Let me take you back about twenty years...
There are few games that I hold in as high a regard as Marrakesh. I first became aware of it after it figured prominently in the annual Games Magazine top 100 list a couple years running. I was financially flush for the first time in my young life, so I bought the deluxe edition of the game, pretty much sight unseen. It arrived from Hawaii a couple weeks later, and I looked it over. The set was housed in a vinyl-sided carrying case not unlike a deluxe backgammon set, which turned out to be highly appropriate. Sadly, one of the latches did not work properly, so a quick letter to the company resulted in not just a new latch, but an entire new case. Great customer service!
The game came with dice cups, two sets of good-sized dice, some smallish backgammon-like pieces, three little tan chips, a couple scoring charts, two special decks of cards (one of which remains in its cellophane to this day), and an arcane rulebook. The board itself looks like a curtailed backgammon board consisting solely of two inner boards, each with three ovals beside them for the borne-off pieces. All in all, a pretty class act.
Slogging through the rules was difficult at best. While Joli Kansil is a master of game craftsmanship, his rules editing skills are somewhat wanting. It tooka several practice rounds for me to begin to put the disparate pieces together, but then the elegance of the design became clear to me and the light went on over my head.
What we have in Marrakesh is a boardgame based on the bearing-off portion of backgammon, but using a unique blend of cardplay in order to decide who gets to bear off, and what gets borne off. The cardplay is reminiscent of bridge, in that the suits have a specific hierarchy with clubs as the low suit, which is beat by diamonds, which in turn is beat by hearts, which is ranked just below spades. What is a unique element is that clubs will in turn beat spades, creating a rotation of two minor suits and two major suits.
The two players throw their dice to determine where their six pieces will be placed for the round, and put them on the correspondingly-numbered points of their boards. This is the sole purpose of the dice, which may strike some as unusual, but it works well within this context. The deck consists of two of ever card from Ace (one) to Six in each of the four suits, combined with one queen of each suit which is called a Null. Six cards are dealt to each player, and the player with the best board position leads a card face-down to the other player, who picks a card in response, laying it face-up.
This is the point where Marrakesh really begins to shine, as it is the interaction of these two cards and the pieces on the board which is so tantalizing. If the receiving player plays a higher suit than the suit of the led card, the receiver then gets to use the two card values just like a roll in backgammon for bearing off pieces from the board. If the led card is a higher suit, then the player who led it gets to use the card values instead.
If, as sometimes happens, the receiver matches the value of the led card, then the player of the higher suit gets to use the cards just as if doubles had been rolled in backgammon, plus gets the use of a single card turned up from the deck, as well. If the suits of the led card and receiver's card match, then receiver gets to use both and gets the extra card. If the receiver exactly matches the card led, then that card value will be used a whopping SIX times, plus the bonus card will be used four times.
Play goes back and forth with the winner of each trick leading the next trick until cards are exhausted. At this time scores are determined for the round. If a player has borne off all six pieces, there is a minimum socre of three points for game. but bearing pieces off in certain combinations, such as 2-2-2, will result in bonus scores. There are also points scored for keeping an opponent from bearing off pieces. Play continues for twelve rounds, with players trading off as dealer after each three rounds.
There is ample scope in Marrakesh for skillful play. There is subtlety to the game, and a depth which is much deeper than one would imagine at first glance. I personally think it stands up very well against its predecessor. Like backgammon, it seems especially well-suited for stakes play, but is equally fun being played for its own merits.
This remains, twenty years later, one of my absolute favorite games. I don't think there is any chance of it losing that vaunted standing any time soon.