Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Mat Goceng

Plays: 4Px3, 6Px1, 3Px2.

Mat Goceng is published by Manikmaya Games, a company from Bandung, Indonesia. They gave Meeples Cafe a few review copies, and Log asked whether I wanted one. I skimmed the overview at BGG, thought it sounded interesting and harmless enough, and said why not.

The Game

Mat Goceng is a secret-identity card game using Batavia (now Jakarta) of the 1920's as the backdrop. At the start of the game, every player is dealt a secret identity card. To win, you need to fulfill the objective of your character when the game ends. There can be more than one winner. The game ends when one player loses all three of his life points. He automatically loses. The others check whether they have fulfilled their winning condition.

A face-down identity card. The three glasses of coffee facing forward means you still have three life points. Rotate your card each time you are injured. Silver coins are $1, gold coins $3.

On your turn, you must challenge another player to a duel. He may decline by paying you $2, and after that you must challenge another player. If your challenge is accepted, you move on to the duel. You start the fight by playing a card from your hand. You and your opponent take turns playing cards until one side is not able to or unwilling to play any more. That side loses the fight and loses one life point. Each card has two link colours - the top colour and the bottom colour. From your second card played onwards, the top colour of the card being played must match the bottom colour of the previous card played. In the best case, you can chain up all five cards in your hand. If you are very unlucky, you may only be able to play one card. Now here comes the twist - you can ask other players not involved in the fight to help you by playing a card from their hands. They can help you out of kindness (i.e. for free), or they may ask for some, aah, coffee money. At the end of a fight, both combatants draw back up to five cards. However the busybodies helping out don't get to draw cards. They only get to do so at the end of their next turn, or after they get involved in a fight as a combatant. So helping others is risky, because you are depleting your hand, and a weak hand may attract attention of the unwanted kind.

You don't need to worry about the Indonesian language text on the cards. Some cards have icons representing special abilities. There are only four such icons to remember.

During a fight, every card played must link to the previous card by colour. White is a wild colour and can be used to link to any colour.

If you are down to your last life point, you must reveal your character. Now this is not necessarily a bad thing. You may attract attackers, but you may also rally defenders because some players may not want you to get eliminated, or at least not yet.

To picture the game better, you need to understand the character objectives. I can't recall the names of all the characters, so I'm going to give them nicknames.

Mat Goceng is the Hero (bottom centre). His goal is to make sure the Lady Boss (bottom left) doesn't get killed. The Lady Boss' goal is to be the richest when the game ends. The Foreigner's (top centre) goal is to have the Lady Boss dead (either killed by him or another player). The Arab's (top left) goal is to be the richest. Darkie's (top right) goal is to have the Hero or the Chinese dead. The Chinese's (bottom right) goal is to have either Darkie or the Foreigner dead. At the minimum player count of three, the Hero, the Lady Boss and the Foreigner are in play. When the player count increases, the other characters are added in this order: the Arab, Darkie, the Chinese.

The Play

I first played Mat Goceng with my family, as a 4-player game. We had a lot of fun with it. In the early game no one knew who was who, so we challenged one another to duels rather randomly. However once someone was injured twice and had his/her identity revealed, things suddenly became much more interesting. Teams formed naturally, some wanted to kill off the exposed character, some wanted to protect him/her. Somehow during our games, elder daughter Shee Yun tended to ally with me, and younger daughter Chen Rui with my wife Michelle. Chen Rui became so accustomed to this convention that in a later game under a quite different situation when she should have helped to finish Michelle off in order to win the game, she came to Michelle's rescue instead and fended off Shee Yun and I. What a loyal daughter she was. She was not playing to win. She was playing to have fun. I can't say that's wrong. There is no rule against saving your mum.

Chen Rui and Michelle were not supposed to be a team, but they teamed up anyway because Chen Rui said so.

Chen Rui jumped up and down happily when she won the fight.

Initially we never declined a fight, and everyone held on to $5. This was good for Lady Boss and the Arab. Everyone having the same amount of money meant they were both richest and they were in a position to win. The Hero and the Foreigner probably should have intentionally declined fights to make another person richest, to upset this balance. Sometimes when you are weak, it is actually good to decline fights. Getting killed means you lose. If your objective is something other than being richest, you don't really mind spending money. Well, unless you want to confuse others, which is a valid strategy.

