Game review: Magnum Sal

Designer: Marcin Krupinski and Filip Milunski
Publisher: Leonardo Games
Players: 2 – 4
Ages: 10+
Time: 1 – 2 hours


From the moment I saw this game set up at the Leonardo Games booth at Spiel 2010 in Essen I knew it looked like the kind of game I’d like.  The game art, the wooden meeples, the layout of the board—it screamed classic Eurogame.  Of course, this could mean that there was absolutely nothing innovative about the game—just another Euroclone.  Cheerfully I report that this was not the case.  It was just enough Euroclone to be exactly the kind of game I like while having enough unique characteristics to make it a very worthwhile addition to my game collection.

During three weeks (rounds), players are sending their meeples down into the salt mines to gather salt and then taking it to the King to satisfy contracts that pay out money.  Since your money is also your victory points at the end of the game, you must choose wisely when spending your cash on additional miners, on tools that allow them to mine more efficiently, on transportation for your salt out of the mines, or that one missing piece of salt that you could buy from the market in order to satisfy the King’s most valuable contract.  You also must decide when to forge ahead aggressively in the mine, attempting to be the first to find the rarest salt (white cubes), when to poise yourself to swoop in on someone else’s salt discoveries, and when to sit back and earn a few coins here and there by transporting the salt of others and collecting fees for overseeing the work.  Essentially, you get the nice balance of too many choices and multiple paths to victory expected from a nice Eurogame.

One unexpected aspect of Magnum Sal is the relatively thorough resetting of the game between the three weeks.  All miners return from the tunnels, all unfulfilled contracts are cleared away, new tools and miners become available and players may feel a bit like they are starting from scratch.  I was initially worried that this would give the game some unnecessary slowness as players must ramp up their networks of miners all over again, but instead, I found that it added a really nice and relatively unique flavor to the game play.  Do I race to try to fill one last contract, buy one last tool, or extract one more load of salt before the current week ends?  Or do I save up so that I’m ready to pounce on the new opportunities about to be made available?  Do I head back to the part of the mine that I worked so hard to stretch out to last round?  Or do I strike off in an entirely new direction—either cleaning up the remaining less valuable salt left behind by other players or driving deeper into the mine for more valuable salt?

The best part of all is that with very clearly written rules that are easily taught and a very reasonable playing time of slightly over an hour, if I don’t like the way I played my game this time, I know it will be very easy to get the game to the table again for another try next time.  After bringing the game to CABS (Columbus Area Boardgaming Society) just once or twice, I already know of several clubs members who have made overseas orders to purchase their own copies.  This one is a keeper.

Game play specifics

Players start with 4 miners, a cube of brown salt (the least valuable type), and varying amounts of money depending on player order.  I do think that the money offsets any player order advantage.  However, start player does rotate after each week and in a 4 player game, one player will never be start player.  After several games I haven’t found this to be a major disadvantage so far.  The board is set up with tools available for purchase, contracts for salt from the King which will earn you money, a market where salt can be bought and sold, a building where new miners can be hired, and so on.  The mine itself is made up of a central shaft with three levels.  The first level will reveal mostly brown salt with some green salt (the next most valuable kind).  Also, there tends to be little water.  What’s the water?  It’s something that makes the salt more difficult to extract.  If a tile has 3 pieces of salt and 2 cubes of water, I would need 5 miners to get the salt out all at once.  Or, I could spend an action removing the water and then it would only take 3 miners to remove 3 pieces of salt.  The second level is more brown, even more green, and a little bit of white (the most valuable salt).  Also, the second level has more water.  The third level has more green and white salt and, of course, more water.  The exact composition of salt and water in a chamber is only revealed when a miner explores.

On your turn you may take 2 actions.  The most obvious action is to explore the mines.  Any number of miners from any number of players can occupy the same space, so you can always send a miner in to join any already explored space—or you can move one space beyond the current chain of miners.  You can move miners that are already in the mine, but you cannot break the chain of miners that connect the dudes deep down from the surface.  This means that if you are the only player on a space in the middle of the central shaft, that miner may be stuck there.  Once your miners have uncovered salt, the next most likely action is to remove the water.  You can remove one cube of water for free, or you can pay money to remove more.  It takes another action to extract the salt.  You must have one miner per salt cube you plan to extract (with extra miners if there is water) AND you must have a miner in each space between you and the surface or the money to pay other players’ miners to transport your salt for you.  For each space where you don’t have a worker it costs you one coin per cube of salt.  That can get expensive!  Your other choices for actions include buying tools, hiring an additional miner, buying and selling salt at the market, taking a pity dollar, sending a dude to oversee a specific area (for example, you can oversee the area where tools are purchased and any time a player buys a tool, the bank pays you one coin) or sending a guy to the King to fulfill a contract (a 3 turn process that can make timing tricky).

Once 5 contracts have been fulfilled in a week, the round ends (with the player to the right of the start player) , the miners all come home, and the board is reset for the next round.  After three weeks, the players add up their money.  Tools are also worth money at the end of the game and each leftover salt cube is worth 3 coins.  The player with the most money wins!

Getting your hands on a copy might be trickier than placing an order on Amazon, but it is well worth the effort.

