Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Dice Town

Although it was first released several years ago, it was only recently that I got a chance to play the game Machi Koro. It's a dice-driven city building game that became a "crossover hit," one of those gateway games simple enough to help you transition your Monopoly playing friends into the wide world of Euro board games.

Each player begins the game with six building cards in front of them: two standard buildings (face-up) and four mega-buildings (face down and unbuilt). In the center of the play area, stacks of building cards are arranged, which players can construct throughout the game. Each building has a cost in coins to add it to your own growing town, and also has a number (from 1 to 12) that triggers its game text and provides you income. On your turn, roll one or two dice; the total of your roll then triggers your corresponding buildings to do their thing.

One of the game's small twists is that not all your dice rolls will help you and only you. Some buildings trigger each time any player rolls the corresponding number. Others trigger when an opponent rolls a particular number, paying you and penalizing them. The card designs do take the math into account to some extent, with both the building costs and effects scaled relative to the likelihood of a particular number being rolled. But you shouldn't let yourself get too distracted in creating a grand infrastructure that touches every number on the dice. To win the game, you must build each of the four mega-buildings in front of you. And the order in which you do it can matter, as each mega-building provides some kind of bonus to your efforts.

Machi Koro feels to me like a gateway game particularly good for people who like Sorry or Aggravation. The idea that "certain numbers work differently" with be familiar to those players, and the overall feeling of all these games is one of chaos over which you can exert just a tiny measure of control. In the case of Machi Koro, I think that measure is too tiny for my tastes. Working your way up to the "two dice" buildings (the buildings that trigger on rolls of 7 through 12) takes time, and that's where I felt like I wanted to be to master the dice rolls (turning the possible results from a statistical flat line into a bell curve). In fact, it wasn't until the last few turns of the game that any of the players got to that point at all, and you can find stories of many people winning without ever getting there.

I did get to pursue my "dice de-ficklement" strategy in the game I played. I even won, actually. Yet the whole experience still felt like random chaos to me. With the game perhaps 3/4s of the way to completion, I was in last place and felt hopelessly out of the contention. But I had struggled my way to a few buildings that triggered on 7s and 8s... and then that's exactly what I rolled, four turns in a row, to abruptly win the game. The result was oddly unsatisfying; I'd done exactly what I set out to do, but it still felt like blind luck had let me snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. I'm in no particular hurry to play the game again.

And yet... Machi Koro uses a lot of mechanics that casual gamers will find familiar, or will tune to quickly. It takes only 30 minutes to play. I can absolutely imagine the player who will love it... and then hopefully go on to love more advanced Euro games. So the game definitely has a place. Just not in my collection. I give Machi Koro a C+. But if you're looking to make new gamers, you may want to give it a try.

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