Mottainai, by Carl Chudyk, is the spiritual successor of Glory To Rome. The overall system certainly feels familiar, but there are quite a number of changes too. It's taking the core concept of Glory To Rome and reimplementing it using some new tricks and techniques. I struggle whether to try to explain how to play Mottainai. It's not an easy game to teach or to learn, because the ideas are unusual. One single card can mean many different things. It is not easy to digest and to grasp how the many different aspects fit together as a whole. I shall try to briefly describe the game, leaving out some details.
Mottainai is a card game. Players are monks, and these monks produce handicraft. Each piece of handicraft produced is worth victory points, and the bulk of your victory points will likely come from handicraft. Each handicraft completed also gives the maker a special ability. There are only 54 cards in the game, and every card is unique. On your turn, the first thing you need to decide is whether to play a card as an action card. If you decide to do so, you tuck the card under the top edge of your player board (in the Task area in the photo above). Then you start executing actions. You start with the action cards on all other players' boards, and you execute your own action card last. This means when you select a card to play as an action card, you have to consider that your opponents will be using it on their turns. This is a mechanism also found in Impulse. There will be at most one action card at a player board. When you turn comes around again, you discard the old action card to the central pool (called the "floor") before you play a new action card. You can decide not to play an action card. Instead of executing your desired action, you draw a card for your next round. You still get to execute others' action cards, but since you don't have one yourself, when their turns come, they can't leech an action off you.
Every card in the game has five possible uses. Depending on how it is used, you play it at a different location. If a card is turned into handicraft, it is played on the left or right side of your player board. The text at the centre of the card takes effect. If a card is played as an action card, it is tucked under the top edge of your player board, as described earlier. If a card is played as a helper, it is tucked under the left edge. A helper allows you to perform additional actions. Whenever you execute an action card, whether on your own player board or on an opponent's player board, every helper of the same type as that action card gives you an extra action. If you have matching completed handicraft on the left side of your board, each helper gives you two extra actions instead of one.
If a card is claimed as raw material, it is tucked under the bottom edge of your player board. If you use the Craft action to make a piece of handicraft, you need to have the appropriate materials at your craft bench (bottom edge). These materials at the craft bench can be moved to your sales area - the right edge. Materials here are worth victory points, if you have handicraft on the right side of your board of the corresponding types.
The floor, i.e. the centre of the table, is a common card pool. It starts with some cards, and more cards are added to it whenever an old action card is discarded. You can claim a card from the floor using the Monk action or the Potter action. The Monk action turns a card into a helper. The Potter action turns a card into raw material.
To produce handicraft, there are two action types - Craft and Smith. In both cases the handicraft to be produced must be a card in your hand. When Crafting, you need to have the required raw materials at your craft bench (bottom edge of player board). When Smithing, you need to have the required raw materials in your hand. One twist here is the raw materials are not consumed when you complete the handicraft. The raw materials stay where they are, be it your hand or your craft bench.
Where you place your completed handicraft (left or right) matters. Place it on the left, and you can boost the strength of your helpers. Place it on the right, and raw materials that you move to your sales area will be worth victory points. Another consideration is the game end condition. Once a player has 5 completed pieces handicraft on one side of his player board, the game ends. If you have a strong lead and you want to end the game quickly, you should focus on one side. If you want to delay the game end, you need to diversify. The game also ends when the draw deck runs out. I've only played one game, so I don't have a feel of how frequently this happens.
I own, and I have played quite a few games of Glory To Rome. Mottainai has many similarities, but also differs in some aspects. Despite my familiarity with the predecessor, I still felt clumsy when learning Mottainai. I think this is a Carl Chudyk trademark. He is a mad scientist of a game designer and his games are quirky. It might be my familiarity with Glory To Rome that made me feel caught off guard when learning Mottainai. I needed to unlearn and then relearn. The rulebook does say that the game is tricky to pick up, so I'm sure I'm not the odd one out. To appreciate this game you need to put in some effort.
It was fun to explore how Mottainai revamped the Glory To Rome system. It has fewer cards, and many aspects are condensed. When creating handicraft, the raw materials are not consumed. There is a hand limit checked at the start of every turn. There are only 5 types of materials, not 6. The amount of materials needed to create a piece of handicraft is reduced. The whole action system is refitted. In Glory To Rome if you want to leech an opponent's action, you have to play a card. In Mottainai you don't need to play a card. One new thing in Mottainai is where you place your completed handicraft has meaning. It's another aspect you need to consider.
In the end, I am not quite able to describe what I feel when I play Mottainai. It's a little weird. It's not easy to digest. However once everything clicks, it is interesting and satisfying. I can't say whether Glory To Rome or Mottainai is definitely better than the other. Mottainai is leaner and more compact. Some mechanisms are simply different so you can't compare apples to oranges. I own Glory To Rome, so I don't feel a strong urge to get a copy of Mottainai. If I owned neither, I might tilt towards Mottainai, because it plays in a shorter time without sacrificing any strategic depth.