Design by Masao Suganuma
Published by Grounding, Inc.
2 – 4 Players, 30 – 45 minutes
Review by: Greg J. Schloesser
Japon Brand has developed quite the reputation for publishing small games that appear nondescript, yet despite their tiny size, are quite dynamic and creative. Due to very limited distribution channels, their games are often quite difficult to obtain. A few have been republished by companies whose distribution is considerably wider, but eager gamers are usually forced to wait months and sometimes over a year before they can finally obtain copies of these highly south-after games.
This trend is continuing with Machi Koro, a wonderfully fun and engaging design by Masao Suganuma that was released at the Spiel in Essen, where it became an instant sensation. My understanding is that they quickly sold out of available copies, particularly the English edition. An English publisher has just been announced (IDW Games), but it could be months (or even longer) before it finally hits store shelves. **Greg, IDW says that release date is July 2014. Thus, English copies are extremely difficult to find. A shame, as this is a fun game that is sure to prove very popular.
The game is quite simple. Players roll dice and spend money to acquire new establishments for their growing city. The first player to successfully construct four special building wins the race to build the model city, thereby winning the game. It is fast, fun and sometimes frustrating as you watch your supply of cash be stolen by your greedy competitors.
The game is comprised of a deck of cards, two dice and some coins. Cards are divided into numerous categories, delineated by a number or number range. Numbers range from 1 – 12, and there are a multiple of most numbers. The numbers represent the range of possible outcomes when rolling one or two dice. There are numerous cards of each number, allowing players to acquire multiples of each, if they so desire.
Each card grants a specific power, mostly related to income. Some trigger on anyone’s turn, while others only trigger on the active player’s turn. These are color-coded for quick recognition. For example, all blue cards trigger on anyone’s turn, while green and purple cards only trigger on the active player’s turn. Red cards only trigger on an opponent’s turn. For example, the wheat field activates whenever someone rolls a “1”, while furniture factory provides its benefit only when the active player rolls an “8”.
Each player begins the game with two establishments (a wheat field and bakery), three coins and four “under construction” special buildings. These four special buildings do not provide any benefit until they are constructed. They range in cost from 4 – 22 and may be constructed in any order. The ultimate goal of the game is to be the first to construct all four of these establishments.
A player’s turn is quite simple: roll one die, determine who collects income, then purchase an establishment, if desired. As described above, a building only activates if the matching number is rolled. Due to the color-coding of the cards, this is easy to spot and resolve. After paying any money due to opponents (if the roll triggered their cafés or family restaurants), the player collects his income (if any) and may then purchase one establishment, either from the general supply or one of the player’s own special buildings. The cost of an establishment is indicated on the card and ranges from 1 – 8 for the general supply buildings and 4 – 22 for a player’s special buildings. The new establishment is placed in the player’s city array and its power will be available if and when the matching number(s) is rolled.
While the goal is to be the first to construct all of one’s special buildings, acquiring a good mix of general establishments is the means to that end. The buildings provide a variety of methods in which to earn money, including taking those funds from your opponents. For example, possession of a café entitles the player to collect a coin from any player who rolls a “3”. Own multiple cafés and you collect one coin for each! The family restaurant operates in the same manner, but entitles the owner to collect two coins from a player whenever he rolls a “9”. Constructing a stadium allows the player to collect two coins from every opponent, but only if the owner rolls a “6” on his turn. There are numerous such nasty establishments that force opponents to part with their hard-earned funds. This is a vital lesson in Machi Koro: wealth is fleeting.
Each special building provides a specific ability once constructed. For example, the station allows the player to roll up to two dice, which makes the higher range of numbers accessible. The super-expensive radio tower—which costs a whopping 22 coins—allows the player to reroll any of his dice, while the amusement park gives the player another turn if he rolls doubles. The most complicated is the shopping mall, which provides additional coins if the player owns certain establishments. There has been confusion as to when this actually triggers and who must pay the additional coins earned. Some say the bank pays the additional coins, while other say it is the player who rolled the dice. We always play that the additional funds are paid from the bank, but various forums have suggested that the money is paid by the active player. The game works fine either way.
The game usually plays to completion in 30 – 45 minutes. It is a bit longer than filler, but still quick enough so as not to overstay its welcome. It never fails to generate squeals of glee when a desired number is rolled, or moans of despair when opponents force you to pay funds to them.
There are various strategies to pursue, as many of the cards complement or supplement others. For example, the value of each wheat fields is doubled if a player’s fruit and vegetable market is triggered. If the player owns multiple fruit and vegetable markets, this compounds the income even further. There are several such combinations, and the wise player will seek to accumulate the appropriate cards so as to enjoy a potential windfall. With four players, it can be tough to gather too many of one card, as others will also be vying to acquire them.
In spite of its simplicity, the game forces players to make many interesting decisions each turn. Buy or not to buy? What strategy to pursue? What establishment should be purchased? Do I save my money and risk having it stolen, or keep buying, hoping for a windfall on a future turn? The game is a race, as the first to construct all four special buildings is the winner. There is no need to worry about assembling victory points.
