Alexander Pfister has designed many large box, heavy euro games. He is best known for Great Western Trail, which his latest game, Maracaibo, is being compared with by many. Given the popularity of his previous large games (Mombasa, Great Western Trail, Blackout: Hong Kong), those comparisons are inevitable. But how does Maracaibo stack up? Is it a worthy successor, or a different game in its own right?
As with his other games of a similar weight, Pfister has combined a many game mechanisms together in a fluid way, to create a game of considerable depth and weight. Hand management, multi-use cards, engine building, area control (of a sort), rondel action selection, tableau building and mission/quest completion all combine in Maracaibo. But, each of these have featured in Pfister’s other games in some way, so comparisons with each of these is inevitable.
Maracaibo plays over four rounds. Each round consists of a nautical journey around 17th Century Caribbean. Players can decide for themselves how many “steps” they wish to take around the route (a sort of rondel, evoking a similar feel to Great Western Trail). The round end triggers once any player completes the journey. Thus the duration of each round will be determined by players themselves - race around the Caribbean, and the round ends quickly. Each location on the map - the journey is represented as a rondel of locations - allows different actions. Most are villages, where players can take village actions, and the length of the journey which brought them to the village determines how many actions they may take.
Village actions usually allow players to acquire money, at the expense of cards in their hand, so if you have been hanging on to a particular card, you may not want to take this action. Alternatively, players may choose to buy a card - that is to put a card from their hand into play. Cards have a number of possible ongoing effects - some give discounts when purchasing other cards, some have similar benefits when taking other actions. In this way, purchasing cards forms a tableau building mechanism.
The other locations on the map are cities, where players can take City actions. These actions are specific to the location. All give players the opportunity to deliver a specific resource, if there is still demand for that resource in that city. Doing so involves two steps - firstly, a card with the demanded resource (all cards have one of a handful of resources marked on them) must be discarded. Secondly, the player should remove a marker disc from their board, and place it on the demand spot of the city. Removing marker discs from the player board allows players to upgrade their game engine (providing, for instance, a greater range of village actions).
The second part of the city location is mandatory, and is specific to the city. This may be, for instance, to undertake combat, or to move their explorer on the explorer track. Some cities also have quests on them - quests usually involve delivering specific objects (also marked on the cards, like resources), or performing specific actions to earn a reward.
The explorer track is a track located on the side of the board, with various rewards located on each spot. Movement along this track can be earned in a number of different ways (such as from city actions, or from activating some cards). As well as the rewards along the explorer track, victory points are awarded for progress to the end of the track.
Combat is a bit of a misnomer in Maracaibo. It doesn’t involve any kind of conflicted direct interaction between players. Players choose which of the three competing nations (England, France and Spain) they want to influence. In doing so, they invest in that country, as well as place a marker from that country on the map. Thus each of the competing nations controls areas of the map, but players choose which of the competing nations to invest in - creating a sort of secondary area control mechanism (much like that in Mombasa).
Points are awarded at the end of the game for influence in each of the nations, with higher influence of the nations with the most markers on the map earning the most victory points.
In each of the four rounds, there will be many quest tiles located around the board. Quests are simple, one off events, usually requiring the delivery of two objects (another icon indicated on the cards), although there may be other requirements instead. Quests all give immediate rewards, and can be stored on the player board - once sufficient quests have been completed, players also earn victory points.
Maracaibo has a modest campaign mode - this is something of a first for a large box Pfister game. It isn’t a legacy game, so no components will are damaged, permanently changed or destroyed. Instead, the campaign offers a light narrative, which updates after each round. The narrative element is read from a deck of story cards, and each card delivers a new quest tile to the board which progresses the narrative. Further, in a nod to legacy style games, a number of modifier tiles are added to the board.
These change the nature of some of the locations - a village may grow into a city, or a route may become impassable, for instance. While these are not the most fantastic design elements, they do serve to change things up from round to round, and the campaign lasts over a number of games (depending on whether players complete the quests).
Like a number of games of this weight, Maracaibo is something of a point salad. There can be a lot of points awarded at the end of the game, particularly from the influence tracks (the result of combat). And whilst all points should be visible, the overall scores can still be something of a surprise. I have heard some commentators say that Maracaibo is something of a hot mess, but after a few plays, I am inclined to say that Maracaibo is my favourite Alexander Pfister game. Although all of the game mechanisms seem to exist in isolation, none of them feel bolted on, which has been a criticism of some of his other games.
The campaign mode is a nice touch and I’d be inclined to always use it, as it adds a bit of extra variety to the game board.
In short, highly recommended.