Updated: Oct 24, 2020
Recently, a member of my game group linked to a website which runs parallel to BoardGameGeek, called GeekGroup. In comparison to the de facto home of board games on the internet, GeekGroup has a beautiful interface and offers a wealth of detailed analyses about someone's collection, plays and timeline: I find the 'Playback' tool quite soothing to watch for a few minutes as it shows how my most played games have changed over the years. Among the stats is a chart that shows weight distribution of games played - that is, how complex the games are, on a scale of 1 (light/party) to 5 (heavy/thinky). My chart shows a large preference for games weighted 1-2 with a substantial showing for games 2-3, but only a smidge in games weighted over 3 on the scale.
That 'smidge' is Mombasa.
The origin of Alexander Pfister's award-winning Mombasa, published by Pegasus Spiele and eggertspiele in 2015, lies in the 18XX genre of games: lengthy, train-themed games that feature stock trading, route-building and various other mechanics which give each iteration its own identity. A quick browse through these titles reveals they are 'heavy' games (over 4 on the scale): so how is it that someone who likes to play lighter, quicker games has come to play - and enjoy - Mombasa so much?
Instead of trains-across-America, Mombasa is set in Africa, in a period the game itself describes as 'a very dark chapter in human history': global colonisation. Players take on the role of investors manipulating companies that explore, colonise and trade on the dark continent, essentially exploiting its resources and people. Sometimes theme is everything in a game; here, it's definitely something, but the game's economic provenance dulls any great sense of wrongdoing and, hopefully, prospective players will understand that. While it's no 'train' game, Mombasa is fully aware of the elephant in the room.
So, with all that gravitas on board, what happens in the game? Over the course of seven rounds, players plan their actions, place workers, buy shares in the game's four non-player-owned companies, expand those companies' trading posts, mine for diamonds, and even do a little bookkeeping too. All in the name of profit, which is the literal bottom line here. To guide you through all this is yet another excellently written and exemplified Alexander Pfister rule book, albeit a substantial 12-page one. My 'light gamer' head almost seized up when I unboxed my copy back in 2016 and, if nothing else is, this should be fair warning that Mombasa is not a gateway game. The accompanying components are both plentiful and substantial, the art by Klemens Franz and Andreas Resch is pleasing throughout, and the graphic design clear and unambiguous.
Planning actions is the first thing players do each round: using a light, segmented deck-building mechanic, cards are placed below the player mat, revealed, and then, in turn order, utilised amongst other actions. Goods is the most common card type: from the low values in the starter hands, to the grand hauls of later rounds, goods are used either to trade for more wares or to invest in the companies: Cairo, Saint-Louis, Cape Town and the eponymous Mombasa. As with most stock-based games, gaining value from others' hard work is key here, tho', with enough perseverance, a single player can lead a company to riches. Progress on stock tracks brings further rewards in the form of dividends and special powers.
Instead of using their cards, players can place one of their few workers to gain more bonuses, including the important first player marker, privileges based on goods in play, or bonus 'cards' for the next round. Deciding which of the best pickings to take is crucial: some spots might be open to you alone but hoping another might still be available on your next turn is a considerable risk.
If that were not enough tension, another large area of interaction is the partitioned map of Africa where the four companies expand their interests. This growth is triggered by exploration cards and highlights another of the game's many pleasing design twists: the interplay of rewards on the map versus increasing one company's value while decreasing another's, all while bearing in mind that other players may well profit from your actions. Rewards are easy to come by early in the game, but high value exploration in Round 7 is often a brutal conflict of interests.
Some peaceful respite can be found on the player boards. As well as being the place to plan turns, each player's board has a track for diamond mines and a track for bookkeeping. Not far along, both allow for an extra card to be played and these are near to essential for boosting the number and power of your actions in later rounds. While the diamond track is a clear and simple strategy often favoured by rookies, the bookkeeping track is more opaque; indeed it can be downright confusing and is often cited as the game's weakest element. While this view has led the designer to release a 'Cooked Books' mini-expansion to increase the track's attractiveness, I've found few players actually take advantage of it. However, even in the base game, if someone accounts well, much can be gained for very few actions, including bonuses found nowhere else.
That is a glimpse of the options available to you in Mombasa: they can be quite overwhelming, but I usually describe this game as 'a lot of simple' and, once broken down, nothing bar the bookkeeping should phase an experienced gamer. The plethora of possibilities can lead to analysis paralysis for some and, while I have had three player games last over four hours, I've also played to a satisfying conclusion in 90 minutes. As with many 'Euro' style games, there's not much banter, though the game is high in interaction as almost everything you do affects others, whether it be tactically blocking spaces or maliciously reducing the value of a company as you hack through the heart of darkness.
While all this has been plenty to see me coming back to the game time and again, there is a good amount of variability in Mombasa, too. Though I tend to use the basic set-up for new players, each company has a B-side track with different bonuses and these can be mixed and matched randomly or by choice. The goods cards are seeded by group, so they'll come out roughly in the same order each time, but at a variable cost. Personally, I try a different strategy each time I play now: focus on a new company, play card-heavy, or even hit the books. I will usually try to piggy-back on others' stocks, but that did not work so well last time out, reminding me that there is always room for refinement of technique in this game.
So, bottom line, what is it about Mombasa that makes a flighty, light gamer like me, happy to dive deep for two to three hours, thinking, fretting, succeeding, failing, and yet loving it all the same? In a word, engagement: in games like Time's Up! (R&R) and Dixit (Libellud) - two of my favourites which could not be more different to Mombasa - I am always engaged as there is always something to do: I play 60 minutes and am mentally active for 60 minutes. In a lot of heavier games, I find too much downtime and inactivity, but in Mombasa, you have to be always 'on': planning, reacting, finagling even.
While its stated 'weight' on BoardGameGeek is almost 4, I find that Mombasa is more 1+1+1+1 and every one of those parts adds up to something far more than the whole. Thank you, Mr Pfister, for proving to me I can enjoy a heavier game once in a while.
PS: My game group used to meet in a pub. We grew fairly thick-skinned about the perils of playing board games in a public area and were as pleasant as we could be when people asked what we were playing, despite the answers often being meaningless to them. One evening, when Mombasa was mid-game and the house-shaped trading posts were spreading across Africa, a passing gent asked, 'Is that like Monopoly?' No sir. No, sir, it is not.
(Review by David Fox)
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