The Alea Analysis, Part Eight: Macao (#13), Alea Iacta Est (M#5), Glen More (M#6)

This article is the eighth in a continuing series that analyzes the entire Alea line of games. For past articles you can read about: Ra, Chinatown, and Taj Mahal in Part One; or Princes of Florence, Adel Verpflichtet, and Traders of Genoa in Part Two; or Wyatt Earp, Royal Turf, and Puerto Rico in Part Three; or Die Sieben Weisen, Edel, Stein & Reich, and Mammoth Hunters in Part Four; or San Juan, Fifth Avenue, and Louis XIV in Part Five; or Palazzo, Augsburg 1520, and Rum & Pirates in Part Six; or Notre Dame, In The Year of the Dragon, and Witch’s Brew in Part Seven.

In 2009 and 2010, the Alea large boxes were dominated by the production of Stefan Feld, while medium boxes trudged along between the heights of Witch’s Brew (2008) and Vegas (2012).

This article contains my final Alea Analysis from 2009, when I played through all 22 of the Alea games that had then been published in the US. The other two articles (on Macao and Glen More) and the rest of this series as it goes forward are new. 


Large Box #13: Macao (A-/B+)

Author: Stefan Feld
Publisher: Rio Grande (2009), out-of-print
Alea Difficulty Scale: 6
Other Articles: The Dice Games of Stefan Feld (06/11)
My Plays: 4

Macao ThumbnailMacao is a resource-management game with a unique supply-chain system. Each turn six dice are rolled to generate the six resources. A die reveals both how many of a resource are generated and when it’ll be available. Thus if the blue dice rolls a 5, then you can get five of the blue resource in five turns. Players choose two of the six resources from each die roll for their own use — determining resources that they’ll have available at some precise (and limited) time in the future. 

Macao has a lot of uses for those resources, including “activating” cards, controlling city quarters, and moving a ship — all of which can generate victory points in different ways. Its cards also have special powers, which you can use to create a good game engine if you’re careful with your synergy.

Strengths: Clever & Polished

Super Innovative Resources. The supply-chain resource system is extremely innovative. In fact, it creates the game’s most thoughtful gameplay: you’re trying to arrange for resources to arrive at the same time, so that you can use them together to activate cards; and you’re simultaneously trying to arrange for resources to arrive quickly, so that you can clear cards from your tableau of unactivated cards. I wish I saw more just-in-time or supply-driven games like this, because  they’re a different way to look at the resource-management genre.

There is a downside to this; you have to ask what does this just-in-time system represent exactly? I can offer a viable answer: you’re contracting for resources to arrive at a future turn. But you also have to suspect that this mechanic exists primarily because it’s clever (and because it creates interesting tactical gameplay), not because it actually represents anything.

Good Engine, Good Paths to Victory. Macao allows players to form nice synergies among their activated cards, creating gaming engines.The best thing about them is that they’re not obvious. You can certainly put together combos that benefit you — such as generating cubes of a color that you can turn into money. However, doing so requires both perception and cleverness.

Macao allows allows you  to seek victory in a few different ways — by collecting gold, by collecting goods, by generating or swapping cubes, or by building in town, Any of these paths can lead to victory.

I put these two elements together because they both benefit the game, but neither one is amazing. They’re good support for a superb central mechanism.

Nice Ending. Too often games get more and more complex as the turns pile up, so that the ending is a confusing mess of trying to figure out what to do, in painful APed detail. That’s not the case at all in Macao. Instead Macao peaks about three-quarters of the way through the game, when players hit their turns that have acquired the biggest piles of cubes. Then things slowly die down in the last few rounds. Your last turn may in fact be pretty quick, because you don’t have many cubes.

This could be anticlimactic, but it’s not because the game remains tense and the decisions critical in the last rounds, as you try to activate your last few cards lest you be penalized. It feels like a cool down period after a hard run.

Macao’s ending is also notable for how unusual this curve is in gaming.

