While we're dipping into the BROG vaults, and apparently getting mostly good reactions from Geekers, here is another oldie. Remember, this was written 10+ years ago, although my opinion hasn't chsamged much. Or at all.
MAHARAJA by CRAIG SANDERCOCK
from AVALON HILL
24” X 22” mounted mapboard, 2 sheets of counters of various shapes and sizes, 17 Victory Cards, 1 Nation Control Card, bunch ‘o’ dice; boxed. Avalon Hill, Baltimore MD. c. $35
Reviewed by RICHARD H. BERG
The Lost World of Game Design is the Indian subcontinent and its remarkably rich and diverse history. Can anyone think of a game that has alighted - even briefly - on this surface, other than some WWII potboilers covering Japanese efforts out of Burma. Well, as if to repair this oversight, Avalon Hill, and designer Craig Sandercock, have given us Maharaja, virtually all of India's history - from the Harrapans of the dim, distant past (like 2500 BC) all the way to the joyful excesses of the East India Company - in one box and four hours, and woebetide the gamer who attempts to stray from its chosen path.
One of the more mystically enduring games in AH's line has been Britannia, as mechanistic and determanistic a waver of the Design for Effect gonfalon as ever existed. Obviously, I have never quite understood exactly what joys Britannia held, a view not helped by some truly mediocre graphics. Well, someone must like it, because Maharaja is Indian history laid over the Britannia system. If you liked the latter, you'll love Maharaja, which is far more colorful, both physically and metaphysically. Even if you raised your left upper lip in that knowing sneer at the jejeunosity of Britannia, you might want to take a look at its younger sister. The worst that can happen is you get a pretty good Cliff Note-style lesson in Indian history.
Actually, the worst you can do is gaze too long at the box cover: The Return of Study Hall Art. I particularly enjoyed the Euro-type at the bottom. He was probably meant to be a Greek, but his helmet is strictly Gallic/Roman, and he appears to be holding a large serving plate on which is emblazoned a crude picture of Joan Baez. Artist Kurt Miller has done better; cf. the boxcover for Colonial Diplomacy. That said, the rest of the game is most attractive. Despite AH's insistence on using pastels as background colors for its counters (lots of that old AH staple, purple, showing up here), they all contain some rather interesting and evocative icons. The Victory Condition cards - more of which, below - are also well done, and the map is very attractive, even if attempting to read the pseudo-Hindi manuscript of the area names is a game-within-a-game. (It also doesn't help that the card for the Rajputs has them as the "Bajputs".)
As for the game, this is Design for Effect in all its full-blown glory. You have but to read what Mr. Sandercock says in his Designer Notes to know where you're heading: "… it is impossible to force players to do exactly as their nations did historically [Ed. but not for lack of trying]; but the game is designed so that a player who indulges in bizarre and pointless moves, from a historical viewpoint, will fail to score many points." One man’s “bizarre” is another’s “bazaar”.
Heed that warning literally, because Maharaja is less a game of strategy than one of those Road Rallies where each contestant has to hit his checkpoints in order to gain points. If you don't follow the straight-and-narrow for your Marathas, you'll find whatever else you do with and for them a worthless exercise in counter placement. It's something akin to playing a Bulge game in which the German Player wins, not by reaching the Meuse or disrupting the Allies, but by holding Bastogne on turns 4 and 11 (but not in between), St. Vith on turns 2 and 6, and eliminating five infantry brigades on Turn 3. The height of this sort of folly is when the player simply replaces all his Mauryan pieces with his Gupta pieces, only to remove virtually all of them three turns later. Doesn't make any difference how you've done with them; you simply remove them. No Cause; just Effect.
Each player gets a bunch of "peoples" - 4 players is truly best, as the rules are quick to point out - covering the 4500 or so years of history (and 16 turns of play). For some reason, the distribution of peoples is not "even". The "D" Player, who gets to run the Mauryans, Guptas, Sinhalese and then the Dutch, pretty much shoots his wad in the first 5 or 6 turns, then waits around for another half dozen or so turns before he gets to do anything noteworthy. This is not a bad thing, as Player "D" is now free to go out and pick up the pizza, or call in for Chinese delivery, report the scores of whatever games are on the tube, and complete his paper on animal imagery in Shakespeare. Whatever he does, though, he should make his co-players foot the bill, because Player “D” has as much chance of winning as I do of making the front cover of Command.
