Review: Mombasa

In the days leading up to BGG.CON I always take some time to make a list of the games I’d like to try while I’m there. Sometimes I get to quite a few of them, sometimes I miss most. This year I was intrigued by some things I’d heard about one of the new Essen releases. It seemed to do a lot of different things…but would it do them well? Well, one morning I got to find out. Spoiler alert!! It’s good…

mombasa2Mombasa, by Alexander Pfister, is a game for 2-4 players that runs anywhere from 75 – 150 minutes for play time. This number will actually vary quite a bit depending on player count and experience, as we’ve completed a 3 player game in about an hour minus the setup.

In Mombasa, players are investors trying to maximize profits by acquiring shares of the four companies: Cape Town, Cairo, Saint-Louis, and Mombasa. Along with these publicly available company shares, each player can invest in their own diamond stocks and engage in “clever bookkeeping”.

Each player starts with a deck of 10 cards, three of which are unavailable to start the game. At the beginning of each round, players will choose three cards and place them face down in the the three card “slots” below their player board. Once everyone has chosen their cards, all players reveal their cards and the start player begins the action phase.

During the action phase, players may use their cards to take the following actions:

  • Use goods to buy new cards and/or invest in a company
  • Use expansions cards (lovingly called “helmets” by us) to expand any one company across the map
  • Take a bookkeeping action to further progress on their bookkeeping track and purchase more books
  • Use a diamond merchant to invest in their diamond track

Along with the cards, there are bonus actions available as well. Players will have 2 or 3 bonus markers, and depending on the share tracks used, may be able to acquire more. These markers can be used to take actions which will do anything from rewarding the player with the most of a given resource to allowing them to use coins instead of goods when purchasing new cards. This is also how the first player marker changes hands.

After seven rounds, the game ends and your score is tallied based on the amount of money you have, your progress on the bookkeeping and diamond tracks, and the value of each share that you possess in a given company. The player with the most points wins!

mombasa3Speaking of points, let’s talk for a minute about how the value of each company’s shares are calculated. Each company has their own headquarters, one on each side of the board. These headquarters are laid out in a small grid, three spaces wide and five spaces high. Each space, at the start of the game, has a trading post. As the expansion action is taken, players will move these trading posts out onto the board, which will expose one of the fifteen spots in the company headquarters.

On nine of these fifteen spots, in rows one, three, and five, you will see either one (on the first and third row spots) or two coins. At the end of the game a company’s value per stock is based on the amount of exposed coins. Of course, it isn’t as simple as just expanding a company and calling it a day…because hostile takeovers are a very real thing and you’ll see a trading post get returned to their respective companies multiple times as the game proceeds. Thus the value of each share will rise and fall accordingly.

There are caveats to all of this. See, when you are pulling a trading post out to put on the board, you can’t just pick and choose which one you want to use. You pick a column and then pull the trading post closest to the main board. Then if you’re adding a second one, you do the same thing – pick a column, pull the closest to the main board. So you have a choice: either proceed in a horizontal fashion, or go vertically down through the same column…or mix and match. One way will bump the stock price up quickly; the spots in the first row all have coins, after all. But heading down the column has advantages as well. Even though you will hit “dead spots” where there aren’t any coins, there is that double coin spot at the very bottom. And those are special, as we’ll see.

Conversely, when a trading post is to be returned to the company, you pick a column and slide it all the way down that column to the last open spot. Unless, that is, the last open spot is the double coin slot. Once that has been uncovered it can never be covered up again. See? Told you they were special. So each time you expand you have a choice to try to drive the stock price up quickly, or to go for that permanent value at the bottom.

In fact, this aspect of choice is a driving force throughout the entirety of Mombasa.

mombasa7Perhaps the most unique aspect of the game is the way that the cards are handled. To start, all players have three cards resting at the top of their player board. These are, appropriately, “resting decks”. Each resting deck sits right above one of the card slots that your current cards occupy. After your turn has ended, it’s time to move those cards from your current slots into your resting deck. But before you do? Pick up one of your resting piles and put that back into your hand. Then you move the cards just used up to the piles which are directly above the slots they were played into.

