Medina Board Game Review
By MARK WILSON
Year Published: 2001 / 2014
Playing Time: 60 Minutes
Medina is a lightly-themed abstract strategy game in which you’re building a communal city with 1-3 others, placing two of your city parts in the shared grid map of the game. For the purposes of this review, I’ll be discussing the game’s 2014 2nd edition, but the gameplay is nearly identical between editions.
Back to the gameplay, as you build the city of Medina on your turns, your placed items (buildings, merchants, walls, etc.) aren’t yours, per se. Any player can claim a collection of like-colored buildings, and it becomes theirs, scoring them points at the end. Once you claim a group of buildings, it can’t be added to.
Points are based on the size of these building clusters, plus various adjacencies (next to a wall, a merchant, a stable, etc.) and there are bonus point tiles for the largest of each color of building as well as the last to link one of their building clusters to walls coming from each of the city’s four corners.
Plus or minus a few rules on placement, that’s the whole game.
The game is well-regarded, comes from a prolific designer (Steffan Dorra) and received a 2nd edition back in 2014 with a few small additions and variants.
I’m a big fan of this game, but I see some hurdles to enjoyment that can double as legitimate criticism for some players and groups. So I’m going to dig a sizable hole first, then slowly climb out of it.
The Staggering Weight of Freedom
So the game starts, and where do you place your first piece? No, really, you can go anywhere with any piece. So, where? And why?
This is a tough question to answer, and in the earliest turns, there might not actually be a “why” to a placement. You won’t know – and sometimes CAN’T know – if a placement is good or bad until more of the map gets built out.
I like a lot of games with staggering early-game freedom. But most of those have some sort of immediate feedback on my actions. Medina’s feedback risks being too delayed or, worse, not existing for early placements.
So it can feel a bit aimless until the middle game is reached and players start claiming building groups.
We’ll come back to this, though, because I’m going to at least partially refute my own critique.
The Deducible Endgame
Another critique leveled against the game is that the late-game, once there are only so many placements left, is entirely mathable. This is true. But unless you’re really good at reading board states, I’m not sure this is a problem, because it’s not that many turns at the end when you’ll be able to do this.
I’ve also played some late games where the exact order in which things were placed determined who received certain bonus tiles as well, so it’s entirely possible to have tension going into the final few placements. This won’t always happen, of course, but the more calculable endgames won’t always happen either.
But yes, you’ll have the occasional anti-climactic endgame. The middle game is where the heart of the game lies, certainly. So I don’t think this is an issue. But most will notice it here and there.
Lastly, I learned this game on Board Game Arena, which has open scoring. Technically the in-person game has this too, but not many will be taking the time to add up dozens of points to keep an accurate mental map of things, which evolve every turn. Where, occasionally, the winner might not be in doubt in the late-game online, I can’t imagine this is ever a pronounced problem over the table.
I start with the negatives, because they’re some of the first things that many gamers will notice. However, I’m a huge fan of Medina and think some of these criticisms are illusory. The following sections discuss why this is.
Nuance and Placement
I’m going to walk through some of my strategic thought process to make my point here, because it’s the refutation of my point about the aimless early game.
“Ok, so the bonus tiles determine the winner in many games, so I need to work backward into getting my share of them. The wall tower tiles are usually based on late-game wall placement, so I should hold most of my walls back.
“Without knowing which building clusters will be mine, there’s no sense placing merchants yet, nor stables, which should be used to strategically link me to walls and/or push me into the lead for a “largest building” bonus tile.
“Which leaves my four colors of buildings. And if I “short-suit” myself by starting a couple different clusters of the same color in the early going (say, orange), but not claiming them, I might be able to angle for a large orange group with all the others’ orange buildings later on.. So I’ll divest my oranges, and try to leave a lot of real estate for other building groups in the game’s second half.”
Is this the “right” strategy? No. But it’s “a” strategy. And it gets me to the answer of what I start with. It’s also the type of thought process that you won’t have on your first play. It takes time to understand how the game’s scoring interlocks with its mechanics.
For clarity, this doesn’t entirely solve the problem of early-game aimlessness. But one of the optional elements (the Well, discussed in a bit) I think solves this entirely. But even without that variant element, it’s possible to feel like your earlier turns are important, even if you can’t be sure.
The Problem of Hidden Depth
The problem is practical. How many games get half a dozen chances if the first session feels aimless and lackluster to all involved?
I only got further into Medina because I was playing with an online group who assured me of its depths, much like I’m doing now with you as you read this. And it was our “game of the month” in a group I play with, so numerous games were being organized. Had I experienced it for the first time outside of this perfect storm, with friends who were all playing for the first or second time, I wouldn’t be writing this largely positive review (or writing it at all, most likely).
Choice in the modern hobby is a double-edged sword. We cycle through games faster to find our preferred ones, but we risk losing some excellent games with only surface-level experiences.
First impressions matter. Medina’s first impression will be shaky for many. So, too, its second. And possibly third. But I also think it’s unfair to expect all games to be optimized for both the first and 100th play. We need some that take time to unravel their nuanced depths, even if they will have more limited audiences as a result.
The Add-Ons – Well, Tea Tiles, Neutral Rooftops
The game has a number of optional elements. I’m usually one to keep the extra bells & whistles to a minimum, but when something subtly corrects a flaw or adds nuance without adding the rules overhead, I’m more likely to be pleased.
The Well is placed in the city to start the game, and it creates placement spaces that are worth +4 if a building chain goes over it. This is a big deal, and it’s not hard to see how this already affects the early game significantly. Importantly, it doesn’t just make those spaces in demand. It also introduces the possibility of long-term traps, where you claim a Well-adjacent spot early, only to realize that you allowed your opponents easier access to bonus tiles later on. It’s a tiny rules addition, but affects strategy meaningfully.
Tea Tiles exist to allow players to skip a turn, prolonging certain placements. While potentially clever in a tactical sense, I was neutral toward them.
I was less neutral toward Neutral Rooftops, which are only available at 2-3P. These allow you to “claim” a building group for no one. It’s a lovely, dickish opportunity to make your opponents’ lives more difficult, and for them to do the same. There’s already a lot of jostling that goes on; this just adds to it.
In all, there’s a lot to mix and match to create your preferred experience. I wouldn’t ever want to play without the Well, for example, and others will enjoy different combinations as well.
Medina – Conclusions
There’s something unique about Medina compared to what we’re used to seeing in the modern hobby. It’s deliberately austere, to the point where I’d nearly qualify it as a completely abstract game. The mechanics are deathly simple as well, which gives the game an initially quaint aura.
That it hides a furiously nuanced game of evolving geographic considerations is a huge endorsement, then, but it’s also one that many will struggle to discover and appreciate. It also has small flaws that will seem omnipresent and off-putting initially, and will only become manageable for many after a fair amount of time with the game.
Opaque games are occasionally the most rewarding long-term, but they limit their own audience with that same opacity. Medina is rewarding; make no mistake. So hopefully this helps at least a handful of others push through those initial barriers to see what it’s all about.