Macao board game: A four-sided review

The Macao board game is a complex euro game designed by Stefan Feld, first released in 2009. It’s for 2-4 players and takes around two hours to play. The suggested age range of 12+ is probably about right as there’s a lot going on.

I’ve decided to cover this old classic for a few reasons. It’s the highest rated game in my Top 50 (spoiler alert!) that I haven’t reviewed. And it featured in my recent Top 10 games on Yucata – so it’s currently playable online. Great for all those of us who are self-isolating.

Macao is an interesting game in terms of feel and mechanics. There are a lot of classic euro tropes. You are collecting resources (wooden cubes) to pay for people and buildings (cards). These (hopefully!) form into an engine to produce more resources, but also victory points. But as with some other Feld designs, the real driving forces revolve around the level of risk you want to take. And how you deal with the luck – or lack of – that roles your way.

The ‘theme’ is a classic example of the German ‘pasted on’ period of the 90s/2000s. Miserable looking man on cover, beige board, 17th Century trading city etc. In terms of game play, the topic doesn’t make sense either – so if theme is important for you, prepare for the worst. And then get over it, because the game play is worth it. Alongside the beige board you’ll find four beige player boards, 120 small beige cards, 118 cardboard bits, 314 wooden pieces and six dice. The component quality, art and price are all standard.

Teaching the Macao board game

Macao is quite easy to teach along with, as players don’t have any hidden information. For example, at the start of each of the 12 rounds players choose a card from a display. This allows you to talk through what each one does before decisions are made. The chosen card is added to the player’s board to be paid for (and benefited from) later. But ultimately they will give players flexibility, extra resources, and/or a way to gain victory points.

Next, someone rolls a set of six different coloured dice. These represent resources and each player will choose two of the dice (you can pick any two, including those chosen by other players). You take as many resources in that colour as the dice number rolled (1-6). But you get them sooner the lower the number. So, if you take one resource of a colour, you’ll get it that turn. But if you want six of a colour, you’re not going to get them for five more turns.

The card you choose at the start of each round will need 1-4 resources to claim from your player board, in 1-4 colours. The better the card, the harder the combo: a great card may need four different resources. No problem, you may think. But you’re not allowed to carry resources over from round to round. You need all those colours to arrive in the same round – so you may never see the right resources fall into the right slots. Worse still, your board only has space for five cards – so you have to keep completing them or face a pretty harsh points penalty for any you have to discard.

Herding cats

If you’re lucky, you can mitigate things over time. Some cards allow you to take a cube of your choice each round, for example. So, do you go for easy cards to build, that won’t do you much good? Or go for the big risks, hoping for the reward of great card actions? It makes for really tricky decisions each round, while also giving players a nice mix of really quick and really massively productive rounds. If you have no pressing issues, why not take two sixes – and see at least 12 cubes arrive in five turns’ time?

Spending your cubes isn’t just about paying for cards. That would be too easy. You can also spend them on buying goods (to place on your ship); moving said ship to various ports to deliver said goods; and moving along a track that determines turn order. Which can be super useful, as it gives you first pick of the cards each round. In classic euro style, you’ll want to do all these things all the time while rarely having enough cubes to do half of it.

After 12 rounds you’ll add your points from cards with end-game scoring to those received during the game for delivered goods (and some card abilities). But you’ll lose points for any cards you’ve failed to pay for. And yes, you have to take a card every round – including the last one. Add it all up, and someone other than me wins.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: My favourite Stefan Feld designs tend to be the agonising ones which can mess with you via luck. Macao, Notre Dame and Oracle of Delphi all do this beautifully, with bad luck on risky moves often losing you the game. I understand this kind of euro game isn’t for everyone. But for me this perfectly walks the line between cleverness and risk taking. I don’t often win, as I’m usually too cautious. But I enjoy it every time.
  • The thinker: Randomness is fine with me, as long as you can find ways to mitigate it. Here, you may find a way – but you may not. Also, the almost 100-strong card deck feels way too random. Why, like many other games, isn’t it tiered? It’s easy to get cards in the early rounds that are pretty useless, and others in the last round that would’ve been great for a long-term engine. That just doesn’t sit right with me.
  • The trasher: While Macao has zero confrontation, watching your opponents is key. Turn order can be huge, so you need to have that in mind. And delivering goods first can be a big point swing – especially if you have cards which double the value. The three goods for a town are worth 5-3-2 points respectively – so sneaking in first is equal to both the other two. In a game where 100 is a big score, all these points matter.
  • The dabbler: I was a bit worried going in, but once you get going it’s surprisingly straightforward. The turn structure is pointed on your player board. And while there feels like a lot of choices, they’re all broken down into bite-sized chunks. Choose one card; choose two dice; spend your cubes across three options. Sure, you can try to build a complex engine. But doing simple things efficiently can also win you the game.

Key observations

Luck is a big complaint from the haters, mostly around the resource cube mechanism. It’s true – this mechanism is very tactical and unforgiving. But that doesn’t make it bad, per se. It just means you can never be sure of anything or ensure massive long-term strategic plans. That means Macao will appeal to some and not others, so it’s a criticism you should take seriously. Know your groups and act accordingly.

The theme and look of the game are also savaged. Sure, neither are original and the components are your old school standard cubes and discs. Personally, I find the game pretty charming to look at, in a beige way. But again, if this is going to be a game breaker for you or your group, it’s worth considering.

I don’t but that the game has no interaction. Sure, it’s not direct. But grabbing turn order at the right time, or taking a big ship move to deliver goods ahead of an opponent, can be game changers. Even taking a certain town area before another player can see a big point swing. You have to be aware what everyone else is doing, 24/7. For me, that’s interaction.

Conclusion: The Macao board game

Macao is not for everyone. In fact, it is the quintessential Marmite euro game. Stefan Feld is Marmite; euro games with a lot of luck and tactics are Marmite; point salad games are Marmite; cards-with-words games are Marmite. That’s a lot of Marmite. And what can I say? I LOVE Marmite.

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