App Review – Maracaibo

Have you ever wanted to just get slammed upside the head repeatedly by a deck of cards?

No, just me?

Well, it’s a good thing that you probably don’t suck at Maracaibo as much as I do, so you’ll probably actually enjoy not having that feeling.

Though some people pay good money for that…

What’s Maracaibo?

This was the “bit too optimistic” announcement page last year, but was it worth the wait?

Maracaibo is an economic exploration game of colonization designed by Alexander Pfister with artwork by Fiore GmbH and Aline Kirrmann. It was published by Capstone Games in 2019.

The app version (which this is a review of) was just released on December 20, 2021 by Spiralburst Studio.

Yes, I did say “colonization” above. Before we go any further, let me show you what’s in the rules section of the app as well as the rulebook from at least the current printing of the game (I don’t know whether it was in the original rulebook or not).

Is that enough to ease any discomfort you might feel playing this game?

That’s up to you.

(Note that you can always click on a picture to enlarge it)

How does the app measure up?

Let’s take a look.

In Maracaibo, players are ship captains exploring the Caribbean Sea, fulfilling quests, delivering goods and trying to gain influence with the three main European powers at the time: Spain, France, and England.

You do this by travelling in a circle around the Caribbean four times, with each round having more lucrative stuff. Hopefully you’ll be building up your card tableau as well as improving your ship to do even cooler things.

(Spiralburst just told me that this screenshot shows a bug, thinking you’re in Portrait mode when you’re not. The cards should stretch across the screen)

(Spiralburst just told me that this screenshot and a few below where the items appear to be overlapping your cards shows a bug, thinking you’re in Portrait mode when you’re not. The cards should stretch across the screen and the items, like your Career board or your Ship Upgrade board, should be more centered on screen. This was a pre-release copy!)

The game starts with you getting dealt a hand of cards and discarding three of them. You are also choosing a career at this point.

What do careers give you?

They give you bonuses for completing the three items on them, whether they are quests, getting influence with countries, improving your ship, or getting combat tokens.

Fighting Spirit gives you bonuses for combat tokens, quests, and improving your ship.

Once all that is set up, the game starts. On your turn, you can move your ship 1-7 spaces and do whatever action is on the space you move to.

At Villages, you can do one or more (depending on how many the space you landed in says) Village Actions, where you can buy a card from your hand, get some money, discard your hand for more money, etc.

At a city, though, you can turn in a good (one of your cards with the proper good symbol) to upgrade your ship (as long as somebody else hasn’t got there first and done it. I guess they only want one of those per season).

You can then take the city action there.

In Santo Domingo, for example, you can turn in (whatever that good is, I have no idea) and upgrade your ship. Then you get a Combat Point and then gain one influence with one of the three European countries.

Upgrading your ship means you remove one of the discs from your ship board. When you’ve removed all of the discs above an upgrade, then you get that upgrade.

Some of the upgrades are new Village actions, some are instantaneous (like getting 5 coins or 3 VP).

When you buy a card at a Village, you can either buy one of the cards in your hand (which may place a worker on an island or may just give you an ability or production bonuses) or if you have enough money you can buy a Prestige Building.

Prestige Buildings will get you end-game bonus points as well as a synergy and 2 VP (synergies can augment the power of some of your other cards).

As soon as one player gets all the way around the Caribbean and enters the final space, then each other player gets one of two choices (buy a card or take a couple of VP) and then interim scoring happens along with production.

Then you do it all again until the 4th round trip ends and you do final scoring.

I’m neglecting some of the game, like the Exploration track which can net you big bonuses, because I don’t want to go into a huge description of everything. Suffice it to say that the Exploration track can also be lucrative if you concentrate on it somewhat. And some of your Career goals or Prestige Building goals will demand it!

Whoever has the most victory points after the endgame scoring is the winner!

Is Maracaibo a game with a nice, beautiful and peaceful sail around the sea? Or is it a vicious pirate attack that will leave you knocked senseless and very poor?

I’m going to review both the app and the game, since I doubt I will get the game itself to the table enough to review it, if I even get to play it at all.

There’s a couple of caveats regarding that, though, and it’s one of my major problems with the app (though Spiralburst has explained it to me and it makes sense for them, but I don’t like it).

First, the app has no AI. Solo games are against the Automata from the actual board game. The “opponent” is named “Jean” and is the deck of cards from the game itself. It does come in various difficulty levels but I was lucky to finally (after 5 tries) beat the “Very Easy” level of difficulty.

It would be very cool if there was an AI as well, but I do understand why they don’t really have any plans to implement one.

Secondly, there is no online multiplayer! The only multiplayer is Pass and Play, though you can have a full complement of four players in that mode if you want.

Again, I understand not having one, but for my style of play it’s a major mark against the app. My wife is the only person I could do Pass and Play with and she’s not interested in these types of games.

If you like doing pass and play, then the implementation of it is top notch, but for me it’s useless.

Thus, I can’t really review the full game against opponents because I’ve only played solo against the Automata.

Keep that in mind as you read the review.

I have to say that it took me several tries to even come close to understanding this game, but ultimately I did enjoy it.

I do like the decisions you have to make as you have several avenues to score points on. The exploration track is good, but upgrading your ship is essential. The abilities you unlock are almost necessary for succeeding in the game.

However, besides that, you can try to get as much influence as possible as you battle (which can help you gain influence because every battle you determine which country you are fighting for and with). You can establish colonies for one of the countries, which can get you VP or money.

I love the fact (though it took me a bit of time to absorb it) that each card basically has three uses.

