Sunday, 27 August 2017

Medici: The Card Game

Plays: 5Px1.

The Game

Medici is a classic Reiner Knizia design, part of his auction trilogy including Ra and Modern Art. I find it funny that there is now a card game version of Medici. To me Medici is a card game. So I feel this version is a variant, and not really a simplified, boardgame-converted-to-card-game version of the original. The core mechanism has changed, but the scoring system is almost identical, so the game feels like an old friend with a new haircut. Same, but different, but still the same.

The game is played over three rounds. You collect 5 cards each round, and score points at the end of the round. Whoever scores the most at the end of three rounds wins. All this sounds familiar. For the details, let me start with the scoring mechanism.

A card has two pieces of important information - (1) card value, (2) merchandise type. Total card value is compared at the end of every round. Players score points based on their relative positions. Whoever has the highest total scores 30pts, and whoever has the lowest scores nothing. The rest scores somewhere in between. Once this is done, the card values are ignored for future rounds. There are five merchandise types. When you collect a merchandise, you keep it till the end of the game. At the end of each round, for each of the merchandise types, you compare who has the most and second most. You count cards collect in the current round as well as in all previous rounds. The players with the most goods in each merchandise type get to score points. In addition, if you have 5 goods of the same type, you score 10pts. This is a bonus you receive regardless of whether you have more or fewer than your opponents.

Now let's look at how you collect cards. Throughout the game, players draw cards from a common draw deck to form a line. You must take at least one card on your turn, and it must be the last card in the line. When you start your turn, you may draw one to three cards from the deck to add to the line. You draw them one by one, and may decide to stop at any time. If there are already cards in the line, you may even decide not to draw at all. When you decide to stop drawing and to claim a card (which must the the last one), you may also take a second and even a third card. The condition is they must be picked from the second and third last cards in the line. That means you can take at most three cards on your turn.

Each time you draw a card, you need to be mentally prepared that you may need to claim it, because it will become the last card in the line. If it is your first draw, you still have a second chance if that card sucks. If it is your second draw, then things get a little sticky. If the card is so-so, do you gamble on the third draw, which may give you a worse card? Or do you claim it, even if it is not particularly good, cutting your losses. This happens all the time in the game.

Once you claim your fifth card in a round, you sit out until everyone gets his fifth card. Then you score. In this photo above you see two cards with green backgrounds. These are special cards which do not count towards the five card limit. Having claimed these cards above, I am considered to be exactly at my limit of five cards. You can see that I am focusing on dye (blue) and cloth (purple). My total card value of 13 is rather poor. However I have collected 5 pieces of cloth. This is Round 1, so having reached 5 pieces of cloth means I am well in the lead and it will be hard for others to compete. Having 5 pieces also means I can safely claim the 10pt bonus every round from now on.

This is the situation at Round 3. The cards at the top are what I have collected this round. I started with that black 7, which is good when you want to compete for highest total card value. However, later on I had the opportunity to collect many furs, and I took it, abandoning my plan to compete in total card value. I ended up collecting 5 furs this round, which is good, but that first card was a waste.

The Play

When playing Medici: The Card Game you feel you are always pushing your luck. You are always thinking should I draw another card? When you draw an excellent card or an atrocious one, the decision is usually easy. Excellent card? Stop and claim it. No point in being greedy and hoping the next card will be a good one too. There is always next round. Atrocious card? Just draw the next one. It can't be much worse. Most of the time though, the card you draw is somewhat good or somewhat bad. This is when things get interesting. It is not always clear whether it is better to draw another one. You face such decisions all the time. Every draw can be a blessing or a curse. This is what makes the game thrilling. Life is like a box of chocolates.

You must pay attention to what your opponents are collecting. You don't directly hurt your opponents, but competition is everywhere and comes from all angles. You need to worry about card values, you need to worry about the number of goods. You find yourself repeatedly counting your opponents' cards. Just one point of difference can mean earning something, or earning nothing. When you choose to claim a card, it can immediately translate to an opponent (or more) losing out on points. This can be a mean game. Sometimes you can make a move which causes others to lose points without yourself gaining anything.

There is a dose of luck. You need to adapt. You need to assess risks and returns. You need to decide how to compete given what you are dealt. You do have plenty of choices to make. You are not at the mercy of lady luck.

Compared to the original Medici, the key mechanism which has been replaced is the auction mechanism. Without auctions, player interaction is reduced. You can't force an opponent to pay an arm and a leg for a set of cards he is dying to buy. If an opponent gets very lucky with his card draw, there is little you can do. You can still gang up on a leading player to prevent him from scoring high in too many areas. There are still ways the players' actions will balance out the luck. The original Medici has similarities to Coloretto and Zooloretto. When a set of cards consists of good and bad ones, it becomes tricky to assess its value. You are torn between wanting and avoiding it. Also different players want different things, so the same set of cards is worth different values to different players. These are not present in Medici: The Card Game. The new core mechanism is simpler, quicker, and is centred around the gambler's push-your-luck mindset. Both old and new mechanisms have their merits.

This is how a 5-player game in progress looks like.

The Thoughts

Medici: The Card Game has Reiner Knizia's signature. It is a light-to-medium weight game. Simple but by no means simplistic. You are constantly watching the playing field and you keep assessing what each card is worth to different players. It was fun to experience this new incarnation of the old classic. Compared to the original it is slightly simpler and quicker, but I see it as a variant and not a card game version, or a simplified version. Whether you have played the original or not, this is worth a try.

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