Sunday, 15 May 2016


Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

I've heard good things about Mombasa lately. Han was in town recently, and our old trio (two of us plus Allen) met up to play. We decided to give Mombasa a go.

The main board is a map of Africa. It is divided into many areas, most of which give some benefit to the player who establishes a company branch there. Along the four edges of the map are four companies (red, white, orange and black) poised to expand their businesses on the continent. When you help a company expand, you move one of the little houses from the company HQ to an area on the map. When a house is removed, it may reveal coin icons. These represent the value of the company's shares. The more coins exposed, the higher the share value. Companies don't belong to anyone in particular. Anyone can invest in any number of companies. The value of your shares at game end translates to victory points.

Along the four edges of the board there are four tracks, each marking the investment level and share holdings of the players in the four companies. When you reach a certain investment level, the company gives you some additional powers.

This is the player board. At the start of every round, you secretly pick three action cards to play and place them facedown below your board. These action cards are revealed after everyone has made his choices. At the end of the round, the action cards used will be discarded to the discard piles above the player board, according to the columns they are played in. This happens after you retrieve all cards from one of the discard piles. This means the same action card can never be used in two consecutive rounds, because upon being used, it will spend at least the next round in a discard pile.

At the start of the game you have a set of action cards which is only slightly different from your opponents. Throughout the game you can purchase more, and usually better, action cards.

The player board has two halves, the left half being the gem track and the right half the accounting track. There are two benefits in advancing on these tracks. When you reach a certain threshold, you unlock an additional slot for an action card. If you hit the threshold on both tracks, you can play 5 action cards per round instead of 3. The other benefit is you score points at game end based on how far you have advanced. To advance on the gem track is simple. You just do the mining action. To advance on the accounting track is more complicated. You need to get books to lay along the track, you need to fulfill the criteria shown on the books, and then you need to take the accountant action to advance the marker. It's more work, but you get rewarded for fulfilling the criteria on the books.

This part of the main board is where you get to claim books for your accounting track. The white numbers in blue squares are the costs of the books. From the 2nd to the 7th (and last) round, some books will get a $1 bonus attached to them. This mechanism doubles as a round tracker. This photo was taken in Round 2. The two coins marking Round 2 had just been moved to the spots below the books.

In addition to action cards, you can also perform actions using your pawns. This section of the main board is where you do this. This uses the worker placement mechanism. Once a spot is claimed, no one else can perform the same action that round. Here you can claim start player rights, you can claim single-use special action cards, you can sell your action cards, you can boost your investment level in a company by having most of a specific goods type, and so on. The actions which increase investment level have a twist. To be eligible for an action of this type, you need to have played action cards showing a particular goods type, and you need to hold off using those goods. The moment you use the goods themselves, they are consumed because the action cards need to be flipped over. You will become ineligible for the increase investment action space because you no longer hold that goods type.

In this photo you can see that the red and orange companies have started expanding. The little houses are starting to populate the map. When a company expands into an area containing the branch of another company, this branch is returned to the HQ of the other company before the expanding company places its branch.

This is the investment track of one of the companies. If you reach the specific spots on the investment track, you are considered to hold shares in the company. For this particular company, reaching spaces 4, 8 and 13 mean you own 1, 2 and 3 shares respectively. If you reach space 9, you earn $1 and gain a new ability - every time you expand a company (any company), you get one more expansion point to spend.

Most of your action cards are goods cards. You use them to either buy other (better) action cards, or increase your investment level in a company. These are two basic actions that you do. Other frequently used actions include advancing the two tracks on your player board and expanding a company. At the end of the game, the main ways to score points are the value of your shares and your levels on the tracks at your player board. The game is played over 7 rounds.

The Play

Han, Allen and I are usually quick players. Mombasa turned this upside down. We all suffered from Analysis Paralysis. The rules related to action cards are not overly complex, but when it comes to execution, a lot of detailed forward planning needs to be done. Which cards you play, and where you play them, impact not just the current round but also the next few rounds. You need to think of where an card will be discarded, and when you are going to take it back into your hand. The action card mechanism forces you to split up cards that have been used in a good combo. Cards that work well together and are used in the same round will get distributed to different discard piles, and they return to your hand at different times. This all takes a lot of coordination and meticulous scheduling.

