as rates increase in two instances:
Firstly, there are four ‘special’ cards, one at the bottom of each stack. They are marked with a star, and are specified by sporting four or five jewels of the same colour. The first of these to be acquired yields eight points maximum (5-3-2 for 1-2-3+ remaining), which obviously leaves the first stack empty. Once this happens, all remaining regular cards also score according to this upgraded scoring level.
And finally, the remaining three special cards at the bottom of the other three stacks receive another upgrade, as they max out at 12 for a pinpont acquisition (8-5-3 for 1-2-3+ left). Therefore, scores escalate towards the end of the game, with a final 12-pointer having huge potential for bringing a decision on the last card.
I already gave away that Bazaar is a personal favourite of mine, so the evaluation starts with: criticism, obviously. And a warning.
For players and occasions to just play as a diversion, who like fast and little-thinking games exclusively – just don’t bother. You can play Bazaar this way, but you won’t enjoy it too much as it turns into a rolling contest with low scoring and tons of remaining stones in front of you – unless you are genuinely lucky.
The game materials are solid, but nothing to speak of. Then again, we are talking about a 1980s edition, so any updated version should be more than capable of fixing that. What is positive, however, is that the design is subtle enough not to distract and leave your focus where it is supposed to be.
The game’s biggest drawback is also its biggest charm – you just cannot get to roll those d%&# jewels you need. What is frustrating for some also represents the attraction for all who love to indulge in deep thinking affairs on an abstract level, and take pleasure from it.
Bazaar is certainly not chess, and luck is a significant factor that needs to be respected, particularly with equally-apt players, but the ability to change plans on the fly based on rolls or the other players’ moves, combined with different swap options and car(d)pets for each game guarantees that the game’s fascination does not stop, provided you render any to start with.
Technically, Bazaar busies up to six players, but anything over three renders all planning virtually useless, as it eliminates all long-term planning. Actually, the best number to play Bazaar is two – or with four as a 2 vs. 2 team variant with players scoring together, but keeping their belongings strictly apart.
So, if you want to swap some green for yellow-yellow-blue-red, Bazaar may be right down your street!