Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Harbouring Machi Koro

The 2015 Spiel des Jahres nominated Machi Koro is a beautifully simple game with a problem. The Japanese ‘dice and card building’ game published by IDW Games has proved to be a hit and a very good gateway to Japon games. The problem is that the game has a limited number of paths to victory. Either a player opts to buy Cheese Factories and powers them with Ranches or he opts to buy Furniture Factories and powers them with Mines and Forests. During the game, because all of Machi Koro's cards are laid out to buy, the game has a static feel with there being nothing to stop another player from selecting these paths to victory. This limits the game’s replayability, which is a shame, because Machi Koro's design is still good. It just needs something to take that good design and turn it into a good game that people will come back to.

Machi Koro: Harbor Expansion is the first expansion for the game. It adds coins worth twenty coins each. More importantly, it does several things with its sixty-eight cards, but does it address the problem at the heart of the game?

The very first thing that Machi Koro: Harbor Expansion does is provide the means to add a fifth player to the base game. On one level, this simply means another set of the four Landmark cards—a Station, a Shopping Mall, an Amusement Park, and a Radio Tower—that need to be built to win the game and the two starting cards for generating income—a Wheat Field and a Bakery. That though is for the base game, because after that is where Machi Koro: Harbor Expansion gets interesting.

Second, it adds three new Landmark cards. The first of these is City Hall, which enters play face up and can be used from the start of the game. It generates money if a player does not have any money before he purchases an Establishment. The second, the Harbor, is what the expansion is named for and activates a number of fishing related  Establishments once purchased. Where the Harbor is cheap to buy, the third Landmark, the Airport is not. It gives a player coins when he does not buy anything, though given its cost, the Airport’s effect will rarely enter play as most players will purchase it to win the game. There are of course, enough of the new Landmark cards for five players.

Third, it adds a swathe of new Establishment cards. The Red-coloured food outlets—Hamburger Stands, Pizza Joints, and Sushi Bars—give more means to force a player to pay their owners when their numbers are rolled. Both of the new Green-coloured cards—Food Warehouse and Flower Shop—are powered by other cards rather themselves. Apart from the Flower Shop, the other Blue-coloured cards—Mackerel Boat and Tuna Boat—require the Harbor to have been bought if they are to work. Lastly, the new Purple-coloured Special cards—Publisher and Tax Office—give news means to take money from the other players. Some of these cards are powerful, for example, the Tax Office takes half of the coins of any player who has ten coins or more, whilst the Tuna Boat grants a player two dice’ worth of coins. The new cards also strengthen the numbers available, for example, the Flower Shop can rolled on a six; they oppose other cards, for example, the Wheat Field is countered by the Sushi Bar, one generates money, the other taxes the player who rolled, both require a roll of one; and with the Tuna Boat they extend the number range from one to twelve to one to fourteen. This only comes into play if a player has a bought a Harbor which grants a bonus to a player’s roll if he rolls a ten or more.

Fourth and last, Machi Koro: Harbor makes a radical to the Market Place—the place from where the players purchase Establishments. In the base game every type of Establishment card is available to buy, but this expansion limits the Market Place to just ten unique Establishments at a time. These are set up at game start, with duplicate Establishments forming their own card piles. As soon as the last of an unique Establishment is purchased, a new one is drawn. If a duplicate is drawn, it is added to its own pile and Establishments are are drawn until there are ten unique ones in the Market Place. What this does is prevent easy access to particular paths to victory—for example, purchasing Cheese Factories and powering them with Ranches, or with this expansion, Flower Shops powered by Flower Orchards, Food Warehouses powered by by food outlets like Cafes, Family Restaurants, Hamburger Stands, Pizza Joints, and Sushi Bars, and so on. It does not prevent total access, but forces the players to generalise and adapt to the cards available rather than cherry picking. It also makes game play random.

There is a great deal to like about Machi Koro: Harbor. It mixes game play up, adding a much needed random element and countering the original game’s paths to victory. It thus makes the game less predictable and longer to play, but gives a more satisfying playing experience. It makes Machi Koro a much, much better game. You may play Machi Koro a few times, but with Machi Koro: Harbor, you will play again and again.