Posted by: gschloesser | August 13, 2014

Machi Koro

Design by Masao Suganuma
Published by Grounding, Inc.
2 – 4 Players, 30 – 45 minutes
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser 

Machi Koro2

Japon Brand has developed quite the reputation for publishing small games that appear nondescript, yet despite their tiny size, are quite dynamic and creative.  Due to very limited distribution channels, their games are often quite difficult to obtain.  A few have been republished by companies whose distribution is considerably wider, but eager gamers are usually forced to wait months and sometimes over a year before they can finally obtain copies of these highly south-after games.

This trend is continuing with Machi Koro, a wonderfully fun and engaging design by Masao Suganuma that was released at the Spiel in Essen, where it became an instant sensation.  My understanding is that they quickly sold out of available copies, particularly the English edition.  An English publisher has just been announced (IDW Games), but it could be months (or even longer) before it finally  hits store shelves.  Thus, English copies are extremely difficult to find.  A shame, as this is a fun game that is sure to prove very popular.

The game is quite simple.  Players roll dice and spend money to acquire new establishments for their growing city.  The first player to successfully construct four special building wins the race to build the model city, thereby winning the game.  It is fast, fun and sometimes frustrating as you watch your supply of cash be stolen by your greedy competitors.

The game is comprised of a deck of cards, two dice and some coins.  Cards are divided into numerous categories, delineated by a number or number range.  Numbers range from 1 – 12, and there are a multiple of most numbers.  The numbers represent the range of possible outcomes when rolling one or two dice.  There are numerous cards of each number, allowing players to acquire multiples of each, if they so desire.

Each card grants a specific power, mostly related to income.  Some trigger on anyone’s turn, while others only trigger on the active player’s turn.  These are color-coded for quick recognition.  For example, all blue cards trigger on anyone’s turn, while green and purple cards only trigger on the active player’s turn.  Red cards only trigger on an opponent’s turn.  For example, the wheat field activates whenever someone rolls a “1”, while furniture factory provides its benefit only when the active player rolls an “8”.  ­­­

machi koroEach player begins the game with two establishments (a wheat field and bakery), three coins and four “under construction” special buildings.  These four special buildings do not provide any benefit until they are constructed.  They range in cost from 4 – 22 and may be constructed in any order.  The ultimate goal of the game is to be the first to construct all four of these establishments.

A player’s turn is quite simple:  roll one die, determine who collects income, then purchase an establishment, if desired.  As described above, a building only activates if the matching number is rolled.  Due to the color-coding of the cards, this is easy to spot and resolve.  After paying any money due to opponents (if the roll triggered their cafés or family restaurants), the player collects his income (if any) and may then purchase one establishment, either from the general supply or one of the player’s own special buildings.  The cost of an establishment is indicated on the card and ranges from 1 – 8 for the general supply buildings and 4 – 22 for a player’s special buildings.  The new establishment is placed in the player’s city array and its power will be available if and when the matching number(s) is rolled.

While the goal is to be the first to construct all of one’s special buildings, acquiring a good mix of general establishments is the means to that end.  The buildings provide a variety of methods in which to earn money, including taking those funds from your opponents.  For example, possession of a café entitles the player to collect a coin from any player who rolls a “3”.  Own multiple cafés and you collect one coin for each!  The family restaurant operates in the same manner, but entitles the owner to collect two coins from a player whenever he rolls a “9”.  Constructing a stadium allows the player to collect two coins from every opponent, but only if the owner rolls a “6” on his turn.  There are numerous such nasty establishments that force opponents to part with their hard-earned funds.  This is a vital lesson in Machi Koro:  wealth is fleeting.

Each special building provides a specific ability once constructed.  For example, the station allows the player to roll up to two dice, which makes the higher range of numbers accessible.  The super-expensive radio tower—which costs a whopping 22 coins—allows the player to reroll any of his dice, while the amusement park gives the player another turn if he rolls doubles.  The most complicated is the shopping mall, which provides additional coins if the player owns certain establishments.  There has been confusion as to when this actually triggers and who must pay the additional coins earned.  Some say the bank pays the additional coins, while other say it is the player who rolled the dice.  We always play that the additional funds are paid from the bank, but various forums have suggested that the money is paid by the active player.  The game works fine either way.

The game usually plays to completion in 30 – 45 minutes.  It is a bit longer than filler, but still quick enough so as not to overstay its welcome.  It never fails to generate squeals of glee when a desired number is rolled, or moans of despair when opponents force you to pay funds to them.

There are various strategies to pursue, as many of the cards complement or supplement others.  For example, the value of each wheat fields is doubled if a player’s fruit and vegetable market is triggered.  If the player owns multiple fruit and vegetable markets, this compounds the income even further.  There are several such combinations, and the wise player will seek to accumulate the appropriate cards so as to enjoy a potential windfall.  With four players, it can be tough to gather too many of one card, as others will also be vying to acquire them.

In spite of its simplicity, the game forces players to make many interesting decisions each turn.  Buy or not to buy?  What strategy to pursue?  What establishment should be purchased?  Do I save my money and risk having it stolen, or keep buying, hoping for a windfall on a future turn?  The game is a race, as the first to construct all four special buildings is the winner.  There is no need to worry about assembling victory points.

There is also an expansion, but all of the cards are in Japanese.  There is a translation sheet, but this will likely slow down the proceedings.  The game would likely go much faster with English cards or at least paste-ups, which is something I hope to do soon.

Fortunately the game plays very well without any expansions.  It seems meant to be a fast, fun game that presents players with some interesting choices.  I don’t think it is meant to be a deep, strategy game that will have virtually limitless expansions.  It has proven quite popular with just about everyone whom I’ve introduced it, including both gamers and family and friends.  It is just the type of game one has come to expect from the folks at Japon Brand.

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