Review: Macao – Plan or Be Punished
It’s no secret that I have come to develop a strong man crush on Stefan Feld. Well, the game that started it for me was Macao. Macao is tangentially about shipping, acquiring territory, and hiring people. But frankly, the theme isn’t well tied to the game. Instead, what makes the game shine is the resource management and the constant hard choices that are made each round.
The Basics. Macao is played over twelve rounds. Each round starts with a distribution of cards. There are more cards than the number of players, but the players each select a card for their tableau in player order, so it pays to be ahead in turn order. Those behind will be left with the dregs.
Then the dice are rolled. There are six dice, each of a different color and representing a different colored resource. The resources are identified only by color. Once the dice are rolled, the players can then select two of those dice as resources. If the green dice rolls a five, you can get five green cubes. If the black dice rolls a one, you can get one black cube.
But the trick is that you don’t get the resources right away. Each player has a seven-sided “windrose.” Its sides are numbered one through six, with the seventh showing an arrow pointing to the resources available this turn. If I take that green die, then I’ll get five cubes – but they get placed next to the five. If I take the black die, then the one cube is placed on the one. Then the windrose is turned one edge and the only resources I can use are the ones next to the arrow. So a player can get one black cube now, or five green cubes that won’t be available for four turns.
Then players take actions in turn order. Actions include fighting over turn order, moving the ship, buying city quarters (and taking the randomly assigned good), playing cards from hand, and using the powers of cards already played.
And then there is punishment. Several missteps result not only in wasted opportunity, but also in game punishment. If you fail to plan and end up with a turn without any action cubes? Punished! Get too many cards and have to discard? Punished! End up with cards in hand at game end? Punished! Each time you are punished, you receive a punishment marker worth a negative three points at game end.
The Feel. Macao can be a brain burner. It’s not that any particular aspect is complicated or hard to understand. It’s that you have to think several turns ahead to make sure you can get done everything that you need to. You have to be able to play out all of your cards (you’ll get 13 over the course of the game and have 12 rounds to play them). You’ll need to be able to pay for all the Districts you want – and then ship the goods you acquire. Plus, there’s always the fight for starting player. All of these things need to be taken into consideration when you select your resources.
It’s unlikely that you will be able to accomplish everything you hope for. In most of my games, there have been times when I select a card that is playable that turn rather than one that gives me a greater benefit. If I can play the card, then I can get it off my tableau and avoid getting punished. If I take the better card, it may take longer to play and might then result in negative points.
While there are no direct attacks, the game still has significant interaction. The selection of cards each round is critical, which makes the fight for turn order important. Obtaining districts allows you to potentially crowd out rivals. And shipping is a race. The first player to ship at a location gets five points, followed by only three and two for the second and third place suppliers.
Macao can be tricky for newcomers as well because it doesn’t build its engine in the same way as the typical euro-style offering. Ordinarily, you spend the first several turns getting the right synergies together and then the last several turns turning those synergies into points. In Macao, it can be difficult to get the right cards together. Even in a four player game, you’ll typically only go through about half to two thirds of the deck. Every card is unique, so if the game doesn’t get to a particular card that you want, then tough luck. It forces you to leave your options open and ensure that you have several avenues to create more points.
But more than that, even if you get a great set of cards (which is still generally doable) you still have to worry about the dice. While all of the cards can be helpful, and many convert resources to gold or gold to additional resources or actions, you’ll still need the raw resources to run your engine. So there never comes a point where you stop worrying about engine building and turn entirely to points. Instead, you always worry about your resource management and the pivot to points is less certain.
Components: 3 of 5. Macao has wooden bits and standard dice. The game has completely solid and serviceable parts. The board isn’t the prettiest, but it does what it needs to. The cards are good quality, though again the artwork is pretty standard and Macao makes the unfortunate choice of using the smaller, harder to shuffle cards.
Strategy/Luck Balance: 4.5 of 5. Once again, we have a system based around dice rolling where strategy is central to the game. It’s an amazing creation. First, the die rolls apply equally to everyone. So one player can’t have a good roll while someone else rolls poorly. Plus, depending on the cards drafted, it is very possible to mitigate the dice to a high degree. Of course, it is still possible that the dice are especially cruel (perhaps it becomes impossible to line up 2 blue and 2 green together because the dice do not overlap correctly over several turns), but it is so rare as to be mostly a non-issue.
Mechanics: 5 of 5. I think the resource management aspect of the game is inspired. Get one cube now or six cubes five turns from now? What if the color I want most came up two few or too much? What’s my second choice. Cleverly exploiting the options is the core of the game and really makes it a blast. Additionally, the way that the cards create a kind of engine, and the ability to save up and have “super turns,” add a lot of delight to the game.
Replayability: 4 of 5. One of the great aspects of Macao is the variability. The goods are randomly distributed, the dice will roll differently each game, and the availability of cards is uncertain. Combine that together, and every play of Macao provides new challenges within a similar framework. It’s definitely one I love coming back to.
Spite: 2 of 5. There are no direct attack or “take that” elements in Macao. Generally, there are a lot of races to points. Two people trying to deliver spices might race to get there, but that isn’t really “spite.” However, there remains a certain level of screwage. Players in first turn order can take cards that would be of greater benefit to players behind in turn order, and sometimes it’s worth it to snag a District if it prevents another player from having a long, contiguous block (worth more points).
Overall: 4.5 of 5. Macao is intense, brain-burning fun. I look forward to every game and almost always leap whenever my gaming group suggests it. The one potential drawback is that each player takes their entire turn before moving on to the next player, rather than alternating actions. So if anyone is new to the game or if someone suffers from AP, there can be a lot of downtime. However, because the game involves such a large amount of planning, most players use the downtime to check and recheck their plans. So it doesn’t feel too terrible. Macao is also the game that started me down the path of Feld. It’s so fun, I wanted to play more from the same designer. If you like euro strategy games, then Macao is definitely the way to go.