Stefan Feld

ALEA 2009

No. of Players:
2 - 4



G@mebox author Marco Klasmeyer writes about the game:


The players take the role of Portuguese Adventures and Merchants who try their luck in Macao, the trading stronghold in the Far East, at the end of the 17th century. By means of profitable trade with Europe, strategic growth within the city districts and tactical acquisition of important agencies and influential positions the players gain prestige and reputation.

Macao is structured in 12 rounds, in which the players first have to select a card and afterwards they choose two dice results for gaining the essential action tokens. Finally the currently available action tokens can be used for instance to activate a card, to take a city district into possession or to move ships with trading goods towards Europe. The player who performs best in all these different activities gains the most prestige points and wins the game.

snap shot in the course of the game


Macao consists of a plenty of game material as one would expect from most ALEA games. First to mention is a medium sized game board displaying a small map of the city of Macao and eight symbols for European harbour metropolises (London, Hamburg, Amsterdam, Lisboa, Antwerpen, Marseille, Barcelona and Genova) with seaway connections between them. The seaways and symbols of the eight harbours are far away from reflecting the real dimensions, but this does not matter for the game. The game board also contains several score boards representing prestige points (= victory points) and influence of the players as well as value and cost of prestige points in the course of the game. Besides the major game board each player gets his own tableau with a short rule description and five places for building and character cards, which have to be put here after purchase before they can be activated in the course of the game. Furthermore each player gets a seven sided "compass rose" (displaying six different dice sides and an arrow) which is crucial for the game mechanics and becomes the most important part of all activities. The remaining game material: 96 building/character and 24 office cards, 300 wooden action tokens in six different colours, six dice in the colour of the action tokens, dozens of paper chips for gold, trading goods and markers, and finally two wooden markers and a ship for each participating player.

There is a lot to separate and distribute before you can play Macao: The 24 administrative office cards are shuffled and placed face up in pairs next to the appropriate 12 spaces at the border of the game board. These 12 spaces represent the 12 rounds of the game after which the games ends. All relevant markers are placed on the start spaces of the score boards, one per player on the prestige (victory) points board and one onto the city wall, each ship is placed in the harbour of Macao. The two player independent markers are placed on the tribute and privilege board.

Depending on the number of players participating two more building/character cards are drawn. Each player gets to choose a building/character card, but the order of the markers (bottom to top!) on the city wall influence board decides the order of choice. In the course of the game the normal playing order depends on the position on the influence board, the most advanced player on the influence board begins each turn or phase. At the start of the game each player gets one arbitrary action token, which he has to place next to compass rose space showing "1", and two more equally coloured action tokens, which have to be placed next to compass rose space showing "2".

compass rose

Each round consists of three phases:

  1. Phase: Draw cards
  2. Phase: Roll the action dice and place new actions tokens
  3. Phase: Actions…
As you might assume correctly the last point is more complex and takes longer than the other phases, but it is of course the most challenging part.

But let's start with drawing cards (Phase 1): At the start of each round four building/character cards are placed face up next to the corresponding administrative office cards. All cards together are used to adjust the markers of the tribute and privileges board. The sum of all values on the lower left corner of each card represents the amount of gold. The sum of the values in the lower right represents the privilege points. During the action phase a player can get that many privilege points by paying the corresponding amount of gold. After adjusting the tribute value depending on the number of participating players up to two building/character cards have to be discarded right away. Administrative office cards are never discarded. Then each player in the order given by the markers on the city wall (influence board) must choose one remaining card and place it on his tableau. This card is still inactive and has to be activated in the 3rd phase. If it ever happens that a player has to put a sixth card onto his tableau because he did not manage to active any of the other five cards, he has to discard one of his six cards and then gets a -3 penalty marker onto his tableau until the end of the game (thus loosing 3 victory points). So you better try to activate the cards on the tableau as soon as possible if you have more than three cards placed there. If your board is full and you cannot activate any card and remove it from the board you will get the penalty again in the next round.

compass rose

Phase 2: Rolling the dice. One player is selected to be the "official dice roller" for the whole game. The selected player throws the coloured six dice and sorts them according to the numbers. Each dice allows a player to take the displayed amount of action tokens of the dice's colour. In the order of the city wall the players choose two dice results and take the corresponding tokens. The action tokens have to be placed next to the compass rose space with the same number as the dice. The rules are a bit misleading or less precise concerning the dice selection, but let's assume each player can select from all six dice and not keeping some exclusively otherwise one player would not get any new tokens. Once all players have got their new tokens they turn the compass rose clockwise by one position. Thus the former "1" space now shows an arrow and this will be the player's action tokens available for the third phase.

