Saturday, January 01, 2005

Review: Mall World

One of the new games to come out of Essen this year is Mall World. This game supports three to five players and it plays in about ninety minutes.

Mall World is supposedly about building and maintaining a shopping mall. I say "supposedly" because in reality, Mall World is a very abstract game that has about as much to do with shopping malls as it does with cheese making. The theme is completely pasted on and it really adds very little to the game. Still, once you get past the odd, ill-fitting outer covering, there is an interesting game underneath.

Inside the box you'll find a bunch of sturdy tiles, some counters, some cards and the game board which looks attractive enough but there were some odd choices made here. For instance, the game play area, which represents a mall blueprint, is an oddly shaped affair whose spaces are all rhombus shaped in order to present the "mall floor plan" in an isometric perspective. (That means you're viewing the floor plan a bit from the side instead of from straight above.) The tiles that go on this board are reasonably attractive but they are also shaped like squished squares to match the board, which makes them a little difficult to place. Where things really go awry is with the circular customer tokens that get placed on the tiles. The artwork on these tokens is truly ugly. I think they went for a certain look and it somehow got away from them. Also, the color choices are a bit odd. Dark, over-saturated colors of purple, blue, green and red are not exactly traditional colors (and color blind players may want to steer clear as distinguishing between the colors is vital). Oh well. Beauty is skin deep.

Game play is an interesting mix of play styles. Players select "order cards" using a mechanism very similar to the civilization selection process in Vinci. Several cards are available. The first is cheap but each subsequent card is incrementally more expensive. Order cards are used to determine what color combinations you will score points for on the board. It's not enough to bring one of these cards into your hand though, you need to play it in order to score it, and playing requires giving up an action. Early in the game, these cards reward placing square tiles of a certain color next to square tiles of another color. For instance, you might get 2 points for each red square placed next to a blue square. Later in the game they reward putting circles of a certain color on squares of another color. Each player also has a "special order" that rewards a specific color combination of two circles on two squares. Special orders are secret so at the beginning of the game, each player has a goal that's unknown to the other players. Of course it won't take too long to figure out what people are going for but then that's all part of the game.

Placing tiles on the board requires playing "approval cards". On each turn you can take a certain number of approval cards into your hand. You can play up to three of these cards on your turn and each card lets you choose from among a couple of placement actions. The trick here is that when you play more than one card, you may not get to carry out the action on the card yourself, that's because the actions on the cards get auctioned off to the highest bidder. Depending on how many cards are put up for auction, winning bidders might have to pay the auctioning player or they might deposit their bid in the slush fund, a pool of coins that gets redistributed among the players at the end of the turn once enough coins accumulate there to distribute evenly.

There's a lot of interesting tension created between trying to maintain enough cards in your hand to do what you want, keeping your hand size under the hand limit (the consequences for violating this can be disastrous), managing your limited coins, bidding to control tile placement, deciding which approval cards to invest in, and deciding when to play your approval cards.

If all of this seems a little confusing, well it can be. And unfortunately the rule book, with its poor organization and occasional typos, sometimes doesn't help. Fortunately, the rules aren't that long and there are some handy quick reference sheets that help out. Still, it may take you a couple of rounds before you really get the hang of it. I'd recommend that you play a couple of practice rounds to familiarize yourself with the play and then start over once it's understood. You should also be warned that there is one important rule that somehow didn't make it into Rio Grande Game's English translation: in a three player game, if a player wins their own three card auction, they pay the slush fund, not themselves or another player.

One issue that came up in one of our games had to do with the pacing. The game is played in three distinct scoring phases. We initially expected each phase to last roughly an equal amount of turns but when we played the game this turned out not to be the case. Instead, the first phase was significantly longer than the rest, as everyone deliberately avoided triggering the end of phase scoring while they jockeyed for position in the hopes of getting a high score. The second phase went significantly faster since by then the board was mostly developed. And the third phase nearly ended before it started! That caught everyone by surprise. With subsequent playings, once people get the hang of how the game works, things should be a little more even.

I rather liked Mall World and I'll happily play it again but there were definitely some interesting design choices here. From the odd colors, to the unattractive artwork, to the oddly shaped tiles, to the poorly designed rulebook, this game's production didn't quite live up to the standards that I've come to expect from Rio Grande Games. The components are sturdy but the game would have probably gone over better with a more straight-forward presentation. Still, once I got beyond the production, and managed to wrap my head around the rules, I found the game itself to be quite enjoyable and I look forward to playing again. In the end, it gets a thumbs up. Don't let the minor cosmetic issues scare you away, there's a pretty darn good game here.


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