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Review: Medici (third edition)

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Medici 3 box

This year has seen several of Reiner Knizia’s games return to print. Ra, Schotten-Totten, and Circus Flohcati are just a few of these (and ones I’ve already reviewed). But the reprint I was most excited about was Grail Games’ rerelease of the classic auction game Medici. Medici is notorious for its poor looks in previous iteration. Has the curse finally been broken?

How It Works

The third edition of Medici plays the same as the second edition, with one difference: an included two-player mode.

The game setup for three players. Even though I don't recommend the game with three, it's a lot easier to set up a photo with three than with six.
The game setup for three players. Even though I don’t recommend the game with three, it’s a lot easier to set up a photo with three than with six.

To play with two players, each player adds the two-player supplemental mats to the end of their ship mat, increasing the size of their ships’ holds to seven (from five). Before each round, remove eighteen cards from the deck (as you would for a three-player game). The scoring scheme is different for both most-valuable ship and for the commodity tracks. Otherwise, the game plays using the same rules as with more players.

Well, this lot WAS looking pretty good...
Well, this lot WAS looking pretty good…

Third Time’s a Charm, or All This Sailing Makes Me Seasick?

When last I reviewed Medici, I called it “one of the most exciting auction games you’re likely to play.” I have since ranked it #2 on my list of Top Ten Games by Reiner Knizia, #5 on my list of Top Ten Lunchtime Social Games, and just outside my list of Top Ten Games of All Time. So know that I truly love Medici and have taken lots of opportunities to say so.

The board is lavishly illustrated, even the little details, like these ships in the four corners of the board.
The board is lavishly illustrated, even the little details, like these ships in the four corners of the board.

However, Medici is a game that has, historically, at least in its English incarnations, not looked very good. About the first edition, I wrote, “It’s ugly, and the graphic design choices in it are baffling. The board is intended to confound and mystify.” About the second edition, I could only muster, “After playing the first edition of the game, anything is an upgrade.” Which is, not to put too fine a point on it, damning with faint praise.

The second edition board overlaying the third edition. The third edition's board is larger and also a whole lot more vibrant. The tracks are easier to discern at a glance.
The second edition board overlaying the third edition. The third edition’s board is larger and also a whole lot more vibrant. The tracks are easier to discern at a glance.

So with this review of the third edition, I don’t plan to talk about gameplay (except the two-player game) and instead will focus on components. (If you want to read about gameplay, check out one of the linked articles above.) Because, finally, after three tries, I think we have the definitive English  edition of the game.

Medici really doesn’t have a ton of components to screw up: there is a central gameboard with a few tracks, a ship board for each player (which, admittedly, isn’t necessary), a small deck of cards, and tokens for each player. With this in mind, it really is baffling how laughably bad the game has looked in the past. But as far as previous editions may have gone to convince you that Medici isn’t a game worth playing, the new Grail edition almost goes to the opposite extreme, offering lavish illustrations, better-than-necessary components, and little extras that finally dress the game in the clothes it deserves.

The new player tokens are not as stark as the previous edition, but they are easy enough to tell apart, and each player's pieces have a different crest on them.
The new player tokens are not as stark as the previous edition, but they are easy enough to tell apart, and each player’s pieces have a different crest on them.

We’ll start with some of those extras. Each of the player markers is a thick wooden disc. The colors of these discs, mind you, are a little strange: pastel shades that aren’t the standard vibrant colors. Still, they are easy enough to distinguish (especially when they’re on the board), and each player’s discs have a different crest screen printed on them to aid players who are color blind in seeing which pieces belong to each player. It’s subtle, but such a nice touch. These also stack nicely and are less open to interpretation than the sacks/chef hats/amorphous blobs of the second edition and better suited to the task than cubes.

These upkeep discs are superfluous to me (an experienced player), but they will likely make the game easier for new players.
These upkeep discs are superfluous to me (an experienced player), but they will likely make the game easier for new players.

The game also includes a superfluous start player token, a large wooden shield that will keep players from forgetting who has the last bid on each lot. There are markers to track which round of the game players are in and markers to track which of the commodities have already scored for the round. All three of these wooden bits are unnecessary, but they illustrate the love that has gone into the game. For me, I store these pieces in a separate bag and leave them in the box when we play (my group is full of seasoned Medici players, and we’ve learned to keep track without these means), but I have a feeling they’d be a great aid for beginners.

