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A friend exposed Eileene to the board game Macao recently, and she was so enthusiastic that we got our own copy. We tried it out this weekend as a two-player game. I’m not sure I share her enthusiasm.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with Macao, and much that is right. You get a big, attractive board and pieces. You get a series of difficult, sometimes agonizing, choices on both tactical and strategic levels. You get an interesting new turn dynamic: just about anything you’d like to do requires color-coded action cubes, which are introduced by random dice roll. High rolls offer lots of cubes, but the cubes actually enter play after a number of turns equal to the number of cubes, so you must choose between a few actions now or lots of actions later. There’s enough here to chew on.

But then, there’s not a lot to set Macao above its competitors, either. High production values and agonizing decisions are easy to come by in today’s market.

Macao fails to stand out because it lacks elegance. It often feels needlessly complex, and not just because the P/B/O cards have unique effects. By the half-way mark of my first game, I’d gotten the hang of the turn sequence, but scoring, while easy to calculate, is too tangled to plan. Macao employs the technique common among German family games of awarding points for everything, with a different formula for every game element: people cards, building cards, office cards, the advancing compass rose, action cubes in six colors, coins, city neighborhoods, trade goods, trade ships and European ports, wild chips, and penalty chips for skipping certain turn sequences can all potentially gain or lose points. Some gain a point a turn, if the right condition is met; some allow you to collect various tokens for points; some allow you to trade various tokens for points—and typically you must either set aside the tokens before knowing how many points they will be worth, or commit to the option before knowing whether you’ll have the tokens available to trade. This kind of busywork and blind bidding lets the kiddies and the casual duffers feel like they’re doing something useful all the time, but it prevents skilled and attentive players from developing meaningful strategies, or even figuring out who’s winning at any given moment.

This lack of information isn’t a deal-breaker. You do get to see some information ahead of time: which two office cards will be available in each of the game’s twelve turns, for example, and how many action cubes are coming your way as the compass rose counts down. That’s half the equation, and allows you some control over your fate. Experience will eventually produce a sense of whether claiming neighborhoods and shipping the goods they contain, or buying tribute, or activating P/B/O cards is the most cost-effective way to turn action cubes into points, and therefore the backbone of a good strategy. Getting there, however, will take dedication and many replays. Even then, the highly random introduction of action cubes will permit even the most savvy players no more than a certain degree of risk management—heavy on the risk, light on the management. And the casual player will never progress beyond floating randomly on the game’s changing currents.

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