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Sunday 23 November 2014

Your Gateway to Japon Games

Japanese board games have become very popular in the last few years, most notably Love Letter and Trains, both published by Alderac Entertainment Group and both winners of Origins Awards in 2014. What this means is that new Japanese board and card games are hotly anticipated, none more so than Machi Koro. In English, it is released by IDW Games, a publisher better known for its comic publishing. Machi Koro is a quick-playing ‘dice and card’ for two to four players, aged eight and up, in which they are each the mayor of a suburb whose residents want their district developed. Starting off with a Wheat Field and a Bakery, each player will race to build four landmark buildings—a Station, a Shopping Mall, an Amusement Park, and a Radio Tower. The first mayor to do so is the winner!

The playing time is thirty minutes and very simple. On his turn a player rolls the die and everyone will compare the result with numbers printed at the top of the building cards they have in front of them. This can generate money for everyone or just the current player, who is now free to spend it to purchase a new building or a landmark. A player can have multiples of one card type, but can only buy one card per turn.

Where Machi Koro gets interesting is how the cards generate money. There are four types. Blue cards pay out to everyone when their numbers are rolled; green only pay out on a player’s turn; red cards take money from other players they roll their  numbers; and purple cards provide an action rather an a pay-out. Note that red and blue cards pay out even when it is not a player’s turn. For example, the blue Ranch cards pay everyone one coin when anyone rolls a result of a one. The green Bakery pays out one coin on a roll of two or three on the current player’s turn only. The red Café allows a player to take a coin from the current player when he rolls a three. The purple Business Centre allows a player to swap one of his buildings with that of another player.

Initially a player will be only rolling one die. If he purchases the Station landmark, he can roll one die or he can roll both dice. This means that range of results is no longer one to six, but two to twelve, and it means that as soon as they are built, a new range of buildings and their dice results are available to him. The cards with ranges above five tend to be more expensive and have more complex effects, especially results for six, seven, and eight. For example, the green Cheese Factory, which costs five coins, pays out three coins for each card the current player has with a cow symbol on it—currently only a Ranch—anytime he rolls a seven. Building the landmarks will also give a player a benefit. The Station allows him to roll two dice; the Amusement Park lets him roll again if he rolls doubles, and so on.

Although designed for between two and four players, Machi Koro works better with three and four rather than two, primarily because there more participants for the cards to work off. Physically though, Machi Koro is nicely presented. The artwork on the cards is cute, the cards are easy to read, and the rulebook is very clear and very simple. The box comes with room for expansions, but the insert could have been better designed for that.

There have been comments that it is like Settlers of Catan without the trading or Monopoly without the mortgages. To an extent this is true. You are rolling for resources (coins) and you are buying properties as in both of those games, Machi Koro is a quicker, slicker game without the trading and without the mucking about with the banks. It is certainly better than Monopoly and whilst no Settlers of Catan, it is a well-designed little game. However, it is not perfect, but the first imperfection is not of Machi Koro’s own making. The first problem is that the game is slightly disappointing, but that can be put down to it having been overly anticipated, it having taken a year to reach us since it first appeared at Essen in 2013. Second is that its game play does not offer a great deal of depth or variety. Third, it does not offer much in the way of strategy and the primary means of getting money—the purchase of Ranches and Cheese Factories (the latter with its average roll of seven)—is obvious and difficult to counter. What game needs is an expansion and it needs it now. Two have been released in Japan— Machi Koro Sharp and Machi Koro: Harbor Expansion—and they need to be released in English before Machi Koro loses its popularity.

Now despite all this, Machi Koro will appeal to a wide audience. There one or two strategies in the game that a seasoned gamer will latch on to, but the dice rolling gives it a luck factor that will offset that to give everyone a good chance of winning. So amongst gamers it can be played to a cutthroat finish, but it also be played as a casual game. It is easy to play, it is fast to play, and it is easy to teach. This, when combined with thoroughly charming artwork means that Machi Koro is a good family game and if not quite a good gateway game, then it is very, very close.

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