Thoughts From The Gameroom

The ramblings of a Euro-gamer from South Dakota

My Favorite Game

Posted by sodaklady on February 19, 2007

Magna Grecia by Michael Schacht and Leo Colovini.

This was originally posted on my previous blog, Meeple Monologues, on Sept. 24, 2006.

Magna Grecia

After a long absence from the game table, I got to play Magna Grecia again on Saturday and it reminded me why this is still my favorite among the heavier games in my collection.

I originally bought it when there was very little information to be found because of the Turn Tiles, which are still very cool and one of the reasons I enjoy the game. This is the only bit of luck in the game and the second most-complained about aspect. The tiles show the turn order as well as the allowed actions for the current turn—the number of roads you can build, the number of city tiles you can place, or the number of tiles you can restock to your supply. They are shuffled and stacked in such a way that there is randomness to the turn order but you will never go too long without being first player. Some people don’t like this randomness but I think it’s unique and interesting. The other complaint I’ve read about deals with the color on the edge of each tile which can be glimpsed while the tiles are stacked and give away who will be the first player for each turn. The simple solution is to stack the tiles face down.

The most popular complaint for this game is, of course, the color scheme. I have to agree even though I have no problem discerning the difference between red, orange, yellow and brown. It sounds lovely in an aesthetically pleasing, decorator sense but for a board game, it’s a bad combination.

Alright, now that we’ve gotten the complaints out of the way, let’s talk about what really sings about this game. This takes us back to the Turn Tiles which each have a different combination of road and city tiles that you can lay on that turn and a number of tiles (in any combination of road/city) that you can restock. Since you can only do 2 of the 3 actions each turn, this game has a very tough hand-management aspect which I love. It reminds me of Hacienda which also forces you do choose between building what you feel you really need and restocking your hand. The difference in Magna Grecia is that you not only see what this turn has to offer, but the next turn as well because 2 Turn Tiles are displayed. This removes the luck of the draw that games like Hacienda and China have; you always know what’s coming up and you have no one to blame but yourself for a bad choice of actions.

The scoring is straight forward in Magna Grecia. I don’t have to deal with getting cards to turn into cubes which I use to buy buildings that have powers which I can use to earn points. (The preceding is an exaggeration and not intended to represent any particular game.) Markets placed in your cities, or a market in another player’s city that connect to one of your cities earn a point for each road leading somewhere. Temples earn 4 points for the most prominent city (the one with the most roads) that connects to it. I don’t like games where I have to deal with the “trickle down” system to earn points.

Another under-appreciated design feature is the distribution of city tiles and road tiles that each player has. The first time I played, I built small cities and lots of roads with the result that I ran out of roads before the last turn. This small but important feature means you are forced to build bigger cities rather than just run roads all over the countryside. Others have complained about this but I see it as hand-management within hand-management and I think it’s excellent.

To make the game even more interesting, let’s throw in money management. You see, not all of your actions are free. Every city tile you place costs you 1 point, building a market in someone else’s city costs you 1 point for each city tile in that city plus 1 point for each market already there. At the beginning of the game, you are given a set amount of points to spend and when they’re gone you either don’t place any more city tiles or markets, or you sell one of your markets.

This leads to the most interesting and lucrative strategy of the game, let’s call it the Sell and Expand strategy. The rules allow each player to have only one market in a city but what if you expand one city so that it connects to another city, creating one large city? One of those markets is eliminated from the game. The trick is to sell one of the markets before you expand your city and eliminate the sold market. I’ve read arguments about this not being a profitable move but in the game I played Saturday, I expanded a 5-point city, scored the 5 points, expanded again and scored the 7 points and at the end of the game scored 9 points for my new and improved city. To put it clearly, I scored my original 5-point city three times. I won by a considerable amount so I don’t want to argue about it!

Since I am not put off by “Take That” games, let’s not forget that aspect of Magna Grecia. You can cut off people’s roads if they leave them unfinished or build a road that blocks an opponent from reaching his destination. You build a cheap market in an opponent’s city and, if you’ve chosen well, share his points. You may decide to Super Size your turn action, catching your opposition off guard.

Ah, yes, Super Sizing your turn. Another wonderful option in case there weren’t already enough. If you so choose, you can decide to take only one action this turn (instead of two) but now you’re allowed more city or road tiles to build or more tiles to replenish. This can be a very handy and surprising move, getting you where you want to go before someone can cut you off or block you.

Magna Grecia is an excellent game that keeps the tension on through every turn, every decision. It’s a shame that the color scheme, especially the nauseatingly yellow board in the original production, kept so many people from enjoying this bit of brilliance from Leo Colovini and Michael Schacht. Rio Grande Games now shows it as being out of print and that really is too bad because, in my estimation, it’s a wonderful gamer’s game.

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