Full disclosure: A review copy of Machi Koro was provided by Pandasaurus Games.
You know, never thought I’d end up here, but I was curious and the game was offered, so here we are. Machi Koro! I’m trying out the 5th Anniversary Edition, which allegedly streamlines some aspects of the game (and adds some new fancy coins and room for the various expansions, which I shall cover … another time). I’ve mostly heard this game in hushed tones as gamers I know throw shade at it, so, I’m kind of interested to see what I think of it? I suppose we’ll find out!
Apparently, in Machi Koro, you’ve just been elected Mayor of a city that exists as a solitary wheat field and a bakery. Maybe not the position you should have run for? Maybe you didn’t run! Maybe it’s that Greek random selection thing, which I just found out is called Sortition. So I also learned something today, which is nice. Anyways, you’re the Mayor now and nothing is here, so in a way, you’re in a bit of an Animal Crossing: New Leaf situation. Time to sort that out. It’s easy enough to do! You’ll focus on building up your town by rolling dice, collecting coins, and then buying buildings. Eventually, you’ll complete four Landmarks and that’s the game. But what buildings do you build first? Maybe focus on a cheese factory? A fancy radio tower? Build some … forests, somehow? The sky’s the limit when you’ve got no real plans!
Player Count Differences
A lot of what makes this game different at different player counts depends on how good you’ve been about getting yourself cards that activate on other players’ turns. If you have none of them, well, you better hope you got some much better cards instead (and also reevaluate your life choices). If you have some, then as other players play, you should be getting some passive income (adjusting for probability / dice nonsense). There are cards that are going to be better at higher player counts (typically the take-that or penalizing cards fall into this category, since more other players means more times that the card can activate). I could get a bit into probability theory and expected value, but, that would get boring for some of y’all real fast and I’m trying to rely on engagement to continue The Brand. Maybe I’ll talk about it later. Either way, I think that higher player counts give you a bit more flexibility to try different strategies (since there are more players to hit your cards even if you go wide), but, eh. I wouldn’t say that I mind higher player counts, but I do like this one at two since it’s quick to set up and plays fast.
- Generally speaking, unless you have wildly good dice luck, I’d just as soon not go for double dice. Bores you with a brief mathy statement, but essentially, for a given value on a die from 1 to 6, you have a 1 / 6 chance of rolling it. That probability doesn’t hold for values rolled with two dice, since the sum determines the outcome (rather than just getting both individual dice). For instance, 1 is no longer possible (since the lowest value on each die is a 1), so you only have 2 – 12 as an option. Tough if you’ve been investing in Wheat Fields. While the rewards for dice at the upper end of the range are higher than the lower end, you have more consistent returns if you’ve covered 1 – 6 already and not tried to also cover 7 – 12, in my experience. I believe this is Generally Known, as well, but just worth considering for the base game. If you see that someone is really going for double dice, well, they’re likely not going to do well if nobody else is, but also, maybe buy the Mine or Orchard Farm so that you can at least potentially make some money on their turns (though rolling a 5 is still possible on two dice).
- If you see that other players aren’t going for double dice, then definitely don’t go for double dice. If you’re the only person driving double dice, it’s fairly unlikely to happen in your favor that often, so, again, would just as soon stick with singles for the dice.
- I don’t think the Cafe is that useful at lower player counts, at least not until you have the Shopping Mall. Best case, you annoy your only opponent and consistently ruin the 3 for them. Which, I mean, that’s funny, but also mean? Your money can likely be better spent elsewhere. Once you unlock the Shopping Mall, though, it doubles in effectiveness, so you can really use a 3 on their turn to hurt them, especially if you’ve been monopolizing Cafes.
- The Radio Tower is very useful but very expensive; even then, I’d recommend not making that the last thing you buy. Having that reroll can often make the difference between winning and losing (especially if you’re trying to avoid activating another player’s collection of Forests or something). It’s pricey, but, a lot of things are pricey and valuable, so weigh your options. Again, it’s easier to get once you unlock the Shopping Mall unless everyone is going for double dice.
- Buy cards that give you a passive income on other players’ turns. This is kind of the crux of the game, isn’t it? Getting that passive income can be pretty much critical; you can’t always expect to make all of your cash on your turn (unless you’re really making things work with the Shopping Mall). You kind of want a broad spectrum of coverage, anyways, so several of these cards will end up in your tableau if you want to make sure that you always get paid when a die is rolled on your turn.
- If you can sneakily buy all of one card (especially cards that give you money when it’s not your turn), you can turn certain dice rolls into huge paydays. This is just my favorite thing to do, especially because it makes your opponent dread certain rolls, and then when they happen you can very politely thank them for the money. I’ve found from extensive study that they hate that. Up to you if that’s how you want to operate, I suppose.
- That said, don’t let your opponent monopolize certain numbers. Keep an eye out for 4 and 5; those are numbers opponents tend to go after pretty hard. One gives a lot of money if they roll it on their turn, the other gives money whenever it’s rolled. You need to make sure you get some of those cards, too.
- This is the classic engine-building problem: at what point do you trust your engine to make enough money to get you through the game and focus on buying your way to victory rather than building your engine? Thankfully, buying Landmarks isn’t always abandoning your engine; they can offer helpful results, too (except for the Amusement Park, for me, at least). But you need to figure out when you should start saving for Landmarks instead of blowing your cash on more cards, otherwise your opponents will buy theirs and win before you can react.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Cute art. I really like it! It’s a very colorful, inviting, and friendly game. Love that kind of stuff.
- I really did think the coins were metal, for a hot second. I love metal coins, so this hurt me, but they are fairly nice, for plastic coins. A bit reflective for my taste, but this is mostly me whining from a photography perspective.
