This latest Wolfgang Kramer / Michael Kiesling design has been available in Europe for a few months. Unfortunately, the English edition was on the proverbial “slow boat from China”, so I had to suffer through report after report praising the game as another Kramer classic. I was chomping at the bit to play it. Finally, the game arrived in the bayou, and I immediately read the rules and was ready to bring it to the table and experience the joy.
I was not disappointed.
Set in the enchanting land of medieval India, players are charged by the Maharaja to build magnificent houses and palaces, then conduct him on a tour of his kingdom’s cities. Building these cities requires the players to maintain a steady stream of income. To the player who builds the most beautiful houses and palaces goes vast riches, and the first player to build seven palaces wins the favor of the Maharaja.
The game is released by Phalanx Games, who has been quite prolific in releasing new titles. Most of their previous games possessed military themes, but lately they have been injecting more “European-style” games into their catalog. Maharaja falls into this “European-style” family, and its production values won’t disappoint fans of that genre. Heavy, mounted board, lots of wooden houses, colorful glass stones, thick cardboard wheels and coins … all quality stuff. The board art is clear and functional, albeit not particularly inspiring.
The large board depicts seven cities, each containing sites for seven palaces. The cities are connected by network of roads, upon which smaller villages are located. Each city is home to one of the seven ‘governors’, and there is a corresponding governor marker for each. The markers are mixed and placed onto the linear governor track. This track serves two purposes: it dictates which city the Maharaja visits next, as well as serves as a potential timer for the end of the game. Keeping a close eye on this track, and manipulating it when advantageous, is essential.
Each player chooses one of the six character cards, each of which has a special power and a number that dictates when the holder will take his turn during the round. These character cards, along with their associated powers, will swap hands numerous times during the course of the game. However, it requires the expenditure of an action in order to acquire a new character card. Using these powers and timing the sequence of their play is a critical aspect of the game, and the variety of abilities allows for some extremely clever maneuvers.
Each player begins the game by taking his supply of houses and placing their architect token on the starting location. After initially seeding the board with four houses each, the players divide their houses into two stacks: the quarry and the pool. Players will place houses onto the board from their pool. They must execute a special action in order to move houses from their quarry to their pool. This aspect of the game is lifted from an earlier Kramer classic: El Grande. Players are generally limited to two actions per turn, and must occasionally use one of these actions to replenish their pool.
Each turn follows the following sequence:
1) Maharaja moves. The Maharaja token is moved to the home city of the governor whose token is at the bottom of the governor track. That governor token is now moved to the spot above the uppermost governor on the chart.
The city where the Maharaja is located will score at the end of the round. Thus, the wise player will keep a close eye on the governor track and attempt to build his houses and palaces in the areas which will be visited soon by the Maharaja. This is important in order to sustain a steady income flow.
2) Mark Actions on Discs. Each player has a disc, which depicts the nine possible actions a player can perform. Since a player may only perform two actions per turn, he must secretly move the arrows so they point to the two actions he desires to perform this turn. This mechanism is lifted from yet another Kramer title: Die Händler. Of course, a player will usually want to perform numerous actions … but two is the limit. Tough, tough choices.
Coupled with the special powers of the characters, these actions are the heart of the game. Choosing which ones to execute, where and when are vital decisions. So just what are the possible actions? A player has many choices: build a house, houses or a palace (houses come from your pool, so keep it supplied!), move two houses from your quarry to your pool, move a house from one location to another (must be a mobile home!), take a character card from an opponent or the bank, take 2 gold pieces, or alter the order of the governor tiles on the track. A player is allowed to perform the same action twice if he desires.
In turn order – which is based on the character cards held – players take turns executing their two actions. Before, during and after these actions, a player may move his architect from city to city. Architects are important as a player may not build a house or palace in a city unless their architect is present in that city.
Architects must travel along the roads and may only pass through a village if it contains at least one house. A village may contain at most two houses, and if a player owns one of those houses, his architect may pass through without charge. Otherwise, the player must pay 1 gold piece to each player who possesses a house in that village. Thus, it quickly becomes evident that a player should attempt to construct a string of houses along the roads in order to facilitate free passage. The drawback, however, is that one’s supply of houses is limited, and it is important to construct houses in the cities in order to earn money. Deciding how to apportion those houses between the villages and cities is yet another tough choice the players face.
