Alexander Pfister

Publisher: Capstone Games

Nothing like skulls and crossbones, rapiers and muskets to awaken my senses. Ahoy me mateys. (Photo credits: Eric Martin@BGG)

Alexander Pfister’s designs have made inroads into my collection. Starting from my first plays with Mombasa which I was impressed, I now have played most of his games including Blackout, Great Western Trail and now Maracaibo. I consider his games to be on the heavier side which I enjoy, but much harder to hit the table. Nevertheless, the game is appealing to me both because of the designer and of the theme. First, a caveat: these are impressions of 2 player games. The way Maracaibo is structured, the game will likely play different with different player counts and styles. I can only extrapolate how it may play out with more players, but the impressions really are for only two players.

Folks mostly associate Maracaibo with Great Western Trail as there are common elements: moving of pawns around a looping trail, establishing variable location powers, player boards with escalating actions or perks, stop/go elements (the red/green hand symbols are a giveaway) to name a few. However the similarities between the two games are quite superficial as the core mechanisms that drive the play are distinctly different. Playing Maracaibo does not remind me of Great Western Trail and vice-versa. While Great Western Trail uses a deck building mechanism to activate buildings and gain income, Maracaibo has a more traditional tableau of cards with powers and abilities to help establish an income or VP engine. In both games, especially in Maracaibo, the types of cards purchased and the timing of when they are played will shape the strategy and outcome of each game.

The rules for Maracaibo are too complex to rehash. There are lots of video reviews available online for those who are interested in the details. In summary, each player has a ship which sails around the Caribbean during the Golden Age of Piracy where the Spanish, French and English are battling for control of port cities and villages scattered across the region. All ships start and end in Havana sailing around a some what pre-determined loop in the Caribbean making port calls in cities and villages. There are approximately 20+ locations in this loop and each turn, players have up to 7 movement points to sail their ship clockwise to one location on this route. Each port call on the map is either a city or village which allows you to perform a primary action. Once that is done, players then replenish their hand of cards and the turn shifts to the next player. The round ends when the first ship arrives back at Havana and all players perform interim scoring and reset their ships back at Havana for round 2. Since ship movement is not a fixed, the number of turns each round is highly variable. Theoretically, if a ship moves at maximum speed (using all 7 movement points), the round could end after a player finishes 4 turns. This cyclical movement on the map repeats itself for four rounds before final round scoring.

The meat of the game is, of course, which primary actions are taken at each port of call. In general, city and village actions are different. There are approximately 6-7 cities on the map but city actions can change between games because the action tiles are modular. The primary actions in cities are diverse but one can initiate combat, deliver goods to upgrade ships, continue expeditions, improve combat efficiency, fulfill quests and many more. Since the game is heavily icon driven, many of the actions on the city tiles can also be found in other cards and tiles to power other effects. On the other hand, the village actions early on are limited: Buy a card, get a coin or discard hand of cards. However as the game develops, more actions are made available on villages when ships are upgraded to expose new actions or when cards are played to put assistants on villages. Assistants are extremely powerful as they provide specialized actions each time the ship sails into harbor. This is vaguely similar to the building placements in Great Western Trail where players obtain various benefits when visiting the erected buildings. The only difference being in Maracaibo, only players who deposit the crew members on these villages will gain the advantage instead of all players like GWT (by paying a coin to the owner). As such, villages often become personalized harbors for players as each visit can trigger powerful and unique primary actions.

There are several areas where VPs can be earned in Maracaibo: First, players can initiate combat on behalf of a nation (English/Spanish/French) to annex or colonize a location. Combat is automatically successful with enough combat points and players gain in rank with each victory. Players are free to fight for any number of nations and the more titles you gain, the more points you get in the end. Another area where VPs’ can be gained is via exploration of the infamous Silver Trail. Players move an explorer token down a jungle path, collecting booty in the form of doubloons, VPs, assistants, ship upgrades, etc.. The VPs’ on the trail also increases in value as one nears the end of the expedition, with a nice chunk of points available for those that come in first. The third way of getting VPs’ is through the completion of quests. Quest tiles are scattered everywhere on the map and to successfully complete expeditions, one must discard pairs of cards at hand with matching symbols (maps, books, herbs, etc.). Successful completion of each quest again yields booty similar to that of those found on the expeditions. Finally, various cards also provide VPs’ either directly when each card is purchased, by advancing individual markers on the VP track which is scored each round, or through the investment in prestige buildings to provide end game scoring. In short, there are many many ways to score VPs’.

