Board games, like any great medium, provide a form of escapism. The best board games can create an immersive experience on par with a great book or movie. Take for example, a game such as Captain Sonar, which casts you and up to seven friends as crew members on competing submarines. It’s 45 minutes of heart pounding excitement as you and the rival team fire torpedoes, lay mines and do lots and lots of shouting.
Or how about The Resistance, the ostensible grandfather of social deduction. You and your friends find yourself in the shoes of a resistance group in a dystopian future. BUT there are spies among your ranks, trying to undercut you at every corner, and you need to weed them out. The good guys need to complete a certain amount of missions while the spies want to make sure most of those missions fail. It creates agonizingly suspenseful moments as your friends ruthlessly accuse one another, desperately try to exonerate themselves, and do lots and lots of shouting.
Or how about Biblios, the featured game of this review where you and up to three players are rival monks, trying to complete…the best library? Like, just a library? With just scrolls and those big books that you see in movies where the main character slams them on a table and a bunch of dust flies up in the air? I mean, they’re monks, so surely the libraries have booze, right?
(checks the rules, components and double checks with the designer)
Okay, maybe all board games aren’t exactly prime examples of escapism and palpable themes that create cinematic moments with your friends that you’ll never forget. I mean, this is a hobby where a quarter of the games are about buying stocks in trains and another quarter of the games are about farming. When Uwe Rosenberg comes out with a new game, it’s rarely a question of whether it will be about farming, but about what type of farming it will be (“Hey, did you hear about Uwe Rosenberg’s new game? It’s about pumpkin farming in Minnesota! Instant buy for me.”)
But you know what? That’s okay. Games don’t need themes that can also double as a Wikipedia synopsis for a Steven Segal movie. And Biblios is the poster child for this. Because even though its theme is as dry as the century old scrolls the game shows in its artwork, Biblios manages to be one of the most ass clenchingly tense twenty minutes you can find in the hobby. And I am aware clenchingly is not a word, but that’s how good Biblios is. It demands new words to describe it.
Designed by Steven Finn, who has a reputation for making great filler games, and published by Iello, Biblios is a card game that, as mentioned, has you taking the role of a Middle Ages monk trying to make their monastery’s library the talk of the town. During a time period when the most fun activities were ‘don’t die of the plague’ and ‘don’t die, kind of in general’, you can argue that Biblios is actually trying to capture the more lighthearted aspects of its source material.
The deck of cards that comprises Biblios has different types of scrolls and books, all of which are associated with a color. These essentially make up the five ‘suits’ in the game. In addition to these cards are five colored dice, one for each of those suits. These dice control the points awarded at the end of the game. At game’s end, however many pips are on the die are the amount of points given to the person who holds the majority in that die’s color. So if the blue die is showing four, whoever holds the highest combined value in blue cards gets four points.
So at its core, Biblios is basically just a set collection game. Try to get the most cards in the sets worth the most, right? This game’s easy.
Weeellllll, it’s actually not quite as simple as that.
What separates Biblios from your normal run of the mill set collection game is its two round structure. The first round is called the gifting round, where players take cards from the deck and evenly distribute them between themselves, their opponent(s) and a new deck called the auction deck. Which leads me to the next round, the auction round. In this round, players, unsurprisingly, arm wrestle to gain control of new cards as they’re revealed.
Just kidding, it’s an auction, duh. Though never rule out arm wrestling for an expansion, Dr. Steve Finn, if you’re reading this.
First, let’s begin with the gifting round. Thematically speaking, people from town are coming to your monastery to bestow you with gifts. Mechanically speaking, you’re basically drafting cards from the deck. On your turn, you draw a number of cards equal to the number of players plus one. So in a two player game, you draw three cards from the deck and you must do these three things: give one to yourself, give one to your opponent and put one face down in the auction pile to be auctioned (or arm wrestled, with the inevitable expansion variant) off in the next round. These cards include the aforementioned different suits/colors, but there are also cards with gold (which give you buying power in the auction round) and church cards, where (thematically) you get to gain favor of the head priest allowing you to manipulate the pips on the dice. Which the inclusion of this during this round makes me chuckle, as if the townsfolk are coming to your monastery and just dropping off priests, like they’re parents dropping off their kids at daycare.
But here’s the catch. Those cards are being drawn one at a time, and you must decide at that instant what to do with it. If it’s a good card, do you keep it for yourself and hope nothing better comes along? Or do you give it to the auction and gamble that you’ll draw something better? And then there is the eternally annoying fact that you have to give something to your opponent. This usually means that the moment you get a low valued card in an any suit, you immediately hand it over to them, making it seem like you are the world’s most passive aggressive monk, giving things because you’re expected to not because you want to. You’re the Middle Ages equivalent of that uncle on Christmas who gives you scratch off lottery tickets as a gift and snidely tells you to not ‘spend it all in one place’.
