Reviewed by Herb Levy

(Phalanx Games/Rio Grande Games, 2-5 players, ages 12 and up, about 90 minutes; $44.95)


Maharaja, marketed as Raja in Europe, is the latest game from the design team of Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling who gave us Tikal (Spring 1999 GA REPORT) and Torres (Fall 1999 GA REPORT) to name a few. In this offering, K&K take you to 16th Century India as players become rival Rajas, seeking to please the King (the Maharaja) by improving his cities by building houses and palaces. The first player to build seven palaces wins the game.

Maharaja comes with a beautiful game board (Franz Vohwinkel artwork) that shows 7 cities represented by large hex-shaped areas. These cities have room for seven palaces and are linked by a network of roads. Scattered along these roads are 30 villages. There is also a “governor track” to chart the scoring order for the cities. Each player begins with an “action disc”, a pawn in his chosen color (aka his “architect”), 7 palaces (glass stones in his color) and a supply of color-coded wooden houses. Each player starts with a bankroll of 15 gold pieces.maharaja

All of the architects begin in a central space on the board. The six character cards (there is a seventh that can be used in the advanced game) are placed alongside the board. The 7 governor pieces, one for each city, are shuffled and randomly placed face up on the governor track.

To begin, each player, starting with the youngest, picks one of the character cards. These cards are an essential element to play as they bestow certain advantages to the player controlling them.

Card #1 (Mogul) allows the controlling player to move first AND, in the event of a tie in scoring, ALWAYS win the tie. Card #2 (Trader) receives 1 extra gold piece each turn. Card #3 (Sadhu) raises the value of outer palaces when scoring to 2 points (instead of 1). Card #4 (Wandering Monk) allows that player’s architect to travel along the roads at no cost to the player. (The bank pays such fees.) Card #5 (Builder) allows the player to build a house for free. Card #6 (Artisan) goes last but gets to build palaces much more cheaply. Instead of paying the standard 12 gold pieces, the Artisan need only spend 9.

With roles chosen, four of each player’s houses are placed in villages around the board with the restriction that each village can only hold 2 houses. Once this seeding is done, each player receives six additional houses from his reserve (called the “quarry”) and the large black pawn (representing the Maharaja) is placed on the city represented by the governor at the bottom of the governor board to indicate that that particular city is the one that will be scored at the end of the turn.

Each turn, a player may conduct two actions. These actions are revealed through the use of the action disc. This device (some assembly required) looks like a clock with two hands but with icons instead of numbers. The icons indicate the actions that may be chosen. The actions on the menu include getting 2 gold from the bank, building a house in a village or a city at the cost of 1 gold, building 2 houses (at least one of which in a city), move one of your houses (from any village or city to another), take 2 houses out of your quarry and place them in your pool, build 1 palace (for 12 gold), build 1 palace and 1 house, change the order of the governors and, finally, exchange your character card with another. It should be noted that, when building a palace or house in a city, your architect MUST be present and that you may choose the same action twice in a turn.maha2

Once every player has finished his actions (in the number order of their character cards), the current city is scored. An architect in the city is worth 1 point as is house in the city and a palace built on the outer ring of the city. A palace built on the center space is worth 3 points. The player with the highest point total gets 13 gold pieces. Second place is worth 10, third worth 7, fourth worth 4 and fifth place earns 1 gold piece. (In case of a tie, the player holding the higher number character card – 1 is the highest – wins the tie.) Now, the governor counter is moved to the top of the track and the Maharaja moves to the next city on the track, alerting all to the next city that will be scored.

Play continues in this way until one player has built 7 cities or one of the governors has been placed in the final box on the governor track (box 10). In case of a tie, the player with the most money wins the game.

There is so much going on here that the presence of a rules summary/action explanation card for each player is a welcome addition. This keeps the game moving along. Still, while fascinated by the colorful board and cities, it is easy to forget that winning depends on building those palaces. This is particularly true because, in determining presence in a city, houses and palaces are often worth the same. Since money can be tight and palace building so expensive, it is imperative to have some kind of game plan in mind. This is where using your houses wisely to build a network around the board is so important. A network under your control will not only save you many gold pieces in payouts as you travel from city to city but can also generate additional income as players (or the bank) pay you for use of your network during the course of the game. In some cases, you will not be able to garner enough points to score high in the current city so you should think ahead and place influence in the cities coming up. Placing the first palace in a city guarantees you a palace worth 3 points when that city is scored. While the game encourages such strategy, long range planning is very difficult since the order in which cities are scored can shift. Remember, one of the options is to change the position of the governors! If two or more players choose this option, the shifting of scoring order can be radical! It is possible that a city will never score and other cities may score twice!

Advanced rules add a seventh character (The Yogi) which compensates for going last each turn by awarding an Action Chit to the controlling player. This one turn use chit allows the player to do a THIRD action during his turn. This is a powerful addition (maybe too powerful and unbalancing) to the game. Alternatively, it is possible to allow players to have TWO character cards per turn (recommended in a two player game).

Maharaja is an ambitious design. Elements of planning combined with chaotic shifts result in a game with a very different feel. For this reason, the game requires several plays before you can get into its rhythm and begin to understand what you can and cannot do in your quest to maximize your abilities. But Maharaja is a rewarding experience that is well worth the time and effort for you to do just that. – – – – Herb Levy


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