With this card mechanic, Mombasa brings another element of planning to the…um…planning phase. Not only do you have to consider the three cards that you get to play this turn, but you have to think about when you are going to want to play them again…and you’ll have to look at your resting decks (they are splayed so you can always see what’s there) to determine which pile will come back to you at the right time. Make a mistake with this and you will have to suffer through mismatched cards which hamper your ability to do…well, everything.

Of course, three slots can be pretty limiting, so you need to choose your cards wisely. Or you can work on the diamond and bookkeeping tracks, because once you make it past certain points on each one of those tracks? You get the option to play an extra card. Making it post these milestones on both tracks will give you access to five card slots instead of three. This, especially late in the game, can be huge. But be careful when you use this – with four or five resting decks and only seven turns? You’re pretty much sacrificing those cards as you’ll never see them again.

mombasa1As you log more and more plays of Mombasa, you’ll find that you wind up playing the other players when you select your cards. You know that Sally has been playing bananas all night, but you’ve got three banana cards which might be able to snag that bonus…as long as she doesn’t play hers as well. Keeping an eye on your opponents resting decks and choosing which actions to take when? That’s most of the game, right there. More often than not you’ll find yourself modifying your strategy based on your position in turn order and what your opponents reveal.

Remember how I said that choice really drives this game? Well, it’s not just simple choices like “which cards do I play” and “how should I expand this company”. Don’t get me wrong those choices exist, but they aren’t the crux of everything. The heart in Mombasa lies in the difference between a linear, incremental measurement system and a milestone based one. Let me explain.

Look at the company headquarters. You’ve got 15 spaces, only 9 of which mean anything to you. One way or another you’re going to have to burn through the chaff to get to the wheat. On each company’s share track, one step up doesn’t equal an increase in shares by one…you have to hit the next milestone, the next checkpoint if you will, before that happens. Scoring for the bookkeeping track and the diamond stocks? Milestone based. It make take you three or four moves on either before you actually see an increase in points.

This milestone based system of providing scoring opportunities takes an already great game and brings it into the fantastic realm. Maximizing your actions becomes even more important because you can’t just bank a point or two. Toss some goods at one of the share tracks and then never get back to it? Those are wasted. Buy books past a reachable milestone? Wasted. Mombasa walks a fine line between making the player commit to a scoring path and forcing people to diversify their holdings…but tends to not reward those that spread things out too thinly.

mombasa6My only criticisms of this game are minor. The iconography on the bookkeeping tokens are tiny. If you’re sitting right in front of them you’ll be fine, but otherwise you may find yourself stretching over the table to read what they are. The books look great, and make a very nice image when placed on your player board, but visibility from across the table can be tough.

And this game doesn’t really scale well. Given the nature of the area control element, you could easily find that a two or three player game will have one or two companies which control the board and the others wind up neglected. Not that this is the end of the world, but it does cut a lot of the depth out of the game. I’ll go right ahead and say that I would not play this game with only two.

Whenever I see a game that mixes several different game mechanics, I tend to be a little hesitant. I’ve played more than one game that tried to do too many things – and wound up “half-assing” more than one of them. The elements felt more like afterthoughts, or that the designer really wanted a worker placement element in a game that didn’t need one to begin with.

Mombasa has several different mechanics here: area control, stock holding, worker placement, hand management, and even a touch of card drafting. And not only are they all well done, they mesh together to form a brilliant game which is going to give you a different experience each time you play. We haven’t even touched on the fact that each share track is double sided which can open up even more opportunities.

Alexander Pfister has a hit here, make no doubt about it. This game will provide four players with deep gameplay and clever mechanics and leave them wanting more.

6 Comments

  1. Dom Labrecque

    Nice review. One point,
    “I’ll go right ahead and say that I would not play this game with only two.”
    I would think with that many avenues for advancement, it may be worthwhile to push the game to maximum occupancy and beyond. Grab some spare parts, draw your own diamond track and book keeping track, and try it with 5 players. Lets see how the player interaction evolves!

    1. Dan Cristelli

      As I’ve said, I worry about the balance of the game with that many people. But it would be worth trying at least once! You’ll need to make cards for the fifth player as well.

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