Thursday, August 26, 2010

Back To Gaming: Macao

July and the first half of August were extremely dry in terms of gaming opportunities for me - aside from one Tuesday game night that I hosted on July 6, I didn't play a single game again (other than a little Race for the Galaxy on the computer in free moments) until August 17th when I hosted again. I cannot tell you how much I missed the company.

Like a lot of people, part of the way I deal with stress is to, wait for it, buy more games. Buying things gives you the illusion of control over at least some part of your life, even if you are actually handing control over to your acquisitive side. Still, it was nice to get to the store and at least be distracted for a little while. There were a few new things there that I picked up, one of which was Macao. I'd remembered seeing a lot of people playing this at GameStorm (or I could have confused it with Vasco de Gama, it's been that kind of year), so I picked up a copy. Mike later said he'd played it and enjoyed it, so I was keen to get it on the table, and even keener to let someone else do the 'splainin'.

Macao is what my group calls a DALOT GABOP game (I'm sure I have this backwards, and I'm sure someone will correct me), which stands for Do A Lot Of Things, Get A Bunch Of Points. Some might say that it's more of a Many Paths To Victory game, but I'm not convinced of that just yet. It's also a game that has a lot of chaos management to it, although everyone has to deal with the same random elements. I find that DALOT games are best explained in reverse, so here goes with the nickel tour.

The theme is (surprise) about running a trading empire during the Age of Discovery. You get points for taking your ship to various trade locations, having taken control of contiguous locations in the city portion of the map, and by activating specific combinations of cards. You lose points through having cards left unactivated at game end, by not having any action cubes in the current turn area when you rotate your windrose, and by having too many unactivated cards when you have to add one to your tableau. Those last three are unintelligible until later, but you get the point. You can also buy victory points during the game with gold. Having a good balance of these various point sources seems to be important to winning.

The key to the game is the action cube mechanism. There are six colors of action cubes that can be used to activate cards and buy city spaces on the map in various combinations from one to four cubes. You get the cubes in the middle of each turn when someone rolls six dice, one for each action cube color, and everyone picks two dice that they will take that many cubes of, placing them that many turns ahead on their windrose. For example, it's turn 2, and the dice have come up 1 red, 2 green, 2 blue, 4 white, 6 purple, and 6 black. If you chose to take the black and the green, for example, you would place six black cubes in the 6 space of your windrose that you would use on turn 8 (six turns away), and two green cubes on turn 4. Everyone can pick from any color, so everyone could conceivably take the exact same set of cubes. You start with a few cubes on the first two turns, but after that you have to balance a lot of cubes that you can't use for a while vs a few cubes that you can use relatively quickly.

Before you what cubes you have, however, you get to draft cards from that turn's pool. Cards cost cubes to activate, and you are limited to five unactivated cards at a time. Everyone starts with one card, so if you haven't activated one (to use it's Special Mutant Power) by turn six, you'll get dinged six points right away. The cards come in three "flavors" of Office, Person, and City, of which you know what Office cards are coming up for every turn, but the Person and City cards you don't find out about until right when it's time to draw them. The pool is two larger than the number of players, and the draft order is determined by the location of your marker along the "Wall", so the last position on the Wall gets a choice of three cards. You need to choose carefully, but there are a *lot* of possible combinations. Office cards tend to allow you to trade cubes for Gold, which is important in and of itself.

The pool of cards also determines how many Gold it takes to buy victory points. Every card has a gold and a VP value on it, and you add up both values so that players can spend that many gold once later in the turn to get the associated VP. In our game, the numbers ranged from one or two gold to buy four or five VP to six or eight gold to buy nine VP. That may seem like you want to avoid the less efficient combinations, but since the *only* thing gold is good for is buying points it's worth pursuing if you don't have anything else you can do with your action cubes.

Now that you have cubes and cards, each player will now spend the cubes they have for the current turn on various things, from activating your cards (and once activated, you can continue to use them every turn), to buying spaces in the city (which usually give you goods) to moving your ship one space per spent action cube (which, when they arrive at the appropriate port, give you more VP), to advancing along the Wall so that you'll get to go first in the player order (which means mostly that you get more cards to choose from). Most of the cards involve trading cubes for other things, such as gold or VP, although many do things like let you skip taking a card if you don't want to or giving bonus points for getting three of a specific type of Office card at game end.

So, in a nutshell, what you are doing is taking cards that you'll need to activate with cubes, picking (hopefully adjacent) city spaces that will give you goods that you'll get points for when you've spent enough cubes to move your ship, and you're doing it without really knowing what types of cubes you'll have when or whether or not you'll even be able to put cubes in the upcoming slot on your windrose.

And it's fun anyway!

The really great part of this game is trying to plan your cubes for maximum effect. If I know I have six grey cubes coming up in three turns (because I chose the Grey 6 die three turns back), you may end up with three more purple cubes in that slot if the purple die comes up a 3 this turn (and I pick it as one of my two choices). As the game goes on, the bigger numbers convert to 1's (since there won't be a turn 13, so the 6's become 1's on turn 7), and while you are guaranteed to be able to put any color cube in your windrose for this turn, it may not get put in the slot you need to activate that specific card you need to build. Remember, you *must* take a card every turn and you lose three points for each card that isn't activated at game end. You also lose three points if you have no cubes to use in a given turn. And you must also use every cube you have for that turn, you can't hold them for the next turn. You can always use the extras to move your ship forward or advance on the Wall, but in the end the game is about making the best of what you have, and what you have is rarely what you need or want.

I was aggressive in our game with moving my ship, but I only had three goods to deliver for a total of 15 points. JD, on the other hand, had six goods and won the game handily. There is no question that you need to buy VP with gold, which requires you to *get* more gold as the game goes on, which requires office cards, which means that you get fewer Special Mutant Powers that add gold or let you skip taking cards...

Oh, the humanity. I believe there are something like 40 different Special Mutant Powers in this game, so a lot of potential combinations. Also important - There are multiple subtypes of each card type which you need to pay attention to, and many cards give you bonuses based strictly on card type or subtype, so pay close attention. Also, don't expect to have much of a clue your first several turns as to what makes for a good choice among the limited choices you will have based on card selection and cube selection. It does get easier to plan as the game goes on as the odds of what cubes will come up get higher, but don't discount backloading your cubes in the midgame so that you have a lot to work with in the last few turns. I totally stalled out the last three turns in our game, mostly because I had the Jester who allowed me to avoid taking extra cards into my tableau. I still ended up losing three points when I got the two things I needed four grey cubes for in turn eleven comingled in my mind!

Our game moved along fairly briskly, with the most downtime occurring when people chose from the card pool. Surprisingly, the individual action rounds where everyone spent their cubes went quickly, mostly because people had a good sense of what they could and couldn't do as soon as they took cubes. Still, the game took almost two and a half hours, which I would see getting down to two with a little experience for four players, perhaps down to an hour and a quarter with three players, which may be the sweet spot for this game. Still, I had a lot of fun playing and it was definitely nice to have the company of good friends after such a long drought.

Coming up, my impressions on Frontline: D-Day and Settlers of America: Trails to Rails.

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