Brian here back with yet another Brian's Battery review.
Astute readers will notice that I did not say "First Impressions" in the title of my post. That's right - I've played this game more extensively than some of my other reviews and thus can declare this to be a full review.
So.#Maracaibo. Let's set sail!
#Maracaibo is a wonderful game designed by Alexander Pfister with a potentially problematic theme.
I'd like to address that theme straight away. Yes, it is based on European nations in the Caribbean. And yes, in history the peoples in the Caribbean and surrounding areas suffered horrible atrocities at the hands of those nations.
After having played the game numerous times I do not believe that this game attempts to glorify any of those actions. It simply uses the time period as a backdrop for the game.
That said, let's talk more about how the game plays.
Maracaibo is a game for 1-4 players that casts each player as a privateer in the Caribbean. Players sail around the Caribbean delivering cargo, acting as mercenaries for the European powers, exploring the jungle, and completing quests. Along the way each player will attempt to enhance their reputation with the powers and increase their wealth and prestige. The player with the most victory points at the end of four rounds is the winner.
At its core Maracaibo is a rondel style action selection game interlaced with a multi-use card system.
Players have a hand of 4 cards at the beginning of the game. These cards are multipurpose. Cards can be built to a player tableau, used as goods, or as items. I will talk about each of these purposes as the review progresses.
Each player also has a personal ship in the game. This ship is represented by a personal ship board. Each player also has a career card for that game. The career can be "Adventurer" or "Glory" and will give 3 different goals for the player to attempt to achieve throughout the course of the game. Completing a goal rewards coins, victory points, and adds an assistant to your pool. Complete all 3 goals and you cash in a larger amount of coins and victory points.
At the beginning of the game your ship is fairly basic but throughout the course of the game you will have opportunities to upgrade your ship. Upgrades are covered by brown discs and the discs must be placed in order to unlock the upgrades. We will talk about how to place brown discs later on.
Each turn players sail their ship 1-7 spaces forward around the Caribbean (around the rondel). The player determines how much they want to move based on where they want to go to take their action. Players cannot sail against the wind - they must sail forwards.
There are two types of spaces to visit in the Caribbean - Cities and Villages.
Villages are much more common than cities and allow you to take a number of village actions. The number of village actions you can take is determined by how far you sailed that turn. If you sailed 7 (or more) spaces you can take 3 actions. If you sailed 4 or more spaces, 2 actions, and if you sailed less than 4 spades you can take one action.
Village actions are fairly straightforward. You can build a card to your tableau by paying the costs, you can gain a coin, or you can discard your entire hand and gain two coins. Additional village actions can be unlocked by upgrading your personal ship.
You pay for cards to build to your tableau primarily with coins. Some cards will require additional costs. Cards built to your tableau grant one time effects, ongoing bonuses, or boost end of round/game scoring. Or sometimes cards grant all of these!
Some cards that you build to your tableau require you to place an assistant onto a specified space in the Caribbean. Assistants are a limited resource (but additional assistants can be earned throughout the course of the game). Often times these assistant actions are very powerful and are well worth building to your tableau.
Once you have an assistant card built in your tableau you can sail to that space in the Caribbean and use the assistant action instead of your city or village action for that turn.
City actions are totally different than village actions.
When visiting a city players have an opportunity to deliver a good. Cities have demands for various goods and players can spend a card from their hand with the matching good to satisfy the city's demands. Delivering a good allows a player to remove an ungrade disc from their ship board and place it on the city. Placing the upgrade disc also prevents other players from delivering a good to that city that round - their demand has already been satisfied.
Each upgrade requires two brown discs to be placed. Unlocking upgrades is quite powerful as they can increase your hand limit, grant new village actions, grant a new combat action, or various other bonuses.
In addition to delivering a good to a city you can also perform the associated city action. A city action is shown on the city tile and could a combat action, removing an extra brown upgrade disc, sending your explorer into the jungle, etc. These are quite powerful and are usually associated with goals in your career card.
The third way to use your cards is as items to complete a quest. Quests are placed around the Caribbean at the start of each round, according to the story card. Quests can also be part of a city tile and found while exploring the jungle. Completing a quest requires the player to discard the matching cards with items matching the quest tile. The player then gains rewards as shown on the quest tile.
So. We've now covered the 3 uses of cards in this game. Building them to your tableau, spending them as goods, or spending them as items.
There are a few more systems in the game we need to cover before I get to the review portion.
The first is the explorer track. This is a track along the bottom of the board that depicts your explorer venturing into the jungle. When completing certain city actions or as a reward for certain quests you can move your explorer further into the jungle. The farther you go the better rewards that you claim for adventuring. Some career cards have the exploration track as a goal. There are certain exploration threshold lines that award additional prizes for crossing. Reaching the end of the track also yields significant rewards.
