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[Review] Maharaja

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Joined: 03/23/2011

With over one thousand or more games available for me to play at any given moment, and my sheer love for variety, it’s rare for any game to make my “dime” list (ten or more games played in a year). But several games each year still make the list, just because I enjoy playing them so much, or because they are so quick and light that several playings can happen in a short time. Maharaja (Rio Grande Games, 2004 - Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling) is among the former group. I hadn’t heard of Maharaja until the Spiel des Jahres nominations, and even then didn’t get to play it until late June.

And even with half the year already gone, Maharaja is just shy of reaching my “dime” list, and most certainly will make it shortly. I’m not surprised that it lost the Spiel des Jahres, as that award is primarily focused on family games, and Maharaja is a true “gamer’s game.” That’s not to say that Maharaja is difficult to learn, but the strategies are deep; and the game is an excellent game with tremendous mechanics. The only flaw that I’ve found is that it’s difficult to overtake a runaway leader, but repeated plays have shown that that’s not always the case. I really enjoy a game with multiple strategies available, especially when they depend so much on what other players do.

A large board is placed in the middle of the table, composed of seven cities and a starting position - all junctions that are connected to each other from three to five times. The roads that connect the cities have one or two villages located on them, breaking the road up into segments. Each city, a different color and having a portrait of some ancient Indian chap next to them, has nine palace sites surrounded by the city walls. A pile of money is placed next to the board, with fifteen gold pieces given to each player. Players also receive seven palaces and ten houses of their chosen color, with the remainder of the houses forming a pool near the board. The Maharaja pawn and the pawn of each player’s color are placed on the starting position, and six character cards are placed next to the board. Seven governor pieces are randomly placed on the governor track - each matching one of the cities on the board. Each player is given an action wheel, and initial setup occurs. Players first, starting with the youngest, pick a role card of their choice, placing it in front of them. After this, each player, in turn order (following the numbers on the role cards) places four houses - one at a time - on any village of their choice on the board (maximum houses per village is two.) The first round then begins.

Each round occurs the same way. The bottom governor piece is moved to the top available space on the track, and the Maharaja is moved to reside in that city. Each player then simultaneously and secretly uses the two arrows on their wheel to pick two of nine actions (the same action can be chosen twice). On a player’s turn (which occurs in numerical order, based on the current role card the players have, they may take the actions in any order, moving their “architect” (pawn) before, in the middle, or after their actions. If the architect moves, it must pass through villages with a house from one of the players. The player can move for free as long as one of their own color house is at a village; otherwise, they pay one coin to the owner of each house they pass by. The actions players may take are as follows:
- Palace - the player may build a palace in the city their architect is located for twelve gold.
- Palace and house - same as above, except the player can also build a house for one gold in either the city the architect is located, or any village.
- House - same as above, except only the house.
- Two houses - same as above, but with two houses.
- Gold - the player takes two gold from the bank.
- Move a house - The player may move one of their houses from anywhere on the board to any village or the city their architect is currently in.
- Quarry - the player may take two houses from the quarry pool and add them to their pile of available houses.
- Character cards - the player can exchange their character card with any card on the table, forcing the player (if any) whose card was stolen to either take the card from the stealing player, or one of the available cards next to the board.
- Governor track order - the player can move one of the governor pieces two spaces down on the governor track, altering future Maharaja movement.
If a player cannot or will not complete an action (such as they don’t have enough money), every other player receives two gold from the bank as a reward.

Each character card gives the owning player a special ability, also. If the player picks the switch character card ability, they can possibly use the abilities of each character card. The abilities are (in order):
1.) No special ability - except that this player always goes first and breaks all ties.
2.) This player receives one gold on their turn.
3.) This player gets two points per “outer palace” during the scoring phase.
4.) This player does not have to pay when traveling through villages in which they have no presence - rather, the bank pays for them.
5.) This player can build or move one house for free.
6.) This player pays only nine gold when building palaces.

After all players have taken their turn in each round, the city where the Maharaja is currently present is scored. Each player receives temporary points for their presence in the city: One point for each house, one point for each “outer palace” - unless they have role card #4, one point for having their architect in the city, and three points if they built the first (center) palace in the city. Each player receives a certain amount of money based on who got the most points (ties are broken by whoever has the lower role card number), and the next round begins. The game ends when one person builds all of their palaces, at which point they win. If two players complete all their palaces in the same round, the player with the most money wins. Also, if the game reaches the tenth round, the player who has built the most palaces wins, with money again being the tiebreaker.

Some comments on the game...

