Friday, March 19, 2010

Recent Gaming: Macao

I finally got a chance to play Macao last night with Wystan and John. I've been looking forward to trying it because it has a really neat sounding mechanism wherein you choose resources based on die rolls, and the larger number of resources you take, the longer you have to wait to get them. Specifically the game works like this:

Each round (there are 12) you first draw some cards which will be available for the players to draft. 2 of these cards are known ahead of time, but the others are drawn randomly. Each card has numbers in the bottom left and right corners that are summed to indicate the cost of buying Prestige at the market this turn - the left numbers make up the cost in gold, the right numbers make up the amount of Prestige you get.

In turn order, players must draft one of the cards and place it on their player board, which is like a buffer or way station en route to getting the card into play. If your buffer is full when you draft a card, you simply remove a card to make space - and you incur a penalty of 3 points, so you are encouraged not to let that happen.

After this draft is complete, some dice are rolled - there are 6 different colors of resources in the game, and there is 1 6-sided die for each color. Once rolled, each player may choose 2 of the 6 dice for which to collect resource cubes. The number on the die indicates how many cubes you can collect, but the catch is that you don't actually GET the cubes for that number of turns... so if you choose the 6 blue die, you'll get 6 blue resources, but not until 6 turns from now. This is tracked by placing the cubes in the appropriate location around your hexagonal player aid tile, which you then rotate 30% (1 space) and collect any cubes it's now pointing to. I'll note that since you rotate the thing right after choosing the cubes, you really only wait N-1 turns to get them (or 5 turns for those 6 blue cubes in the example above). If ever you collect zero cubes after rotating your thingamajig, then you are penalized another 3 points! So it's always good to make sure you'll have something coming each turn.

Now, in turn order, players execute their turn doing any or all of the following, in any order they like:

Activate a card: I dislike the word choice here, but Activating a card means means purchasing the card from your buffer board and putting it into play in front of you. Each card indicates its cost in cubes. Activating a card has nothing to do with USING the card!

Use cards in play: Once cards are in play, many of them can be used once per turn to do something: Collect a cube of a certain type, Trade in a cube of a certain type for a Gold coin, etc. Those are the main abilities, but there are a few others like "advance on the turn order track if you are the furthest behind on it" and whatnot.

Purchase *1* City space: On the board there are a bunch of city spaces that cost some number of cubes. You're allowed to buy at most 1 per turn, and when you do you collect the Goods marker that was placed on it (randomly) at the beginning of the game. The rest of the board depicts sea routes and islands which you can sail your boat to, and when you get to one of these islands you can deliver the goods you have collected to it and score some Prestige.

Purchase Prestige for Gold: Once per turn you can purchase some number of Prestige points for some number of Gold coins. These numbers were set at the beginning of the round by the randomly drawn cards from 7 paragraphs ago. These values fluctuate so some turns it's more efficient than other turns, but even if less efficient VP/$-wise, there's also the once per turn limit to consider. If you have the money, then buying 9 VP for $7 might be a good idea even if it's a bad conversion rate, because it's still 9 points you weren't getting otherwise.

Advance on Wall: The "Wall" is a track on which each player has a turn order marker. It works a lot like the People track in In the Year of the Dragon or the Popularity track in Ground Floor. Furthest down the track goes first, and turns proceed in order down the track. If multiple markers are stacked on the same space, then the one on top goes before the one below it. It costs 1 cube (any type) to advance 1 space on this track, and 2 cubes to advance each additional space, so if you want to go first, you can spend some of your cubes to do so.

Advance your boat: You can spend as many cubes as you like to advance your boat that number of spaces. There are specific routes printed on the board going between 6 different islands. Each island demands one of the types of Goods, and will pay 5 Prestige for the first, 3 Prestige for the 2nd, and 2 Prestige for the third good delivered. It's possible to score multiples of these at once if you arrive at the island in possession of multiple goods.

At the end of the turn, any cubes you have leftover are discarded, so if nothing else you end up using them to move your boat or advance along the Wall.

That's it - once each player has taken their turn, you move to the next round... reveal new cards and start the whole shebang again. Near the end of the game, when there are fewer than 6 turns remaining, die values which are too big to be realized anymore are treated as if they rolled 1.

I found the game fun and interesting, though frankly I was a bit put off by the lack of ability to plan. Short term planning is sketchy because you don't know what will be rolled and therefore have no idea what cubes you'll have access to (or when) as you draft your card for the round. Long term planning is also sketchy because while you know a couple of the cards that will come out down the road, you will likely prefer different ones when the time comes, so you have little to base your choice on what larger quantities of cubes to take. Don't get me wrong, I don't think the game needs to have perfect information or the ability to know exactly which cubes you'll need 7 turns down the road, but I do think it would be if you could plan a little better.

When it comes to this lack of ability to plan I think the culprit is the fact that all of your cubes spoil at the end of the turn. I think it's neat how the game encourages you to get cubes each round, and encourages you to use them all up, but I definitely think the ability to store at least SOME cubes would help a lot. Suppose for example each player started the game with a Warehouse building, which allowed them to store 1 cube of any type. There could also be Warehouse cards that would come up who's effect would be to allow a player to carry over 1 cube of a particular type to the next round. I would like that a lot better than the actual rules under which you cannot save any cubes from turn to turn. I wouldn't mind trying a variant of the game in which the cards that allow you to sell a Cube for a Gold also acted as those Warehouses, either in addition to selling a cube, or instead of (i.e. tap the card to sell a cube for 1 GC OR tap it to hold a cube for next round).

When setting up the game, Wystan forced the 'random' setup of the goods tiles such that exactly 3 of the Joker goods were located on city spaces costing 1, so that each of us could get 1. He cited previous games where those tiles happened to end up on the more expensive spaces which turned out to be annoyingly slow and had players complaining. I have not played in such a game, but if that's the case I'd wonder why each player doesn't simply start with a Joker tile, and maybe have the City spaces cost 2/3/3/4 rather than 1/2/3/4. That's just a thought off the top of my head though. It does seem like an advantage to go first if there were, say, only 1 Joker on a 1-cost City space.

Overall I think Macao is an interesting little game, and I can see myself playing it a few more times, but ultimately I'd like it better if you could save a few cubes and/or plan a little better.

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