Alright, what about the game? In my 2 player forays, I greatly enjoyed Maracaibo. Our games have lasted about 2 hrs on average with roughly 7-8 turns per round. The entire map is colonized with the influence tracks reaching the end or near the end for one or two nations. Each of us have 8-10 cards in our tableau with fully completed glory cards. Under these circumstances the game was reasonably enjoyable as we jostle to build our our empire, trading battles back and forth to control the board. The scores were also remarkably tight despite the high scores (200 pts on average). The only thing that stalled was the expedition track which barely reached the second barrier. However, the game is structured to be more of a race and I suspect will play much differently if the pace is quickened. Players willing to move the ship along at a faster pace will undoubtedly pull other players along, causing them to abandon or shorten their itinerary. This likely means having to focus on a more specific path early on and executing it efficiently. We haven’t had that type of game yet, but a shortened clock will also mean a larger exposure to the luck of the draw. Yes, the cards are cycled rapidly but for some strategies to take root, certain cards must be made available early on and in slower paced games, you’d have a higher probability of getting the desired combinations. Perhaps a shorter Maracaibo is one which you need to follow the strategy you are dealt with in the first few draws. I don’t mind adapting to what you are given, but I am not a fan of aborted engines. I enjoy seeing a particular engine I built come alive and will feel frustrated when not allowed to see the output. True, the engine might be horrible, but at least it is reassuring to know that the failure is all mine. It is not clear to me if a switch in play style mid-way in Maracaibo would disrupt that balance. I know it’d be slightly annoying even though it’s a valid way to secure victory (For example, if one player in the final round suddenly decides to take two turns to reach tile 20 just to end the game). I think a 4 player game will also bring new dimensions to Maracaibo which we have not yet experienced. I can’t wait to give it a go.

Ultimately, there is one aspect of Maracaibo I would like to highlight that is one of the best parts of the game, and that is the campaign or Legacy system. I entered the game feeling skeptical about legacy designs and didn’t even want to try it. I am glad I did. The Legacy system here is novel to me. This is the first game I have played which adds different modules mid-game as a way to introduce a narrative arc. It is simply brilliant! Of course the theme of Maracaibo is a natural setting to introduce a narrative of this sort but I am very impressed at how the legacy tiles constantly tweaks the game between rounds while attempting to tell a story. The additions are very neat, innovative and thus far, engaging. True, it may lengthen the game slightly, but the downside of the legacy tiles is not the length, but that I ended up performing sub-optimal moves just to claim quest tiles to advance the story. I really just wanted to see new stuff! It excites me that this replayable legacy tile system could be a new template for future games to incorporate modules mid game rather than before or after each game. I could even see how this system could be used for less complex games, though in a different format. Imagine Knizia adding a story arc to Samurai where perhaps new player tiles are introduced or the high hats leading a revolt, making them more valuable in subsequent games. The modules can span a handful of games, chaining them together for a short story. Imagine, what if the pink camels suddenly became more valuable in Durch Die Wurst? Even games that are more abstract could be designed with a reasonable story arc.

Overall, Maracaibo is well-designed and a solid addition to Pfister’s resume. The theme resonates with me because of all the years spent playing Sid Meier’s Pirates! on the PC. How else would one learn the difference between a sloop and a pinnace and the number of cannons a war galleon can carry? The game rings a lot of bells and checks a lot of boxes for me and even though I remain intrigued, perhaps slightly concerned, at how tempo will alter my perception of the game. For now, let’s set sail for the high seas and plunder Cartagena!

03/2020: After a few more 2p games, much of what I suspected has come true. The game is all about pacing which has both pros and cons. First, controlling the tempo of the game has become an additional dimension of the game, bringing new strategies and tactics to the forefront. By pushing the pace, one can focus and carry out goals with increased efficiency at the expense of ignoring other elements of the game. For example, ignoring the entire expedition track which I suspect is now grossly underpowered and is not an exclusive but rather complementary path to victory. Pushing the pace is still made easier with the right set of cards which fit your strategy, particularly those aiding you in combat and helping to push cubes for one nation. Now, the biggest negative for speeding up the game is that it invariably forces everyone in that particular direction, making some strategies even less viable. In Great Western Trail, the game is not structured as a race and players can plan their own movements to improve their engines. In Maracaibo, this is simply not possible as one must at least match the tempo of the fastest sailing ship lest you are caught with inadequate actions to carry out your plans. For example, it is now impossible to execute and visit multiple assistants to trigger bonus powers while also visiting cities to perform actions if one player decides to do a 4 turns/round style of play. This can be frustrating if you have the cards and plans for a longer strategy. It is even more crippling for you spend a round setting up a particular strategy only to abort and conform to other play styles. Having played a few fast paced game, it would seem like the game rewards this style of play which to me, merely narrow and limits game play.

Initial impressions: Great!

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