Reviewed by Herb Levy
MOROCCO (Eagle/Gryphon Games, 2 to 5 players, ages 12 and up, 45 minutes; $49.99)
The world is filled with exotic places, among them the famous Jemaa el-Fna market square in Marrakech. It is there that ancient families compete to claim the best market stalls and attract customers for their varied goods and curiosities. In this new game designed by Matt Riddle and Ben Pinchback, players, representing those families, vie for the greatest success in that marketplace found in the land that gives the game its name: Morocco.
All players begin with a set of colored pieces and 12 color-coded market tiles. The board’s play area is basically a five by five grid creating 25 squares (or market stalls). Wooden cubes (called “information cubes”) come in five different colors (black, green, purple. brown and orange) and a set of each are placed along the top and a side of the market area (the X and Y axis). These cubes serve as coordinates for locations in the marketplace, telling players what color cubes are needed to claim a space in a particular stall. Which begs the questions: How do you get those cubes and how do you use them? This two part question is answered in the two phases of a round: Scout Stalls and Assign Workers.
In Scout Stalls, cubes will be earned by players in an interesting way. The “rooftop” display on the board shows the five different colored cubes in a circular pattern. The active player takes the large pawn and places it in front of any one of those cubes. The active player then gets two cubes (the colors matching the ones to the left AND the right of the cube the large pawn is facing. ALL other players get one cube of the color the large pawn is facing!) This continues until all players have a chance to place the large pawn. (The only caveat is that the large pawn MUST move; it cannot stay in the same position on any consecutive turn.) Now, with a supply of cubes, players go to work and Assign Workers.
The workers at each player’s command consist of “assistants” (your standard meeples), two “bodyguards” (twice the size of assistants and placed in their own area on the board), two tourists (looking a bit like robots) and two cousins tokens.
When placing workers, you need to spend the cubes that match the coordinates of the desired space. Each space represents a stall at the marketplace with room for four workers. (Bodyguards, when placed, count as TWO workers.) These stalls are also surrounded by randomly distributed “juice sellers” (small tokens worth from 2 to 4 points each). Each round allows all players to place workers twice. At the end of the round, you can only keep 1 cube with any excess returned to supply. When a stall is filled with the “presence” of four workers, that stall is closed and scored.
Players who have pieces in a stall receive any juice tokens found next to their pieces. In addition, the player who has the most workers in a stall scores 5 Victory Points. If there is a tie for first, ALL players score 5 VPs. A player in second place will receive 2 VPs AND get 1 coin AND get 1 bodyguard for use on a future turn. (If there is a tie for second, only 1 VP and EITHER a gold coin OR a bodyguard is awarded.) A third place finisher gets 1 VP and EITHER 1 gold coin or a bodyguard. (Gold coins are worth 1 Victory Point each if still in your possession for final scoring but they have a more powerful side. By spending one, you can shift two cubes on either the X or Y axis thereby changing the colors needed to place pieces in certain stalls.) Another important benefit for the player who scores first (or, if a tie, the active player) is the ability to close the stall.
Closing a stall means placing one of your colored market tiles onto that space with its arrow pointing to another, adjacent, stall. The arrow represents “overflow” which, in game terms means that the stall on the receiving end of that arrow requires one LESS worker to close. If you are clever (and a little lucky), you can create a chain reaction of closures to generate a barrage of Victory Points for yourself. Even better, you can create a chain of closed stalls in YOUR color. Chains created are worth Victory Points: 3 points per stall in your largest chain. If there is a tie for first place in a stall, a neutral closed stall tile is placed with its arrow pointing to an open stall but it does not count for anyone’s chain.
In the quest for stall closures and lengthening of chains, both tourists and cousins can be extremely useful. In each case, you are limited to only using them twice for the entire game. Tourists may be placed in any open spot just like regular assistants – but they cost an extra cube of any color. Their advantage is that once a stall they are in gets closed, they TRAVEL to the next open stall! This increases a player’s presence in a stall and can often result in yet another closure. Similarly, cousins (also costing an extra cube) allow you to place TWO assistants at once, one in the specific stall you choose and the other in a different stall that has a space ADJACENT to the first placement. Again, dominance with an eye to building your chain of stalls is the main thrust of this play.
The final round is triggered when five or less stalls remain open. Players finish that round and then scores are totaled. To the running total of VPs earned for stall closures, players total and add their juice seller tokens, earn 1 VP (up to 3) for gold coins remaining and check for their largest chain of closed stalls scoring 3 points for each stall in the chain. The player with the highest total wins.
The idea of using a grid to place pieces has been seen many times but the approach to getting those all important cubes is both different and clever. By claiming the two cubes a player most wants, that player also awards a different colored cube to ALL of his opponents. This creates a dual layer of decision-making: you want what you want (of course) but you don’t want your opponents to have the ability to be more flexible in their worker placement than you. (In our games, personal priorities have taken precedence but that secondary consideration is always creeping into the mix.) While vying for plurality in a stall is important, a second place finish in the competition for a stall can be even more attractive. Even though an opponent gets 5 VPs for dominance in a closed stall, a second place presence still gets you VPs (2) AND that bodyguard (worth 2 “normal” pieces) AND a coin (which can change grid alignment) – a very powerful compensation and one which provides the opportunity to throw some hurt onto your opponents’ master plans.
Although the mechanisms used are relatively simple and easy to grasp, the ramifications of their use can create “brain-burner” situations. The effect of tile placement to create a “falling domino” effect as one completed stall can lead to another can lead to another can bring out the “analyst” in some. Fortunately, at least in our playings, analysis has not reached the “paralysis” stage. Still, with the full complement of five players, the game can begin to slow; three or four players is probably the sweet spot.
Despite the attempt to give theme and color to this game, Morocco is, most definitely, an abstract at its core but one with a twist or two to give it a bit of freshness and a “degree of separation” from the abstracts already out there. There is just enough theme for gamers who shy away from abstracts and just enough twists to intrigue fans of abstract play. – – – – – Herb Levy
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