Published: 2013
Designers: Nuno Bizarro Sentieiro & Paulo Soledade
Artwork: Mariano Iannelli
Publisher: What’s Your Game?
Players: 2-4
Time: 90-120 minutes

If you haven’t noticed, this website is named after islands, or at least the generic word for a group of islands. And it just so happens, that for our first board game review, we’ll be taking a look at Madeira, which is both an island and a board game. And a type of fortified wine. Do any of these things matter? In fact, they all do–at least tangentially.

Prince Henry the Navigator

Madeira–the island–was discovered all the way back in the 1300s. The exact year is unimportant, as no one really knows for sure. Even still, Madeira wasn’t officially claimed and settled by the sea-loving Portuguese until 1418. That’s all thanks to a certain Prince Henry the Navigator. He loved gold and was obsessed with finding Prester John, who also loved gold. What good friends they could have been! Alas, Prester John was only a legend, but that didn’t stop Henry from trying. Sometimes if we try hard enough, we can will legends into existence. Exhibit A: In launching ships to find Mr. Prester, Madeira was discovered. One line of thinking even suggests that Madeira is the real-world location of the Fortunate Isles from Greek mythology–a blessed, winter-free paradise. All of Henry’s wishing just brought the wrong myth to life.

“Wait a second,” you’re saying right now, “I thought you told me Madeira was discovered in the 1300s–how did the ancient Greeks know about it?” That’s a very good question. When I said “discovered,” I meant it only in the most basic, western, colonial, imperialist sense. Even Plutarch seemed to know of the island’s existence.

Someone was not very good at drawing maps.

Here’s what people back in the day thought it looked like. Not even close! Man, they were really bad at drawing maps in the 1700s. Especially considering, they’d known of the island for 300-400 years at that point. I’ve seen better approximations of North America in the 1500s–and that was a brand new, much bigger place. Lazy cartographers.

It’s in this muddle of a world that Madeira–the game–takes place. Players assume the role of noble merchants (or is it merchant nobles?). Yes, you guessed it, this is an economic euro game. But we have ventured outside of the Mediterranean, at least! From the outset, players are tasked with taming a wild island in order to build the wealth and prestige of Portugal. Madeira is a highly vertical place, full of mountains, ravines, and dense laurel forest. Sounds like the perfect place to start farming, right?

To clear the land in real life, the colonists are reputed to have simply set fire to the forests, which then burned for seven years–what could go wrong?

One example of what could go wrong.

Thankfully, in the game, we take the more civilized approach of chopping-down the trees. This is important, because we need wood to build cities and ships. (As an aside, it should be noted that the laurel trees endemic to Madeira grow in all sorts of gnarly shapes not conducive to productive woodworking, so maybe we should have taken a cue from our forefathers and just set these forests on fire.) Wood is also important for patching our ships when they get leaky–otherwise, pirates will catch us. Pirates are neither good for business nor winning the game.

Players arrive part-way through the process of island-taming. The map has handily been divided into three captaincies (or regions)–one for each of the Portuguese captains who led the initial settlement: two on Madeira proper (Funchal and Machico), and another on the nearby island of Porto Santo (which seems like a much less interesting place). These regions are further subdivided into multiple fields where various crops have been established: wheat, sugarcane, and grapes (for that ever-popular Madeira wine I mentioned earlier).

The only good forest is a chopped forest–so goes the prevailing logic.

Some of the fields in the islands’ more rugged areas still have trees left in them, so players will have to chop them down before they can harvest anything else. What’s more, some of the fields will change crops as the game progresses–some wheat will become sugarcane, and later, some of the sugarcane will become wheat.

This is true to history, Madeiran settlers initially had success in growing and exporting wheat; however, production quickly faltered when they realized it was a stupid place to be growing cereal crops. “Never fear,” said Henry, “sugar makes cereal better.” And so, Madeirans obediently traded their wheat fields for cane fields (and slaves). (Thankfully, the owning and trading of slaves is not incorporated into this simulation.) Eventually, the years pass. Henry dies and people realize that wine is even better than sugar. It really was that simple.

Back to the game then–how do players access the islands’ bountiful riches? With a worker placement mechanism of course. (Uh oh… I’m just realizing that maybe there are slaves in this simulation. But if we imagine them as Portuguese workers instead of slaves, we at least don’t have to relive the crimes of ages past. This is our island, and we will make of it what we want!) Here is where we get to one of Madeira’s eccentricities–though each player has twelve workers at their disposal, they don’t just get to deploy them willy-nilly. Instead, players draft sets of dice whose values correspond to the regions in which they can be placed. Dice that show the number “3” can be placed in any region, while “2” can only be placed in regions one or two, and lowly “1” can only be placed in region one. Players do have the option of using bread to make up the difference should they need to access a higher value region.

“But what if I get a crap set of dice and don’t have any bread?” you ask. That’s where piracy comes in. There is a public, first-come-first-served pool of piracy dice that allow you to reap rewards for free. So long as you have a fall-guy in the local police force willing to take the blame and be exiled back to the off-board netherworld.

Going to have a hot time in the old towns tonight.

The action spaces within each region enable a number of rotating options that are randomized each round: deploy workers to the fields, deploy or move ships, move people around in the cities to gain resources, and buy guild favor tokens. These actions are compounded by static, secondary actions that cost money: send people to the colonies, send people to the cities, reset guild favors, add more crooked cops to the police force, and earn bread. And bread is important–you’ll need to feed your workers each round.

There is a lot in that last paragraph I’ve not even mentioned up until now. I’m not even going to try to explain it. For those who want a rules explanation, there are plenty of resources that already exist–including the full rules available for download here. Instead, this review is about my overall impression of the game (with some tangents thrown-in for good measure). The ever-changing combinations of actions and variety of resources in play make for a lot of head-scratching. It allows for the much lauded “multiple paths to victory” and “replayability,” but simply having infinite permutations does not make a game good. Luckily, there is strategic depth to go with these options.

Apologies to Porto Santoans–your island is actually interesting after all.

For instance, remember how I said Porto Santo (region #1) didn’t seem very interesting? I shouldn’t have said that. Though it is decidedly smaller and drier than its cross-channel neighbor, what Porto Santo allows that the big island doesn’t is access to the colonies. If you’ve taken the time to invest in sending ships laden with wine to Brazil, India, and, oddly, the Azores (which are sparsely populated and make their own wine), each colonist you send to said colonies earns you prestige (i.e. victory points) with the king. The colonists also earn you some free resources that you would otherwise have to spend a harvest action on. It takes a lot to get there, but is one of the many strategies I’ve seen employed in the course of my playthroughs of Madeira.

A lot of information for a relatively small island.

The game board is a dense, oh-my-goodness-how-will-I-ever-comprehend-that, affair. But soon, as with most things, what looks complicated begins to make sense. All the mechanisms are synergistic. By your second (maybe third) playthrough, you’ll laugh at how intimidated you were by this quaint little island. It’s a lovely vacation spot after all. My wife’s main complaint is that the game doesn’t offer much of anything new or innovative as far as mechanisms go. That’s true, but I don’t need every game to innovate, just to be good at what it sets out to do. Madeira does that. It may feature a learning curve that emulates the island’s precipitous mountains, and it is certainly not for the feint of heart (nor those who aren’t up for heavy games), but the view from the top is worth it in the end.