Maori is one of those games that doesn’t do anything terribly innovative or new. All of its moving pieces are familiar and the gameplay doesn’t have a lot of surprises. It was not a game that took my breath away or challenged me in new ways. However, Maori is a game where all of the mechanics and pieces come together very nicely. Playing Maori is like slipping on an old, comfortable pair of slippers. It might not be doing anything exciting or new but it does what it does very well.
I have found, somewhat to my surprise, that while Maori wasn’t in any danger of becoming the next big thing with any of the groups that I play with, it was a game that everyone not only enjoyed but wanted to see come back on a regular basis. People will ask to play it and no one ever seems to turn down a game. It’s been popular with non-gamers and folks that are going to have gamer carved on their tomb stone.
And, let’s be honest, the first game that breaks the ice and introduces new concepts to the gaming world is not always going to be the best example of its mechanics or genre. While Caylus might have started the Worker Placement craze (ignoring the fact that it isn’t the first worker placement game), I feel that Agricola and Stone Age are far more enjoyable games that explore that mechanic.
When you look at Maori, you can clearly see some Carcassonne and Vikings DNA in its heritage, possibly even a little bit of Alhambra. Even the theme of exploring Pacific islands isn’t exactly brand new. Tongiaki and Kahuna are two that come to mind without even trying.
So far, all this probably sounds like a lot of damning with faint praise. However, that is because I want to emphasize that Maori is working with familiar pieces. It is how those pieces come together that make it shine.
At its heart, Maori is about each player developing their own personal player board in order to get more points than anyone else. As opposed to Carcassonne, players use tiles to create their own map and no one’s map has anything to do with anyone else’s. As opposed to randomly drawing a tile, the players get tiles from a central bank, a four by four matrix of tiles.
The key to the gameplay is that the tiles you take are in relation to an explorer ship that moves around the matrix of tiles. On your turn, you must move it at least one space. After you move it, you may take one tile. Taking the one that is next to the ship is free but the game has a denomination of shells that you can spend to dig deeper into the matrix.
There are a variety of ways to earn points. The simplest is to complete islands with palm trees with cute little island huts serving as a palm multiplier. However, you can also complete two-piece leis that are worth a fair bit of points. In addition, whoever has the most ships or the most shells at the end of the game will get a nice amount of points from them. At the same time, ships and shells let you manipulate the explorer ship so you have a vested interest during the game to get them.
That’s how Maori works in a nutshell. So what makes it any good?
First of all, the fact that you are drawing your tile from a face up grid and both ships and shells give you increase your options means that you have a fair bit of control. Other player’s actions and what tiles end up in the grid mean you’re not the master of your destiny but you are not at the mercy of the wind.
Second of all, the game plays pretty darn fast, particularly for the amount of legitimate choices it gives you. Maori isn’t a brain burner but a game will probably never last longer than a half hour or so and it does a good job making that a full and enriching half hour.
Third, Maori balances its relatively limited interaction with the intellectual challenge of developing your own board. While control of the explorer ship is a legitimate form of interaction and you have to really think about the opportunities you are opening up to the next player, aggression in Maori is pretty darn passive. I have found that this appeals to non-confrontational players while the challenge of putting together the puzzle pieces of a winning board seems to satisfies the more hardcore gamers who secretly are dreaming of being able to nuke the other players’ boards.
Finally, Maori offers a lot of replay value. There is the simple fact that the random distribution of the grid combined with multiple ways to score points means your board will change from game to game. However, the game comes with varient rules and alternate player boards. Maori offers a lot of play before you have milked it dry.
Maori doesn’t look special at first glance. However, it’s a game that keeps finding its way back onto the table and everyone seems to enjoy it. A game that’s fun and people want to keep playing? That’s special enough for me.