Hold on to your meeples, there’s a new, juicy hand-management and track-placement game. Even though Maracaibo’s rule book is 25 pages long and the weight of components in the game box would prevent you from checking it at the airport, it’s well worth the time to learn and play with a friend. This game is complex, but all the moving parts fit together so well and the theme is strong.
Much like the games that are coming out now, Maracaibo has a solo variant, so you don’t even need a friend to enjoy this game. It’s a load of fun, so block out a couple of hours to play Maracaibo. I know the game box states 30 minutes per player, but the first game will be longer, and I think the time on the box is an underestimation of the average gamer experience.
There’s a steep learning curve to this game. It’s rules-heavy and there are a lot of tiles, cards, and pieces that include iconography that you must identify before you begin playing. My husband learned Maracaibo by reading the rules first, then watching a lengthy “watch it played” video, and finally played a three-player game with himself before he felt confident enough to teach it to me. Then, it took us about 45 minutes of set up and instructions before I set sail from Havana to my first destination on the game board.
The overall goal of the game is to earn the most victory points, not overly surprising to the seasoned gamer. However, in Maracaibo, there are so many ways to do that it can seem overwhelming at first because not only are you making a choice for that round, you are also setting yourself up for future rounds. For example, a player might choose to invest in their cards up front and rely on discounts or other advantages like placing assistants on the map while other players might head out on the explorer track and earn a bunch of bonuses that help fuel their influence with France, England, or Spain. Yet even more choices include earning bonuses on one’s own ship board or fighting against the combat tokens on the map board.
The coolest mechanism of the game is the ship movement: your turn begins with you choosing to make a slow go of it, stopping at just about every location that looks good…or you can zip around the map, forcing your opponents to choose wisely where they will invest their time. After my first time around the Caribbean in which my husband triggered the end of the round, I picked up the pace for the remaining rounds, not dawdling at the early locations as I knew there were still good opportunities later on.
The map has a clockwise route that begins in Havana and travels around the Caribbean islands and coastal regions for a total of 20 possible locations to visit. Each player chooses how far they want to sail each turn but may go no further than 7 locations from their current location. Fortunately, players don’t block locations either, but there might be a limited number of tiles and bonuses at a location that second or third arrivals won’t be able to acquire. There are even two spots on the map where the route splits and you must choose to take either the north or the south route. Both paths are appealing but not equal in distance. I usually took my time at those splits, envisioning my best path compared to what I thought my husband would take before I made my decision.
After a player moves their ship 1-7 spaces, they then get to complete an action tied to that specific location and possibly complete any available free actions. In addition, when a player is in a city location, they can deliver goods to the market, which entails a player discarding any card(s) that match the requested good. They also get to take a main action there, such as engage in combat, gain influence, acquire money, or perform a village action, even though you aren’t in a village!
When a player’s ship ends in a village location, the number of actions they may complete are determined by how far your ship sailed that turn: 1-3 spaces earns 1 village action; 4-6 spaces earns 2 village actions; 7 spaces earns 3 village actions. Village actions should not be treated lightly. They are very valuable as they let players collect much needed money, discard useless cards, and buy cards from their hand.
Cards that a player has in their hand are multifunctional: they are worth the goods pictured on the middle, left-hand side if discarded, but they also have a cost in the top, left corner that is their purchase price. Cards you own offer you other kinds of benefits like synergy tokens, permanent effects, immediate effects, income, and victory points. For example, I bought a lot of laborers that reduced the cost of future cards purchased, which was a great investment early in the game.
Once our first round was complete, I absolutely understood how the game worked and what kinds of tasks I needed to complete in order to maximize my turns and compete with my opponent in future rounds. There are many elements of this game that are individualized to each player (i.e. your own ship board, career cards, project cards, and assistants), which gives the player a sense of control and organization. It also provides each player with a slightly different experience because the bonuses on the ship board will be unlocked at different times for each player depending on their advancements.
Other than your hand of cards and personal ship board, everything else in the game is public information and available for every player to nab on their turn. For example, a player who crosses marked thresholds on the explorer track first receives better rewards than those that follow. My husband went exploring to a great advantage as not only did he receive the step-by-step benefits of each spot, but he also received those first player rewards that I did not as I trailed behind him at a slower rate. As well, certain locations on the map have only one tile and the first player who reaches that spot has the chance to fulfill that tile’s requirement, thus removing that chance for the other players. This kind of player interaction is what I appreciated the most about Maracaibo. My husband and I wanted to make the most of our turns, but we also knew that the limited resources available—if tempting enough—would go to the player who raced there first.
The game lasts four times around the Caribbean. Players have just enough time to plan ahead, work towards quests, develop their royal influence, and advance their explorers. It doesn’t last too long. Each round ends when a player’s ship reaches the homeward bound space, noted as location 20 on the map. Once this happens, all the other players then get one more turn to accomplish what they need done before an interim scoring occurs. I liked that the first player to reach the end of the map route didn’t just end the round immediately because it would be devastating to another player who was just one movement away from completing something significant. Essentially, the homeward bound space functions like a warning to other players that the end of the round is imminent.
After an interim scoring, the board and supplies are “restocked,” and the new round begins with everyone resetting to the Havana space on the map. Final scoring happens after Round 4 and includes long-term goals/accomplishments like income points, project card completion, influence with the nations, and noble points. The player with the most points wins the game. Our game was very close and I wasn’t sure who was winning until the final tally, which made for an intense and exciting game.
As an added bonus, this game has a campaign variant that allows for the game to develop and change based on story cards that are added to the game as you continue playing. It might take your first game to really understand the balance and effective strategies in Maracaibo, but the incentive to play again is built in with the campaign route. So find your most dedicated friends—or play solo—and enjoy a game of Maracaibo.