There is also an expansion, but all of the cards are in Japanese. There is a translation sheet, but this will likely slow down the proceedings. The game would likely go much faster with English cards or at least paste-ups, which is something I hope to do soon.
Fortunately the game plays very well without any expansions. It seems meant to be a fast, fun game that presents players with some interesting choices. I don’t think it is meant to be a deep, strategy game that will have virtually limitless expansions. It has proven quite popular with just about everyone whom I’ve introduced it, including both gamers and family and friends. It is just the type of game one has come to expect from the folks at Japon Brand.
Thoughts of Other Opinionated Gamers:
Larry: (1 play) The good news is that the math behind the card probabilities seems sound and that the game plays quickly. But the bad news is that this is just an exercise in dice rolling. There’s lots of decisions to be made and one or two of them might even matter, but the simple truth is that if you’re lucky with the dice, you’ll win and if you’re not, you won’t. If Augustus is Gamer Bingo, then Machi Koro is Gamer LCR and I really need something that exercises the brain a bit more than this. I suppose I can kind of see why this has been popular with many groups, but I’m happy to leave the dice rolling to others.
Joe Huber (14 plays): Um – no, Larry. Yes, dice rolling plays a large role (roll?) in the results – just as it does in Settlers. But there’s still plenty of room for strategy – just as in Settlers. Now – it’s still a lighter game, and luck _does_ play a significant part in determining who wins. But it’s a charming game – far more charming, in my opinion, than Augustus – and one that was a hit with me from the first play. Further, it’s gone over well with the vast majority of folks I’ve played it with – the charm might not be universal, but I’d estimate that more than 80% of those I’ve taught it to have enjoyed it enough to wish to play it again, which with the varied crowds I play with is a remarkable success.
I do disagree with Greg on one point – while it’s not a deep strategy game, that would by no means seem to preclude limitless expansions. The one existing expansion doesn’t fill even a small portion of the obvious available game space.
Mark Jackson (2 plays): It’s a small city-building game that packs a lot of fun into a small deck of cards & a pair of dice. What’s not small is the amount of fun I had playing it. It’s a filler game where the value of some of the cards changes with the number of players in the game – and where your choice about how many dice to roll can affect not only you but the rest of the players in the game.
I’m with Joe – I think there’s a lot of ways to expand this game that could make for a “deeper” gaming experience.
(7 plays): Admittedly, I have never played a session of Machi Koro that did not include this year’s expansion, Machi Koro Plus. But I have found this to be a delightful little game that provides plenty of meaningful decisions in a relatively short time frame. As others have noted, the artwork is charming, and I find the game generates a rather zen-like attitude in me: the dice giveth, and the dice taketh away. If I have one concern, it might be that a few of the cards from the expansion (most notably the tuna fishboat) produce such a high variance that they tend be extremely popular with players who would rather gamble on a windfall than slowly accumulate resources. And that in turn undermines some of the more interesting tactical decisions. But, overall, this one of my favorite games from a relatively mediocre year, weight notwithstanding.
Fraser (2 plays sans expansion): Yes it is a dice game, and I certainly was helped in winning one of the games due to my luck / skill in rolling 8s when one of my opponents was inept at rolling 7s. It is far from a straight dice game though. Once you have built the appropriate building you choose whether or not to roll one die or two and this decision would be based on the buildings you have already bought. There is certainly the aspect that if a given player is maxing out in a particular type of building other players either need to get some of those buildings to reduce the impact or make sure they can win first (quite possibly by maxing out in a different building). It’s not quite the Kill Doctor Lucky syndrome where if player X doesn’t do something right now player Y will win, but it is on the way to it. Do we have a name for that syndrome or can I claim naming rights? Anyway, definitely a dice game, luck is involved, there are reasonably interesting decisions, also it is quite quick (we played two four player games back to back and I would have thought they both came in well under 30 minutes). We liked it and I just heard today and English (re)print was due. A high probability it will end up in our collection.
Mary P (1 play, base game): Meh. I sort of agree with Larry – the guy who won our 4 player game even admitted he got lucky with a couple rolls allowing him to win. The beginning part of the game was rather dull – pretty much everyone did the same thing for a few rounds. It was an OK game; I may play it again with the expansion. I could see where it would get better with more card choices than offered in the base game.
4 (Love it!): Joe Huber, Mark Jackson, W. Eric Martin, Ben McJunkin
3 (Like it): Greg J. Schloesser, John P, Erik Arneson, Fraser
2 (Neutral): Mary Prasad
1 (Not for me): Larry
I certainly feel the similarity to Settlers, but I really miss the lack of trading. Machi Koro feels to me like Settlers without trading, and that’s not enjoyable to me.
The expansion is a must not only for the new cards that combo off each other in more interesting ways, but more importantly, the way the cards are drafted compared to the base game. Instead of having a fixed set to choose from, cards get replaced by new ones making the game more unpredictable and dynamic.