One of the hottest game designers in the hobby right now is Alexander Pfister. While he has been designing games for a good number of years now (Isle of Skye, Broom Service, Oh My Goods!), he has just recently taken the spotlight for a few of his more in-depth strategy games. The first of which is Mombasa, which after a few years was followed up by Great Western Trail, which was followed by one I haven’t played yet called Black Out: Hong Kong, and his latest release from late last year, Maracaibo. Pfister is well known for his ability to reuse mechanics, making them feel fresh and exciting while remaining familiar. Since all these games are so similar, to an extent, it should be a pretty straight forward comparison. Ideally this will give you a good place to start, and then you can explore the other titles at your leisure.
Mombasa sees players as investors caught up in the exploration and exploitation of the African continent. While many have complained about the insensitivity of the theme, I don’t feel it too present while playing the game and wouldn’t take it into consideration when making a choice between these three. Players will use various goods in the form of cards to invest in and control 4 major corporations. They will also have opportunities to mine for diamonds and fulfill orders though crafty bookkeeping. While the theme isn’t overly strong, the biggest takeaway is that the 4 companies competing for control of African can, and probably will be, invested in by each and ever player.
The driving mechanisms in the game are hand management, worker placement, and area control. While the area control is shared, the hand management and worker placement are both individual efforts that will require careful timing and forward planning. The most unique part of the game has to be the card play. Each round players will play 3 cards into 3 separate columns. You will get to resolve each of these cards one at a time in the order of your choosing, but when the round is over you will only get to take back into your hand one of the 3 columns. Deciding which columns cards are added to and which one to require can be very difficult when you aren’t always sure which cards you’ll need two rounds from now.
In the end the game really stands out at higher player counts. This will result in more piggybacking and undercutting as players invest in and sabotage the various corporations. This has by far the most player interaction of these three games and will reward long term planning and the ability to adapt to the board state as it evolves.
Great Western Trail-
This is probably the most friendly of the three themes. Players are ranchers responsible for getting their cattle to Kansas City and then delivered as far west as possible. This is done by simple escorting the cattle along what I can only suppose is the Great Western Trail. Along the way players will want to hire on cowboys, engineers and craftsmen, each of which give additional bonuses to the various actions players will be taking over the course of the game. Players will make this trip a dozen or so times over the course of the game, adjusting to the ever-changing path.
The core mechanic of the game is a very euroy style of deckbuilding. Players start with a fairly weak deck of cattle cards, but will try to purchase better cattle as the game progresses. The hand of cattle you have when you reach Kansas city determines how much you get paid and how far west you can deliver them. The one catch is each each cattle type can only be counted once, so you’ll want a hand full of 5 unique cattle. Well what do you do it you draw a hand with 3 black angus cattle? Some of the locations along the trail will allow you to discard cattle of certain types in order to take actions like moving your train, getting money, and more, before drawing back up to your hand limit. Carefully determining your stops to both maximize your hand as well as taking the necessary actions can be a real balancing act.
There is some player interaction in the game as players are building stops that will slow other players down as well as cost them money, but that’s really it. Players are mostly focused on their own efforts and getting ready for their next delivery. Of the three this is probably the first game I’d introduce newer gamers to, mostly because of the nicer art and familiar these. While mechanically the game is pretty straight forward there is a good amount of decisions that a player will be forced to make from round to round.
Maracaibo like Mombasa was received with a little bit a backlash for its somewhat controversial subject matter. Players will have the opportunity to sail multiple times around the Caribbean and increasing their favor with the 3 different rival nations. Sound familiar? Yeah, the game actually pulls a lot from Pfister’s previous designs. The path around the Caribbean can be seen as sidestep from Great Western Trail’s trail. While gaining favor in the different nations will remind many of the corporations players invested in in Mombasa. Unlike the other two games though, Maracaibo introduces a large deck of what I would consider multi-use cards.
The cards players will acquire and play over the course of the game are what truly make this game different. Each card can be used for either it’s resource, when making a delivery, a symbol when activating abilities of other cards, or as an ongoing benefit. These cards reminded me of Terraforming Mars, and it’s large deck of cards. While each is useful, I wouldn’t say any of them felt particularly exciting. There were some cool combos that players could utilize once more familiar with the game but I just found most of the cards to be somewhat repetitive and redundant. I did enjoy working with the various nations to fend of pirates and rushing to beat my opponents back to port each round.
I had high hopes that Maracaibo would be a replacement for both Great Western Trail and Mombasa, freeing up an additional spot in my collection. Unfortunately in the end I was just left wishing I had played one of the other two titles. The path in Great Western Trail is far more variable with more interesting stops and more ways to interact with opponents. And gaining favor with the corporations in Mombasa resulted in special abilities and actions that created some incentive, whereas the different nations is Maracaibo just felt similar and somewhat boring. It is worth mentioning that the game does feature a cool legacy story that may interest those gamers that frequently visit the same title repeatedly.
If you check all three games on BoardGameGeek it will quickly become apparent that the gaming community loves Alexander Pfister and his designs. You can’t go wrong with either of these three games. With that in mind my suggestions are as follows. If you want what is arguable his best game and probably the most approachable, go with Great Western Trail. If you want a highly interactive and puzzlely game, go with Mombasa. If you enjoy card games with little interaction, like Terraforming Mars, try out Maracaibo. As for me I own both Mombasa and Great Western Trail. And while I play Great Western Trail more often, I believe Mombasa provides me with the gaming experience I most often seek out.