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Subject: A taste of wine - Review after some unfinished games rss

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Sascha Bötzel
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Madeira sprang to my eyes, when I recieved my latest copy of 'Spielbox' magazine, just before the start of Essen fair in 2013. It's very rare that a game gets a natural 10 in the rating of this magazine, but this one scored 10 and 9 from reviewers who are not known for their leniency when it comes to strategy games.
So expectations were set very high and we got lucky: On our very first day at Essen we got a seat at the Huch & friends booth and got a copy of Madeira to play as well!
Alas, the guy who tried to explain rules and mechanics really screwed up and nobody really understood, what to do, what strategy to follow and why we played this game at all. What a bad start!
Nevertheless, I was intrigued by the design of the board and the flexible setting at the start of the game and bought Madeira the very day. Now, a few days after Essen, it shows that I was right. Though we did not make it through a full game yet, Madeira lives up to it's promises. But let's start at the beginning.

The story

Madeira plays on the isle of Madeira (surprise!) in the 15th century. Wood is the primary ressource on the island, cities are yet to be built and most peasants grow wheat for their living. That is, until King Henry I. decrees that sugar cane should be produced on european soil to shorten the trade channel from the colonies and avoid buccaneer attacks en route. Later, when the value of sugar as a trading good decreases, the economy changes once more. Now wine (the famous Madeira) becomes the most produced item of the island.

All these events play a more or less important role during a game of Madeira. The change of economics is represented well and players have to adjust their strategies to the changing environment.

The material

The game comes with a broad plan made of sturdy cardboard. All markers in the game (trading goods, wood, bread, assignments, etc.) are of the same material. The meeples (workers an ships) are made of wood. Though we did not use the game too often, I think that the provided materials will last a long time without signs of wear and tear.

The graphics are done beautifully (by Mariano Iannelli). The fact that all colours are kept on the pale and pastel side, suits the game very much. Players can make out the plan and it's details without being distracted by to hefty colours. The game comes with two player aid sheets (made of thick paper), which show the course of the game phases, as well as the events at the end of each of the five rounds and the victory (prestige) points modification at the end of the game. After one has mastered the rules, these sheets provide excellent help during the course of actions.

How the game works

The Setup
All major parts of the starting setup are done at random, so no game is like a previous one. The main part of the board is divided into four separate regions - three of them containing buildings and harvesting fields, whereas the fourth - located in the center of the Madeira island - represents the forest. In every of the three regions, there is at least one building: the Alfândega in the first, Moinho and Capitania in the second and Casa da Corona and Fortaleza in the last. Each of these buildings consist of an upper part in which one of four characters is placed at random, the Fortaleza being empty in the beginning.

At the lower left corner of the board are three cities which are going to be developed during the game. At the start only two of six districts are available. The unaccessible districts are occupied by randomly placed 'guild favors'. Players who invest in the development of these districts will get such a favor as a reward. Favors can be used at the beginning of a players turn and are then turned over. They can be reactivated later by separate actions.

The right part of the board is occupied by colonies and markets. Players can build ships and sent them to the colonies or let them carry goods to trade partners in exchange of money. Each colony holds two randomly placed king's rewards. These can be used immediately whenever a player sends a ship there.

Lastly, requests of the crown are placed (you guess it: randomly) on a separate board, five in a row, so that there are five of those orders per player. One of four specific orders is dealt to every player at the beginning of the game, so that every player has a different request to start with. On the left hand of this board, the starting player places a marker in the upmost field of a distinct column (the so called passing column) and then the other players in turn, each a field below the previous player. At last, every player places to worker meeples in the city watch and in two different harvesting fields in one or two regions on the board.


The Game
A game of Madeira consists of five rounds, each divided into six phases (A - E).
In phase A (Round setup) all character markers are retrieved from the board, shuffled and put on four of the five buildings on the main part of the board (already done in the first round). In each round, one of those buildings is left blank (that is, without a special character). Then the three black dice (called pirate dice) are thrown and placed within the city watch. Players can use one of those die during their turn, whenever they want, but - as these are pirate dice - they come with a price, namely removing a meeple from the city guard and such loosing influence.

Afterwards, three guild dice are rolled and placed on the sparate board where the crown's requests were placed (this is called the 'dice column'). Three dice are thrown for every row of royal orders so that each player gets one set of dice. The player with his marker in the upmost field of the pass column replaces a set of dice with his marker and puts the dice in front of his other markers. Additionally he selects one of the crown's requests from the row of the dice. The turn order of the following phases is determined by the ranking of the markers in the dice column, so that taking a set of dice from one of the lower rows means to make your move after the other players.

These dice are used to activate characters in phase B (Character Actions). The player to move selects one of his dice (or a pirate die) and places it ontop one of the four characters. The snag is that you can only use characters residing in the region equal to or less than your die result. So, with a '2' you can use only the characters in region one or two. If you would like to use the characters in the third region, you either have to use one of the pirate dice or pay the difference in bread markers (in our example: one bread). As bread is also crucial to support your meeples at the end of a round, one should tread carefully here.
When a player uses one of his dice, he additionally places a square wooden marker (action marker) in the building where the character currently resides. There can only be as much dice (player or pirate) on a character, as players are participating. Pirate dice are limited to one per character.