The Weaknesses: Oh, the Production

Bad Language. (*&$#@*#@.) I don’t know whether to blame the original German game or the English translation, but the language in the Rio Grande production of Macao is confusing enough that it damages the gameplay. Archaic abbreviations are used for no good reason. (ACs? GCs? PPs? Brother can you spare an icon?) Some disparate elements in the game feel too thematically similar. (Buildings exist on the cards and are called buildings, while buildings exist on the board and are called quarters — even though there are far more than four of them). Some disparate elements in the game have identical names. (There’s an office category of cards and there are specific office cards which are not in the office category.) Some cards unhelpfully tell you to activate them in “Phase 2”, something that’s not listed on the (hard to read, messy) game phase list. This is pretty much why Macao from Alea doesn’t earn a straight “A”.

Abstract & Disconnected. I don’t think Macao is quite a “point spaghetti” Feld game — where you gain points from a million different things with no real connection between the systems. However, it trends in that direction, largely because of the abstractness of the game. I don’t really get a sense of trading empires, or whatever the theme is supposed to be. That leaves me feeling that the activation of people, the purchase of victory points for gold, and the controlling of city quarters are thematically separated. Improved theming could draw this all together, but alas it’s not there.

(The one good connection I see is between the acquisition of goods from the city quarters, and the shipping of them across the sea, but even there I have to squint a little bit.)

Confusing Engines. The ability to create engines is powerful and fun, but when you add an average of one card a turn to your engine, it can be pretty confusing on turn 12. It’s hard to keep track of what all you have, and it’s hard to remember how all those interconnections should be used to maximize points. Thank goodness that your resources have dropped to the point where you’re not doing much!

As a whole, Macao is a good resource-management and card-engine-creation game that’s built on one amazing mechanic, its supply chain resources. That’s enough to make it a great game, even with some issues of abstraction.

Comparisons

Rum & Pirates (#10), Notre Dame (#11), In The Year of the Dragon (#12), The Castles of Burgundy (#14), Bora Bora (#15) & Feldisms. With four games in a row under the Alea banner, Feld is increasingly demonstrating his standard design patterns. Obviously this is a resource-management game (like almost all of Feld’s designs). Though it’s a serious strategy game that’s played at length and though it requires real thinking, Macao also has a strong random element (like most of Feld’s games). I was surprised to realize Macao is a scarcity game too (like Feld’s other games in this time period): you’re constantly fighting to get your cards out of your tableau and to clear them all out by the end of the game. The scarcity isn’t quite as in-your-face as the rats of Notre Dame or the many disasters of In The Year of the Dragon, but it’s a constant problem that you’re fighting against. Finally Macao is abstract (like Notre Dame and to a lesser extent Rum & Pirates), and it’s super innovative (like many of Feld’s games).

With all that said, I think that Macao is in the unenviable position of being positioned between In the Year of the Dragon (his most series, least random game), and The Castles of Burgundy (his most successful game) As a result, it didn’t get the attention it might have otherwise. Which is a shame, because it’s a darned fine game.


Medium Box #5: Alea Iacta Est (B)

Authors: Jeffrey D. Allers, Bernd Eisenstein
Publisher: Rio Grande (2009), out-of-print
Alea Difficulty Scale: 2
Other Articles: Psychology of Gaming: Loss Aversion (5/13)
My Plays: 9 (7 since my original post)

Alea Iacta EstAlea Iacta Est is a die-rolling game. Each turn you roll some dice, then choose to put them in a location where you’re either summing up dice, creating straights of dice, creating sets of dice, or just placing low numbers. Different spaces give different rewards. The two big rewards are citizens and provinces, which combine to form points. You can also get straight Victory Points from the Temple and bonus tiles that reward certain behaviors from the Senate. There’s even a nice catch-up mechanism: wasted dice give you dice reroll tokens.

Strengths: Great Dice!

Good Dice Rolling. My most important criteria for a good dice game is that it be exciting, and Alea Iacta Est is. You’re often hoping for certain results — trying to extend a straight in the Senate, to create a nice set in the Barracks, or to roll a pair of dice summing five in the Forum. If the dice give you what you’re hoping for, you’ll celebrate — which is exactly what I want to see in a dice game.

My second most important criteria for a good dice game is that it balance its randomness. If someone doesn’t like dice games, it’s usually because they don’t give opportunities to control luck — and the result is too random. A good dice game can instead help people offset their bad luck, and Alea Iacta Est does this too. If you’re rolling badly (or making bad choices with your rolls), your dice go into the Latrine, which gives you reroll tokens. This gives you more opportunities in the future to get the results you want.