There were many things we could do. In the early game we were rather clueless what we should be doing. It took us a while to get a grasp of what kind of actions would be beneficial at which stage of the game, and how we should focus our efforts for better effectiveness.

That action card on the left is a special action card which I have claimed in the previous round, and thus must use this round. It does not occupy my basic three slots for playing action cards. Actually by this time I have four slots, because I have reached the required threshold on my gem track. Notice the four discard piles above my player board. It means I have started using my fourth slot. The special action card lets me mine two gems. It also gives me an extra gem for every other miner card I have. I do have one, the one in the middle slot. To make full use of the special action card, I will have to execute it before I execute the miner card. If I execute the miner card first, it would be flipped over, and by the time I execute the special action card, I would not get the bonus gem for extra miners.

I made one strategic mistake in our game. I did not buy enough action cards. The action cards are the engine of the game. I should have spent more effort in the early game buying more of them. There came one point in the game when I wanted to save an action card for a later round, because I was waiting to retrieve some other action cards which would combo well with it. However, I did not have enough other action cards, and was forced to play that card. The number of action cards and managing how you cycle them are important considerations for your tempo. Getting better action cards is also important because they simply help you to do more or do things you can't otherwise do with the starting action cards.

We all tried to open up additional slots to play action cards, some via the gem track and some via the accounting track. Han thinks it may not be necessary to open up both slots. Four actions may be sufficient to be competitive. Opening a new slot takes considerable effort, so you need to weigh whether it's worth doing. That effort may be better spent directly on scoring. Advancing on these tracks do give you points, but you need to evaluate whether there are other more efficient ways of scoring.

In our game, the most profitable means of scoring points was share value. Allen won handily because he had maximised his share holding in the orange company. I had invested in this company too from the early game, so it was no surprise it outperformed the other three. It had the support of two thirds of the players. I invested in it early because I had bought the orange miner card, which would give me more gems if the orange company owned more mines. That led me to both invest in the company and help it grow. In hindsight, I should have spent more effort increasing my share holding, and not allow Allen to jump so far ahead.

By late game, all orange branches were deployed onto the map. The share value hit the max of $12 per share.

The Thoughts

I find it difficult to classify Mombasa. It is a heavy Eurogame. The share holding mechanism and how players drive share prices up or down make it feel like a stock market game. However you don't freely buy and sell shares. It is more an investment game than a stock manipulation game. You can only increase your share holdings in a company, not the other way round.

The core action card mechanism is tricky. It feels unwieldy, but this is precisely where the challenge is. It is satisfying to work it out and to learn to use it to your advantage. You will need to do a lot of detailed calculations and you will need to plan out minute details over several rounds. Some people will like this, some people won't. Lately I have been in a lazy mood when it comes to playing boardgames, so I wasn't patient enough to be able to handle this action mechanism well. It felt restrictive. However this was at least partly because I didn't do very well in upgrading my action cards. You start the game with weak cards, so I can only blame myself if I don't spend enough effort to sharpen my sword.

Besides the action card mechanism, the other core mechanism of the game is worker placement. Player interaction is mainly in the form of taking an action before others can, denying them for the rest of the round. There is player interaction when you manipulate the share prices, since different players have different stakes in the four companies. There is little player interaction when you try to advance on your player board tracks. There is some player interaction when you pick your three (or more) action cards for a round. When you want to be top supplier of a certain goods type, you will need to pay attention to what action cards your opponents have bought, and have in hand, or have in their discard piles.

This is not a game for new gamers or casual gamers. You may scare them away. This is a game for people who like a challenge, and like complex coordination and planning.


Daan Herman said...

You have a nice board game blog but unfortunately no contact details.
Are you interested in game aides for board games as well? If yes, then maybe you would like to take a look at my Kickstarter campaign and write about it if it interest you.



Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Hi Daan,
I am not particularly interested in AI's for boardgames, preferring to play face-to-face with friends. Your Kickstarter project is an interesting idea, and I imagine to be quite challenging as well. I wish you all the best!