Mottainai Board Game Review
By MARK WILSON
Year Published: 2015
Playing Time: 15-30 Minutes
Carl Chudyk has a reputation as a designer. It’s a good one…nothing scandalous or negative. But it’s a specific one.
Mottainai is ostensibly a reimplementation of Glory to Rome, a well-regarded but long out-of-print game. I say “ostensibly,” because I’ve not played Glory to Rome, but a cursory glance at some playthrough videos and such reveals plenty of similarities, but also some marked differences. The biggest of them being length. That might seem like a minor variable, but it can relate to quite a bit of the overall experience.
But that’s jumping ahead.
What’s In a Box
For those of you who value a small shelf presence, Mottainai is tiny. There’s a “Mini” version that can hold 2-3 players, but a second copy (which makes the full 2-5P game) can fit in the Mini box.
The cards (and theme accompanying them) are low-key, minimalist, and pleasantly stylized. A lot of information has to exist on each card, so the aesthetic has to be very minimal to retain clarity.
Mottainai – The Gameplay
In brief, you are hiring workers and crafting trinkets at a Buddhist temple, and trying to get the most points (the theme is somewhat superfluous here). Each card can be any number of things: helper, craft supply, completed work, or your central chosen action for the round.
The rub is that you get to perform everyone’s chosen action on your turn, and things like helpers of the same action type can net you additional actions of that type. Compounding this are card special abilities, which generally trigger when they are completed as finished works for your shop. These abilities are varied and often quite powerful. A certain number of completed works triggers endgame (or running out of the game’s deck, which I’ve found to be vanishingly rare).
So it’s a combinatorial card game that acts as a bit of an engine-builder and a bit of a race, depending on your strategy.
Despite all of that, the game generally ends in about 20 minutes with those who know how to play. Its mechanics are unique enough that it takes some getting used to even for regular gamers, and it isn’t without a couple fiddly rules that don’t make immediate intuitive sense. But the whole of the thing is remarkably breezy to play once the rules are absorbed.
Player-Driven vs. Game-Driven Variability
I first ran into Chudyk’s design sensibilities when I made a discussion thread requesting “chaotic” games, with various examples of chaotic games I enjoy. I’d played Red7 previously, but wasn’t really aware of his other work.
This thread was a sweeping success, and produced many fine games for me to explore, Chudyk’s among them. But it also revealed to me some differences in the types of chaos that games can create.
When I think of chaos, I think of player-driven variability. I juxtapose this with randomness, which I think of as game-driven variability. What’s the difference? For example, it’s the difference between me choosing which area to attack (player-driven) and what I roll on the attack dice once I attack (game-driven). Both can be accounted for and mitigated in some games, but they represent two very distinct types of unpredictable outcomes in games.
Chudyk’s games lack player-driven variability, and feature game-driven variability. Mostly. I can hear fans thinking that, for example, you can strategically choose NOT to pick a central ask for the round, which can actually be worse for your opponents than it is for you. Other subtle strategies exist along these lines as well, and you’ll always need to be aware of what tasks your opponents have chosen. Rarely do games exist in conceptual vacuums, so yes, there is some variability of both types. But the core of the thing is how the cards chain together and how adeptly (or not) you pair and fuse their abilities, not what your opponents are doing.
This is a mild disappointment for me. Broadly speaking, I knew what to expect when I played. But it’s the interpersonal action that elevates games to another level for me, regardless of how solid their strategic trappings are. So for me, Mottainai lacks that push into the upper echelon of card games as a result.
Combinations and Chaos
This also creates the situation where the game will generally be won by the most experienced player who knows the best combinations and how to best leverage the somewhat-fiddly endgame scoring. This is neither good nor bad on its own, but it can be great if you play with a steady group, or frustrating if you find yourself teaching the game frequently or playing with a rotating cast. It’s a trait shared with many well-regarded games, though. I will never beat a veteran player of Race for the Galaxy, for example. Not ever. But it’s among the most beloved combinatorial card games in the entire hobby. So your mileage may vary.
Innovation, also by Chudyk, actually sidesteps this same potential criticism nicely for me, not because it adds more player-driven elements (though it does add a bit of this) but because the card powers are dialed up to 11 and create such a chaotic maelstrom in most games that the winner is often the player who best adapts to their circumstances, not the one who takes the best path through card power chains. It still rewards experience, but not to the same extent. It also naturally rewards shorter-term tactical thinking as opposed to longer-term strategic thinking. Both games require both strategy and tactics, but Mottainai’s “long-term strategy” dial is tuned higher than Innovation’s and its tactics dial is significantly lower.
For reference, though, “long term” might be a powerful combo that ends the game in under 10 minutes. So it’s not long in an absolute sense, but it certainly is in terms of how much of the game will be dominated by such strategies.
For clarity, Mottainai shares some of the same daffiness in its card abilities, though it’s severely muted in comparison to Innovation. As a result, I see a dividing line in the types of gamers that will enjoy only one or the other, or perhaps they’ll enjoy both but prefer one over the other. Me, I’m a “CHAOS DIALS TO 11” kind of guy, so Innovation amuses me in ways that Mottainai doesn’t quite emulate. Whereas, in contrast, a good friend whose wheelhouse is more mechanistic, insular strategy games vastly prefers Mottainai. Neither preference is surprising, and I would suspect that it’s mirrored among many others.
Length and Satisfaction
Ratios are everywhere in board games. Length to satisfaction ratio. Price to how many times you’ll play it. Player-driven to game-driven variability.
My mind has many such informal calculations ongoing when I play games. And Mottainai has a lot packed into it for such a short game…enough that it’s both noticeable and worth mentioning in a review. The number of decisions and amount of strategy in such a quick game is impressive and laudable.
So sure, it’ll last 20 minutes outside The Teach, but I would struggle to quantify it as a “filler” in the way we usually think of that term. It’s too dense to be compared apples-to-apples with the lighter fare that usually occupies that same game length.
This is good. We need games that fill these unique niches. It doesn’t mean the game is for me, but it probably means it’ll be good for someone.
It does produce occasional incongruities, granted. For all its density, games will often end abruptly, and well before you’ve gotten to do as much as you think you’ll be able to. This can leave you feeling robbed of a satisfying strategic arc, like that which typifies many good strategy games. I’ve heard this criticism of Mottainai echoed by fans of the longer Glory to Rome, and while I can’t strictly vouch for that comparison, having played Mottainai, it makes sense. Sometimes it’s over before any real momentum has been established.
There’s a popular variant that extends the game (from 5 works to 6 to trigger endgame), and this certainly helps. But this also risks introducing a new problem: namely, that the often noticeable experience gap is widened the longer the game lasts. So depending on your group, this longer variant may actually exacerbate that particular issue.
Mottainai – Conclusions
The game takes up so little shelf space and play time that it’s hard to hate it, but it’s not without potential flaws related to this same length. We often talk about games in certain “sweet spots.” And while this is a problematic phrase for critiquing a game, we know it when we feel it. And Mottainai is a game that sits just to the side of a couple different sweet spots for me, but still close enough that I believe it has a place at many game tables.