A confession: I live in a nice neighborhood, quiet roads lined with condos, embraced by a park with hills rolling to the Ohio River. But I’m well aware that less than a mile away, in the real part of my small town, largely residential, there are plenty of decaying streets and ghosts of failed businesses once trying to breathe life into the main drag. The ice cream shop melted away four years ago; the barbecue joint, three years gone. A grocery store, now two years old, is a sign of progress. Folks with deep pockets and/or independent spirit need to redefine the town, and not with sub and pizza chains.
For 30 minutes at a time, with paper and plastic, Machi Koro is a respite from the challenges facing towns across the world, including mine. You play as an owner of a company trying to build a town before your competitors, or up to three opponents. Your town’s prosperity depends on dice rolls and coins, used to buy “establishments”and “landmarks” cards. Establishments generate income, and the first owner who buys four landmarks––the station, shopping mall, amusement park and radio tower––wins the game. If you lose, you shouldn’t feel sore, because there aren’t many consequences for being a town owner here. Machi Koro presents a unique view of a utopian world, one free of debt, disaster and residents. By comparison, it simplifies a game like Suburbia, in which you build offices, entertainment, residential areas and, ultimately, populations, also without debt and disaster. Even Monopoly looks darker next to the sunny disposition of Machi Koro, fit for ages 7 and up.
Machi Koro‘s central mechanic is the interaction between dice rolls and the establishments in play. You begin with a wheat field, a bakery and three coins to your name. But it’s easy to reap what is sown: Each turn, a player rolls a die, and the sum triggers an effect on one or more establishments in play, no matter who owns them. A roll with a sum of two, for example, triggers the wheat fields in play, earning each player one coin from the bank. You see greater effects and chain reactions as you buy bigger establishments. In one roll of two die, a friend earned 30 coins because he had a sum of eight; that triggered his two Furniture Factories, which bring in three coins for each mine or forest owned. Meanwhile, I was wondering when I would roll three to trigger the effects of two Convenience Stores, which would bring in 3 coins each. I took a risk investing in those, leaving their success up to chance and probability.
When towns build up in the world of Machi Koro, they take on familiar identifies. In one game, my wife had before her a resemblance of a hamlet in Appalachia, with wheat fields, mines and a convenience store. Her competitor, yours truly, was getting rich off the suburban flair of coffee shops and family restaurants, which take coins from opponents. Another game may produce dairy lands flavored with ranches and cheese factories, up against forests and apple orchards.There isn’t one win condition, or one archetype that guarantees prosperity. In fact, the diverse establishments, plus the chance factor––will I roll the right number?––makes the game unpredictable yet highly replayable, as you try to construct a town based on your income and what establishments you think will likely match the die sums you need at a particular moment.
In other words, in the world of Machi Koro, it’s OK to do a bit of guessing because debt doesn’t exist. Out of money? Just keep hoping for that right roll. Do you owe a player money, thanks to a coffee shop or family restaurant? If you lack funds, you owe nothing to the player, and you never go in the negative. Perhaps a bit too sunny, it’s a rule that doesn’t reflect the reality of running businesses but rather a fiction of progress through utopian construction. It’s also a rule that would make a feature like disaster cards a contradiction to the game’s optimistic premise.
Forward-thinking, the only end goal for each player is to build the four aforementioned landmarks. Landmarks offer bonuses, such as more coins and extra turns, so it’s easy to build all four after you have, say, two in your possession. By the end, you and your opponents might have sprawling towns, with someone beating out the competition after the acquisition of the radio tower, the most expensive of the four. It’s at this point of the game that my adult brain is left wondering, why these landmarks? I think again about museums, shipyards and power lines, and what my own town might need for success. (Let’s start with bringing the ice cream shop back.) Suburbia and Monopoly, with each passing turn, offers that kind of diversity and reflections of reality. Machi Koro just keeps it simple for kids and adults looking for a little diversion.
Despite the problems in my town and the few in Machi Koro, I see a lot of promise in what might be. I can roll the die and hope for the best as I wait for the game’s expansions later this year. It’s a way to pass the time as I anticipate changes a few roads away.
Inline image via Hubert Figuiere