Published by Kosmos
Designed by Stefan Dorra
Reviewed by Stuart Dagger (firstname.lastname@example.org)
(This review is a slightly rewritten version of the one scheduled to appear in the Autumn edition of Sumo.)
In issue 31 of Sumo, Mike Siggins gave this one a favourable initial welcome and promised a full review from someone who would "understand the nuances, central-board play and abstract movement implications". Fortunately, you are all old enough to know that, with a General Election looming in the UK and a Presidential election already upon us in the US, the words of our leaders aren't always to be trusted. However, he was right about it being a good game.
The board shows a walled town containing streets and shops. There are twenty five shops, five in each of red, blue, green, yellow and purple, and the streets are punctuated with fountains, three of which are adjacent to the gateways into the town. The rest of the game equipment consists of play money, markers used to record ownership of the shops and a set of pawns - 14 yellow and 10 of each of the other four colours. These pawns represent tourists and they are colour coded because, in an extreme form of a loyalty card scheme, they will only patronise shops that match their outfits. The players are simultaneously shop owners, tour guides and auctioneers and the object is to combine the three roles in a way that will make you richer than your competitors.
The start of the game sees a group of three tourists at each of the three gateways and the auctioning of three or four shops (one by each player). The remaining tourists are outside the city in a line that will act as a double-headed queue. Yes, I know that double-headed queues are impossible, but Stefan obviously wasn't listening when Scotty used to tell us "You can't change the laws of physics, captain". Not to worry, I am sure that he does a better Aberdeen accent than Scotty ever managed. Thereafter, each player performs two actions per turn, with each action being either the auctioning of an unowned shop or the movement of a group of tourists from the fountain they are currently at to an adjacent one. If this leaves one or more of the gateway fountains unoccupied, a new group of 2-4 tourists is taken from one end of the queue and put into the gap.
At the heart of the game mechanism is what happens when a group of tourists moves. The movement will take them past the doorways of several shops and tourists whose colour matches that of one of them will leave the group and enter the shop, where they stay and where they are worth money to the owner. The first customer that a shop gets is worth 100, the second 200 and so on up to the fifth and subsequent customers who are worth 500 each. So that is the most obvious aim: to get as many customers as you can into each of your shops. However, although this is the most visible means of making money, it is not the only one: when you auction an unowned shop, which is then bought by one of your rivals, the bank pays you a commission; and when you cause tourists to enter shops owned by other players, the shop owner pays you a commission.
The game is one of tactical awareness rather than strategic planning. There is no "right price" to pay for a shop and no subtleties in the movement system that will deliver victory. What is necessary is that you remain alert to the constantly shifting situation and the opportunities it offers and that means being willing to do some simple money sums and assess some likelihoods. You are unlikely to win unless you own a couple of successful shops, but a shop for which you have paid too high a price can be disastrous. For example, if you pay 400 for a shop, you need at least three customers before you move into the black and from the 200 profit that three customers would bring, you are going to have to subtract any commission that you might have to pay to the guides. Meanwhile, the auctioneer who sold you the place has made a risk-free 100 from the bank. As with Modern Art, you need to know when and what to buy and when and what to sell. On the surface the game looks like one of movement, but it is really about opportunism and financial judgement. Going back to the Star Trek allusion from earlier, this is a game for a Ferengi rather than a Vulcan.
Some pointers to get you started: Not all the shops are going to be bought and so that average of 2 customers per non-yellow shop - 2.4 for yellow - is going to include one or two zeros. There will be shops with more than three or four customers, but not many. Shops near the gates are more likely to attract custom than shops in the centre, particularly if they are on the natural route from the gate to a different coloured shop owned by one of your rivals. More yellow tourists means that yellow shops are potentially more profitable. Keep an eye on how many shops of each colour have been opened, as it obviously affects the potential worth of new shops of the same colour. If there isn't an obvious immediate profit to be made from moving tourists, consider auctioning a shop of an under-represented colour. If there is a group of two or three tourists of one colour being shepherded towards a rival's shop, see if there is an alternative destination that you can put on the market. The bidding for it should be brisk, you will gain a commission and the risk of a financial killing by your rival will have been avoided.
In summary, the game is a themed abstract and because it involves pawns moving round a board, the abstractness is more apparent than in many games. This will put some people off. Their loss. As Steffan O'Sullivan observed recently on the Net, most German board games are themed abstracts, games where the game mechanism comes first and the coat of paint is applied afterwards. The best of them work because the mechanisms are carefully constructed and the themes imaginatively and appropriately chosen. All that is true of MarraCash and for me it is one of the best five or six games of the past twelve months.
Stuart Dagger, September 1996
Postscript: Since writing the above I have had further discussions with Mike Siggins about the game and his favourable initial impression has now hardened to a firm recommendation. He thinks that it is maybe a little too short (an unusual complaint for Mike, whose more normal tune is that games are too long) but he has played it upwards of a dozen times in a short space of time and he doesn't do that unless a game is good. I have also seen the review in the current edition of the German games magazine "Fairplay". Here Frank Kersten ends his review with the sentence "Gratulation zu einem der wenigen echten Top-Titeln des Jahres 1996!" - "Congratulations to one of the few genuine top titles of 1996." The game didn't make the short list for Spiel des Jahres, but it did rank quite high in the other, more gamer-oriented German award and that is probably a good indication of who will and won't like the game. The Spiel des Jahres list often causes raised eyebrows among hardline gamers and I suspect that this is because it reflects the tastes of a broader market: so a game like Siedler, which pulls in non-gamers as well as gamers, wins the award, but one like Modern Art, where it is less immediately obvious what you are trying to do, does not. MarraCash is unlikely to appeal to your cousin Emily, but your gaming friends will probably enjoy it, unless they are the sort who insist that any hint of the abstract should be buried beneath three feet of chrome.
Stuart Dagger, October 1996
The Game Cabinet - email@example.com - Ken Tidwell