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[Review] Mecca to Medina

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Joined: 03/23/2011

Sometimes, enjoyment of a game requires that you haven’t played another game. For example, Risk might be enjoyable – until you’ve played Risk 2210, at which point you wouldn’t ever want to go back to regular Risk (in my opinion, at least). In the same way Ticket to Ride has eclipsed TransAmerica. But what if you played the better game first? Why go back to the simpler one? This is how I feel about Mecca to Medina (Muslim Games, 2004 – Baba Ali). While it is a good game for those who’ve grown up, having played nothing but Sorry! and Monopoly, it will fall flat to those who have already played Settlers of Catan.

I don’t think Mecca to Medina is necessarily a rip-off of Settlers of Catan, but I don’t see the need for a gamer to own both. Mecca to Medina will probably have a wide audience in the Muslim world, where Baba has stated there are practically no good games, period. And I think that people new to gaming would find it a pleasant game, with new concepts they haven’t seen before. Gamers, however, would become bored with it during the first game, as the choices are small, and it feels like the game plays you.

Each player is given a city card, which has listed on it the eleven combinations of two dice – and a resource (possibly nothing) listed after each one. Players also get a summary card explaining what to do on a turn, and one random trading route card, which is placed face down. Five piles of resources: gold, kalima, dates, cloth, and water are placed on the table, as well as three piles of specialty cards: camels, Mujahids, and caravans. A pile of Event cards is shuffled and placed face down in the middle of the table. Players take the two starting resources shown on their cards, and roll the dice to see who goes first with play then proceeding clockwise around the table.

On a player’s turn, they first roll two six-sided dice. All players look at their city card and take one resource of the type listed after that number, if any. If the player rolls a “7”, no one receives any resources; the player instead turns over the top Event card and follows the instructions. The player then can trade with other players – trading resources, specialty cards, trading route cards, etc. The active player can also trade resources to the bank, for a 3:1 ration.

After this, the player has the option of buying cards.
- Trading route cards are the core of the game and can be bought for a single resource. Each trading route card shows a route between two cities (which is just thematic fluff) and a number of resources. If a player has the resources shown on a trading route card, they can turn in all these resources and place the trading route card face up in front of them – completed, receiving another trading route card for free. A player may have a maximum of three uncompleted routes in their hand.
- Camels can be bought for any two resources. They reduce all water requirements on trading route cards by one (i.e. you need one less water to complete the routes).
- Caravans can be bought for three of the same resource. They increase a player’s hand to ten resources (normal max hand limit is seven cards) and give the player a bonus when a certain number is rolled (this is indicated on the City card.) Caravan bonuses are cumulative if a player has two caravans (they get double bonus resources and can hold fifteen cards in their hand.)
- Mujahids can be bought for two of the same resource. Some event cards are called Crusades and cause all players to lose all their cards and one Camel card. If a player has a Mujahid, they can discard it instead of this drastic penalty.
The game continues until one player has finished four caravans, at which point they are declared the winner!

Some comments on the game…

1.) Components: The game comes in a very attractive little package – all the cards (which is all the game is, really) packed in a nice plastic insert that fits snuggly in a small box with desert artwork on it. The resource cards are small cards, half the size of a normal card and have rather nice photographs on them (couldn’t tell what the picture on the Kalima card is, though – had to go to the internet to find out what it meant.) The event, trading route and specialty cards were all normal sized – and were of decent quality – although I found the pictures on them to be a bit bland.

2.) Rules: The fourteen-page, illustrated rulebook is one of the simplest I’ve ever seen – with only a rule or two on each page. I’m not sure if the rules are laid out in the best order possible, but the game was simple enough that it doesn’t matter much. There is one glaring error in the rules (mentioned to me by the designer), and that is that it mentions that a caravan increases a player’s hand to twenty cards. This seems like a big deal, but I haven’t seen why anyone would want to hold more than ten cards in their hand anyway. But the game mechanics flow smoothly and are very easy to teach and learn.

3.) Settlers of Catan: When teaching this game, it’s impossible to avoid references to Settlers of Catan (SoC), as the games are remarkably similar. Both games have die rolls that produce resources, both have trading of resources, and both allow players multiple choices to spend their resources on. Mecca to Medina is a much simpler game, however. In SoC, players have a choice where to put their settlements, giving them a choice of what resources to gather. In Mecca, players have their numbers set, giving them fewer options. Trading is also a lot less crucial in Mecca. Rarely did I see a player trade with the bank (someone always needed some sort of resource – there are never rare resources, like in SoC), and when players traded, the trades often came out even. For many people, Settlers is the epitome of beautiful simplicity. Mecca is even simpler but not quite as elegant as SoC.

4.) Decisions: Yes, there are decisions in Mecca, but they are extremely simple. Should you buy a camel or not? What resources should you trade with others? Should you take the chance of not owning a Mujahid? All of these decisions are fairly straightforward; and when watching a game, you won’t find much difference between what the players do. Perhaps the decisions do determine who wins; but it seems to me that if all players have close to the same amount of skill, luck will determine the winner.

5.) Theme: The game will appeal to Muslims because of the name of the company, and the fact that the resource cards stand for five pillars of Islam. Other than that, the theme isn’t very strong, and the game can and probably will appeal to people, regardless of their views on Islam.

6.) Fun Factor: The game was merely entertaining, as the groups I played it with were pretty savvy and well-versed in board games. Thus, Mecca to Medina was too simplistic for them. The times I played the game, the scores were extremely close, and the winner really wasn’t determined by the best player. A few people even mentioned that they felt as if the game was playing them, instead of the other way around. I think that the game has its best chance with people who’ve never played designer games before, and that this game might be a good “gateway” game for them.

So that’s pretty much my final recommendation. If you already have a decent collection of board games, then there’s no reason to play Mecca to Medina, as there’s nothing new or extraordinary about the game to capture your attention. If, however, you’re reading this review, and have never even heard of “Settlers of Catan”, then perhaps this game would be a good introduction to the wonderful world of board games! There’s going to be a subset of people who are interested in the game because of its theme, or will only play the game because of it – and that’s good for board games as a whole. For “gamers”, however, I don’t think there’s anything here that would hold your attention.

Tom Vasel
“Real men play board games.”

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