“Mayor of Machi Koro” is an ambitious title. As you look over your solitary wheat field, over your lonely bakery and your optimistic city hall, you dream of airports and train stations and restaurants and cafés and airports. You dream of a moon tower. Yes, a fricking moon tower. Someday, you think, it will all be real. Someday my Machi Koro will be better than all the other Machi Koros.
Maybe you cackle a bit. Everybody round the table will look at you.
Right off the bat we should mention that this is not a review of the Machi Koro base game but a review of its stand-alone expansion. Our local games shop ran out of copies of the base game, but some very quick research revealed that Bright Lights… includes the base game, the base game’s harbour expansion — an expansion which fixes some of the base game’s well-documented problems — and slightly tweaked rules that may or may not improve the whole game; and you can get Bright Lights… for roughly the same price as the base game alone.
So with that out of the way, let’s talk about the game. Machi Koro is a very simple game to learn, but it has surprising depths which are not apparent when you look at the very cute artwork. Here’s how it works: On your turn you roll a dice, and then everybody checks the items in their town/city to see if the numbers on the top of any of their cards correspond to the number rolled on the dice. If the numbers correspond you might get to collect some money. Your bakery, for example, lets you collect money when you roll a two or a three. Your wheat field gives you money when you roll a one. Once you’ve collected your money you have the option to buy one item from a market which looks like this:
You might have noticed that the cards are different colours. There’s a reason: the different colours denote when you can use that card. Green cards collect money on your own turn and blue cards collect money when any player rolls that card’s corresponding number (so everybody’s wheat field gets them a coin when any player rolls a one). Red cards let you steal money from other players, but only when another player rolls the corresponding number. So buying a café won’t get you anything if you roll a three, but it will let you take money from another player when another player rolls a three. And you can buy multiple copies of the same thing; buy more cafés and you get to claim more money each time a three is rolled. Buy another bakery and you double the money you collect when you roll a two or a three.
But here’s where Machi Koro gets interesting, and where you start to think about the numerous ways you can play. You see, collecting a lot of the same thing will let you collect a lot more money in one turn, but what if you never roll that number? Dice gods have the worst sense of humour of any gods, and they’ll have great fun making you roll fours when the only number you don’t want to roll is four. And what if you have a bunch of cafés but nobody’s rolling threes? That’s a lot of turns you’re going to spend not getting any money, a lot of turns in which you could be in danger of being left behind. So maybe it’s better to diversify, to buy different types of card so you can collect money on as many dice rolls as possible? Well, yes, but you’ll collect tiny amounts at a time. And what if other people are buying cafés? Rolling a three could wipe out your delicately accumulated finances. Which is kind of your own fault: stop drinking coffee in other people’s cafés.
There’s a surprising amount of tactical depth to what’s advertised as a simple and very cute drafting game. But you’re not doing all this drafting aimlessly; that moon tower you really want is just one of six unbuilt landmarks that every player gets at the beginning of the game. (Included in these landmarks is a city hall, but you get that one for free and so it doesn’t really count.) Build your six landmarks before anybody else and you win the game.
This isn’t easy; though some of them are really cheap, some of your landmarks are really expensive (no surprises here, but moon towers don’t come cheap). Crucially, buying a landmark gives you an upgrade which potentially changes how you play the game. You might have noticed that some of the cards you can buy in the market display a seven or higher; you’d be forgiven for wondering what the point of these cards is when you’re only rolling one dice at a time — how do you roll more than a six? Well, of course you don’t roll a six with one dice, but if you build a train station you’ll suddenly have the magic ability to roll two dice. Suddenly, your strategic options are massively increased. You can buy higher numbered cards, cards which typically have bigger rewards than smaller numbered cards. But you’ve also just increased the number of dice combinations you can roll. So now what do you do? Do you diversify even more or do you consolidate and stick with one or two numbers, knowing you have less chance of hitting one of them? Maybe you stick to the more common sixes and sevens and eights?
Sticking with the common numbers makes a lot of sense; but before you head down this last path, consider Machi Koro’s purple cards. Purple cards typically occupy those more common numbers — the sixes, sevens and eights. And they’re mean cards. They’re so mean that you’re only allowed to own one of each. Purple cards are things like tax offices, which let you take a proportion of other players’ money. Purple cards are also business centres, which let you exchange all of your money for another player’s money. That’s great if they’ve got money and you haven’t. But equally, somebody could do the same to you. You just spent half an hour amassing a small fortune and now it’s somebody else’s fortune.
And here’s the thing: there’s so much to-and-fro in this game that trying to make money is largely a thankless, arduous task — an arduous task that makes Machi Koro a long game. It’s advertised as taking a short 35-40 minutes to play, but your first few games especially can clock in at over two hours. Because there are so many ways to not only construct your city but to disrupt the cities of other players, much of the game is spent gaining money only to have it stolen as soon as you have it, or it’s spent failing to roll the dice numbers that’ll really make a difference.
This isn’t a small point: games will be won or lost at the whim of a dice. For all the strategies you can employ, Machi Koro will often be won by the player who hits the magic combination of cards and dice at just the right time. (This isn’t even a joke: I once won a game of Machi Koro purely by rolling two double-sixes in a row.) But it’s difficult to predict what that combination’s going to be; sure, some strategies might be better than others, and sure there are ways to play that will definitely disrupt other players who are in danger of hitting that combination, but most of the time the game will amble nowhere for two hours and suddenly somebody will roll the right dice and the game will explode into victory.
But here’s the funny thing: Machi Koro is still a good game. It’s simple. It’s fun. It’s funny. It’s funny when your friend rolls yet another four when he needs anything but a four, and then he wises up and buys a card which has a four on it…and then never rolls another four. And ultimately here’s the thing: Machi Koro is often won by serendipitous dice rolls, but those dice rolls can’t come up if you don’t gamble on them. In the game I won with two double-sixes, I couldn’t have won if I didn’t have the combination of cards I needed. But I did, because I gambled on having them. Ultimately then, Machi Koro is a gambler’s game; and there are few feelings better than taking a chance on a high-scoring card…and then rolling the exact number you need.
If you’re looking for a game in which your choices are meaningful, in which the things you do have a definite, tangible impact, then Machi Koro is not for you. If you want to walk away from the table knowing that you won or lost because of the decisions you made, Machi Koro will leave you frustrated. For everyone else, I’d recommend you pick up your mayoral sash and give it a twirl.
Number of players: 2-5
Playing time: 30 minutes (officially)
Designer: Masauo Suganuma
Publisher: IDW Games, Pandasaurus Games
Recommended soundtrack: Big in Japan by Tom Waits