1.) Components: The game is absolutely gorgeous when laid out on the table. For the first time in a while, it’s nice to play a German game with no scoring track. The palaces are glass stones, each matching the color of the nice pawns and wooden houses (which look remarkably like the hotels from Monopoly). The board is big, and even a decent jar to the table doesn’t really mess it up; and when houses and palaces are set up, it really makes some nice eye candy. The role cards are extremely nice, and are made of thick cardboard and are a decent size; so that all players can easily see them. All the components are entirely language independent, with symbols and illustrations for actions being shown on the wheels - which were rather nice by the way - and everyone found that the symbols were very self-explanatory. Everything fit well in the box; but I had to throw out the plastic insert, because I could not figure out how everything was supposed to fit into it, and neither could anyone else. I finally just ditched it and plastic bagged all the components. Except for the box insert, the game, including the gorgeous artwork by Franz Vohwinkel, was of fantastic quality.

2.) Rules: The rules were laid out very nicely in an eight page full-colored booklet. There were some illustrations and many examples, and I thought that the game was easy to comprehend from the instructions. The layout was a little odd, and it did take me a bit to totally comprehend the exact way governor pieces moved on the track, but these were small obstacles. The game is simple, once you know it, but I found that it did take some explanation when teaching it; and people constantly asked what the character cards did, and could they pick the same action twice, etc. Still, everyone enjoyed the fact that for once we were playing a game in which the goal was not to get the most points.

3.) Unique strategy: And that, I think, drew me to the game as much as anything else. The goal seems quite simple - almost too simple; get rid of all your palaces. Yet the strategies to achieving this simple goal were quite varied. I’ve seen people play with many different styles, and have yet to find one dominant style. Some moves seem scripted, such as the first player on the first turn should go to the city where the Maharaja is at and build the center palace, all but assuring him control of that city during the first round. However, after that, it’s an open field, and players try all different things. Some try to establish a presence in multiple cities, gathering up gold and laying palaces down wherever they can. Others (myself included) try to control one or two cities, and then maneuver the Maharaja so that he returns to these cities, giving us several big scoring turns. Still others try to control the roads, soaking up a lot of money in tolls as other’s architect travel across them.

4.) Tactics: Maharaja is a game where the difference in strategy and tactics is quite clear. I may have a set strategy to the game, but I must adapt to the moves that my opponents make; and this can vary from turn to turn. The back of the box rates the game a “3” in randomness, and I didn’t know where they found ANY randomness in the game; but then realized that they were talking about the randomness of other player’s moves. You can’t overtly screw another player in this game, such as remove one of their palaces, or sabotage their architect. But one can still mess with opponent’s plans by doing the action first, or switching character cards with that person. The interaction in the game is quite engrossing, and one finds themselves watching the other players carefully during their turns.

5.) Taking Chances: There is a small amount of taking chances that a player can do (I tried never to do it). One might not have enough money to build a palace, house, etc.; but might hope to get the money from people passing through their villages. But the whims of others might forego this, and a player may find themselves the unhappy benefactor; as everyone else cheerfully takes money from the bank. You can take a chance in the game; it’s just not often profitable.

6.) Time and Fun Factor: The game runs for about 60-90 minutes, which is an excellent time for a game of this weight and caliber. The ten round time limit helps keep the game from dragging out too long, and often I’ve seen the game end on the seventh or eighth turn. The constant watching of the board means that players are always involved, keeping the game far from being boring.

7.) Optional Rules: There are two sets of optional rules at the end of the rulebook - and I think that the first set is quite an addition to the game - making only two small changes.
- It adds a #7 character card - one that allows that player to take an action chit, which can be used on any future turn to allow that player another action of their choice.
- Players get one point when scoring if they have the character card that matches the picture next to the city. I initially thought that both changes were essential, and should be included in the base game but found that the seventh character card was immensely powerful, and players who ignored it could find that to be a massive detriment. The second change is a great one, as it makes picking character cards that much more interesting; but I could see how beginners could be confused by it. I haven’t played the second set of optional rules, but basically they allow players to have more than one role at a time - and I think that might add a bit too much chaos to the game - although I’m willing to give it a try sometime.

8.) Leader: When one player does well, and I’ve noticed that this happens when one player has played the game and others haven’t. They can sometimes get into a position where it is impossible to catch them. They have a lot of money, and they’ll easily build their last few palaces. This could be a problem, but most games I’ve seen are balanced, and it seems like it only happens when several of the players are new, and/or the advanced rules are being used.

This is easily one of the best five games to come out in 2004 and shows the genius of Kramer & Kiesling yet once again. The theme is lightly laid on top of mechanics, but the mechanics are sound and very refreshing. When one plays the game, it doesn’t really remind you of too many other designer games; and that’s an enjoyable change, especially for those of us who have hundreds of games. But even if you only have a few games, Maharaja is a terrific game to pick up - a deep, thoughtful yet fun game, where the decisions you make each turn are agonizing yet enjoyable.

Tom Vasel
“Real men play board games.”

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