Play, itself, is fast and easy to grasp; the basic mechanics are quite similar to History of the World. You get a bunch of "armies", you move them, and, to attack, you roll dice, one for each army. Get a '5' or a '6' and you get to remove an opponent, with some minor variations. The "wave of invasion" effect is quite pronounced, and quite well done, in terms of simulating the ebb and flow of Indian history … so much so that the box's boast that the game is an excellent introduction to India's history can be taken at face value.
The object, though, is not to take several peoples and see if you can establish them in India as the “dominant” group - although that is what appears to be the goal - it is to gain Victory Points acccording to what the game has pre-designated should happen. For example, Player “B” starts the game with a bunch of Harappans. He gets points for destroying Mauryans (at any time) and, on Turn 4, for occupying certain areas of Northern India. He also gets similar points in Turns 7, 10, 13 and 16. Problem is, by Turn 3, if you can find a Harappan anywhere, “…you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.” It’s a lot like one of those escorted tours of a foreign country; you know, the ones where you never get out of the bus. You see what THEY want you to see; you never go where YOU want to.
It all moves rather rapidly and - except for the quirk of having one player or another have little to do for several turns - it’s so easy to play and so clearly and well presented that its not an altogether unpleasant experience. Just how far into “pleasant” depends mostly on how much you want to spend your See India Now Tour in a bus, eating catered meals.
Graphic Presentation: Excellent. Has that “Play Me” feel.
Playability: Clear, concise rules; accessible system. 4-5 hours tops, but no solitaire.
Replaybility: Depends on your tolerance level for the Deterministic Victory conditions. Balance may be a problem.
Wristage: Except for combat resolution, none.
Creativity: More an expression of adaptive skills.
Historicity: Quite good, from the point of overview.
Comparisons: Britannia in a different country; no more, no less. History of the World is more interesting and involving. Civilization is more difficult, but more fun.
Overall: If you liked Britannia, you’ll love this. For others, the curry is certainly not vindaloo.
Laissez les bons temps rouler
Another good review, thanks for adding it.
I enjoyed Britannia but was disappointed with Maharaja.
I found the submission rules bizarre at best and lead to even more strange results. The disappearance of the yellow players forces isn't a nice experience why not let them grow, then player can have the "pleasure" of watching his empire gradually die rather than all at once - at least the other players will have to kill the yellow players pieces.
My only disagreement with your review, would be even if you liked Britannia - you probably won't like this anymore than somebody who didn't like Britannia.
While the rules do in fact go to great pains to point out that 4 players is best, I find that 3 is actually the magic number with this game. With 4, as RHB correctly points out, Yellow (Player D) has at best a 10% chance of winning, and probably more like 2%. With 3 players, the colors are all mixed up, and it seems more balanced to me. The submission rules to European powers are pretty wacked out, but they again seem to work better with 3. I'd encourage anyone who likes Brit and gave this a try only to be disappointed to try again wwith just 3 players and see if it fares better. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised. It'll never be Britannia, but it's a decent game of that type with 3 players.
Good review. It's interesting to hear from a non-Britannia fan on this game.
Firstly, I should say I am a big Britannia fan, and have been since it first came out in the mid 80's here in the UK. But, my experience of that game is that friends have fallen into two very separate camps: loved it and want to play again, and loathed it and never want to see it again. Unfortunately more of the latter, but those who (like me) like the game tend to really like it.
The big divide between those who like it and hate it tends to be those who like in depth history of this era and those who aren't really interested.
Anyway, I like history, love history, and when Britannia first came out I was studying Dark Age history in school, so for me that game hit exactly the right target at the right time.
Because of certain connections I've always been really interested in Indian history too. Several years before Maharaja came out I had actually completed my own version of Britannia in the subcontinent (called imaginatively enough 'India'). Admittedly I'd also created a version for the Ancient Middle East, 'Mespotamia', and the rather unplayably longwinded 'Europa' employing a 6' x 4' gameboard and several thousand labouriously hand coloured pieces - I was only a teenager at the time and hadn't yet grasped the idea of 'player fatigue', lol.
So when Maharaja was published I was wildly optimistic, some friends actually bought it for me as a present, they were so convinced I'd love it.
