In this quick point-by-point review based on about 4 or 5 games I list the strenghts and weaknesses of Madeira. I hope you find it useful!
(+) Very intriguing intertwined gaming mechanisms. The core of the game engine is 'combinations': each round character actions get combined randomly with building actions. A set of 3 blue guild dice get combined with a certain type of guild to be reactivated and more importantly with a selection of important scoring tiles. Players take actions with placing a die on a character (residing in a certain building). When a player places a black pirate die on a character, the potential damage caused to players taking the action regularly with their own blue dice increases if they can't (or won't) pay the required cost for using the building afterwards. All those elements make sure that each round, when the board gets set up again interesting opportunities arise or whole strategies have to be rethought. The dice mechanic also creates interesting tension: having other players place pirate dice on actions you want to take with your regular dice in order to gain access to the building action can be painful (cost of using the building rises and the penalty for not paying increases greatly). When placing your regular blue dice, you hope that others will follow with their blue dice, so that the cost of using the building later on will decrease.
(+) The game mechanisms ensure that the game generates challenging decisions all of the time. Each and every decision counts. The mechanism in which players collect scoring tiles allowing to score massive points when a certain requirement is met, and put them to use at the end of round 1, 3 and 5 gives players some goal to plan for in an otherwise extremely dynamic and volatile environment.
(+) Reasonable gaming time for a rather heavy game: with a playtime of about 35-40 min / player, a 4-player game can get played in about 2,5 hours, even with newcommers.
(+) Handy player aids and a nice looking and well organized board, displaying relevant information. This aids a lot in explaining and understanding the game. The rule set is also rather structured.
(-) The theme of this game is rather weak and feels 'pasted on'. Ok, at the beginning of its exploitation, Madeira was filled with forests and you see players tearing those down in search for wood and in order to gain access to fertile land during the game. But really, that's the only thematic feel the game will offer while you play. Many game rules are obviously meant for the gameflow to go well (and they do a great job at that!), but do not make any thematic sense. If you want to enjoy this game, you must be able to play the game for what it is: a very clever mechanical beast which will challenge you from start to finish, but which won't tell a thematic story whatsoever.
(-) My main complaint about this game is that I don't think that the core game engine is very 'stable'. I mean that a very insignificant small factor (this can be a choice, for example deciding not to pay for a building and taking a single puny pirate token - but it can also be a random factor like which character gets assigned to which building during round set-up or which set of dice get combined to which selection of scoring tiles) can have a *huge* impact on scoring opportunities. In our last game, one player got stuck with one single pirate token and this costed him 16 penalty points, which is very significant in this game - sure not relative to having a single puny pirate token. Getting stuck with a useless scoring tile near the end of the game could cost you about 15 points (possibly more). Having a bad die roll for determining the cost of a building action could harm you greatly. To some players, huge point swings caused by minor effects might be an advantage as they add to the tension and the dynamic of the game, but to me these effects in Madeira are so significant that I find they bring a little too much chaos to the game, eclipsing an important part of the overall strategy you try to implement while playing.
(-) There is a considerable amount of luck dependence for a game of this heavy weight. As stated before, the random distribution of characters to buildings can have significant consequences and there is no way to mitigate this. The dice sets that get linked to certain guilds and scoring tiles can also be favorable or unfavorable to certain players. Dice rolls to determine cost of building actions also bring a certain amount of luck to the game (but for some reason I don't mind this last aspect as usually the impact of this is limited and there sure is a correct correlation between the number of blue guild dice and building cost).
(-) Finally I'm not sure if many different strategies are viable. Maybe this is a non-issue, as this is certainly more of a tactical game than a strategic game, and the art of playing Madeira right probably lies in identifying the correct opportunities generated by a dynamic random board set-up. I do have some doubt as it comes to re-occuring scoring tiles and the possible instability this may bring into the game. In my opinion some general strategic lines should always be followed if you want to avoid that the game beats you down. (see 'tips' section below).
