Monday, 28 November 2016

Playtest review of Mai-Star

Mai-Star, from AEG Games, is a wonderful little card game for 3-6 players, created by Seiji Kanai. All the art for the game looks to come from AEG's extensive back catalogue of Legend of the Five Rings card art, but you have to wonder how much longer AEG will be able to use this, now that the rights have gone to FFG. Still, the quality of the cards and the art is first rate, and while the game does not reference Rokugan specifically, you can pretend you are playing out the intrigues of the geishas of the Emerald Empire.

Mai-Star is about geisha. Each player has one geisha character, and they are all rated for three talents, namely Performance, Service and Intelligence. But this is really just your reputation, not your actual ability. You can only attract customers by improving your reputation.

The game is played in three rounds. Geisha score according to the wealth of the customers they entertain. Each round, a player chooses one character from his hand to either be a customer, or to advertise for the geisha. Advertisers help to promote the geisha in one of the three core abilities. To entertain characters as clients, however, the geisha must meet their minimum demands in one of the core abilities, hence the importance of having reliable folk out and about promoting you.

There are quite a wide variety of characters. Some, like the scholars and ronin, pay less money but don't have massive expectations, and are good clients to use early on. Actors have money, but also make the best ambassadors for the geisha. Okasan are also excellent at spreading the word.

Many characters have particular special abilities which they can help a geisha with if they become your guests. These do not kick in if the geisha simply have them as advertisers. For example, the doctor is wealthy, but also lets you take a second turn. The thief lets you get rid of another player's guest. The sumo lets you see another player's hand and discard one of his cards. The ronin is good for protection but lacks cash. There don't seem to be many samurai, but they are quite affluent, even more well-heeled than doctors!

There are some strategically critical characters, however. The first of these are the daimyo. They are difficult to lure in, but if they turn up as your guest, then they can attract all the advertisers you have out there of the same colour card. This means they all turn up to party with the daimyo and spend more money. It basically reflects clan politics, where the presence of the feudal lord attracts his followers.

The other two characters of import are the monk and the shogun. The shogun allows the player to add his remaining cards in his hand as guests and end the round, while the monk (right) will just end the round, which is good if you're ahead. There is only one shogun and one monk. Scoring is based on the total wealth of guests entertained in the round, minus the wealth of cards still in hand. Mai-Star lasts three rounds. The winner is the geisha with the most money at the end.

I have to say I really like Mai-Star. It is quick to play, and keeps you thinking all the way through. Even with more players, I don't think it would last appreciably longer, as the shogun and monk cards will still succeed in ending the round speedily. Although I was beaten in both games I played, it was enormous fun, and I hammered the table in furstration on several occasions, so caught up was I in the intrigues of the geisha. My only criticism, and it is a small one, is that players with experience of the game have a distinct advantage over newcomers. Hence, I would advise playing a practice round, even if you have only one newbie at the table.

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