Game Night Verdicts #59 – Machi Koro Legacy

In the distant past of the year 2015, a small, inconspicuous game was nominated for the Spiel des Jahres award. In some circles, this nomination was met with some consternation. Surely, a game with such a strong element of randomness wasn’t award-worthy. To the sophisticated connoisseur dice were a relic of dark, primitive past in board games. They were an archaic holdover that only served to devalue the high-brow pleasure of strategy and tactics; a charmless addition of six sides of pernicious arbitrariness.

Then again, that was exactly what made Machi Koro so appealing to begin with. It was a game of chance with enough substance to entertain players for the short time it lasted. The emphasis here being on short, because as soon as the game dragged on, the reactive nature of play soon grew tiresome. All you did was attempt to improve your chances of collecting money on dice rolls, so you could buy your way to victory. Hoping and waiting for dice to fall just right has its appeal. It was fun to either go for a broad portfolio or to bet on a specific dice result to win. For many seasoned “gamers”, though, this wasn’t enough. Instead of influencing the game directly, they could only slightly shift probabilities in their favour. The decisions you could make were too few and even then only in reaction to the dice. It is still gospel at many a game table, that a good game ought to give players decisions that actively change the game state.

With Machi Koro Legacy, Rob Daviau has taken it upon himself to addresses this criticism head-on. As the Legacy-portion of the game unfolds the rules develop and expand to allow for more decision points. More effects can be triggered through a dice result and the number of cards you can buy also increases steadily. The 12-session campaign in the game also includes a narrated little story to be read aloud between games. The narration has no relevance to the game itself, but provides a more or less comprehensible framework for the rule changes that are heralded with each chapter.

The light touch of the original is still felt in Machi Koro Legacy, particularly during its first few games. Unfortunately, this is gradually buried under a pile of new rules and restrictions to keep in mind or read aloud from the rule cards on display.

Sadly, this way Machi Koro Legacy makes the same mistakes that make Legacy games such a double-edged sword. It becomes more important to inflate the original idea than to evolve it. As the game progresses through its campaign, it barely feels different or more unique. It feels more like more of the same. It hardly plays any differently at the start of the campaign than it does at the end. It is just more expansive, complicated and, most importantly, time-consuming.

The inspiration for Legacy games is said to have been video games and the way the introduced additional challenges through new levels. This is a strong approach, provided the game ends up taking up exactly as much time/space as you want it to. Say, if you start with a stripped down version of the game at the beginning (cf. Betrayal Legacy) and only unlock the complete game in the final act of the campaign. However, if you pick up a Machi Koro you may not want it to take up your entire table.

In this case, the small, charming game of chance you start with inadvertently turns into a sizeable dice game with quite a few things to handle and consider on your turn. But since Machi Koro Legacy is still a fairly reactive game at heart and changes are rarely initiated by players, the original’s charm and appeal soon fades. After a few games Machi Koro is simply long and cumbersome. You have more decisions to make, without any additional value in line with the original’s charm. Machi Koro Legacy might differ in texture and play length, but its substance remains untouched.

This becomes an even bigger issue when put next to the other weakness of legacy games: the unspoken obligation to play the game repeatedly and with only short breaks between sessions. Even my family of four living under one roof had a two-week break between our penultimate and final game. Getting people from multiple households to commit to such a game is a lot trickier. This means that Machi Koro Legacy unfortunately falls prey to the major weaknesses of legacy game: rules bloat and a campaign structure that turns the box into a quietly admonishing reminder, staring at you from your game shelf.

Despite its family-friendly presentation and cute tone, Machi Koro Legacy soon becomes a ponderous slog. That said, this only becomes apparent because the original continues to be a rock-solid piece of game design. It is accessible, presents clear goals and a fast sense of achievement. Dice are cause for tension and sometimes even great drama, like when they refuse to add up to 7. Yet the game still runs out of steam, when it goes long. This has been and remains a weakness that the addition of legacy elements could not remedy.

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