Here the centerpiece of the whole game mechanics becomes visible. The players must acquire action tokens to active the cards on their tableau, but the tokens gathered in Phase 2 usually will not be available in Phase 3 of the same round. Instead, they are placed next to a numbered space on the compass rose, and in the third phase - after the compass rose has been rotated by one step - only those action tokens are available which are aligned next to the arrow marker on the compass rose. In effect, this may result in a player waiting up to six rounds for some tokens to become available, and if it ever happens that there are no action tokens available for the current round the player gets a -3 penalty marker until the end of the game.

the city districts of macao game board and the city wall

Phase 3: The action phase. Starting with the most advanced player on the city wall, each player can use his complete supply of action tokens indicated by the arrow of the compass rose to perform the following actions in any order. Please note that all the action tokens should be used as it is not allowed to keep action tokens at the end of this phase.

    The Actions:
  1. Activate cards: A card on the player's tableau has to be activated before it can be used by paying exactly the amount of action tokens shown on the card in question. A player is allowed to activate one or more cards and can immediately use it in the same turn. An activated card is removed from the tableau and placed face up in front of the player.
  2. Take possession of one city district: A player can seize one city district during his turn by paying exactly the depicted amount of action tokens from his supply (up to four tokens: 1,2,3 or 4 equally or 2x2 differently coloured). The player then obtains the trading good or joker marker which has been placed on that district and places one of his possession markers instead. The trading good has to be placed onto the ship space on his tableau indicating that the good is on a ship now (regardless where the ship actually is). A joker token can be used once at any time to either get immediately one additional action token (any colour) from the common supply or three gold pieces from the bank. After use the joker is discarded, but some building/character cards may change this whole rule in the one or the other detail.
  3. Advance once on the city wall: A player may move his token on the city wall by any number of spaces. The first space costs one action token (arbitrary colour) each additional space costs two. If the target space is already occupied by another player, the token is put upon that other token (thus obtaining precedence).
  4. Move ship: A player can move his ship as often and as far as he wants. Each space (incl. a harbour) costs one arbitrary action token. Ships of other players on the same space do not matter. If a ship reaches a harbour city which has vacant trading good symbols and the player currently has the same trading good on board, he can place that trading good onto any vacant space displaying a value and he may then advance that many prestige points on the prestige board. This action does not cost anything besides the movement to get to harbour. In the case that the trading good is obtained by taking possession of a city district and the ship is already in a harbour trading that good, the player can immediately sell it.
  5. Acquire prestige points once: Prestige points at the current price (gold pieces) determined at the begin of the turn can be purchased only once per turn.
  6. Using an activated card: a player can use any of his already activated cards at any time during his turn and perform the described function.
  7. Skip and end turn: If a player is not able or not willing to make further actions he can end his turn and discard all remaining unused action tokens to the common supply piles.
Actions 1, 4 and 6 can be performed several times, actions 2, 3, 5 and 7 only once per turn.

The previously described rules can be modified in certain ways by the use of activated building/character cards. The enumeration of all possible cards would go too much into detail for this review, but the focus of each players' strategy will get a considerable shift due to the cards the player acquires. One thing to mention is that the dice results in phase 2 are continuously modified from round 8 on, because some dice results could not be used anymore after round 12 - the final round. So for example in round 8 a dice value of six will be turned to one, in round 9 a dice value of five or six will be turned to one and so on. Finally in round 12 every dice is turned to one, so that all action tokens can actually be used in the very last phase. These adjustments make certain that enough action tokens are available even in the endgame.

Macao ends after the 12th round and now the final evaluation takes place to see which player has gained the most prestige points in total, but there are also penalties for unfinished tasks as well.

