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Updated: Oct 24, 2020

Maracaibo, the city nicknamed ‘La Tierra del Sol Amada’ (The Beloved Land Of The Sun). So do we have a hot new game from Alexander Pfister or a game that needs to be moved into the shade? His previous designs are reliably on the good to great side, with Great Western Trail (Stronghold / eggertspiele), Mombasa (Pegasus Spiele / R&R) and Isle Of Skye (Lookout Games) currently his three highest rated games on BoardGameGeek. It is also fair to say that how you feel about Maracaibo is going to depend on how you feel about the first two of those games, Great Western Trail and Mombasa, and it would be unfair to talk about Maracaibo without mentioning the lineage that it owes to both.

Published by Capstone and Game's Up, Maracaibo is not a simple game. Be prepared to spend the first trip referencing the rules and figuring out just what is going on as there are a lot of moving parts to follow and much to get your head around. So what do players do here? Well, Maracaibo has you sailing around the Caribbean trying to increase your influence and standing as the game develops. The artwork by Aline Kirrmann, Andreas Resch and Fiore GmbH really evokes the theme, with a bright and inviting board and neat wooden ships. The cards, although initially confusing, use colours and iconography to clarify the use, and although there are a lot, they tend to fall into specific categories. Our Board’s Eye View image gives a representation of all of the game elements in full flow. There are many elements at work here, and those familiar with GWT and Mombasa will find some familiarity, but don’t worry – they are interesting and different enough to make this game feel unique...

So what are these elements? The combat mechanic allows you to gain influence for an end-game scoring bonus according to the multiplier on the track and the cubes on the board, which can be influenced by the players in an attempt to gain majorities. The questing allows you to pay goods to collect tiles for bonuses, getting in ahead of your opponents. The exploring moves you along a track for scoring and other bonuses, with some quest tiles to grab on the way, and card collection allows you to (amongst other things) synergise token collection along with bonus scoring as well as placing assistants around the board to help you on your way. This all ties in with individual player goals, some cards open to all players for final scoring bonuses, and other moving parts almost too many to mention. And there are lots of small design extras to admire and the reinforce the game's theme; for example, when you take a quest tile, it is flipped over to reveal a treasure which is added to the deck of your ship board, and when you complete your personal goal, the card is flipped and you get to raise a flag on your ship. I’ve said little about goods deliveries, the variable setups, cities, villages, ship upgrades or the 250 or so cards. With so much going on, Maracaibo isn’t an easy game to learn or teach, and some rule queries can take some searching to find the answers, but once you’ve got your head around it, then there is so much fun to be had.

Maracaibo takes 2–4 players and there is a solo mode too. The game rewards players that can make the most of opportunities that arise and can adjust their strategy on the fly, which keeps you involved all the way. On the negative, a four-player game is a long affair, so make sure you have the time to play, although a player can be finishing off their turn as the next player begins, so individual downtime is minimal.

Oh, and did I mention there’s a story to follow as well which can be replayed without a reset pack, and that doesn’t involve any Legacy-style stickers? The board state changes, specific story quests are added, and the game develops into something much more than just the already varied and incredible design that you get straight out of the box on your first game.

Maracaibo isn’t a game you can just grab from your shelf and play a few times a year – it is a game that asks for an investment of time, but rewards it in spades. Alexander Pfister has taken his experience as a games designer to make what stands as his best work yet – Maracaibo is an achievement, and one of the best new games released this year.

(Review by Steve Berger)

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