The other main system we haven't covered yet is the combat and influence system. Certain spaces on the board, city actions, exploration rewards, etc. will allow a player to take a combat action.
To take a combat action you draw a combat tile. The tile shows the relative strength of the three European forces in that specific battle. The player can then pick a side to assist in the battle. Occasionally there will be a bonus for helping the weaker side or a penalty to pay for helping the stronger side. After picking a side you then add the combat power from the tile to however much combat power you want to contribute to the battle. Your personal combat power is tracked on your ship board.
Once you determine your total combat power it's time to spend that power. The basic action costs 2 combat power and simply lets you gain one influence with the nation you are fighting for. A stronger version of that combat action costs 5 power and lets you gain two influence.
The other broad combat action is to conquer a village or city for your chosen nation. The basic action costs 4 power and allows you to place an influence cube onto the map. Placing a cube grants you a one time bonus - coins or points depending on which site you are conquering- and also grants an influence with that nation. The stronger version of this action costs 6 power and allows you to displace an existing influence cube with one of the nation you are fighting for. There is additional combat action that can be unlocked through the upgrade process.
Influence is an important resource to gain as it grants massive bonuses victory point bonuses at the end of the game. Career card goals also often include matching certain influence thresholds.
Another unique system in this game is the story mode. The story mode provides a very mild legacy style campaign to give context to each game. Story cards place additional quests on the board and help guide the player throughout a branching campaign full of actually quite decent storytelling. The story will branch at multiple points and have you place legacy tiles over top of the normal board. Some legacy tiles are new cities that could grow because of your choices in the story. Or maybe a village is abandoned and you can no longer take actions there. It's a simple but effective system with above average writing that helps to move the game forward.
Whew! Are you still with me? I think we've covered all the main systems in the game. Finally.
I didn't go into the end of round and end of game scoring but I will mention that once one player completes their circuit of the Caribbean all other players have one more turn before all ships are brought back to the start and the next round begins. This almost makes it feel like a race around the Caribbean because if you go too slow other players can rush ahead and ruin your plans.
Wow. That was a TON to cover. As you can probably tell there is a lot going on in this game, and all of it is interconnected. The multiuse cards driving most of the gameplay. Now let's set sail for the review portion:
I am ambivalent on the theme of this game. It's not my favorite theme and it definitely has some problematic history behind it. Pirates in the Caribbean in general just isn't my jam. That said, I do feel the theme is well executed. The story elements definitely add to the appeal and the art and components all tie together nicely.
The art in this game is good. On the fine end of good, but good nonetheless. The board itself is beautiful. Very bright, colorful, and evocative. The player ship boards are thematic and functional. The art in the cards falls more towards the "standard euro game style" than beautiful. Get the point across, not ugly, but also not stylish or particularly attractive.
The components in this game are "standard euro game" quality. The wooden bits are nice. The cards are serviceable. They are linen finished but are still nice to hold. The cardboard tiles are thick and chunky. I'd say the cardboard tiles are my favorite component in this game.
Oh my this game has it where it counts. She may not look like much, but she'll burn your brain. The multiuse cards create a spaghetti of actions where you want to do everything but must pick one thing to do each turn. You need that card for this quest, but you also need it for this good too at the next city. Oh and you also want to build it to your tableau because it's bonus is really good. So many tough decisions. So much delicious gameplay. Seriously, it's really really good.
Solo AI (++):
This game features a wonderful AI opponent. Her name is Jean and she is really rough to play against. The card based decision system is great and easy to run. One of the best systems I've played against - right up there with Gaia Project and Circadians.
Im surprised by how much I liked the story in this game. The legacy tiles are a really nice touch and really help to add variety and context to each game. The story itself is interesting and the fact that it branches multiple times means that you'll need to play this game a LOT to get tired of the story pieces.
There is a ton of symbology in this game. Often it makes sense once you understand the language of the game, but for some reason I really struggled internalizing it. I made several rule mistakes my first couple of games. Even just coming back after not playing for a few weeks to write this review it took me a few minutes to get my brain back into the language of the game.
Fiddly Bits (-):
The brown upgrade discs are annoying. The influence cubes are easy to bump and are annoying. I love those systems and they are wonderful gameplay elements but man they are cumbersome to interact with. I wish they could've used something a little bit easier to handle and less susceptible to being bumped.
This game is an incredible accomplishment. The intertwined systems with the multiuse cards are absolutely brilliant. The game creates so many interesting decisions - a mark of a quality game in my book. This game is in my Top 20 of all time and I can foresee that it'll move up as I continue to become more comfortable with the game. There are a few minor quibbles with the game that are holding it back from my personal Top 5 potential- but don't let that deter you from checking out this game. It's a truly spectacular brain burner that'll have you sailing and swashbuckling around the Caribbean for a long time.
Thanks for reading!