Maracaibo Digital Review
Alexander Pfister’s Maracaibo released in late 2019 to much fanfare in the heavy euro boardgame community, built off the hype that his previous hit Great Western Trail had accrued over time. One of the premiere European designers working in the modern boardgaming space, Pfister has developed a reputation for crafting engaging games featuring rondels, multi-use cards and somewhat insensitive themes – the fact that nearly all of his heaviest, most well-regarded titles have seen potential rethemes or revisions to address these concerns is perhaps a testament to not only more progressive thinking among publishers in recent years but how much the hobby has grown over the last decade. Maracaibo is one of my favourite boardgames, let alone one of my preferred Pfister designs, so I was excited to hear that Spiralburst Studio had been put in charge of its digital adaptation. That said, I’ve had a contentious relationship with digitised boardgames in the past and had some concerns the experience would fall flat without the physical element.
Digital implementations of boardgames are always a tricky prospect for me, as so much of my enjoyment in the hobby derives from the tactile nature of play – a large board dominating a table, gorgeous artwork scattered across tiles and cards, wooden components in all custom shapes and sizes, plastic minis if that’s your thing – it’s easy to fetishize this aspect and forget that a much larger part of the enjoyment of boardgames comes from the underlying mechanics and what they require of players and provide in turn. As with most apps, Maracaibo Digital drives home for me just how much a lengthy setup time can detract from a boardgame experience or, in some cases, ensure it rarely hits the table at all. Whereas it can take anywhere from 10-20 minutes to setup a physical game of Maracaibo, Maracaibo Digital is ready to roll in under 15 seconds. Moreover, the absence of ‘upkeep’ – those points in a boardgame where pieces need to be adjusted between rounds, cards shuffled, things calculated or reset – means that what would normally take between 60 to 120 minutes depending on player count and experience is whittled down to 15-30 minutes in Maracaibo Digital.
In Maracaibo, players are cast into the role of seafarers sailing through the 17th Century Caribbean, courting favour with the naval military powers of England, Spain and France who were seeking to dominate the region whilst engaging in trade, combat and exploration. Players move their ships at a rate of 1-7 spaces per turn, stopping at towns and ports along the way to deliver goods, hire crew members or build objects represented by cards, engage in combat, complete ‘quests’ and improve their ‘ship’ – a player board which starts with a number of abilities locked behind tokens until they have been removed, usually via delivering a good to a port. What made Maracaibo so interesting at release is the way Alexander Pfister incorporated a light ‘legacy story’ element, with cards and cardboard pieces to overlay on the board, altering spaces and routes to support the narrative. Good for around ten plays alone, the story isn’t the most robust ever told but it is an ingenious way to keep a group interested in a title past a handful of plays and have legacy elements that don’t require destroying or permanently altering components in the way many legacy games before it had.
What separates Maracaibo from Pfister’s previous work is the way it functions as a ‘race’ game – that is, a player who speeds towards the final space on the board will end the round for all players, forcing tactical decisions about when and where to stop in response to the pace of their opponents. After all, there are only four rounds and a slow player may be left in the dust if they try to make too many stops before a round ends. Maracaibo Digital manages to capture all of these elements, faithfully recreating many aspects of the physical game whilst streamlining some that would otherwise slow players down. Calculating combat advantages is done for players, with no risk of miscalculation or rule errors, while the Income, Influence and Victory Point tracks which otherwise dominate the physical gameboard are instead running in secondary menu screens. The interface is responsive and for the most part intuitive, although I say that as someone with a number of games of Maracaibo already played. A common complaint for both digital versions of tabletop games as well as apps that aid their play – unless you’ve played the physical game itself, you may not understand exactly what it is the app is doing for you and why. Fortunately, Spiralburst have included a very thorough tutorial which will have new players on-boarded very quickly, although there may still be a few slight gaps in knowledge if they decide to branch out to the physical edition afterwards.
At release, Maracaibo Digital offers two main ways to play – Campaign Mode can be played solo against the Automa opponent ‘Jean’ across five difficulty levels or using Pass and Play’ with a single device for up to four players. There is also Standard Mode which, rather than progressing through the story, allows players to instead pre-select one of three difficulty levels or replay a particular chapter from the Campaign Mode, also against ‘Jean’ or up to four human players. Unlike an AI opponent which many digital adaptations of boardgames feature, ‘Jean’ is an identical counterpart to the Automa found in Maracaibo. First popularised by the game Viticulture Essential Edition, an Automa is a deck of cards dictating the actions a non-player opponent will take. Now a staple of many games to allow solo play, one criticism of Automa versus a regular AI opponent is that in order to function smoothly, many Automa ignore the rules of the game and instead are able to take actions players simply can’t. As a result, in many cases an Automa requires a particular playstyle to best – for example, Jean will move around the board at a much faster rate than a human opponent might, forcing the player to adopt a faster playstyle in response. I quite enjoy the modularity of Jean and the way the higher difficulty levels will hint to the player what strategies in game can be most rewarding, so don’t feel the lack of a true AI here is all that debilitating, but it may be a shock to those who are used to their digital opposition still having to play by the rules, so to speak. The most notable absence is that of an online mode which I have to assume will be a future feature dependent on the success of Maracaibo Digital itself – after all, it’s better to ensure players can engage in the game without the need for other players rather than leave those same players twisting in the wind if low sales lead to an inability to play.
Having played across both an iPhone and iPad, it’s no surprise the latter is a far superior experience. Spiralburst have done an admirable job trying to place all the information players could need at their fingertips, but this comes at the cost of a crowded screen on mobile platforms, while the extra screen space gives these multiple visual elements a much less cramped feel on tablet platforms. As a fan of the bright visual design of the physical edition, it’s nice to see it kept intact for Maracaibo Digital alongside an underlying score which helps enhance play. Perhaps my most ringing endorsement of Maracaibo Digital is that it has streamlined the playtime of one of my favourite boardgames to the degree that I may not pull it off the shelf again for solo play in future – after all, why spend 60-90 minutes on a single game when I could get in 3-4 games completed in the same timeframe? Furthermore, with a price of $12.99AU, it’s a far cry from the upwards of $100AU delivered the physical game retails for and an interactive tutorial ensures you’ll be sailing around the Caribbean quicker than you could rip off the shrink wrap anyway. The only criticism I have is a lack of online multiplayer on launch, but I don’t expect that to remain the case for too long.
Maracaibo Digital was played on iPad and iPhone with a code kindly provided by the developer.