Thursday, August 5, 2010

Macao: First Impressions

Macao was a game that wasn't really on my radar after I read couple of reviews on the Geek. The thing that turned me off was complains regarding the lack of interaction in the game. If you have been reading my blog, you'll know that multiplayer solitaire games generally do not appeal to me. Nonetheless, I acquired it as it was available at a good price, figuring that I could always trade or sell it if it disappointed.

The rules were well-written and rather straight-forward. I had no problems teaching the rules to Van despite being just as green as her to the game. This is in contrast with some fiddly games where it's often hard to pin down all the rules on the first play. Our first play was a 2-player game and it went extremely smoothly - we felt as if we were seasoned players practically. One of my concerns was that Macao wouldn't scale well as a 2-player game since most multiplayer games seem to disappoint when scaled down to 2. However my worries were unfounded as the game played out rather well with 2. Sure, there would likely be more competition for spots in the city quarters and at the ports but the reduced downtime made up for it.

Another reason why Macao didn't immediately grab my attention was that it generally plays between 90-120min. While I'm hardly alien to games that length (a reasonable length I must say), my recent gaming patterns as well as gaming groups have led me to acquire more games of the 60min length. Yet, Van and I managed to complete the game in just over an hour including the rules explanation and that was a pleasant surprise indeed. I suppose the potential for downtime will be magnified with 3 or 4 players but 90min seems a good estimate for the game.

I must say I did enjoy the game and particularly the unique (at least for the moment) wind rose mechanic. It was almost 'fun' loading up a sector with action cubes and figuring how to spend them all when that turn hits. The intellectual stimulation laid in balancing the short term goal of ensuring there were action cubes available each round and the long term goal of activating all the cards on your tableau, failing which will result in penalty points. While challenging, it didn't give me the headache I received the first few times I played Agricola. However, it was one thing to simply avoid penalty points, it was another all together to further balance those goals with scoring points via shipping goods, occupying the city quarters and trading gold for prestige points. Hopefully with a couple of plays in the pocket, I'll progress from avoiding penalties and scoring points incidentally to a more deliberate approach in racking up the prestige points. The game is definitely more tactical in nature as the randomness of the dice and building cards makes it difficult to plan too far ahead.

What about the criticisms of the game? The most common one I read on the net is that it's plays just like another run-of-the-mill eurogame. I'm not sure it's fair to fault a game for that especially when its designer has made an effort to introduce a mechanic that while not earth-shattering is nonetheless rather fresh and interesting. My own personal criticism lies more with Macao's anti-climatic ending. The game ramps you up in terms of action cubes. Early in the game, you start with few cubes and thus turns pass quickly. Midway through the game, assuming you have sufficiently 'invested' in those rounds, you should be flushed with cubes to utilize, especially when coupled with your newly activated building powers. However due to the fixed number of rounds in the game, the latter rounds results in mostly singular cubes to be taken, resulting once again in short, quick and rather uneventful rounds. While this does wonders in reducing the downtime typically painful in quite a number of endgames, it comes across somewhat anti-climatic here as it makes it very difficult for straddlers to catch up due to the limited actions available. I suppose this could be due to my failure to load cubes in those sectors earlier but considering that that is not always the optimum move, I remain unconvinced that my view isn't valid.

Van seemed to enjoy it at least moderately which was a surprise since she usually shuns games with little interaction. This is a valid criticism of the game but it wasn't as bad as expected. It is true that there is little you can interfere with your opponents' acquisition of action cubes since the choice of dice is non-rival in nature. However, interaction comes in competition for spots on the board in terms of scoring prestige points. You compete to trade particular goods first at ports for higher points, as well as compete on the city quarters front for desired goods and to block each others' longest connection. While this seems largely idealistic in that most of your attention seems to be focused on avoiding penalty points, there seems to be sufficient potential for 'competition' in the game mechanics to be realized by experienced players.

All in all, a least for now. I don't see it exactly as a gateway game but neither is it intimidating and I can see myself easily introducing to casuals.


  1. I really enjoy Macao, I picked it up on a whim. I like Notre Dame, another game by the same designer.

    It's all about the cube placement. Trying to make sure you have cubes to play each turn, getting a building card into play and doing everything else. It's a hard task, but when you have a bucket of cubes to use its great.

  2. I've been keen on Notre Dame too but am concerned about the supposed lack of interaction. I suppose Macao isn't highly interactive either, but the competition to trade and grab city spots provides adequate tension in that regard. Would Notre Dame rank lower on the interactivity scale as compared to Macao?