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Magna Grecia

Designer: Leo Colovini, Michael Schacht
Publisher: Rio Grande
Players: 2-4
Time: 60 minutes
Reviewer: Dave Shapiro

When God throws, the dice are loaded.

I am forced to admit that I am broken, flawed, defective. If I were an automobile, I could be returned to the shop for warranty repairs (though the odometer might read a bit high). Unfortunately, after contacting my manufacturers, they insist that they do not do repairs. For myself and the millions of others (and there are) who "suffer" from being pigment impaired (or color blind), it is rare, other than "matching" when we dress, that there are any significant problems. Rare that is, unless you play games. Many games employ a color pallet that is so limited it is extremely difficult to distinguish the pieces from one another. To alleviate some of the problems I have taken a few steps that others may profit from including the use of a black Magic Marker and setting a high intensity lamp on the table during play. There are three games in particular, where the color combinations pose significant problems: Knizia's Vampire, Gang of Four and Magna Grecia. Of course, these are games I enjoy. (Why couldn't it be Carcassonne?) There are a few benefits to this "infirmity". For me, the color problem can make an average game more complex by adding an unintentional puzzle aspect to the game; before I can develop a strategy, I must determine what I am actually holding. There is a certain attraction for my opponents as they delight in revealing that the straight flush I just plopped down in Gang of Four, is actually a simple straight composed of different hues.

Vampire, like Coloretto, has artwork that differentiates the suits as well as the colors but Gang of Four and Magna Grecia are tough. With the arrival of Magna Grecia, I was forced to develop a new method for deciphering the bits in hand; a method I prefer to think of as "The Swoop". My opponents sit back as I hover, nose inches from the board comparing the various shades of the road tiles and market pieces; throw in a little up/down with the bifocals and the situation to an outside observer is similar to a chicken pecking for food. (Einstein was right, it's all relative.)

For my fellow defectives who have read the reports on the color scheme and have hesitated to purchase or even play Magna Grecia, I urge you to "go for it" as the game is definitely worth the effort even though substituting different bits will not work in this case as the tiles are the same colors as the bits (yellow, orange, red and brown). There are two versions of the game; the German version is... very yellow. The Rio Grande publication has toned down the board and though the bits are the same as in the German version, it is easier to differentiate the road tiles against the background which is a definite advantage. This is an unusual, entertaining and somewhat familiar game.

Magna Grecia is Latin for "greater Greece" and refers to the area of Italy colonized by the ancient Greeks. The board is a representation of the virgin territory of the Italian peninsula prior to the arrival of the Greeks. There are a few villages strewn about with hexes covering the entire map. Players attempt to settle the area, scoring points for doing so.

Magna Grecia's mix includes ingredients from a variety of sources; nothing is strikingly new but the "taste" lingers well after the game is completed. The mechanics are elegantly simple and clean with no exceptions or special cases. There are only twelve turns with an optional shorter game of only eight turns. (I fail to see the point in the "short game" as the development in the game is rather slow and eight turns is insufficient to develop a viable strategy. The one time I played the short game, it felt as if I had read two-thirds of a murder mystery and set it down; it was an exercise in futility.) Game length will vary from group to group as there is a myriad of choices confronting the player and some players don't think, they contemplate; the slow development may not appeal to every palette.

Magna Grecia tileEach turn a double sized tile determines the player turn order, the available road and city builds as well as allotting additional resource draws. A player may act on two of the three (roads, cities or resources) or select only one action and advance the limit quantities by one level. The turn tile for the next round is revealed at the beginning of the present turn so every player knows the available actions for both the present turn and the next. It is a game of perfect knowledge.

At the core of the game is a basic railroad building system (with roads instead of tracks) as players expand cities and extend roads in order to connect cities, villages and Oracles (more on Oracles below). This is reminiscent of Knizia's Stephenson's Rocket. The compositions of the boards, cities and hexes along with the double sided road/track tiles with straight connections on one side and curves on the reverse are nearly identical in practice. Both games confront the player with a substantial number of choices on every turn. Tension and frustration levels increase with each turn as there is so much to do and so little time to accomplish it. For as similar as the two games appear to be on the surface, there is a difference in perspective and mechanic resulting in a unique gaming experience. In Stephenson's Rocket, players expand railroads connecting various cities and villages but score points based on ownership/possession of stocks in the various rail lines. Magna Grecia employs a similar system without the stock share aspect. These road networks are your own; you build them, you score them. No player may extend an opponent's network (but may block his progress). Victory in Stephenson's Rocket may be a matter of good fortune as a player may acquire shares in a line that opponents extend, resulting in a very valuable property. This possibility is completely absent from Magna Grecia; the success or failure of a given network rests solely on the player/owner of that network. Because there is a complete lack of "good fortune" in Magna Grecia, the feel and play of the game is much more serious and abstract than that of Stephenson's Rocket.

Magna Grecian cities have value only when connected to another city/village with a player's own market. Markets cost one VP (victory point) to build and though each new city is given a free market, the city tile itself costs one VP so effectively, each market costs one VP. Victory Points are "money" in the game and these are tight economies; each VP is precious and wasting even one can be disastrous. When "money" runs low, the only method for improving cash flow is to sell a market. The most advantageous time to sell a market is critical as the market bits are limited and once sold, can never be rebuilt. Markets are valued at the number of connections attached. A market can be constructed in an empty village (hoping or expecting future expansion) or even in an opponent's city though this can be a very expensive proposition; an action that must be examined thoroughly. 

As the game progresses, the playable region of the board fills rapidly and the areas for optimal play decreases as in the latter stages of Through the Desert. In most of the games in which I have participated, the board begins to resemble the chains of camels in Through the Desert or the tracks in the latter stages of Metro; it is fascinating to watch it develop. It is in the later turns that the game bogs a bit as players trace the various connections, estimating values and searching for optimal placement. At the end of the twelfth turn, all of the active (unsold and connected to a player's own city) markets are scored. All of the (near chaotic) connections for each market are counted and then there is a touch of Web of Power added. Magna Grecia "Oracle" marker During set up, nine Oracles were placed (randomly) about the board. Each of these Oracles is "captured" by the nearest connected city with the greatest number of routes to other cities, villages and other Oracles. This bonus scoring is similar to the Advisor scoring in Web of Power in that they score only at the end of the game but can result in swings that vaults a player from last to first place. Each Oracle is worth four points and simply cannot be ignored though they are not required for a win. It is common for players to contest Oracle "captures" throughout the game, especially in the later turns.

The game is designed by Michael Schacht and Leo Colovini. It is somewhat dry but very enjoyable. This is not a game one plays casually; the tight design forces players to maximize each opportunity, every turn. Similar in many respects to Stephenson's Rocket, Magna Grecia is far less fiddly allowing players to concentrate on strategy rather than some odd, additional method for scoring (such as the "passengers" in Stephenson's Rocket). It is a cleaner, leaner design.

Magna Grecia has a steeper learning curve than most Euro games; understanding and developing an acceptable strategy requires time and experience. As with Tigris and Euphrates or even Risk, novice players tend to be "blown out of the water" in early games. My own first experience with the game was a disaster as I depleted my supply of road tiles by the ninth turn. Originally, I though it was very odd that players were given so many city tiles and so few road tiles; but I learned. This is a good game that should appeal to players who enjoy Stephenson's Rocket, Through the Desert or any serious strategy game. The game is for two to four players but is best with the full complement.

- Dave Shapiro

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