Saturday, April 10, 2010

Remember Alea? (Macao, 1960: The Making of the President)

Circumstances conspired to give me and Shemp another 2 player game night. I thought it would be a good opportunity to play Macao and 1960: The Making of the President.


Many eurogamers say they really like Alea games. I am one of them. Scan my top games list, and you will see quite a few of them (Ra, Taj Mahal, Princes of Florence, In the Year of the Dragon, Puerto Rico, Traders of Genoa, etc). Still, with the exception of Ra they rarely get played anymore. I can't be sure why, but I feel like the plethora of game releases has led me to search out games whose theme excite me as much as the underlying game mechanics. Alea games, though they typically provide excellent gameplay, often have very thin themes and for a couple of years this type of game wasn't really appealing to me (of course, Alea went on a pretty weak streak for a while there, which didn't help their cause). Last year they released Stephen Feld's In the Year of the Dragon, which I really liked and we've played a fair bit. Now Alea has collaborated with Stephen Feld again for Macao and I wanted to give it a try despite the particularly humdrum theme of the game.

Macao is yet another euro game about gathering resources, delivering goods and building buildings in a random distant location (in this case, a portuguese colony in China). It also jumps on a number of recent eurogame bandwagons by including dice and many, many cards with text that give various special abilities. Excited yet?

However, as I've often said it's how things come together than matters. Macao is a fantastic example of this. In playing Macao, I felt like this was a very unique and engaging game, despite how bland most of the component parts are. Oh, and challenging. Definitely challenging. Feld appears to like to add a dose of punishment to his games, if In the Year of the Dragon and Macao are any indication, and this appears to raise the stakes a little bit when playing his games.

At it's heart, Macao is a game where players must struggle to plan amidst randomness. It's hard to describe, but you have to think strategically as you act tactically.

Each round, a player rolls 6 differently coloured dice. Each player chooses two of the results and receives cubes in number and colour according to the chosen dice. The big trick is that the larger the number on the die, the longer it will take before you can actually USE the cubes. For example: if you choose the red dice showing a 4, you will get 4 red cubes in 4 turns. These cubes will be used to purchase cards and buildings later on, but cubes don't carry over from turn to turn so in order to buy something that requires a particular combination of cubes you need to plan ahead and make sure you coordinate the dice you choose so that you will receive the combination you want together on a given turn. This isn't as hard as it sounds but it does require forward planning... over several turns you know that at least one cube of every colour will be produced and it's up to you to select them if you need them. Most times, the choice is between few resources now or many resources later. Where things get, err, dicey, is when you decide you need to build or purchase something fast and really need certain combinations to come up.

What are the cubes used for? You can build buildings in the city to gain goods, you can sail your ship to deliver said goods, you can pay for cards which will give you special powers and you can jockey for turn order. Deciding which resources to go for, which cards and buildings to purchase in the coming turns, etc, is already enough to require some serious think. Planning for these costs while faced with the pressures of other players competing for the same resources and in the face of the randomness of the dice makes it feel even more challenging. Don't play this game while drinking... it can melt your brain a little bit.

While the randomness makes the forward planning difficult, it also makes it a little less of a brain burner than it might have been if everything was open and perfect forward planning was possible. You don't know how many cubes of various colours are coming, and you don't know what card powers will be available. You have to go with the flow to a certain extent. That being said, you also need to plan ahead quite a lot. If you don't put effort to filling your future turns with cube combinations that work to purchase the cards and buildings you need, it will NOT happen on it's own and you will spend the whole game accomplishing nothing.

The card powers available in the game are very interesting, and really impact the flavour of the game. Spying the cards that come up that will enhance your engine is key to winning the game (and manipulating turn order so that you are free to pick those cards before other players is therefore also very important). On the other hand, you will be frustrated if you attempt to do the reverse and play the game hoping to make specific card combinations from the start... there are too many factors that prevent this from working (only about half the cards come up in any given game, and many of those will get discarded and therefore be inaccessible to players).

