Macao is the latest game in the Alea big box series, and it is by Stefan Feld (In the Year of the Dragon, Notre Dame). That's a combination that makes gamers pay attention. I read some descriptions of the game, but it didn't pique my interest. However, given the chance to try it, I wouldn't turn it down. Chong Sean is a collector of the Alea series and has the complete set, including the very-hard-to-find Alea version of Chinatown. So there was no doubt he would buy Macao. Thus, my chance to give it a go.
The theme of the game is setting up business in the Portugese colony of Macau, and gaining prestige points (PP) by delivering goods to various European cities, by straight-away buying them, and a few other means. The core innovation in the game is the windrose. Every round six dice in different colours are rolled. You pick two colours and collect cubes in those colours according to the numbers rolled. The catch is if you pick a high number, the cubes you collect will only be available many rounds later. If you pick a smaller number, the (fewer) cubes will become available sooner. Cubes (called Action Cubes / AC) are the key resource in the game. You need them for everything. You use them to claim quarters on the board (and collect goods), you use them to fight for turn order, you use them to move your ship, and you use them to activate cards and use many of the powers that activated cards give you. The tricky part is all cubes made available in a particular round must be used up within that round, or they are forfeited. They cannot be saved for later.
Another key part of the game is the cards. At the start of the game and at the start of every round, a number of cards are revealed, and players take turns to pick one card from the pool. These cards can be helpful, but only if you manage to activate them (by paying the exact combination of cubes required). The cards are like an approaching train wreck looming over your head throughout the game. You must take a new card every round. If you ever have more than 5 non-activated cards, you are forced to discard one, and suffer a -3PP penalty. At end game, each non-activated cards also give you -3PP. So when choosing cards you need to balance between how useful the cards are and how easy they are to activate.
When you pay cubes to claim a city quarter, you collect the goods tile in the quarter. These goods tiles are considered to be on your ship as soon as they are collected. You pay cubes to move your ship, and whenever it reaches a port, you can unload goods to gain VPs. The first goods tile unloaded gives 5PP, followed by 3PP and 2PP. So it's a race to deliver goods for the most PPs, if multiple players have collected the same goods type.
Another element for competition is that at game end, each quarter in your largest connected group of quarters is worth 2VP. So you want to build a big group while stopping your opponents from doing so. This sometimes conflicts with the goods that you want to collect. Thus another source of decision angst.
Earning cash is not easy to do. Delivering goods does not give cash. Some special goods tiles give cash, and the only other way is card powers. Every round a tribute table is updated to show how much money can be paid in that round to gain a certain number of PPs. This tribute rate often varies from round to round. You will want to try to develop some earning power to be able to make use of this source of PPs.
I played a 4-player game with Chong Sean, Wan and Shan, all of us new to the game. The game was freshly punched after we sat down. We all punched while I taught the game. It took us a while to grasp how to select dice and how to plan around the restrictions tracked by the windrose. There are only 12 rounds in the game, and that really is not a lot. There was a clear build-up from few cubes available in the early game, to the peak number of cubes around mid game, and then gradually the cubes dwindled again towards game end. Chong Sean went with the easy-to-do cards approach, preferring to select cards that are easy to activate rather than cards that are powerful. He was very quick in getting cards activated. By game end he managed to activate all cards, i.e. no penalty at all. Wan also managed to do the same. Shan and I both suffered penalties from not keeping to 5 or less non-activated cards, as well as still having such cards at game end. We also suffered penalties for not having any cubes available for a particular round. The penalties in this game remind me of In the Year of the Dragon - the game of disaster management. Notre Dame has this impending doom element too. Stefan Feld must have a little sadist tendency.
I activated one card that allowed me to claim quarters cheaper, so I tried to build up a big connected group of quarters, and also tried to claim one quarter every round, if I had enough cubes. I had a card which gave me bonus points for claiming the darker coloured quarters (there are only 6 on the board, and they are harder to claim), so these two cards jived quite well. I didn't do so well in delivering goods, my ship being left behind by the rest.
I didn't pay much attention to cards of other players. There were too many of them, and the text was small too. I did pay some attention to the goods that they have collected and quarters that they have claimed. I didn't pay a lot of attention to their windroses either, which I think would be important to do sometimes.
Money seemed impossible to come by at first, but towards mid game we found that we could gradually earn some money. By the second half of the game, some of us had quite regular income, and bought PP almost every round. The ship movement was rather slow at first, but in the second half accelerated quickly. The goods deliveries gave big chunks of PPs.
I underestimated how quickly the game end approached. There were a few things I had planned to do, and I realised too late that I wouldn't have enough rounds or cubes to complete all of them. I had to compromise. Eventually I had two undelivered goods, some cards underutilised, and some cards that I could not even activate. I did not plan well for the cube dwindling in the second half of the game.
Chong Sean won the game decisively at 76PP. I had 63PP. Shan and Wan both had 46PP, but Shan beat Wan by tiebreaker - position on the wall track.
I have a feeling that generally the best strategy is to pick the dice with big numbers. Having more cubes means more things that you can do, even though it means doing them later. So I suspect it's generally OK to start slow, and plan for the big moves in the second half of the game. Having many cubes set up for future rounds also allows you to select cards that you know you can active, as opposed to selecting cards that you hope you will be able to activate. Of course sometimes you will need to select some smaller numbered dice for urgent needs, but my feeling is more cubes is usually better.
Despite the interesting dice selection + windrose mechanism, Macao feels like just another typical Eurogame to me. It feels like the result of a mechanism looking for a game. It reminds me of why I didn't like Diamonds Club, but I think Macao is a more interesting game compared to Diamonds Club. Trying to collect cards that have synergy is interesting. Planning around the dice is also an interesting puzzle to solve. The game has multiple moving parts that are all interlinked. Often you need to compromise between different opportunities, not only because you don't have enough resources or time to do both, but also because sometimes doing one will mess up the other. Do you want to compete in turn order? How quickly should you race to the ports? Which port to visit first? Which quarters to claim? The puzzle parts of the game - cubes to collect, usage of cards - can feel a little solitaire-like, but there are actually many aspects you need to compete with your opponents.
There is quite a fair bit of variety in the cards, which is good. The game is satisfying to play because you need to juggle multiple balls. Just don't expect much in terms of theme (Action Cubes?!). At least it isn't a cube conversion exercise (except when you convert some to money).