Every so often I come across a game that fills me with more a feeling of respect than love, or even of enjoyment. It’s like that one time I met myself from the future, after I’d sacrificed countless human and alien lives to end the Hydrangine Wars — don’t worry about it, you’ll find out about those soon enough — and I found my usual narcissism replaced with something a touch more distant, more like the relationship I might have with a teacher. Okay, bad comparison, and perhaps too much information. The point is, now and then I’ll play a game that I don’t have much desire to play ever again, but I still can’t help but like it, in its own way.
Medina is possibly this year’s most glowing example of that conundrum.
Tactility matters to us boardgamers. The feel of cards, components, cardboard, wood. We like chunkiness in this hobby, a solid feel. Even if we enjoy a game, there’s a good chance we’ll knock off a few points if the cards feel too thin. And why not? We’re buying a physical product here, not just some mental projection of the rules.
Medina understands this.
As you rebuild the city of Medina a couple structural segments at a time, you take these pleasantly weighty wooden pieces and actually build a city. While the field only starts with four towers to mark its corners, after a few rounds the area is dotted with prime real estate, palaces springing up alongside stables and walls, towering over a conga line of merchants.
There are some exceptionally reasonable rules governing your expansion. For example, palaces must have an alleyway between them, because of course they do. Walls must have a gap for a gate, because obviously. Being near the well is worth more points, because naturally nobody likes walking across town to get their water. Stuff like that. What’s more, it’s silly how gorgeous your city becomes over time, and there’s that special thrill of watching this thing you’ve created expand and take on its dimensions, while still adhering to some very straightforward rules that determine which player actually wins at the conclusion.
It’s so logical, so pleasant, that in a big way — and this isn’t a criticism in the slightest — it strikes me as a very potentially mainstream game, in the sense I could see it on the shelf of a Target or a Barnes & Noble, occupying space next to Settlers of Catan or Ticket to Ride.
The gameplay itself is simple: you get points for palaces. The bigger the better. Palaces close to the well, to the merchants that throng along market street, and to stables and walls, are worth even more. Making it a tad more difficult is the fact that there are four colors of palaces. You can only occupy one of each, and anyone can claim a palace on their turn, locking down its points but also its construction.
Medina quickly becomes a game of brinksmanship, of seeing how big you can get a palace without anyone else claiming it. Let’s say there’s a brown palace under construction in a prime spot, along a wall and reasonably close to the well, and with some good merchant opportunities later on if you were to focus on it for a turn or two. Do you claim the palace before it expands a bit more, forever closing off your access to other brown palaces? Or do you try to block its expansion by starting an orange palace across the way, or by sticking a stable to its side? Or do you only add to it in increments, hoping nobody else will claim it? Or lure away the merchant-line in some other direction to discourage the next player from nabbing it?
Each game of Medina opens with a carefree sense of opportunity, full of open space and few restrictions. Around the halfway mark, it’s an entirely different beast, coiled tight under the pressure of fewer open spaces and more readily available points. There might not be room for new buildings, or the merchants might get hemmed in, or maybe there’s a huge open area that nobody wants to expand into because they’re afraid of a monstrosity of a palace springing into existence.
In a way, it strikes a perfect balance between the pleasantness and the meanness of boardgaming. One moment your opponent will be blocking your expansion by setting up the palace you need in the one spot where it can’t grow; the next you’ll be playing with little wooden toys and watching the city take on a peculiar life of its own and feeling like you’re five years old and playing with a lego set again. At which point it’s only natural to use those toys to block that jerk’s own efforts at expansion.
With all that said, why don’t I love Medina?
It’s hard to say. On the one hand, I’ve seen its colorful little city spring to life in a half-dozen ways, and it’s been a pleasure each time. And I certainly haven’t gotten a grip on all its subtler points, like whether to go for palaces early on or later, or whether I should focus on locking down towers or claiming locations near the well, or how to use my magical speech-powers to convince people to let me have all the grandest palaces.
Even so, especially near the end of each game, when players are taking longer because the board’s options have been rubbed down to a dull pencil’s edge, and every merchant and palace and stable and wall has a definite value, some of the magic seems dispelled. Instead of watching this little city blossom, Medina transforms into a game about using every last one of your blocks and counting points to see which player you should obstruct. It stops feeling fluid and begins feeling oddly mechanical.
Or maybe it’s just me. I can see the appeal, and I’m glad so many people have enjoyed it so roundly; for me though, that endgame was at odds with the game I fell in love with in the first place. It isn’t enough for me to dislike the game — but it’s certainly enough to feel conflicted. So as much as I love giving final scores, when it comes to Medina, I just can’t think of anything appropriate.
Seriously though, it’s quite lovely.