Reviewed by Herb Levy

(Alea/Ravensburger/Rio Grande Games, 2 to 4 players, ages 12 and up, 60-100 minutes; $44.95)


macaoboxIt seems the historical significance of exploration by Portugal has suddenly become a hot topic. The exploits of Vasco da Gama served to inspire the game of the same name (featured this issue). Not to be outdone, Stefan Feld has focused on the jewel in the crown of Portuguese holdings in its Golden Age of trade and wealth in the newly released 13th game in the Alea “big box” series: Macao.

In Macao, players seek to earn the most Prestige by paying tribute, selling wares, claiming areas in the city proper and using offices, buildings and persons (represented by 24, 44 and 52 cards respectively) to their maximum potential. To get started on this quest, each player begins with a “tableau” which serves to hold cards and wares (as well as serving as a useful play aid) along with a wind rose, 5 Gold Coins and, in his chosen color, a ship, 2 discs and 12 ownership markers.

The board shows the city of Macao divided into 30 quarters on one side, a tribute track on the other and, in between, 8 ports which welcome the various wares that players may have on their ships. A wall borders one edge of the city and each player places one of his discs on it with the other starting at 0 on the perimeter’s scoring track.

24 wares counters, depicting the various goods in the game (3 each of lacquer ware, rice, tea, jade, silk, paper, porcelain and spices) are randomly placed, one each, on the light colored city spaces. The six remaining counters are jokers and they are placed on the brown city spaces. The 24 Office cards are shuffled and randomly distributed in 12 pairs around the board. The two other card types, Building and Person, are shuffled together to form a single deck. Two beige discs are placed on the board’s tribute track. The 300 Action Cubes in the game come in six different colors (red, blue, green, black, gray and purple) and form a supply off the board.

To begin, the two Office Cards for the turn are taken and four Building/Person cards are drawn. Numbers found on these cards (each card has values ranging from 0 to 2) determine the values for that turn on the Tribute track i.e. how many Gold Coins spent will get you a specified number of Prestige Points. Now the game turns can begin.

Each game turn consists of three phases: cards, dice and actions. From the cards on display, each player MUST choose one card to place on their tableau. Office cards and Building/Person cards share similar characteristics. ALL require an outlay of 1 to 4 specific Action Cubes to activate it. Once activated, the power of that card may be used, once each turn. Cards allow you to do many different and useful things including turning in an Action Cube for a Gold Coin, doubling Prestige Points when delivering a specified ware, paying tribute twice instead of once, earn Prestige Points in various ways at game’s end etc. But you need those Action Cubes to make things happen and Action Cubes are the lifeblood of the game. Phase two, the distribution of Action Cubes, is the most clever and original game mechanism of Macao.

I’m always impressed when a designer manages to find a new use for a gaming staple. In Macao, Feld uses six regular six-sided dice, one in each of the six Action Cube colors, as the engine for Action Cube distribution.

macao2The wind rose is a seven sided affair with an arrow pointing in one direction and dice numbers 1 though 6 marked, in clockwise order, on it. The six dice are rolled and ALL players choose any TWO of them and place that number of Action Cubes (in the color of the chosen die) on the matching spoke of the rose. (So, for example, if a red 2 is rolled, a player may place 2 red Action Cubes at the 2 position of the wheel.) Once everyone has chosen their numbers and placed their Action Cubes accordingly, the rose is rotated one slot (so that the arrow points to where number 1 used to be) and the cubes there become the fuel to power all actions undertaken by the player that turn. This procedure forces players to consider both short term and long term strategies. If an immediate goal is on your radar, you may need to choose die rolls of 1 or 2 to get those one or two cubes you need (to claim a city area or activate a card). But if your goals are longer ranged, bunches of cubes (5 or 6) can create a powerhouse for use several turns down the line. It’s tempting to continually use higher numbered rolls but if you leave yourself empty with no ACs available in a turn, you’ll take a Punish tile (the flip side of an ownership tile) and that will cost you 3 Prestige Points at game’s end.

In the third phase, players may do actions from a large menu of possibilities. All activated cards (those NOT still on the tableau) may be used. Players may advance their ships along the trade routes (at the cost of 1 AC of any color per space) or advance their disc on the wall (at the more expensive rate of 1 AC for 1 space, 3 for 2 spaces, 5 for 3 spaces etc.). They may also cash in ACs to claim one (and only one) city quarter, marking the claimed area with one of their ownership tiles. They may also turn in the specified number of Gold Coins in tribute to receive that turn’s number of Prestige Points. Actions may be carried out in ANY order. Once a player has finished their actions, any unused ACs in his current holdings are returned to the supply and the next round begins.

With the 8th turn, die rolls of six are useless (since the game will end before the 6 will come into play.) At that point, ALL sixes rolled become 1s. (With the next round, all rolls of five and six become 1s and so on.) After completing the 12th round, final scoring occurs.

Amassing the most Prestige Points is the goal and PPs can be won in a variety of ways. The bulk of them are earned during the game through the buying of prestige but delivering goods to the matching ports can make significant contributions to a player’s score. After the final turn, PPs are awarded for specific activated “game’s end” cards as well as for the longest connected area controlled by a player in the city at the rate of 2 PPs per connected area. (We’ve seen similar scoring procedures before. Sid Sackson, for example, did this in New York, his Piatnik release from 1995.) Money is important but has limited use as it is only used to pay tribute. (Because of this, players should strive to pay tribute every turn if possible). But Prestige Points can be lost too! As mentioned, if, on a turn, you have no Action Cubes to use, you lose 3 PPs. You also lose 3 PPs for EACH card on your tableau that you were unable to activate! The player with the highest final total earns the win!

Activating and using cards to maximum advantage (to get some of that scarce cash or needed color of cubes or added bonuses for delivering wares or to score a bucketful of points at game’ s end) is a key component to play. The downside to this is the number of cards. Since there are so many cards, a first playing of the game may result in considerable downtime as players try to digest the text and wrap their heads around the many possibilities. Fortunately, many cards have a similar theme (e.g. all Office cards enable you to exchange 1 AC – albeit a different color depending on which Office card used – for 1 GC) so that you pick up the rhythm fairly quickly. In addition, the text on the cards is very understandable too. (It’s a good idea, when activating cards, to place them in the order you plan to use them to streamline play and rotate them when used to make sure that you don’t miss a key action on your turn.)

Going first is a significant advantage which is why it is so difficult to move up the wall (which indicates turn order). Wall movement requires 1 AC for a 1 space move but each additional movement requires TWO more cubes. You never seem to have enough cubes to do everything so an expenditure of 3 or 5 or more cubes to guarantee going first is extravagant and should only be attempted if moving first is critical to your scoring.

While the game has solitaire aspects (you tend to be more concerned with what you can do rather than what the other players are doing), there are places where interaction can be critical. Racing to deliver goods to port is one (getting first to the port is worth 5 PPs, third is worth only 2), position on the wall (determining turn order and used as a tie-breaker at game’s end) is another. But potentially the most important is in the city area as players compete to establish large neighborhoods. Allowing a player to grow unimpeded is a mistake. Players need to pay attention to city claims. If they can block the creation of a large connected area, they need to do so. It’s even better if they can grab one area vital to another player while extending their own.

The pace of the game mirrors a bell curve as Macao begins with only a few cubes available for use in a turn and then tends to accelerate as more and more Action Cubes become available mid-game and then, cube amounts start to lessen as more numbers convert into 1s. This allows for a bit of long range planning during the early stages. As a result, players seemingly buried in last place have ample opportunity to rise to the top of the scoring track. This keeps everyone engaged as Macao marches on to an exciting conclusion. Well done!


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