Good Strategy, Good Tactics. The core play of Alea Iacta Est is tactical. You have to decide where to place your rolled dice. This is based on both what you rolled and what other players have played to various locations in the board. The choices are interesting, but simultaneously constrained by those factors.

However, these decisions are strategic too. You have to assess if your dice placements will survive assaults by other players, as there’s a limited supply of each reward. Longer term, you’re trying to match citizens with provinces and to meet the conditions of Senate tiles. This requires building up victory over many turns of play!

Many dice games are quite shallow. Alea Iacta Est is the opposite thanks to its strategy and tactics, but it still tends to play under an hour — unlike some of the denser dice games, which wear out their welcome.

Weaknesses: Bad Tiles!

Indecipherable Glyphs. Alea Iacta Est’s biggest problem is its bonus tiles, which are full of opaque icons. This problem is made worse by the fact that a player must pick up three ties and choose among them. This inevitably means that he has to go to the rules for each tile. Which inevitably drags the game to a halt.

Lessons learned: (1) if you’re going to use indecipherable glyphs for icons, number each tile that uses them so that you can easily look them up; (2) if you’re going to use indecipherable glyphs for icons, don’t make players choose among them while everyone waits; and (3) don’t use indecipherable glyphs for icons!!

Non Variable. I’ve played Alea Iacta Est nine times since 2009, twice a year every year until 2013. It still appears in my game bag regularly, even if it has notched up a play recently. I consider it a successful, replayable game. With that said, there’s not a lot of variability to its play. You have the same set locations and you’re playing to them in the same way every game. Slight changes appear based on what Senate tiles, provinces, and citizens you draw … but the variability is still pretty minor.

As I said, Alea Iacta Est is replayable and successful. It’s a fine example of a fun, slightly themed dice game that plays in just the right amount of time. Though I say that the period between Witch’s Brew and Vegas was a downtime for the medium box series, this is the biggest argument otherwise.

Comparisons

Witch’s Brew (M#5) & Other Light Games. I think that Alea hadhaspretty mixed results for their light games. I don’t think the two light big box games, Chinatown (1999) and Rum & Pirates (2006) were very good, while Royal Turf (2001) is the only particularly great small box game. It’s a hard type of game to make appealing in the Alea series, which is all about serious strategy. However, the Medium Box series suddenly went 2 for 2 in 2008-2009. First Witch’s Brew (2008) knocked it out of the park with innovative (but light) play, then Alea Iacta Est produced a very interesting and well-polished (if less innovative) dice game.

Macao (#13) & Other Dice Games. Dice had appeared here and there in previous Alea games. Royal Turf (2001) was the first, but the randomness was somewhat controllable as you rolled the dice, then choose which horse to move based on the result. That was pretty similar to Macao (2009) where you rolled the dice and choose which two results to take. There had only been one previous game where you rolled the dice and took what you got (unless you rerolled), but it was such a minor element of Rum & Pirates (2006) that it was unforgettable. In other words, the dice of Alea Iacta Est weren’t a first for the Alea line, but they still marked a different type of game.

Having dice in both Macao and Alea Iacta Est in the same year may have been just as much of a change, because they marked the future direction of the line, which would release a few more major dice games in the next several years — largely following in the style of Alea Iacta Est, where you got what you rolled, but you could choose how to use them.


Medium Box #6: Glen More (B)

Author: Matthias Cramer
Publisher: Rio Grande (2010), out-of-print
Alea Difficulty Scale: 4
My Plays: 4

Glen More ThumbnailGlen More is a Scottish tile-laying game. You collect tiles by spending time and sometimes by spending other resources, then you place those tiles in your display. There are two catches. First, you have to have clan members positioned to be able place new tiles. Second, whenever you place a tile it causes all of its adjacent tiles to activate. As a result, the game becomes a tricky game of getting everything in just the right places to maximize your advantages.

The back end of the game, which results from the tile activations, is a pretty standard resource-management game. Some resources can be used to buy good quality tiles, others can be turned into victory, and others can be turned into whiskey. Bonus scoring occurs based primarily on the collection of those good-quality special tiles and the whiskey.

