Mississippi Queen

Published by Gold Sieber
Designed by Walter Hodel
Reviewed by Mike Siggins

3 to 5 players
about 20 mins

I seem to have written myself into a corner over the years. Always demanding new design techniques, systems offering more than a little depth and an evocative theme to boot, I get in a right pickle when a game comes along that is simply good fun, but light in weight. The usual procedure is to heavily qualify the review so that everyone is aware this is an Ab Die Post rather than the next Die Macher. So, if you'd be so kind, please take it as read on this occasion. Saves us both time and effort, and the general idea is to convey the message that Mississippi Queen is a good old-fashioned race game. A little short on innovation perhaps, but scoring highly on amusement. And if you think I am typing Mississippi every four lines, you have another think coming.

Not to be confused with the earlier Mississippi by Mattel (a mind bending abstract, now oft used as an instrument of torture), MQ is the latest from the GoldSieber stable who have by now comfortably earned the label 'prolific'. Launched in tandem with Teuber's LowenHerz at Nuremberg, I suspect it was deemed the junior partner in the duel of the big box titles. Interestingly though, having played both at a recent session, it was MQ that made the bigger and better impact of the two. Now now, calm down my little Teuberphiles. That was because this game is immediately accessible and a brisk, entertaining trifle, whereas LowenHerz, like most of Teuber's games, will definitely require further investigation. Unfortunately, as is the wont of the Golden Sphered Ones, this is a smallish game in a big box with an inappropriate price tag. As ever it will be for you to decide if your hard earned should go on this rather annoying, and increasingly common, combination.

I thought I didn't know any games by Walter Hodel, but the little white bible (Spiel '97) tells me he was the designer of Alea, a rather nice little French wooden abstract from a few years back. He has also produced some other designs which look to be children's titles, and he has another new game, Boat Race from Piatnik, which as a multi-player card game will be interesting to look into at Essen. So taking Alea as a guide, with MQ as a way point, we can perhaps deduce that Herr Hodel tends to the abstract end of gaming, but he also has enough savvy to make them a cut above the norm - adding the multi-player element and sufficient flavour and enjoyment.

The basic idea of the game is a paddle steamer race along the Mississippi river. Three to five players can start, each with their own boat, and the more the merrier as we shall see. Each steamer has two 'wheels' (you can guess where they are located) which can be turned to show current speed and coal remaining. In keeping with several race games, you can increase and decrease speed by one per turn (to a maximum of six - wooosh!), and make one free sixty degree turn on the hexagonal race grid. Any more speed changes or required turning will cost you coal, of which you have a very limited amount. The knack is to manoeuvre along the course, conserving coal, picking up and reducing speed as needed, and beat the other guys to the big landing stage at the far end.

So nothing new here then, but our Walter adds in three nice touches that make the game what it is. The first is that the course is unknown to everyone at the start of the game. The race takes place over a series of large tiles which are laid one by one as the race progresses. Each additional tile is triggered by a passing boat, and can be aligned along with, left or right of the current direction of travel. True to the Mississippi and a good way of adding uncertainty to each game. The resolution is as simple as rolling a die which tells you where the next tile will be laid. Each tile is subtly different, featuring islands, narrow channels and, importantly, sometimes landing stages which are the basis of the next twist.

Each pier holds two passengers - ladies of social standing, eagerly awaiting their beaus - and you must pick up two during the course of the race. Sounds easy, but everyone is trying to get the same passengers and you have to be moving very slowly to dock without risking an embarrassing splash as they board. The decision then is whether to bob around with all the other idiots trying to get the first available fares, or to skip them and head on to the next. Of course someone else will try the same thing and you'll have the same problem downstream. Even hurtling towards the very furthest passengers (there are a limited number after all) will not guarantee your victory, but it will make you feel good.

The final, and decisive, subtlety is ramming. Picture a narrow channel with a landing stage at the end. Amos neatly pulls in, sidles up to the pier at the right speed and picks up Lute May. Billie Bob is hot on his tail, he 'brakes' down to two ready to pull in next turn and bag the second passenger. Clitus is miffed because he cannot now get past or pick up a passenger, so he cuts speed and waits in the hope there will be an elementary error (of which there are many, even on 'completely bleeding obvious' moves). Finally Denzil, moving at a fair clip, finds himself unable to steer around the traffic jam, or to profitably slow down, so instead he throws another coal on the fire and rams into Clitus' stern with a hearty cheer. Clitus shunts forward into the next hex, Billie Bob follows suit, and all hell lets loose as plans are wrecked and passengers are left behind. The more steamers there are, the more interaction there is and the more friends you can lose. Excellent stuff.

This in turn leads to the only slight drawback in the game, which may or may not be illusory. I throw myself open to the public on this one, but either way it should not spoil your enjoyment too much. The problem is that with a lot of players, and a late start from the gate, you can get horribly stuck in traffic early on. Five boats rushing for the obvious routes means you can't always get round or through, and the first player seems, subjectively, to have a slight advantage. Once everyone has spread out it is less of a hindrance, but you can, as I did twice, effectively lose two or three turns at the start. Worryingly then, in the first two games, the start order was replicated at the finish... Coincidence I'm sure, but something to watch, or perhaps fix if there is a small problem here.

The feel of the game is very interesting. It is one of those systems that offers a deceptive readout on the relative positions. A player may be dead last on the river, but with two passengers on board and no further stops to make, he could well be in excellent shape for the win. Even better if he has conserved his coal to make any last minute adjustments. Conversely, another steamer could be miles ahead, usually by virtue of sailing rapidly past the waving ladies, but he will still need to make two stops, and manoeuvre painfully into the finish. Chances are, with the abstract movement system and precious little luck, it should all come down to the wire and in the three games I've played so far, it has. Of course all of this planning can be wrecked by a piece of judicious ramming, or the even funnier predicament of moving way too fast and having to make big sweeping turns to compensate. If you get it badly wrong, there is always the ignominy of having to turn round and come back. Finally, and definitely not recommended, is the Clifford Ploy which involves going nowhere at all and waiting for the river to wrap round on itself in a big loop (blind chance, this, but it happens) and just nipping across the way to win. A truly great plan, almost without flaws, except that there is a little rule tucked away that specifically prevents the river executing such a contortion...

I liked Mississippi Queen. It reminded me of those German games from seven-odd years ago that seemed either to be a race or about delivering something somewhere, but which were always a lot of fun. Favoriten springs to mind as a game similar in weight, entertainment and feel. MQ will not be a game you play for the mental challenge, neither will it be a regular, but it will fill exactly the same slot that Favoriten does - a quick opener, a middle relief filler, or an accessible game for social game groups. It looks really good in play and is quick enough to play twice in succession. I also think it is true to say that there are no hidden depths here - it is exactly what you see and if that is sufficient to extract £25 or so from your wallet, then you'll be happy. Beyond that, I can say no more.

The Game Cabinet - editor@gamecabinet.com - Mike Siggins