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MOMBASA

reviewed by Pevans

eggertspiele (in Germany) and R&R Games (in the US).  2-4 players, aged 12+, 2-3 hours to play (officially 75-150 minutes); $49.99

Mombasa caught my eye twice at Spiel ’15: at eggertspiele’s stand, they being the German publisher, and again with R&R Games, who are publishing it in the US. It was Frank DiLorenzo, main man at R&R, who persuaded me (it didn’t take much) to part with some Euros for a copy. It’s since had several outings at the Swiggers games club and been well received each time.mombasa1

The game,  designed by Alexander Pfister,  is about the European nations’ exploration and “colonisation” (aka exploitation) of Africa through the chartered companies they set up (think Imperial British East Africa Company, Dutch East India Company et al). The players’ main reward comes through the shares they hold in these companies and so their actions are mainly aimed towards increasing their shareholdings and the value of the companies.

Much of the game’s board is thus taken up with a map of Africa, south of the Sahara. The map is divided into areas, each with icons showing the rewards for establishing a trading post in it. At the sides of the board are the base camps of the four trading companies. Each of these is a grid that starts covered in ‘trading posts’ – house-shaped wooden pieces in the company’s colour. The company expands by placing trading posts into adjacent areas on the map. The cost of doing so depends on the border between areas with an extra cost if the placement ousts another company’s piece.

The player placing the piece gains the appropriate reward. What’s more, some of the spaces in the company’s camp show coin symbols and it’s the total of revealed coins that gives the value of shares in that company. A tactical nicety here is that the bottom space of each column shows two coins and cannot be re-covered once it’s been cleared. Thus there’s an incentive for shareholders to clear a full column of trading posts before moving on to the next. You can already see that there are quite a few decisions to be made when expanding a company: how many areas can you afford to take; where can you get the most useful rewards; how much does it increase the value of the company; and can you reduce the value of another company by putting back some of its pieces.

As well as the main board, there are four cardboard tracks used to denote players’ shareholdings. These are placed alongside the edges of the board and apply to the company based on that edge. The tracks are double-sided and assigned at random – though there is a recommended set-up for players’ first game. This adds some re-play variety to the game since each track provides specific bonuses for players who hold enough shares. These can be immediate or one-off bonuses or extra action spaces. Note that, in general, players need to move their marker several spaces to gain a share. Again, some thought is required when considering which track to move along.mombasa2

Players have their own small board as well. These have two tracks on them – ‘Diamonds’ and ‘Bookkeeping’ – and are customized by the addition of a starting tile. This gives a starting position (such as where players’ markers start on the shareholding tracks) and players get a choice from two at the start of the game. Again, there are specific tiles for players’ first game. The personal boards also have marked positions for players to place their current action cards below the board and for their piles of used action cards above the board.

Players start with a set of the same action cards, but must then discard three of these (as noted on their starting tile) to start their used piles. Hence one of the considerations when choosing a starting tile is the cards that will not be in your hand at the start of the game. Not surprisingly, the action cards are at the heart of the game. At the start of a round, players secretly choose three (initially) action cards, placing them in the positions below their personal board. Note that they have a free choice from all the cards currently in their hand. Once all players’ actions have been completed, players pick up one of their discard piles and put the cards back in their hand. Then they move each action card used this turn to its corresponding discard pile.

This is such a clever mechanism. It means you not only have to think about what actions to do this round, you need to think about when you’re going to get those cards back and thus when you’ll be able to use those actions again. Yes, you really need to plan several rounds ahead. What’s more, it makes opening up extra action card positions a double-edged sword. This lets you play more cards in a round and thus get more actions. However, it also means that it will take longer to get the cards back in hand. It is quite possible to run out of cards in the later stages of the game! However, players are not required to use all their action card positions each round and a bit of planning should help avoid embarrassment.

All this means that acquiring extra action cards is really useful. The bottom left of the main board has a grid on which available action cards are displayed. Each card shows a cost, as does each space on the grid. Buying a card costs the total of these two. It’s paid in trade goods, which are the most plentiful type of action card. As an action, a player can use any or all of their current action cards showing the same trade good (bananas, coffee or cotton) to buy a card and add it to their hand. Any trade good value left over is used to advance along shareholding track/s – or they can skip buying a card and use the full value towards shares.

Players also have several “expansion” action cards. Playing these is the way to expand one of the trading companies. As an action, a player can use the total value of their current expansion cards to place trading posts from one company onto the board. As I’ve already explained, this gives the player immediate bonuses (such as cash or shares), should increase the value of the company and may decrease the value of other companies.mombasa3

The final type of action card players start with is their one bookkeeper card. This is a facet of the game that is virtually a mini-game in its own right. To start with, certain actions (such as putting a trading post in a region with the appropriate icon) will give players bookkeeping points to spend immediately. These are used to acquire ledger ‘books’ – from the display in the top right corner of the board – and place them on the spaces of the player’s bookkeeping track. Each ledger shows the requirement for moving onto or across it. This is usually a minimum value of unused current action cards: three bananas, say. It also shows the reward gained by landing on it.