- Great game for folks who are relatively new to board games. I think the nice thing here is that it’s low-complexity, quick to pick up, and very inviting from an art standpoint. This is the kind of game I could talk my Dad into playing with me, since he enjoys rolling dice but doesn’t want to deal with too many rules.
- Like Space Base, I like that the quality of your turns (tends to) gradually increase. I think that’s a nice thing about engine-building in general, and adding in the tableau-building means that you get this nice, robust, and colorful city that starts to spread out in front of you (if you’re not mercenarial and content to just stack your cards by number and memorize their outcomes).
- Plays pretty quickly. It’s over and done in 30 or so, tops, which is nice. Again, it targets a very nice gateway audience, and I think it sits very well in that category.
- Very wise to have cards that activate when it’s not your turn; gives players something to do when they’d otherwise just be sitting around. I think that’s a very good mechanic for engine-building games, having the ability to have part of your engine fire when it’s not your turn. Otherwise, you’re just sitting around waiting for it to be your turn again so that you can do your cool thing. It also has the benefit of disincentivizing copycats, a bit, since if they try to do what you’re doing they may end up giving you more money than they earn.
- A single turn is not that complicated, which is also nice for a light game like this. You just roll a die, get some money, and keep going. Since you can’t buy a lot and don’t often get a lot of money, the decision space is fairly narrow, so the game moves faster as a result. It’s very easy to make notes of what you’d like to buy on your next turn, if you can, so there’s not too much to think about when it comes back around to your turn.
- It’s a lot of fun to play games like this and watch players get weird about probability. I mean, like, a die roll probably isn’t perfectly 1 / 6 uniformly random outcomes, which definitely influences the game (I still swear my Catan dice were cursed to prefer 9 to 6), so if you’re playing a high-luck game with Probability Nerds (or, as some folks call them, Computer Scientists) it usually leads to some humorous outcomes as they try to predict the inherently unpredictable.
- Not a ton of card effect variety. You really only gain coins or steal coins, which is fine. There are a few more variable cards at the higher end of the numbers, but they mostly reward you for having cards of other types, which again, increases the spread. I’m told the expansions improve this, so I’ll be trying those soon enough.
- The unceremonious end of the game may surprise some players. I’m always a bit opposed to “as soon as this happens, you win”, just because players may not notice how much money another player has or how many Landmarks they’ve flipped. Is that on them? Absolutely. Can it still be frustrating? Of course.
- I’m not really convinced there’s much of a point to going after rolling doubles, if you can get singles working for you. It just seems strategically non-optimal. Even if you have other players rolling doubles, you rolling singles keeps the dice constrained to a smaller set of values, meaning that it’s easier to cover them (six possible values instead of twelve, and a more even distribution of those values instead of a bell curve). That seems like kind of a glaring flaw for this game, but, it’s quick enough that this just means it comes down to players rolling a single die fast until one of them wins. Which isn’t my favorite thing in the world, but can still be pretty fun.
- If you’re not down for dice rolling, you will not be down for this one. That’s basically the entire game, so if you’re not here to play with dice you should probably find another game to try. These kind of high-luck games aren’t for everyone, and that’s fine, but they can be pretty divisive in some circles.
- I will freely admit that I think there are games that have inherited from this one and do a better job of its particular schtick. Personally, I think Space Base does a better job, but I will compliment this game for its conciseness and simplicity. I can explain this game in a few minutes; Space Base takes a lot longer and there are more complex interactions to worry about. I think a lot of criticism I see levelled against Machi Koro does forget that, at times. This is a game that’s definitely in the same tier of “get folks excited about gaming” as Catan or Betrayal or Avalon. I think of Space Base as more of a Strategy Game for fairly experienced gamers. I played this with someone who is fairly new to board games and they thought it was a blast. That’s a group I tend to enjoy testing out some review games with, just to maintain perspective, frankly. There are a lot of games that we’ve become a bit … jaded, about, I think? And I think there’s a lot of value in taking games that aren’t necessarily for multi-year gaming industry folks and trying them with family or friends who have finally agreed to give this board game thing a whirl. There are plenty of games that are good for both groups, as well, but I am trying to not be as quick to dismiss games that belong to the latter group. It’s a fairly large market, as people have seen from Exploding Kittens and other similar fare.
Overall: 7.25 / 10
Overall, I think Machi Koro earns its place in the vaunted halls of good gateway games. I think some folks use that term a bit pejoratively, which is a bummer, but it’s definitely a game I would take to a game night with mostly newer gamers. I think that, in my experience, it’s not always great to show up with some like “hey this game rules but it will take me an hour to explain and then 15 minutes per player to play” title. Those kinds of games can be overwhelming for a lot of people who aren’t quite as sunken-eyed about board games as some of the media folks can be, and I forget that sometimes, which is fun for me and less fun for them. I’ve been trying to round out my collection a bit more, anyways, for the (hopefully inevitable) return of game nights, and I think having stuff like this will accomplish two goals: one, players will have something that’s easy to pick up and inviting to play, and two, hopefully, people will stop asking me if I have Codenames. I don’t dislike Codenames! I’m just kind of over it! But that’s a conversation for another time. I don’t think this scratches the same itch, obviously, but I think it appeals to the same gaming archetype in some ways. Naturally, if people really like Machi Koro, I would probably try to get them into Space Base, which I think is a “next step” game (whatever that means; I just like it more), but I think starting with this and gauging their interest in the art and mechanics can be a very productive way to figure out what kind of games my friends like. I think there’s room in a collection for a lot of titles like these, even if some folks will keep them around to distract from Catan and others may eventually move on from them to more complex fare (or not!). Either way, I’ve enjoyed getting to build up my little city in Machi Koro, and if you’re looking for a solid low-complexity title with great art, or you just love chucking dice, I’d suggest you try playing this one! It makes me excited for the Legacy version.