Maracaibo -- take on Jean
Designer: Alexander Pfister
Publisher: Game's Up, Geronimo Games (Dutch edition)
Player count: 1-4
Set-up time: ~ 23 min. if you know what you're doing
Play length: ~ 90 min. if you don't need to rulecheck
Win condition: win/loss
how the solo game works
Give Jean influence markers, a VP tracker, a ship, a scout and the automa board. Place markers on the indicated spots on the main board, choose your difficulty and shuffle the automa deck. You are the first player, and after your turn you turn over an automa card for Jean. Move her ship (Jean only visits towns and villages with a mission tile) and perform her action. At the end of a round, Jean gains VP to where the markers on her board were removed, and 1 VP per card taken. At the end of round 4, on top of her VP income, they also get VP for the influence tracks according to the normal rules, 5 VP per mission tile, and a load of VP depending on how far Jean is ahead of you in mission tiles, ship upgrades and the scout trail.
The rules for the solo game are explained after the multiplayer rules, but before the appendices. Not a very user-friendly place since the appendices are a couple of pages long, so you'll find yourself flipping pages more than you'd like.
Not everything is clear from the start. Does Jean perform her own action when she lands on spot 21a, -b or 22, or do you flip an automa card -- as is suggested but not clearly stated in the rules --, even though you don't get a choice of actions in those spots? (The answer, after a bit of searching on Boardgamegeek, is: Jeanne always turns over an automa card and performs all her automa actions. She ignores what's written by the cities.) And, most frustratingly, I played loads of games with markers on the marked spots on Jean's board, and lost every time for being so behind on ship upgrades. The rules of the game appeared to have been updated in the meantime, and they have become a lot clearer in that area: Jeanne gets markers above every VP shield on her board, so you'll place not 11 but 22 markers. Big difference.
lost in solo
Jeanne is in a hurry and doesn't stop at villages without a mission tile, so if you want to keep up with Jean, you'll race along all ports. Or you choose not to, but then your journey is cut short halfway through and Jeanne gains some extra VP at the end of each round by taking cards and fully performing her own actions (even in spots 21a and 22).
There is a lot going on in this game: there's the influence tracks that you progress on by fighting for one of three countries, you've got your income tracks that get you your income in doubloons and VP at the end of each round, there is a rondel where you sail along every round to visit villages or towns, the discovery track where you will find more missions and get bonuses based on your chosen route and stopping place, you have a player board that you can upgrade to unlock extra actions or bonuses (yay, tableau building!), you have to build or use your cards as merchandise -- and some of those cards allow you to place assistants that give you extra actions -- and there are buildings to invest in and goals to achieve.
I love the discovery track: there are tons of bonuses you get to choose, you can get mission tiles there and if you can stay ahead of Jean you'll get a nice bonus for being the first to cross one of the borders, but the border bonuses are worth it anyway.
And if that's really not enough to look forward to? Then there are the legacy tiles that change the game board. You can play with the basic board, you can choose an intermediate or difficult story card that adds tiles to the board and cards to the game, and then there's the campaign that takes you through a story.
I wasn't expecting too much from the story -- story-wise, Pfister's games are a bit less exciting -- and was really pleased to find that I can skip the entire campaign part and just pick one of the three story cards for a different set-up. I know that -- just like with CloudAge -- I really have to make time for the campaign to be able to play more games in a row.
There are five different automa levels, so you can make Jean as difficult or easy as you want. You can even pick a focus for her if you like -- at normal difficulty, you take the 5 automa-A cards, 1 automa-B card, and 1 automa-C card. Choose a B and C card that focuses on the discovery track if you want more of a challenge there, or cards with extra combat actions. But you can also take random cards if you want to play more all-round against Jean.
The theme, the artwork; this didn't look like my kind of game. But after Blackout: Hong Kong, CloudAge and Isle of Skye on Steam (because: no solo mode) I gave in to a discounted Maracaibo. And honestly? Maracaibo's theme and artwork are still not my thing. I don't necessarily like colonial themes, piracy or the Golden Age. Don't ask why, just give me something mythological, antiquity, the Middle Ages or something contemporary.
As soon as I open the box, I lose heart. Because honestly: I'm tempted to put a solo game on the table with fewer plastic bags, less chaos in the box and less set-up time. That amount of bags is a direct result of how much is in this game and how many options you have as a player, but you have to be really confident you want to put this on late at night. In short: some form of insert would have been very nice, and without it you are dependent on buying an extra insert -- ranging from € 22,- for a Folded Space to € 64.95 for a wooden insert from E-Raptor. (No, I'm not willing to do the latter either.) The clocked 23 minutes was a record, and when the game is over you add almost 9 minutes of clearing time, because without a proper clear, you'll be separating out a whole card deck at the start of your next game.
The discovery trail is very much my thing, but the whole fighting for Spain, England or France took some getting used to. What I didn't mind at first; I felt like I could choose where my focus would be with so many different progression tracks, so I might as well skip the battle track. But Jean collects VP like crazy. Didn't upgrade your ship fast enough? Then Jean gets a gift of 30 VP at the end of the ride, on top of her VP for ship upgrades at the end of each round. Can't score enough mission tiles, and is the difference with Jean 4 tiles or more? Another 30 OP to Jean. Are you way behind on the discovery track? Another 30 VP for Jean. It won't happen to all three of you -- and I've softened a lot in my judgment on this one now that Jean gets twice as many markers on her solo board when setting up and she no longer wins the VP lottery at the end -- but being far ahead of those tracks will get you nothing in return, and I dislike having to divide my attention in such a way that I have just enough of everything to get ahead of Jean.
The chapters in Maracaibo's campaign do not match the matches you play to progress through the story. It's apparently a Pfister thing. I also found this horribly unintuitive with CloudAge, and played the first three campaign games wrong because I thought each chapter coincided with one game. It's not a big problem, but it's still a shame that this is not clearly stated in the rules of both Maracaibo and CloudAge. (See also my CloudAge review, I was not amused by how the rules of the game are structured.)
Maracaibo is a table hog, and the main board isn't optimal for a solo game: your income track cube hides behind the battle tiles, and the round missions hide behind the much higher piles of mission tiles.
For God's sake, play a few games in a row if you have the time, because it saves confrontation with the box chaos. Flip the stacks of missions, that way you won't knock over as much tiles. And can't read the prestige buildings? Put your table against the wall and lean the prestige cards against it.
The set-up time means that I'm not getting this game to the table often, but once I'm in the middle of a game of Maracaibo, I'm thouroughly enjoying a great Pfister where you'll have a lot to manage, but you'll also have a lot of roads to victory. My games include lots of staring at the board and calculating how fast Jean will get to the home spaces, and I love the AP. However, I dislike having to divide my attention to keep up with Jean in most areas in order to win, where in other games (like Scythe) you can avoid confrontation without automatically losing. That's where the theme of Maracaibo gets to me: I love the exploration track, but I don't like the colonial fighting element. What I do love though: the legacy tiles that give you more actions on the main board, or even towns or cities to dock.
In short: not a game I play loads of and not (yet) my favorite Pfister (that's still Blackout: Hong Kong for now), but certainly one to enjoy every now and then, and in terms of difficulty I am far from finished against Jean. And once I really have time for a whole Maracaibo weekend, I'll probably give in to the campaign after all. The legacy tiles I haven't played yet are too tempting not to.