This drip feed card draft is one of my favorite things about Biblios. It takes the idea of card drafting and turns it into a harrowing game of press your luck. Press your luck is maybe my favorite mechanism in games, so any game that incorporates it is instantly elevated in my eyes. And here, the press your luck is exquisite, a game of chicken where your opponent stares across from you with an expectant grin, just waiting for you to mess up, leaving you no choice but to hand over a high value card into their hand. It creates huge moments of tension, akin to other card game classics such as Lost Cities and Schotten Totten. And after that first ten minutes, you wipe the sweat off your brow, and breathe a sigh of relief as you unclench your buttocks. Then a feeling of terror will envelop you as realize that there’s still a second round to play.
And I mean that in the best possible way. Because as scary as that first round is, the second round-the auction round- is perhaps even more horrifying. Your hand is crafted and you have an idea of what colors you should probably look for, but that doesn’t make what is about to happen any easier. In this round, you shuffle the auction deck that you and your opponents had made and then begin flipping them over, auctioning them off one at a time. The auction then proceeds in turn order, with each player either raising the bid or opting out of the auction. To pay for the cards, you’re bidding the gold you squirreled away in the first round. Umm, you did make sure to keep some gold? Right?
The auction creeps along and you are constantly over analyzing and regretting every purchase, meaning Biblios may as well have been called “Buyer’s Remorse: The Game”. By the time you buy two or three cards, you realize your gold is almost depleted and you’re wondering how you are going to stretch out what you have for the rest of the auction. Luckily, there are gold cards in the deck (well, providing you and your opponents were prudent enough to put them in there), which are bought by discarding your other cards, in a clever twist. So that means if you’re short on gold and a 3 value gold (the highest value) pops up in the auction, you can trash cards of colors that you’re fairly certain you’re not going to win. But even that is a risk, because you’re making assumptions on the sets your opponents have built. Educated assumptions, yes, but not perfect. There have been a few games where I trashed cards of a certain color, only to discover I would have won that color if I kept them.
While the gifting round is a white knuckle push your luck drafting system, the auction round is an impossibly tight game of money management. Pay too much for a card, and you lose all leverage for the rest of the round, allowing your opponents to get things for cheap. Don’t be aggressive, though, and you may find yourself waiting for the perfect price for a card that just won’t ever come, especially if you’re playing against savvy bidders that prey on your Scrooge-like skinflint tendencies. I have lost games falling into both traps, and I’ve won games against opponents who have done the same. It’s all about balancing your gold supply with getting the cards you really need. And don’t get me started on the church cards during this round. Those things become so valuable at this stage of the game you and your friends will be clawing each other apart for them like they’re the last Furby on the Toys ‘R Us shelf and not some old white dude in a funny hat.
Furby is still a thing, right? I dunno what Toys ‘R Us sells these days, I haven’t been outside in a while.
By game’s end, after the bidding bloodbath subsides and the dust clears over everyone’s monasteries, you reveal your hands and show who truly has the most of what color. Naturally, this creates lots of groans and cheers, as you see that your opponent managed to get just one more blue than you did even though you wasted all that gold on blue and oh look blue is worth six points and oh hey, they also managed to win red with a measly two cards which I would have beat if I hadn’t discarded them to grab that one gold that I didn’t even spend and ahhhh
Of course, there’s plenty of times where you’ll be the one wearing a smug grin as your opponents regret every decision they’ve ever made in their lives and it’s times like this that reveal just what a devilishly brilliant game Biblios is. Using two very distinct rounds and threading them together in a cohesive and nerve-wracking package, Biblios manages to pack more thoughtful decisions in its lean twenty minute length than some hour long games I’ve played. The fact that it’s done with just a deck of cards and colored dice makes it all the more impressive. Since I’ve entered the hobby a couple years ago, Biblios remains one of my all time favorite card games and almost definitely my favorite set collection game. If you’re looking for a filler with a pair of monk shaped fangs, Biblios is just the game for you.
(Also, I know I’ve been taking the piss (I’m not British, but I love that term, I’m sorry) out of the theme, but I actually like it a lot. For whatever reason, I’ve always liked the imagery of monks in monasteries and the atmosphere that evokes. Combine that with listening to Gregorian chant (yes, really) while my friends and I play this and it really is a theme that I love engrossing myself in).