3) Scoring. The city where the Maharaja is currently located is scored. Players tally
their points for that city, with points being earned for houses, palaces and architects that are present in that city. Money will be earned for all five players who have a presence in that city, with ties being broken in favor of the player who holds the character card bearing the lowest number. Yet another consideration when choosing those character cards! Money earned, which will range from a high of 13 (when playing with 5 players) to a low of 1 ducat.
Let’s talk a bit more about the actions a player can perform, as well as the character cards. There are, of course, pertinent restrictions when performing these actions. I’ve mentioned some of them (only two houses per village; architect must be present when erecting a building in a city), but others warrant mentioning.
Palaces are constructed in a city, and each city can only accommodate seven palaces. The center palace is the most desirable, as it is worth 3 points to a player’s total when tallying points for city dominance. All “outer” palace locations are only worth 1 point – unless a player is in possession of the Sadhu character card, which makes these locations worth 2 points. Unlike house construction, which costs only 1 gold piece per house, constructing palaces is an expensive proposition, costing 12 gold pieces apiece to build. This cost can be reduced to 9 gold pieces if the player holds the Artisan character card.
Altering the order of the governor tokens on the track can be quite powerful, and help insure that the cities where you hold dominance are scored earlier and perhaps more often. When this action is chosen, the player may move one governor token down the track two spaces. All tokens it surpassed are slid upwards one space. So, if you have dominance in a city that is not scheduled to be scored for two turns hence, moving it to the bottom of the chart will allow it to be scored on the next turn. This method can also be used to delay the scoring of a city where your presence is weak. Sneaky.
The “Exchange Character Cards” action allows the player to grab a desired character card from an opponent, placing the one you previously held back into the “bank”. This maneuver can allow a player to use the special abilities of two characters in one turn, which provides opportunities for extremely clever play. It can also allow a player to grab a character card whose number is low, thereby breaking any ties in that player’s favor. Figuring-out how to combine your actions with the abilities of the player cards is quite challenging, and the player who can best manipulate all of the possible combinations is likely to emerge as the Maharaja’s favorite.
To give you a better understanding of the character card abilities, and allow you the opportunity to ponder the vast array of possibilities, I’ll mention a few more. The Trader grants the holder one gold piece each turn. This may not sound great, but that one extra gold piece can accumulate to a nice nest egg over time. The Wandering Monk allows a player’s architect to pass through all villages for free. What self-respecting landowner would charge a monk to pass through? The Builder is also popular, as he allows the player to construct one additional house for free. Must be the Indian version of government-subsidized housing. Finally, there’s the Mogul, who allows the player to move first and breaks all ties in his favor.
The game concludes at the end of the round when either (a) one player constructs his 7th palace, or (b) one of the governor tokens reaches the top of the track. Victory is awarded to the player who has constructed the most palaces, with ties being broken in favor of the wealthiest player.
As you can probably tell from my description, the game is rich in opportunities for clever play. Player actions and character abilities can be combined in a mind-boggling number of manners, and finding the optimum combination on each turn is quite the challenge. In spite of all of these possibilities, I don’t find the game to suffer from an undue amount of down-time or over-analyzation. Our game, which consisted of all players new to the game, moved along at a steady pace, playing to completion in about two hours.
The caption on the box cover reads, “A Cleverly Designed Boardgame by Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling”. This may sound contrite, but it is completely accurate. “Clever” is certainly the right word, and many times during the game you will either perform or witness a series of moves and combinations that will likely have you uttering that very word.
Jim Fairchild joined the Labranches and me for our inaugural game of Maharaja. Shanna seemed to start fast, building three quick palaces in the center locations of cities. However, her money slowed, as did her construction spree. Frans held on to the Trader for most of the game, hoarding the money for a large construction boom near the end of the game. Sadly, he waited a bit too long.
After electing to not build a palace on the first turn, I proceeded to erect them on nearly every other turn. This allowed me to get a step ahead of my opponents, an advantage I held onto to claim the victory.
Finals: Greg 7, Shanna 6 ($10), Michael 6 ($8), Jim 6 ($5), Frans 6 ($1)
Ratings: Greg 8, Jim 7, Michael 7, Shanna 6.5, Frans 6