I remember my first impressions of the cover were, as the reviewer says above, disappointing, I can draw better than that (I can, seriously). But, box art doesn't make or break games and I was generally impressed with the quality of the game board and pieces. The colours might not be everyone's cup of tea, but they do fit the setting and lend it the same kind of exotic feel as your local Tandoori restaurant.
The illustrations of all the races are taken directly from various titles in the 'Men-at-Arms' series by Osprey (particularly the 'Moghul India' title, and also 'Enemies of Queen Victoria : India'). I'm not sure the original artists were ever credited for this? Anyway they certainly are far, far superior to the box cover.
The problems come when you actually come to play the game. Why?:
1. The game designers obviously only had a rough idea of some stages of Indian history, or the connections between various empires and peoples. This differs massively from Britannia, which although fuzzy in places (deliberately so where factual information is scarce), follows the history of Britain very closely and is still in keeping with up to date historical theories. You have the impression that the guy who did Britannia loved British history and really knew what he was talking about.
2. Despite this, bizarrely Maharaja feels much more limited and 'channeling' than Britannia ever does. Your choice of actions feels much more controlled and if you step off the stepping stones you lose, simple as that. The system for rewarding points really rubs this in. It's not a game, it's a flawed and rather dull lecture on what should really be riveting history.
3. Several aspects such as Maharaja status, the special rules for European colonial powers, and the submission rules (all highlighted by others above I think?) don't feel integrated and don't work smoothly. They have the feel of last minute additions. To some extent the same could be claimed of Britannia, the obscure little rules dotted around the finely printed rule booklet have annoyed many people over the years. I notice the new FFG version has done away, or clarified, all of those and the game is more playable for it.
4. The bizarre idea of replacing the Mauryans with the Guptas and then removing them just doesn't work. It simply annoys and depresses players, is a bad idea all round and completely pointless. Why not have one set of tokens for Mauryans and Guptas? The Aryan peoples and the Mauryan empire are represented by one set and one colour, so why not the Guptas too? They were logically successors to the Mauryans in some ways, and the extra tokens could have been better used for other races and peoples, some of which there is a shortage of. Also, why remove them? Wouldn't it have been better to allow them a last stand, led by Harsha, against the Saka, Kushan and Hun invaders (all lumped together as Rajputs in the game). This important, and exciting, bit of India's history is inexplicably missing from the game, as are so many more! After their last stand they could reasonably be allowed to continue to represent the minor Hindu states of the Ganges valley into later eras.
5. My final bugbear is what some may consider a very minor error, some of the geographical aspects of the game don't match the historical realities very well at all. Rajputana, for example, was famed for being a rocky and mountainous stronghold surrounded by deserts. This is what allowed the tiny Rajput Kingdoms there to survive and remain fiercely independent for so long. In the game Rajputana is an open and exposed area which it's almost compulsory to march through on your way down the Ganges to score those all important points, thus completely destroying it's true standing in history. There are other regions which really could have been much better thought out in terms of the impact they would have on game play too. To be honest the map is far too small and far too simplified. Done properly the map could help to channel races into a more, or less, historical path without the crudeness of forcing them to act in a certain way for the sake of game winning 'points'.
How could it all be put right?
Quite simply it needs a complete redesign with a better understanding of the subcontinent's history geographically and politically and with an eye to what makes a game playable. True it'd be impossible to make a practical game that was even remotely accurate, the history of the subcontinent over several thousand years is a very broad canvas indeed! In comparison Britannia covers a much, much smaller area over a much shorter time span. But, I still think most of the history and geogrpahy could be included, it's just a question of knowing where to simplify and where to cut corners. For example, surely it doesn't really need so much emphasis on the Europeans who were really minor players right up until the very end of the era we are considering.
It is a game though, and game balance and playability are more important than historical accuracy, it's knowing where you can ignore history and still get a roughly accurate 'feel' for later turns. Personally I think Britannia gets it right, there is a lot of freedom of choice in that game which may not be immediately obvious. With Maharajah that could be taken even further (we only know some aspects of Indian history quite vaguely so it wouldn't go against history particularly).
I could go on all night, but don't want to bore you. This is a game with a huge amount of potential, unfortunately almost completely unrealised by the designers. If you have an interest in Indian history you are likely to be disappointed, if you don't like history you are just as likely to be disappointed. If you want to try something like this, but leagues better, try Britannia, especially the new FFG rules which can be downloaded online if you have the old game. They were written by the original game designer and really are very well done.