The characters grant you the following actions:

The Steward
Move two worker meeples to different harvesting fields on the board. Tose meeple can either come from your stash or from other harvesting fields on the board, as long as two meeples of the same colour do not end in the same field

The Commander
Move two ships of yours to either colonies (paying wine) and using the king's favor in this country or to a trade route, trading goods (wine, sugar or wheat) for money. Again these ships can be moved either from the stash (this costs one wood per ship) or from another field on the board, which is free.

The Guild Master
This character allows the player to develop one of the three cities in the lower left corner of the board. He pays two to five wood and can take a guild favour from the appropriate column. These favour range from instant gold to moving meeples around the board. A full explanation would be beyond the scope of this review.

The Mayor
Reallocate up to two own or neutral workers within the cities on the lower part of the board. After the reallocations the player immediately gets wood, bread or money, depending on where his own workers are placed. If he has one worker in every city he can receive all of the above.

Instead of using one of the special abilities described above, a player can always opt for the harvest action and thus receive one good or wood for every worker in the appropriate region. As long as wood markers are on the board, players receive wood from the harvesting fields, when they are bare the players get the depicted good. If the blank character is chosen, players get an additional good or wood from one of their harvesting fields.

In lieu of putting a die on a character, a player can also pass. Passing players move their marker from the dice column to a field within the passing column. The fields yield better rewards, the lower the field is, but the higher the marker is placed, the earlier the player gets to select dice in the next round.

After all players have passed, phase C (Building Actions) commences. Within this phase, all buildings with action markers are evaluated. If a building bears action markers, all dice (player and pirate) on the correspondent character are rolled to evaluate, how much money the players have to spend to use the special action, the building offers. Such actions can only be used, if a player has at least one worker in the appropriate region. If a player does not want to or cannot pay the money, he cannot use the building action and receives a little black pirate marker. We will see to those later.

The buildings offer the following actions:

Moinho (Mill)
The player using this action receives two bread markers (five, if he has three or more meeple in this region).

Capitania (Captaincy)
Move one (two with three meeples) in an empty city spot.

Alfândega (Customs)
The player may move one (two) of his workers to any colony. Getting instant victory points for every ship the player already has in this colony.

Casa da Coroda (Guild Palace)
One (two) guild favors may be flipped over to the active side and thus can be used again on the player's next turn.

Fortaleza (Watch tower)
The player paying the cost may move one (two) of his workers into the city watch, gaining influence there.

After this, phase D (Maintenance) is evaluated. Here, the following actions take place:

Honour
The player with the most influence (meeple) within the city watch may remove one of his workers an get four victory points immediately.

Incoming
Each worker in a colony produced the appropriate good.

Upkeep
For every ship owned, the players have to pay one wood. For each wood a player cannot or does not want to discard, the play receives a pirate marker.

Feeding
The players discard one bread marker for every worker on the board. Fortunately, there is a windmill on the board that feeds a set number of workers without spending bread (like the wheat field in Stone Age). Again, for every bread the player does not spend, he gets visited by another pirate.

The last phase, (The crown's request) closes each round. In round one, three and five the players have to fullfil one, two or three requests of the crown accordingly. In rounds two and four, the economy of Madeira changes, that is, wheat fields are converted to sugar in round two and sugar fields are converted to wine in the fourth round.

At the end of the game goods are converted to money and each player gets one victory point for each five gold. Then the pirates come into play. The player with the most black markers receives a penalty of 16 (!) victory points. This equals the reward of a well fullfilled crown's request. The other player get punished with eight, four and two victory point losses accordingly.
The player with the most victory points wins.

How does it feel?
As with all strategy games of some depth, the possible courses of actions to take are abundance. The main source of victory points are the crown request's, scoring zero to twenty. A player should plan to fullfil all of his requests. Skipping just one of them leads to an almost certain defeat. According to the first request a player gets during the setup he should plan his strategy for the first two rounds as no requests must be completed after round two. As far as I can say all requests play well with other actions on the board, like generating money by placing ships in the market and then converting the gold to victory points, and so on.

The game plays very smoothly, without long pauses for each player as each participant moves multiple times during each phase. I don't know if an experienced group players really needs two and a half our to complete a game, but players learning the ropes surely need much more time. Madeira is a feature-length game, but playing it feels actually like playing and not like 'work' as with, let's say, Agricola (personal opinion!).
You should not put this on the table, when your group consists of occasional gamers, as those would be overwhelmed by the options you have during each turn. Experienced gamers though will quickly grasp the concept of the game, even if details (like: you do not have to feed workers you remove from the board) will slip during the first one or two games.

One of the main plusses for Madeira is the flexible startup, guaranteeing for a high replayability. I do not regret buying this game and the few people that I started a game with where equally stoked.
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Jarek Szczepanik
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Thanks for the review Sascha. I look forward to play this one!
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Nuno Bizarro Sentieiro
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Great review Sascha !

It's always really odd reading about your own "work"... somehow you made it simpler for me.

Thanks !
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