Are these player aids necessary? Probably not. But I'm a huge fan of this addition. (Now new players aren't always asking me, "How much is most valuable ship worth again?")
Are these player aids necessary? Probably not. But I’m a huge fan of this addition. (Now new players aren’t always asking me, “How much is most valuable ship worth again?”)

I said earlier that the ship mats aren’t necessary (and they aren’t), but I do prefer having them, and the ship mats in this edition are grade A. They’re on thick cardboard and beautifully illustrated. Even the two-player holds that aren’t used every game are on the same thick cardboard, and they continue the illustration of the ship mat they’re added to. Each mat has a flag corresponding to the color of discs on the board, but these flags illustrate the oddness of the color choices: while the discs are easy to tell apart, the flags are not. Still, this is not a big deal, and the quality here is better than necessary or expected.

I love the look of the new board, and the player tokens are especially easy to tell apart on it.
I love the look of the new board, and the player tokens are especially easy to tell apart on it.

Perhaps the biggest upgrade is to the readability of the board. Each track is color coded with a bold color and a clear illustration. It takes minimal effort to see which track is which and who is winning. The blue and purple colors are more similar than I’d like, but again, with the illustration, this is clear enough, and it’s a more readable board than other editions. The numbers tracking score along the outer border of the board are clear without being obtrusive.

The second edition used tiles, which I'm still partial to. I'm coming around on the cards, though, especially since they speed the game up considerably.
The second edition used tiles, which I’m still partial to. I’m coming around on the cards, though, especially since they speed the game up considerably.

The third edition uses cards for the commodities, like the first edition of the game. I was initially disappointed with this. I love the tiles in the second edition. There’s something exciting about drawing tiles from a bag. It’s the kind of thing that shouldn’t make the game different, but it does somehow. I remember a blog post Bruno Faidutti wrote about how changing components in one of his games made the game more aggressive, even though the rest of the game is the same. Similarly, I think by using cards, Medici loses some of the slot machine/push-your-luck feel that you get from the tiles. The cards do, however, speed up the game considerably (making the game easily fit into a lunch hour, even with six and even with new players), so I’ve come to the point that even though I prefer tiles, I will happily use the cards (no longer grudgingly). And I’m a big fan of the now-included player aids.

The third edition includes two extra hold mats for the two-player game. Fancy.
The third edition includes two extra hold mats for the two-player game. Fancy.

The game comes with a two-player variant, and your feelings on this are likely to be similar to your feelings on Medici at smaller player counts. I didn’t care for it, but then again, I only advocate for Medici at the 5-6 player count, where most of the cards are in the deck and you have a general idea of what should be coming up. Medici is an amazing game with five or six; with three, it’s just okay, in my opinion. Having seven holds on your ship and the revised scoring bonuses (20 and nothing for biggest haul!) do adapt the game nicely for two players, but ultimately, I can’t get over the uncertainty of what’s in the deck. It’s also much easier to determine the exact value of a lot with two players, which is a little less interesting to me. I suppose the game will work in a pinch if you don’t have other two-player games at hand, but there are few situations where I would choose to play this over the many wonderful two-player games available. (Knizia has even designed some great ones!)

Look at these beautiful cards. Vincent Dutrait's illustrations fit the great gameplay of Medici.
Look at these beautiful cards. Vincent Dutrait’s illustrations fit the great gameplay of Medici.

The bottom line is this: this is the Medici version to get (at least if you can tolerate cards instead of tiles). It’s beautiful (huge kudos to Vincent Dutrait for his beautiful illustrations), but more important than this, it’s functional. It’s lovingly crafted and is finally attractive on box cover alone. (I no longer have to say, “Hey, you should play this game! I promise it’s not boring!”) While there are a few things I would have done differently, this is as close to perfect as we’re going to get, and it corrects many of the missteps of prior editions. Ultimately, I will no longer complain about how ugly and nonfunctional Medici is. This is the capstone to a great year of Knizia reprints. Medici is one of the best games I’ve played, and it finally looks like it.

I proofread the rules of the new edition and received a copy of the game as compensation.

  • Rating 9
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Summary

Pros:

Gorgeous illustrations
Components are well chosen and clear
The same great gameplay as the original

Cons:

I have a small preference for tiles over cards
Some of the color choices are a bit odd
The two-player variant doesn't add any value for me

9.0 Finally!

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

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