The deckbuilding game Machi Koro has been a success in Japan since its release there in 2012, but English speakers had to wait until this year to visit the fictional town that gives the game its name. Machi Koro players have their entire decks in play all the time, which makes it much more accessible to younger players and shifts the strategy into buying decisions rather, but at the same time makes the game a little simple for adults.
The player’s goal in Machi Koro is to acquire enough money to construct his/her four “landmark” cards, part of the starter deck (and identical for every player), costing 4, 10, 16, and 22 coins respectively to activate, which involves flipping the card over and allowing the player to use its special function. All other purchases are thus geared toward increasing a player’s income, with fifteen different cards available in the central market, each bearing a separate activation number from 1 to 12, corresponding to potential rolls of one or both of the dice that each player rolls on his/her turn. (A player can only roll one die until he constructs his train station for 4 coins, after which he has the choice on each turn to roll one or two.)
The market cards come in four categories, with separate cost/benefit calculations depending on when they’re activated. Blue cards are activated on any player’s turn; for example, the Forest card is activated when someone rolls a 5, and anyone who has at least one Forest card gets one coin per card when that occurs. Green cards are only activated on the player’s own turn; if you roll a 4 and have a Convenience Store, you get three coins, but if anyone else rolls a 4 you don’t get anything. Red cards are activated when someone else rolls their activation number, at which point s/he must pay you—if you have a Cafe, an opposing player who rolls a 3 must pay you a coin, perhaps because you sell a damn fine cup of coffee. The three purple cards, all of which carry an activation number of 6, are activated on your turn only, and let you do something mean to another player—take 5 coins from one, take two coins from each, or swap any one of your non-landmark cards for one from any opponent.
Your deck, which is your city under the game’s theme, is always fully in play, which means players are involved even when it’s someone else’s turn, because you might get a payout or be required to pay someone else. Players may buy multiple copies of any red, green, or blue card, increasing their bonuses incrementally for specific dice rolls, and some green cards pay out bonuses that are tied to blue cards with specific symbols, at which point the bonuses begin to multiply quickly—bonus payouts of 15 to 24 coins on a single roll have been common for us when games approach the finish. The main decision for players is how much to invest in those higher payouts instead of spreading out card purchases to cover more likely dice rolls.
One hidden benefit to playing Machi Koro with my eight-year-old daughter was her sudden interest in probability. She first started out by buying cards without regard to how often their activation numbers might come up, because she liked the potential payouts or because those less-likely cards cost less. That led her to ask me why, for example, the 11-12 Fruit and Vegetable Stand card wasn’t earning her any income, which in turn led to a discussion of which totals were more likely when rolling two dice, and why that was so. Her purchasing strategy improved immediately, to the point where she could legitimately beat me thanks to a few favorable dice rolls. (Her review, for what it’s worth: “I like Machi Koro even though it’s math, because it’s fun the way you do the math.”)
That random element makes Machi Koro a good family-strategy game to play with kids old enough to understand just a little bit of math (other than the probability angle, it’s all just adding and subtracting numbers up to 22), but too lightweight for more serious boardgamers who prefer games with more strategy and less luck. A typical game for three people takes us under a half hour, although we don’t use the purple cards that heavily because we all have to sleep under the same roof at night. The base Machi Koro game is for two to four players, but the upcoming Harbor Expansion will allow for a fifth player and includes more establishment card types, so that each game will differ by the limited set of establishment cards available for purchase.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.