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Boardgames are an amalgamation of things. Art, components, mechanics, and rules come together to provide some sort of experience at the table. The best weave these elements together into an experience that transcends the physical acts of moving plastic and wood across cardboard. My favorite games are the ones where people describe - not the mechanics or rules - but the story, the adventure, or the tension the game provides. Unfortunately, Morocco falls short of my expectations.
The promised setting of Morocco is intoxicating. Family bosses stand atop roofs looking down on busy market, scouting out the area and trying to figure out where to set up shop. After scouting, these snake charmers and water sellers jostle amid the teeming market for retail space in a sort of reverse Black Friday stampede. Assistants crowd into stalls with bodyguards hired by the family to edge out opponents and eventually dominate the market. It sounds cool. It sounds fun. However the game never really delivers that.
The closest Morocco comes to evoking that theme is the scouting phase. Morocco is an area control game, though one with a clever twist. You can’t just place your meeples in any old stall. The market is a 5x5 grid where each row and column is marked with a colored cube. If the stall in Row Green Column Black is looking particularly juicy, a green cube and a black cube are needed to move into that stall. Like the setting would suggest, players scope out the board and figure out which stall they want to target. This knowledge is represented by the Rooftop Space. 5 cubes, one for each color, are arranged on a pentagramy-star thing. Each player chooses a point in turn and collects one cube of each color adjacent to that point. Their opponents claim one cube of the color associated with the selected point.
Black and Brown for me, Green for everyone else
I dig this. There’s a cost for entry to the stalls on the board and that cost is knowledge. You can always ensure you get one color you need, but unless the two colors you want are adjacent to the same point on the rooftop then you need an assist from one of your opponents. It’s a refreshing twist to the area control genre even if gaining information on your opponent’s scout doesn’t make much sense. It’d be one thing if you could choose one of the colors they receive, representing a little market espionage, but you don’t. Like the die roll that gives you extra cubes at low player count (because you really need at least 5), it’s a mechanical consideration that starts to poke holes in the setting.
It doesn’t stop there. The more you play the more the theme peels itself off like a balloon popping in slow motion. The point seems to be to take control of the most stalls, spreading your influence through the use of market tiles that make it easier for you to take adjacent stalls. Juice tokens award additional points and are claimed by, of course, having workers in good spaces in strong stalls. And yet, bodyguards and gold are only awarded to the snake charmers or water sellers who come in 2nd or 3rd in the game of stall control. Spending extra cubes allows you to use more powerful workers than your basic assistants. No issues with the cousin tiles that allow for placing an extra assistant in an adjacent space. But what’s up with the tourists? How is that I cram a tourist into a stall who then turns into a normal full time assistant when that stall gets locked down? That’s a terrifying proposition for any world traveler.
An unsuspecting Tourist checks his map...for the last time.
The answer of course, is that the mechanics are more important than the setting. You need to be able to spend gold to shift the row/column cubes strategically. Bodyguards and gold open the strategy up so that there are times you want to be in second and to allow a little bit of a catch-up system. The worker types allow for various tactical considerations and combo building even if the thematic justification is a bit of a stretch. This core mechanic, of getting knowledge cubes and using them to inform your area control options, is a solid one. I like it, but it isn’t quite enough.
Get cubes, spend cubes. Get cubes, spend cubes. Back and forth you go executing a series of micro-actions in service of your strategy. Your options shrink as the number of open stalls shrink, but the game never ramps up in actions or tensions. You can never carry more than one cube forward so there are rarely explosive turns. Combos and clever plays can be made but they’re often telegraphed and sharp players can plan around them. The game becomes fiddly in the literal sense; the feeling of Morocco is not of running a market stall but of moving cubes and pieces of wood around a sheet of cardboard. As a proof of concept I love it. I want to play more games with this feel of gathering knowledge in advance of taking actions. I just don’t really want to play Morocco.
Morocco never really elevates itself beyond a collection of functioning mechanics. Unfortunately, mechanics are not games and games are more than mechanics. The core of Morocco is good. I like the idea of the scouting phase, where you have to balance your own desires with the desires of your opponents. I like the idea of the grid informing where you and your opponents can place their assistants and the small combos you can build. It’s just missing the sort of narrative or mechanical arc that makes me want to pull it off the shelf. It’s a fine game, but fine isn’t going to cut it in today’s gaming world.
This review was originally posted on Ding & Dent! A list of my reviews that you can subscribe to can be found here.