On the surface, the only two ways of ultimately getting VPs are delivering goods and purchasing VPs (some VPs can be gained through purchasing cards and making lines of buildings, but these seem to be small amounts). That said, developing your engine through the various cards that come up will require players to play differently each time. I've only played once, but it seems like there would be huge variety in the way the game would play out between games.

I can't help but compare the game to Agricola in that aspect, but I would say that I found that the card effects in this game were more interesting and had a more pronounced impact on the game. Also, since the cards come out over the course of the game, they aren't as initially overwhelming either. On the whole, however, the feel of the game reminds me mostly of Taj Mahal. That too is a game that has been accused by some as being too random or tactical because of the card draws, but in actuality the player who can plan ahead and use the tools available to mitigate the randomness will win almost every time.

The game is probably best played with 2 or 3, because AP could certainly cause it to go too long with 4 players. With 2 players, I certainly liked it a lot.

We stumbled through the first half not really succeeding to do very much. I selected cards which allowed me to build twice in the city every turn and then earn gold based on the number of cities I had there. It seemed like a good combo I could profit from, but then I got distracted by other things and didn't make it happen early enough. Meanwhile, I managed to acquire all the rice and tea so in a final turn mad dash I spent nearly 10 cubes just crossing the board to make 20 points in deliveries. Shemp, for his part, was purchasing cards which allowed him free cubes and cube conversions. He managed to purchase many more cards than I could because of this advantage, and ended up winning by about 5 points.

1960: The Making of the President

This is a great example of those thematic games that have caught my attention over the years, but since it's only two players I've never had the opportunity to play until now. It's a game about the Kennedy vs Nixon election which uses a "card driven wargame" system similar to many popular wargames (We the People, Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage, Twilight Struggle, etc).

Because it's a game about elections, it's unsurprising that they chose an area control system to represent the success of the two candidates. Cubes in each player's colour are placed in a state to represent who is leading or carrying that state. In addition to this, cubes can be placed to show who has the "media support" in each region, and cubes can be placed on the three issues to indicate who leads in each of them.

Each player has a hand of cards which are used either as action points (to move the candidate around the country placing cubes to show support, to add influence on issues, etc) or as events (historical events which have a game effect, such as displacing cubes or adding new ones). There is a special turn where normal play is suspended and a new subsystem is introduced to represent the "debates" and at the end the votes are tallied and the winner is elected.

Although I liked it well enough, I have to admit I was somewhat disappointed in the game. There are a few reasons for this:

1) The "area majority" mechanic felt somewhat arbitrary because the board changed so drastically between turns that it sometimes felt futile, or simply an exercise in outlasting the opponent.

2) The events on the cards were almost always more powerful than the number of action points on the card, so there was actually not much of a choice to be made when selecting them. If the event was for your side, you picked it. If it's for the other side, you used the action points. In Hannibal and Wilderness War, other card driven wargames I've played, the choices seemed more difficult... in a good way.

3) For all the uncertainty involved in gaining media support, it didn't seem to matter much.

4) The "rest" mechanic was odd. There would seem to be a tradeoff between playing high AP cards and getting little rest or vice-versa. The thing is, you have to play every card in your hand except one, so ultimately there is no tradeoff... you just get what you were dealt. Also, I kept forgetting to grab the rest cubes, which was annoying.

5) Having to read each event card to the other player in case they wanted to activate the event was a little annoying.

6) The translation of the historical events to actions in the game didn't work for me very well, which lessened the theme for me.

Anyway, it was okay but not a home run. I certainly wouldn't mind playing again. Of course, my opinion may be influenced by the fact that I won...

(truth be told, Shemp was crushing me leading into the debates. At the debates, we both realized that we had kept poor cards for the job, but he fared worse than I did. In the final two turns I managed to grab quite a few seats and won the game).

1 comment:

  1. I might agree with your comments about 1960, however, I need to play it again. It's been a long time since I've played a 2-player game and could be a while before I get to this one. If I end up trading it before it happens, I think I'll be okay with that.