by Louis Sylvester
Game designer Alexander Pfister has developed some of my favorite games. His games are a ton of fun, mixing clever game mechanics with deep strategic choices. For example, his sublime board game, Great Western Trail (2-4 players, age 12+), allows players to play through a series of cattle drives in the Old West. Another of his games is Oh My Goods! (2-4 players, age 10+), in which players take on the roles of European artisans during the Middle Ages, developing clever production chains in hopes of building the most goods. But be warned. His designs are complex and come with a steep learning curve.
Pfister’s 2019 masterpiece, Maracaibo (1-4 players, age 12+) is a strategy game set in the 17th century Caribbean. It’s a delight to play but a challenge to learn. In my quest to merely learn the rules, I took a number of steps. I read the rule book, watched an online video on how to play, and then set up the game and played by myself until I fully understood. Once I felt confident with the rules, I spent half an hour teaching it to my wife. Some might argue that the hours I spent learning the game is too much — but the subsequent time spent playing have left me cheering for Maracaibo. Yes, the game is difficult to grasp, but in the end it was one of the best games I have ever played.
Players take turns moving their ships clockwise around the Caribbean and take an action based on where their ships dock. What makes the game so tricky is figuring out the significance of the numerous advantageous actions available. Options include shipping goods to unlock special powers or purchasing cards hand to enhance the strength of future actions. Perhaps you will send explorers deep into the jungles of South America in search of treasure. You might wage wars for the colonialist nations, earning favor with England, France or Spain. There are even public quests set around the board that players race to fulfill before their opponents.
Each choice is easy enough to grasp on its own, but when faced with the web of interacting options, the game can feel overwhelming. However, once players have wrapped their heads around the many actions available, Maracaibo blossoms into a strategic masterpiece. Each turn is an engaging challenge that never slows down. Hours will fly by as players strive to find the best moves on their journey around the Caribbean. And when the journey is over, players will look back at the game with delight, eager to reset the board for another go.
If you are intrigued by the challenge of learning a complex game system, Maracaibo is a must buy. If you want to play, but the idea of spending a couple hours digging through the rules sounds unappealing, perhaps you can find a friend who has already learned the game and have them teach you. (Most gaming groups include at least one person foolish enough to take up the challenge.) What matters is that you find a way to play Maracaibo and enjoy the elegance of Pfister’s brilliant design.
Sylvester is an associate professor in the creative writing program at Lewis-Clark State College. He is the co-author of “Legends of the Lost Causes” series, a rip-roaring adventure set in the fantasy West. You can send him your questions about tabletop games at firstname.lastname@example.org.