The bookkeeper action allows a player to move their inkwell marker along their bookkeeping track. They can move as far as possible across contiguous ledgers, provided they have the requirement for each book they cross or land on. Hence, the bookkeeper action is usually a player’s first action in a round when the maximum number of current action cards is available to meet these requirements. Why would you do this? Well, first, you get the reward from the book your inkwell ends up on. Second, you will gain points at the end of the game according to how far your inkwell has moved (the points are printed on the track, so you always know what you have and how far you need to go to get more). Third, reaching a specific point on the track opens up another action card (and discard pile) slot.

The final step of the bookkeeper action is some more bookkeeping points to spend on acquiring more ledgers! Getting the best out of the bookkeeper action is tricky. However, you will get bookkeeping points during the game and thus end up with ledgers on your track. Hence, even if you don’t want to concentrate on the bookkeeping aspect, you will probably use this action a couple of times during the game.

Having mentioned the bookkeeping track, I had better establish what the diamond track does. You’ll be pleased to hear it’s much simpler: certain actions provide diamond icons and players move their diamond along their track for each icon. Like the bookkeeping track, progress along this brings points at the end of the game and, again, reaching a certain point opens up another action card slot. There is a fourth type of action card, the diamond merchant, that provides diamonds (and cash). Players don’t start with a diamond merchant card, they can only buy them. Getting a diamond merchant is a useful tactical move as it gives you an advantage over your opponents in moving along the diamond track.

On top of all this, the action cards are not the only way players get to take actions. They start with two wooden ‘bonus’ markers and these are used for the actions printed on the board (bottom right section) or the shareholding tracks. Each ‘bonus’ action can only be taken once a round, so they tend to go first if there’s likely to be competition for them. The first of these is becoming first player – the only way this changes during the game. Being first player is particularly useful if a good action card is available cheap, but it doesn’t seem to be too important across the whole game.

Other ‘bonus’ actions let players buy an action card for cash or sell one for cash. Whoever has the highest value of each trade good or expansion in their current action cards can take the appropriate ‘bonus’ action to advance their shareholding marker in a specific company. And there are four bonus tiles that can be taken to provide an extra action or trade good in the following turn. The bonus bookkeeper and diamond merchant actions are particularly useful if progressing along the appropriate track is part of your strategy. Or if you really need to take the action and your own card isn’t in your hand.

There’s an awful lot to think about here and the game can be a bit daunting at first. Game play is not the problem, though, this is straightforward. It’s deciding just which actions to take that requires thought. As I’ve already mentioned, each round starts with players selecting their three (or four, or even five) action cards. These are revealed once everybody’s finished choosing and the first player takes their first action. In turn, each player takes an action – either placing a bonus marker or using one or more cards (turning them over to show that they’ve been used). The round finishes when nobody’s got anything left to do.

There’s a bit of tidying up to do at the end of a round. The game ends after seven rounds, which makes sure it doesn’t outstay its welcome. This also puts players under a bit of time pressure as seven rounds isn’t very long in terms of developing your position. My experience is that most of players’ points come from their shareholdings, so gaining shares and increasing their value is crucial. The obvious approach is to major in one company, getting as many shares as you can and boosting its value as high as you can. There are two problems with this approach. First, the game’s mechanisms mean you are likely to get a more widely dispersed shareholding. Second, your opponents will combine to do down your company.

Thus the ideal is to have a substantial shareholding in a couple of companies and then take the lead in the last couple of rounds. Other players with shares will help build up the companies and will, of course, also score from them. However, having the largest shareholdings should put your score above theirs. Easier to say than do, of course, but it is helped by some action cards also providing shares – in fact the last few action cards in the deck are just shares. Hence it’s worth keeping an eye on other players’ cards to see what extra shares they’re holding.

Apart from the value of their shares, players scores include the cash they have in hand. To this they add the highest points value reached on their Diamond and Bookkeeping tracks. The points from these can be significant, particularly if a player has concentrated on developing either diamonds or bookkeeping.

From my experience to date, I would say that Mombasa is more tactical than strategic. There is some strategy in deciding which companies to go for and whether to put effort into moving along your Diamond or Bookkeeping track (I wouldn’t recommend going for both). Bookkeeping, in particular, requires a lot of careful thinking. One way to simplify the game is to largely ignore it, which is certainly a viable approach. This allows you to concentrate on organizing your action cards to get the actions you need when you need them.

While there is, arguably, a bit too much design in Mombasa – designer Alexander Pfister does seem to have included the kitchen sink – I have thoroughly enjoyed playing the game, as have the other participants. It is complex, but the complexity is manageable. And there is a real challenge in working the action card process effectively. For this reason it’s probably not a good idea to pit first-timers against experienced players. Unless I’m the experienced player, of course. Ahem. I give Mombasa 8/10 on my highly subjective scale. – – – – – – – Pevans


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