I’d rather be gaming,
Valerie Putman

From other opinionated gamers:

Patrick Korner’s Opinion (1 play): Overall I agree with what Valerie has said, but my opinion (after admittedly only a single play) was that the way the game handles tools may not be quite where it should be. A pickaxe, for example, lets you mine an extra block of salt with only a single worker, which can be a huge boon to the player who gets it early. There are an equal number of pickaxes (three) as there are of any other tool in the game, but the way they come out is completely random. So missing out on the first one can be a real bummer if the other two don’t show up until it’s almost too late. Also, the pickaxe is usually a better buy than the bucket, which lets you bail water (one cube’s worth) out of one section of the mine into another. Generally, the cost of overcoming that water instead won’t be as high as the value of a second salt cube, which to me means that one tool is strictly better than another. I’d have been happier to see all the tools have a similar level of effect, but can fully appreciate how difficult that would probably be to make a reality. So overall I’m happy with the game as-is and will gladly play it – it just won’t quite make my ‘best of 2010’ list.

Dale Yu’s Opinion (4 plays): I like it. I have played it four times now, and I think it’s a good take on the worker placement game.  Valerie has summed up the gameplay nicely.  After those 4 games, I finally have figured out what I like about this game — it’s that it takes a bunch of familiar mechanics from other games/genres and rolls them all together into a nice package.  I like the Caylus-like idea of “owning” a building and then getting paid for it when people use it.  There’s a bit of “worker placement” feel to the game as you need to use your meeples for many of the different actions, especially going down the mine — but not as limiting as people can go to the same places and do the same actions.  I very much like the anticipation and luck involved in flipping over a mining tile.  Finally, the manipulation of water cubes is very reminiscent of what I feel is the best part of Tinner’s Trail – as it provides an interesting puzzle for the player to figure out what will be the best way to extract salt from the mine.  When I first played it, I was definitely in the “I like it” camp, but after 4 plays, each one better than the previous one, I have moved into the “I love it!” group instead.

Also, it might be easier to find this game in the future… From the Facebook page of the game: “”We can announce that we found distributor in USA and that is Global Games Distribution company. You can visit their page , they should have MS soon in order list, you can also ask them by e-mail.”  This is great news, and should help other gamers get this game on to the table.

Mary Prasad’s Opinion: Good game, somewhat reminiscent of Freya’s Folly but a bit heavier in game play (e.g. requires more planning). I agree with Patrick on the randomness/unevenness of the tools being a slight negative but I look forward to playing it again.

Jonathan Franklin’s Opinion: I liked Magnum Sal because it feels thematic yet very clean.  Rule clarification: The number of extra workers per round are limited to the number of circles.  You may not buy more workers at the price listed in the final circle.  For those who find the game too ‘lucky’, some play with all the mine tiles face up, or the six tiles next to the shaft face up.  Thematically, it is easy to imagine the mine has been explored but not yet mined.

Larry Levy’s Opinion (1 game played):  Magnum Sal is a solid enough game, but I don’t think it features anything we haven’t seen numerous times before.  It also seems to drag on a bit longer than it should.  I would have no trouble playing it again, but there are better Worker Placement games out there and, to be honest, I don’t think it did enough to distinguish itself from the glut of new Essen titles.

Doug Garrett’s Opinion (1 game played):  Though it does not earn a “Love it!” from me, I enjoyed my first playing of the game and hope to get it to the table again soon.  That one playing was with 4 new players and took 2 hours, so I am hoping that we can speed up the process and that it will work well with 2 players as well.

Ratings summary from the Opinionated gamers:

Love it! (2)  ………. Valerie Putman, Dale Yu
Like it (7) …………. Patrick Korner, Ted Alspach, Mary Prasad, Jonathan Franklin, Doug Garrett, Lucas Hedgren, Mike Siggins
Neutral (2)……….. Larry Levy, John Palagyi
Not for me… (0)

About Valerie Putman

I'm a prof. I'm a gamer. I'm an animal behaviorist. I'm a girl. But the one word used to describe me most often? "Enthusiastic."
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2 Responses to Game review: Magnum Sal

  1. Tim Mierz says:

    It’s amazing how much my opinion on the game based on your review changed just from one paragraph to the next.

    “…players are sending their meeples down into the salt mines to gather salt and then taking it to the King to satisfy contracts that pay out money.” – Get me out of here! This sounds ridiculously boring!

    “Do I race to try to fill one last contract, buy one last tool, or extract one more load of salt before the current week ends? Or do I save up so that I’m ready to pounce on the new opportunities about to be made available? Do I head back to the part of the mine that I worked so hard to stretch out to last round? Or do I strike off in an entirely new direction—either cleaning up the remaining less valuable salt left behind by other players or driving deeper into the mine for more valuable salt?” – Full of interesting choices? NOW we’re talking! Bring it on!

  2. Frank Hamrick says:

    This one has held my interest since watching the live video demo at Essen via the ‘Geek. But, I am still waiting to actually see this one played. Am just not sure if it is distinct enough to separate itself from so many Euro’s I own that have a sameness to them. Thus far, I have five Essen releases (7 Wonders, Antics!, London, Navegador, and Troyes. They are all (IMO) very unique games. Euro, but not the typical Euro-clone. (I don’t fully know what that means, but you probably get the idea). :)

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