Another thing that we didn't really explore was asking for bribes when offering support to the combatants. Later on when I played with the gamers at, we made better use of this mechanism. Spare cash can be a life-saver for badly injured characters. They protect you from challenges. Money flowing around can greatly upset the plans of the Lady Boss and the Arab. Observing who cares most about hoarding money is important to guess who are playing these characters.

The BGC folks had tried Mat Goceng before, and were not particularly impressed. However I found out that they had played some rules wrong. They didn't realise that white is a wild colour. That made things quite tough. Also they thought each player had four life points instead of three. I was interested to see how the game played with the full six players, so I persuaded them to give the game another try.

Our game was quite lively. Rowdy, in fact. They said the game worked better with the right rules. Our game culminated in a final fight between two teams - the Hero and the Lady Boss (Wai Yan and another player) versus the Arab and the Foreigner (Dith and I). Both combatants had one life point left so we knew this was the finale. One of the pairs would definitely win, and the other pair would definitely lose. Unfortunately for the other two characters, Darkie and the Chinese, no matter what they did at this point, they would lose, because neither combatant (Arab or Lady Boss) was a character they wanted dead. They would not be able to fulfill their win condition. However they still jumped in to support the final fight, just for the heck of it. After a long and noisy duel, the Lady Boss kicked the Arab's butt, so the good guys won.

The Thoughts

Although this revisit left a better impression, the BGC folks were not bought over. The card play mechanism works well enough. Their main complaints are the randomness and the character balance. Challenges in the early game are pretty much shooting blindly, and sometimes a player can feel rather helpless, like Darkie and the Chinese in our game. I personally am not convinced that the game is flawed. At least not yet. I think in the early game when information is scarce, players need to tread carefully and avoid injuring anyone too much, which can easily lead to the game ending abruptly before one can react. However me making such a statement brings out another issue - isn't a game flawed if it is fun only if played in a certain way? Then the counter argument - well if you play randomly without thinking about consequences, don't blame the game becoming random.

I quite like how the characters are designed. This is meant to be everyone for himself. There is no predetermined teams like in The Resistance, Bang, Werewolf or The Message: Emissary Crisis. However, due to the possibility of multiple winners, alliances form naturally because the situation encourages it. Win-win situations arise, and they are opportunites players want to grab (unless you are Chen Rui). Alliances can break easily and shift quickly, when the game situation changes. I find this volatility interesting. When the Lady Boss or the Arab is leading in money, they will be happy to help anyone trying to kill off another character; and vice versa. In the case of the Lady Boss, she should even betray the love of the Hero who is always trying to protect her. She can win even if he dies. Despite Lady Boss and the Hero seeming to be a natural alliance, it is not always the case that they will form a team. The Hero can win while the Lady Boss loses. The Hero will want to kill off any character in order to end the game, because he wins as long as the Lady Boss is alive. He doesn't really care whether she is the richest.

I do think the game has a significant dose of luck, in whether you draw a good combination of cards, whether you draw those valuable special ability cards, and whether you are making the right guesses (sometimes you do have to make guesses based on limited information). You can negotiate, threaten, bluff and form alliances to mitigate luck and improve your odds of winning, but this is a light card game, and sometimes bad luck just strikes and you can't wriggle your way out. It's not that there's nothing you can do, just that sometimes despite your best efforts things still don't work out. I think that is fine, given that this is the rowdy party game type. This is no Battlestar Galactica.

Too bad this game didn't work out with my gamer friends. They may not exactly be the target audience, but it would have been nice if I can bring this out to play with them once in a while. My kids, especially Chen Rui, like the game a lot. She doesn't see the nuances above like I do, but she does have fun with it, even if it's just teaming up with mum to beat dad up.

I think Mat Goceng has some unique elements to offer and is not just another secret identity game. The only thing which I don't think works is the 3-player game. It seems to usually result in a 2-vs-1 with the Hero and the Lady Boss teaming up against the Foreigner. The 3P game seems a little dull.

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