The least that can be said of Madeira is that it is a very intriguing game. The very dynamic random board set-up at the start of every round has a huge impact on scoring opportunities or pitfalls. This makes for a wonderfully deep and rich challenge for fans of heavy tactical games, but it also makes the game prone to a rather high level of chaos which will appeal less to the strategists amongst gamers. The lack of a theme well integrated with the game mechanics makes that players don't experience an epic story while taking their actions, but the clever intertwined game mechanics are sure to keep heavy euro-fans interested till the very last action. Madeira was the first game from Nuno Bizarro Sentieiro and Paulo Soledade and it was immediately clear that the designers put a lot of thought and love into building an exceptional and unique game engine which keeps spawning interesting challenges. They did this again in 2015 with Nippon when they came up with a very clever and original 'worker takement' mechanic which drives this game smoothly (and its players happily crazy ). Madeira and Nippon share some similarities in the fact that they are euro-style games with some very intriguing and original core concepts, but they play out totally differently and I'm happy to have both games in our collection. Madeira sure is the heavier of the two and offers a little more 'surprises' in its very dynamic board set-up, but still I think the designers have grown with Nippon, which I slightly favor over Madeira due to the better integration between tactical and strategic play.
8,3 / 10
(*) Always have at least one worker in region 2. Having no worker here could get you into trouble as the building actions over there allow access into the cities (which is important in order to obtain bread/wood/money) and an easy access to bread. What's more, region 2 remains rather accessible (unlike the buildings in region 3 which require better dice or bread in order to take those actions) and has 2 possible action field in stead of the sole action field in the most accessible (and therefore sometimes hotly contested region 1). This makes workers in region 2 the most valuable of all workers placed into fields on the islands.
(*) When placing workers in the fields, be mindful that region 3 is the least accessible. Its building actions are very powerful, but it could be hard to gain access to this region and in my experience region 3 gets pumped with more pirates than any other region because of this. Avoid betting everything on region 3 despite its spoils.
(*) Getting the right scoring tiles is very important as these tiles provide the main source of points. It is worthwile to go early in turn order so that you have the opportunity of selecting the right set of guild dice and a scoring tile. This becomes even more important at the end of the game, when the choices of scoring tiles decrease. It could be worthwile to pass early in the second last round in order to select the right scoring tile for you to be used in the last round. Turn order is very important in Madeira!
(*) Make sure you always have enough bread, as this is a powerful tool to buy flexibility when placing dice. If you don't have enough bread, you are at the mercy of the whims of a very dynamic and random board set-up. Getting up in the mill early can therefore be quite powerful.
(*) If you don't care much for the building action, always consider placing a pirate die early in the round. It could harm your oppenents when placed tactically and it decreases the chance of an unexpected pirate die showing up on the action you aim for in a next turn. Using pirate dice gives you more actions, but this also means that you will probably pass later than your oppenents, which could deny you from getting the right scoring tile and the right guild dice in the next round.
(*) Getting many ships out early is risky as they will require wood every single round. In most cases it is better to get your ships out later in the game (they are really useful as they provide many points with 40% of the scoring tiles. The market spots for ships is one of the most effective ways to earn you money and the extra action tiles in the colonies are pretty yummie too!)
(*) Don't be too afraid to take some pirate tokens. In our experience it is not too difficult to get rid of some tokens, and usually players end the game with no pirate tokens at all. I don't know if it would be a viable strategy to pile up pirate tokens, taking the 16 point penalty but don't having to feed your people, avoid paying for some not very useful building actions or collect wood for your ships. In any case, avoid having more than 20 pirate tokens. One player gobbling up all pirates also makes life easier on his/her opponents. I would advise against such strategy.
(*) Getting a good combination of guild tiles can be really powerful. The game offers enough ways to recharge your tiles and use them frequently.
(*) Grain buys you bread by moving up in the mill, sugar buys you much coins by the rewarding sugar market, grapes gain you access to the colonies. Early in the game grain has priority, in mid game should you run low on money sugar will come in handy and late in the game, when you have a scoring tile relating to the colonies you will need many grapes.
Nuno Bizarro Sentieiro
What's Your Game?
Nuno Bizarro Sentieiro
Thanks for the review !