  • Each remaining card on the tableau yields a -3 penalty marker for a player.
  • For each penalty marker the player has to move back 3 spaces on the prestige board.
  • All building/character cards which have an effect at the "end of game" are evaluated accordingly.
  • Each player gains additional prestige points for his biggest contiguous city district: two for each of his participating district markers.
The winner is the player with the most prestige points, in case of a draw the order on the city wall decides.

a set of character cards


With Puerto Rico from ALEA being one of my favourite games I had high expectations for Macao - and I have not been disappointed. This is another gem in the long history of ALEA games. The design is very detailed and overall eye catching: The plenty of wooden tokens, cards and paper chips. Furthermore items are not just placed "somewhere" on the table, Macao offers additional game material for this: The compass roses and the players' tableaus. Integrating some score boards like the city wall into the game board is also a nice idea which keeps the game at an operational level despite the plethora of included playing materials.

As for variety, the 96 included building/character cards are more than sufficient because in the 12 rounds only 48 are actually used. So playing Macao several times will not be boring, and even if you know all cards you have a 50 percent chance that one card is not included the time your are playing the game. Despite the fact that the variation in games like >b>Agricola is even wider, these cards still offer a nice variety of different non-repeatable game courses.

The players usually will try to put a high focus on card interaction, since the cards available for purchase in phase 1 can become part of a cleverly devised system where several cards cooperate with each other and thus increase their effect. The 24 administrative office cards provide the capability to exchange action tokens into gold, if needed once per turn. But there are certain building/character cards which increase their strength with the number of corresponding office cards (i.e. "stronghold": gain 1 prestige point for each activated military office). There are some character/building cards which can be very powerful if they are brought early into the game:

  • The Craftsman for instance allows you to activate cards for free, you just need to posses all needed tokens but you can use them for something else.
  • The Builder gives you two gold pieces each time you activate a building.
  • The Master enables a player to place the action tokens of a dice not at the exact dice result at the compass rose, but at one number next to it. This provides a far more flexible turn planning in advance.
  • The Canvas Manufactory lets you move your ship by two spaces for free. This makes your ship move faster than the others and you will be the first selling goods and gaining more prestige points than the others for it.
  • The Baroness cards yield three prestige points at the end of the game, but if you posses more than one baroness, you can gain four or even five points each.
These are just a few cards to mention, just to give you an impression of the spectrum. Some of them can be an enormous accelerator if activated early (craftsmen, builder, canvas manufactory). Others change the normal rules to your advantage (craftsmen, master and many more). It is a good strategy to have some kind of network in your cards, meaning combining cards to be more powerful and more effective.

The only use for gold in Macao is to buy prestige points. It is not essential to have much gold, but it helps a lot to buy a good amount of prestige if the price determined at the beginning at a round is low. Especially if other players do so, you should be able to follow them. The only way to collect gold is to use activated cards. There is no income as there is for action tokens by rolling the dice.

Up to four players can participate, and to my mind this is also the better amount of players. Macao can be played with two players as well, but there are some drawbacks. The city wall becomes less important as the order of card choice is simple by first or second which doesn't really matter. You will find it more annoying that good cards you really want to have in the game must simply be discarded. With two players the city districts and the trading goods can be fairly distributed, so there is no need to fight for districts or goods. Time is short and you have to deliver your trading goods within 12 rounds.

The one and only light point of criticism is that Macao is much more a planning game rather than an interactive, cooperative game. You can neither really interfere nor cooperate with the other players. This can sometimes make the first half of the game a bit lengthy, because the card networks and strategies of the player have to develop. And since there is no interaction each player must sit and wait patiently until his turn. There is no card which does any harm to another player. There is barely a way of teasing the one or the other player by picking up more valuable trading goods and turn them into prestige points before the others reach that harbour. Another way would be to put more effort on the city wall to be the first player who can select a card and thus have the best choice in phase 1. Thus, Macao is a quite "peaceful" game, but having said that, it depends on whether you like less cooperative, less interactive games or not. For me it did not impair the fun I had playing Macao, and the planning factor evolving around the compass rose turned the game into a rather challenging and interesting experience.

Looking for this game? Visit Funagain Games!

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Copyright © 2010 Frank Schulte-Kulkmann, Essen, Germany