Strengths: Innovative & Elegant

Great Tile Laying Innovation. The best part of Glen More is how innovative the tile-laying is. In most games, you take (or buy) a tile, then you place it, and that’s the game. Glen More goes the extra mile. By using meeples to control where you can place tiles, Glen More creates nice limitations (always good in a game!) and turns the movement of meeples into an important tactical element. By allowing the activation of adjacent tiles on placement, Glen More goes beyond simple edge-matching to make the placement of tiles into an important strategic element. I love tile-laying games, so I’d like to see more tile-laying mechanics of this sort, with added depth.

Great Selection Innovation. The tile selection methodology is very simple: you move your time marker forward to a tile you want to take … but then you don’t get to go again until everyone catches up with you! This “time track” mechanism goes back to at least Neuland (2004, 2006) and Thebes (2004, 2007), but it appears rarely enough that it’s great to see it again (and it’s used very well here).

Elegant Designs. Generally, the systems in Glen More are nicely elegant. Take the time track mechanic as an example: most similar systems have you move forward a number of spaces depending on what type of action you take. In Glen More you instead jump forward to the tile you want, which defines the time you have to wait until you go ahead. It’s a nice combination of the new parts of the action (choice & cost) into a single atom.

There’s an economic system that’s similarly elegant in its simplicity: You buy goods by placing coins on a  track, and you sell goods by taking the coins that were placed.

Weaknesses: Fiddly & Abstract

A Little Bit Fiddly. The tile-activation system turns out to be a little fiddly. Because you can activate several tiles at once, and because you get to choose the order, it’s really easy to forget to activate some tiles. (Last time I played, I was regularly forgetting to activate the tile I was placing.)

Weak Theming. The Scottish theming is weak. You’ve got whiskey and sheep and named tiles, but overall this system of resource management feels like it could have been any Medieval board game.

Weak Production. The theming is by probably weakened by a simplistic production style that’s common for the Alea games. When you look at the little square cubes for cattle and sheep you can see how much Agricola gains from having animeeples. Even the tiles sometimes detract from the theme. They’re plain square tiles that have paintings on them, and they just don’t evoke an image of the great wilderness areas that you’re cultivating. Carcassonne gets away with square tiles because they form beautiful maps, while Catan shows that hexes can better connote wildernesses because of their less rigid shape. Glen More has neither advantage.

Somewhat Limited? If Glen More has a major problem, it’s that it’s not great enough to really stand out as something that demands continued play. Maybe the strategies are too limited, maybe the decisions eventually pale. I dunno. It got three plays from me in 2011, then faded away, and I don’t think it’ll get another three plays after I brought it out again this year.

Overall, I like Glen More. It’s got some unusual systems that don’t play like much else I own, and its tile laying is quite unique. Its weaknesses of fiddliness and abstractness really aren’t that big a deal. Though it doesn’t have the heft to be a major game, it’s nonetheless an enjoyable one.

Comparisons

Puerto Rico (#7) & Resource Management. The resource management mechanic shows up in quite a few of the Alea games (including most of the Feld onslaught), but it’s seen most definitively in Puerto Rico. The two games are interesting to compare. In both, you produce resources from tiles, then convert most of those resources into victory points. The games also share a large degree of abstraction. Despite those similarities, I think Glen More and Puerto Rico show the difference between an Alea medium box and an Alea large box. Though they both have some depth, there’s a lot more depth to Puerto Rico. (But it might be unfair to compare anything else to Puerto Rico.)

The Castles of Burgundy (#14) & Tile Laying. The tile-laying mechanic shows up a lot less frequently in Alea games. The most similar game, The Castles of Burgundy would be published nextIt would also revolve around the placement of tiles onto a map where positioning is important. In many ways Castle of Burgundy has simpler tile-laying systems, since you can place wherever you want (subject to adjacencies) and you’re not activating other tiles. Still, Castles has some subtleties, like the way that animals can score each other, and the way that buildings can limit further building placements. Though Glen More has some explicit mechanics that control the placement and activation of tiles, The Castles of Burgundy shows this sort of tile-placement mechanic can be more implicit, smaller scale, and more organic.


Alea Iacta Est picture cropped from an original on the alea web site.

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