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Maracaibo Digital Game Review

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Justin reviews the new digital implementation of the 2019 board game Maracaibo, designed by Alexander Pfister and released by Spiralburst Studios!

Disclosure: Meeple Mountain received a free copy of this product in exchange for an honest, unbiased review. This review is not intended to be an endorsement.

The physical board game version of Maracaibo was released in 2019. Designed by Alexander Pfister (Great Western Trail, Isle of Skye: From Chieftain to King, Mombasa) and published by Capstone Games, Maracaibo is by many measures an instant classic. It’s already in the BGG top 50 ranked games overall and it has spawned an expansion which was released last year (Maracaibo: The Uprising). I own a physical copy of the base game and every time I play Maracaibo, I love the mix of things going on.

But as much as I love Maracaibo, I will probably not play it in person more than 3-5 times in any given year. “The Cult of the New” means that recent classics struggle to push through when the hot new crowdfunded prize you waited 22 months to get into your hands arrives at your doorstep.

For many of my games, an app for my tablet has been the best way for me to experience these great games when I’m traveling, or burning time while waiting for a Zoom meeting to start, or when I want to wind down before going to bed. Or, COVID. Thanks to Spiralburst Studios, we now have Maracaibo Digital, which is just like Maracaibo’s physical version, as long as you are playing the solo campaign.

The title screen (images courtesy Spiralburst Studios)

In a Clam Shell

Maracaibo is a card game, a rondel-style movement game, a Euro with some tracks, an efficiency game, a combat game, and an exploration game. It is frankly a lot of games smushed into one, and you can win by specializing in many different areas of the game. But it all starts with the cards.

If you want to learn more about how Maracaibo plays, the internet is vast; find one of the dozens of fantastic how-to-play videos to walk through how it works. I’m guessing most of you are here today because you love the physical game, and want to know if the app is right for you.

We’re going to focus on why you should, or should not, play Maracaibo Digital. It really comes down to 2 things: do you want to play the solo variant of Maracaibo, or do you want to play locally against bots (automated opponents, not the solo variant) or online against friends and/or random strangers. Because I know you do NOT want to play Maracaibo Digital in its “pass and play” format.

I’m sorry; “Pass and Play”?

A good question. In this context, pass and play describes what you might do with your tablet in the following scenario:

You buy Maracaibo Digital. You text 3 of your gamer friends, and invite them over to your house to play Maracaibo. After offering snacks, beverages, and a comfortable place to sit in the same room, you then announce

“We are now going to play Maracaibo. Even though I own the physical copy of the game, we are going to play that same game, but on my tablet, by taking a turn then passing the tablet to the next player. We will do this for many hours, until we have decided a winner!”

Your friends, looking confused but remembering that you asked them if they wanted to come over to play Maracaibo, nod their heads in approval of this decision, then begin a game. While the active player is taking their turn, the 3 other players watch TV, think about what they might do on their next turn (without the benefit of, saying viewing the board state, reviewing their hand, or reminding themselves of their Career card goals), or check their Instagram account to make sure no one else has “liked” the photo they posted of their recent trip to Milwaukee.

Let’s agree: you are never going to play Maracaibo Digital this way. Ever. I don’t even know why the pass-and-play option is offered any more, because no one I know ever uses it.

With that said, let’s see if Maracaibo Digital is for you.

The images are beautiful and easy to read (photos courtesy Spiralburst Studios)

The Argument for Yes

If you love the solo mode of Maracaibo, with the sneaky AI player Jean going toe-to-toe with you across the game’s four rounds, stop reading this article and drop some coin on the iOS or Android implementation right now.

The physical game’s implementation in digital form is nothing short of excellent. All of the information you need is always front and center. Focusing on specific cards, or parts of the board, or grabbing information from the manual…all of it is so easy and so accessible. The graphics are excellent and everything you remember from the board state to the card art is perfect in this digital version. The one thing I always hate when I play the physical form: do I have the right goods/items when I need to stop at a city location? That’s all tracked for you in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen.

Income tracking, both points and cash? It’s in a nice spot on the bottom left of the screen. Planning cards? Super easy to do here. Getting information on what cards you can or cannot play in real time? Also right there. The AI’s turns are fast and they are done automatically so I don’t even have to flip Jean’s automa deck over to reveal new cards.

That might be the biggest win with this digital version: sometimes, I just want to play Maracaibo solo, but setting up the physical version is a massive timesuck. Putting the board out, shuffling the extraordinarily large deck of cards, parsing out which city tiles are used in a 2-player game, laying out the scenario tiles for your current mission…

It’s a chore and I would rather do the chores around the house than set up Maracaibo for solo play.

However, if I had an intern available to do it for me? Count me in. But I just checked, and I don’t have an intern. So unless I have friends coming over to play, I never pull Maracaibo out of the box. The mental hurdle is just too steep.

Solo Maracaibo, using Maracaibo Digital? No legwork. I tap a couple of buttons, and I’m right into a game, with 5 different levels of solo AI to work against. Games take about 30 minutes, then I can put my tablet away and go on with my day. It’s brilliant. It might be the best version of a solo variant in app form I currently own.

Images courtesy Spiralburst Studios

The Argument for No

This section is easy: the case for “no” is everyone who is not enamored with the solo variant of Maracaibo’s physical version.

Many of my friends detest the solo variant, and it’s easy to see why. The AI typically rushes the ending. By that, I mean that unlike many human players, the solo AI almost intentionally is set up to only go to cities or occasionally to stop on a space with a quest, while rushing to the finish line every round. While doing that, the AI gets a ton of easy bonuses to its standing on the combat tracks, in exploration, or in getting goods discs off of its player board.

If you were hoping to play Maracaibo Digital as a 4-player game with you playing against 3 bots/automated players simulating what human opponents might do, it’s a non-starter. It is literally not included in the game as of the time of this writing.

It’s almost unfathomable that this decision was made by the Spiralburst team. Terraforming Mars: would you ever buy the app if it only included its solo variant, which is basically a high-score challenge? I doubt it. How about Scythe, which has a decent solo but really shines at higher player counts? Also, doubtful.

Maracaibo Digital not only skips the chance for you to play alone against bots, it also doesn’t come with options to play online against your friends. This is the version that is being sold to consumers, and that decision is inexcusable in this day and age. The physical version of Maracaibo isn’t even that great at 2 players, in my opinion. I will play it at 3 players but it really shines at a full 4-player count.

But as it stands today, you can only play with other people if you utilize the pass-and-play variant. As we have discussed, that is never going to happen.

Images courtesy Spiralburst Studios

Limitations Abound

If you were itching to sell your physical copy of Maracaibo because you only play it solo and you love the solo variant, buy Maracaibo Digital today. It’s fantastic. But if you were hoping to work on your Maracaibo strategies by practicing 3- or 4-player games against a collection of bots (I still do this with the app for Terra Mystica whenever I’m prepping to play the physical version with friends), this is sadly not an option and it’s not clear that it will be an option any time soon.

Kudos to the Spiralburst Studios team for implementing a fantastic interface. It’s just too bad that it only allows for playing Maracaibo’s solo variant at this time.

About the author

Justin Bell

Love my family, love games, love food, love naps. If you're in Chicago, let's meet up and roll some dice!

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