The card can be used in a city to sell as a good (the symbol in the top right). It can be used to help fulfill quests (which also get you benefits and possibly VP) with the symbol underneath the good symbol (the Conquer Village card has a spyglass, for example).

And then you can just buy the card for its effect (bottom row). The cost of the card is in the top left. Some cards will give you ongoing production or other effects, some will let you place one of your workers on an island. Then, when you go to the island, you will be able to do that worker’s action (The Builder below makes all of the future cards you buy cost one doubloon less).

The French Commodore gives you the Medal synergy as well as a worker in Martinique that will give you 3 Combat Points and 2 French influence if you land there

It’s really cool, and an aspect of Pfister’s designs that I love, that you have to really decide how you want to use these things. “Oh, I really want to buy that card, but it’s my second Spyglass and I need two Spyglasses to do that quest”.

It’s quite painful (in a very good way).

I also really like the battle aspect of the game, if you decide to do that. I’m not familiar with the game on the table, but essentially when you battle you draw a combat token and you will then choose who you are fighting for.

Each token will tell you what the strength of each country is. You can augment that strength with your own combat points or maybe sacrifice workers for more strength (“Hey, I didn’t sign up for this! I’m an accountant!”).

You can then take different combat actions until you’ve used up all of your strength, though you can only take each combat action once.

It’s a neat way to gain influence and also possibly some other benefits as well.

So the game is pretty good, though one of my friends who has played it multiple times says that it’s prone to somebody rushing the end game by just racing around the Caribbean and I don’t know how accurate that is.

Since I can’t play any actual opponents!

Anyway, how’s the app?

The tutorial is actually pretty good. My major problem is that I have trouble absorbing things in a tutorial so when it comes to the actual game, I start wondering what the heck is going on.

But that’s my problem, not the tutorial’s. Maracaibo’s tutorial definitely explains the game well and even explains the Automata and how it works!

That’s very nice considering that’s all you will have as a solo player.

While the tutorial is pretty good, you will have to stumble around with a few games before you really start to grasp how this game works.

The user interface takes a bit of getting used to, and it would be nice if you could blow up one of the cards to really read it. You basically have to tap on the card, which highlights it, and then tap on the “i” which will then tell you what it does. Blowing it up so we old people with bad eyesight can see it a lot better, and having the information come up when you blow it up, would be much better.

You can call up a lot of screens by tapping in the correct space, but it takes a little time before you realize exactly what’s what (I know some of that is in the tutorial, so take that with a grain of salt).

When you have a choice to make (like in the picture above, where you’re choosing a Village Action), you can press the arrow to pull the actions to the side and look at the board. Other screens you can actually sometimes shift them up. Just look at the arrows and that will tell you where you can send the screen.

It’s actually very compact and quite nice, overall. It just takes a bit of mental effort to learn it but once you do, it’s very intuitive.

One neat little bit is when you have no more workers in the pool and you can’t earn any more (you only get 8), the worker icon gets a red dot and when you tap it, it tells you that you don’t have any more. It also tells you where all of your workers are (on an island, in your earned supply, on a Prestige Building or wherever).

That’s a nice touch I really approve of. I could see myself taking actions that would earn me more workers and wondering why I’m not succeeding.

It’s also very helpful to have a Rules/Glossary link that not only gives you all the basic rules, but lets you access the Tutorial again.

The app does include the Campaign from the board game, though I haven’t tried it yet (hello, the guy who barely beat the Very Easy AI after multiple attempts here?).

That will be interesting to try when I get around to it, though. Since Maracaibo is kind of sold as a story-telling game (though you can just play it as a game if you wish), it’s nice that the Story mode is included.

I am very glad that Spiralburst was able to keep the great artwork for the game. The colours are very nice, almost calming like the sea. The iconography takes some getting used to but once you have internalized it, you won’t ever have to click the “information” button again.

I’m just sad that there is no AI and online multiplayer, which are kind of staples to “good” boardgame apps in my opinion. I know that people do play Pass and Play when they’re travelling, for example. That aspect can be really cool.

And I’ve heard some developers say that their statistics show that Pass and Play is actually played more than online (though I would think that would depend on the game).

But for me, this game doesn’t work as a long-time gaming option because there’s no AI and, more importantly, online multiplayer. Maracaibo lends itself to asynchronous multiplayer because there is literally no interaction with other players at all (which some may also find as a strike against the game, but I don’t).

I take my turn. You take your turn. You took my spot, you bastard! Oh well, I take my turn and do something else, etc.

If you like games like this, Maracaibo is a great game. If your principle opponent(s) is in the same room with you, then you will very probably like the app. It’s a great version of the game itself.

If you like your solo games against the Automata card deck but just don’t have the room to break out the “real” game, then this app is a godsend. It’s the same experience without all of the bookkeeping!

But for me, after playing maybe a couple more games against the Automata and maybe trying the Campaign (who knows? It may hook me), I probably won’t play it too much.

Not because it’s a bad game or a bad app. It’s a great game and a great app.

But it doesn’t have the features I need in a boardgame app.

Spiralburst has told me that neither an AI nor online multiplayer are planned but they “could” happen.

Considering the number of times app developers have promised something like that and never had it come out, I’m not holding my breath since they were very non-committal about it.

Don’t hold that against the app, though. Maracaibo is a great purchase for you as long as you like playing the modes that the app actually has.

Because you’re not likely to get anything else.

Maracaibo is available on iOS and Android for $7.99 US (I had originally put $9.99, but that’s Canadian!)

(Many thanks to Spiralburst Studios for the review copy of the game)

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