Set in colonial era Africa, players trade goods and expand the reach of/acquire shares in four companies to earn money (read: victory points).
But the game doesn’t glory in its colonial theme: it in fact goes out of its way to point out this was a “dark chapter” in human history.
In terms of mechanisms Mombasa is a clever mix of hand management/action selection, area control and stocks/economics. Much as in the game Endeavor, the latter two of these add a larger dose of interaction to the mix than many euro gamers will be used to – so if you prefer a more ‘multi-player solitaire’ experience you may want to look elsewhere.
You can pick it up for around £30, which is about standard for this type of game and for what you get in the box (around 100 small cards, 100 wooden markers, 100 cardboard chits of varying shapes and sizes and the game board/rules). Component quality is good throughout, with linen-finish cards, solid if unspectacular artwork and good graphic design that’s simple to follow. Plus score pads (yay!) and good reference cards.
The box lists ’12 and up’ for the age range and this is a challenging title – but I’d still put it in the medium range, rather than heavy (similar to games such as Tzolk’in and Terra Mystica). This is because while there is an awful lot going on, and you’ll be challenged both strategically and tactically, it doesn’t feel as if the game and decision space increases later in the game – which is where ‘heavy’ games can leave me for dead.
Mombasa is not the kind of game you go into lightly. It has a lot of moving parts and all of the game’s myriad options are available to you from the start, so you have to explain the lot before you get going.
On the plus side none of the game’s concepts are difficult, especially to experienced gamers – there’s just a lot of them. And they do make thematic sense, so hang together nicely as a whole. The game’s one real innovation (discussed later) is actually very simple, if incredibly fiendish.
There’s a basic setup for your first play that is clearly walked through in the rulebook, but it’s worth noting there are eight different company tracks (you use four) that mix and match; plus 10 starting tiles (giving starting shares and resources – much as in Tzolk’in) that vary how players start the game: good news for those looking for longevity.
The game is played over seven rounds and in each players get a varying number of actions. In the early rounds you’ll pick three cards from your hand to use to take actions (players can open two extra card slots during the game, for two more potential actions each round). You also receive two or three (depending on player count) bonus markers which are used on action spaces printed on the board (read: worker placement).
Cards come in four types and are of varying quality (those available to ‘buy’ get better as the game goes on), and allow you to buy better cards to add to your hand; move along share tracks or improve the board position of the four companies; or improve one of the two tracks on your personal player board (bookkeeping or diamond).
As for your bonus markers, these can be used to do variations on these themes on a first come, first served ‘worker placement’ basis. Moving further up particular company tracks also opens up extra, more powerful action spaces that only players who have reached them can use. Some also allow you to take the first player marker, or give a bonus action in the next round.
At game-end you’ll score points for cash on hand (a point per pound); how far you’ve got on your own diamond and bookkeeping tracks (potentially 60 points on each), plus your points for progress with each of the four companies (how many shares you own in a company, multiplied by how much it is worth).
This is where the area majority comes into play. There are around 25 spaces on the board for the four companies to occupy, with each company having 15 ‘trading posts’ they can try to get onto the map – so no, 60 posts into 25 spaces doesn’t quite go! It’s possible (though unlikely) to have a company’s shares being worth nothing at the end of the game, so if you go big on shares in one and no one else bothers you are likely to struggle to keep them relevant on the board.
The four sides
- The writer: I always enjoy games where money is also victory points – but where you can spend those points on other desirable stuff: it’s just another element of the game I really enjoy. But at its heart Mombasa is a game about timing: in everything from the way you choose your actions, the order you take them in, but also what you leave and plan for later rounds. Thinky, but deliciously so.
- The thinker: What really makes the game sing is the ‘resting cards’ mechanic – more easily described as multiple discard piles. In the early rounds you place three of your hand cards into slots and at the end of the round they will go into different discard piles equating to those slots. This means you can plan later rounds, as you pick up one of these discard piles once you’ve passed (but before you add that round’s card to it). As you only have seven rounds, you’re unlikely to see most cards more than a few times – so also buying cards (and claiming extra actions with workers) at the right time to bolster big moves is essential. Totally fiendish, and it’s what makes Mombasa stand out from an increasingly bloated euro pack.
- The trasher: I enjoyed Mombasa. There is a little too much going on, but once you realise you can ignore some of it (like the fiddly book track) things get easier to manage. The key late on is the area control, where turn order becomes really important. You can affect things greatly by planning a big late move for board domination by a company you’ve backed; but it can be equally viable to hoover up extra shares from cards and company tracks, reacting to how you think the board situation will go based on the actions of others. It’s great to find a game where both paths are viable and where both are also fun to play.
- The dabbler: There’s way too much going on in Mombasa for the casual gamer to really have fun. The theme is quite thin and a long way from something you want to get into anyway, while it takes almost as long to teach as it does to play! That would be OK as the rules are intuitive once you actually get going (you won’t need much of a reminder on later plays), but even with confidence you have to be engaged the whole time – as well as planning forward at least one turn – and probably at least two if you want to do well. Not for the feint of euro game heart!
To this I reply simply: Mombasa is not your sort of game. Move along. This is not a criticism, but a statement on the type of games you like.
It’s a similar thing for those who think it goes on too long. A couple of hours is about right for a game with this much going on, as if it was shorter it wouldn’t feel as if all the various parts did actually do anything worthwhile. So if you want shorter and less fiddly, look elsewhere – Mombasa is not the game you’re looking for.
The bookkeeping track has had particular criticism, and I have some sympathy with this. This way it works is interesting, but it’s very fiddly for what it brings to the game. It also injects some unwelcome randomness, as if you get the right tiles appearing at the right time you end up with an easier ride – while the designers made the weird decision to add some coins to some books at the start of each round for no apparent reason (again benefiting the person who happens to want that book). The only plus is you can definitely ignore bookkeeping altogether and still win the game!
Finally, a vocal minority have taken umbrage with the theme. As mentioned earlier they have gone as far as to talk about how this was a dark time in human history right there on page one of the rulebook. But equally, in what is largely an abstract game, why did the publisher/designer pursue this theme when it could easily have been transported to another corner of history – especially when their apology in the rules shows they knew it would be controversial? Answers on a postcard…
Area majority isn’t a mechanic I usually like, but with both these games there’s enough else going on that it feels like a part, not the whole – and can even largely be ignored by a canny pacifist.
Like any area majority game it does play better with three or four players, but I do still enjoy it with two – even if it does become a little zero-sum. But again there is enough else going on that it feels like a constant challenge; and that the best player will win. This can in fact be a disadvantage to games with three or four, as there is always a chance of king making – either deliberately, or accidentally via poor play. But that’s the nature of the beast – I don’t know of an area majority game where this isn’t a possibility.
If you like medium weight euro games, and in particular area majority and/or action selection games, I’d say this is a must-play: it rates above and 8-out-of-10 average on Board Game Geek right now and for me is one of the best games released in 2015.