I’m not a fan of big cities. Mostly because of all that traffic. I have things to do and places to be, but it’s always a sea of taxis as far as the eye can see. This game doesn’t take place in Chicago or New York, rather outside Venice. And there aren’t any taxis. But did you know all those gondolas can clog up your day’s plans just as fast…?
How to Play
As if the diminutive archipelago was starting life anew, you are a merchant and entrepreneur seeking to profitably develop Murano by establishing glass-making factories, shops, palaces and special buildings. Most of this construction produces, or leads to, points and income. However, you’ll earn the bulk of your victory by meeting the demands of various personalities visiting the islands.
Murano employs an interesting rondel mechanic for selecting actions. The available options ring the board and eight gondolas are spread around this track – Murano is outside Venice and itself webbed by various canals. On your turn, you may pick any gondola and move it forward any number of spaces provided you don’t bump into or pass another gondola. If traffic’s backed up blocking the action you’d like and your horn don’t work, you can move any number of boats ahead one at a time per the normal rules, but only the first movement is free. Each successive move exacts an increasing amount of gold.
There are a number of different actions. You might collect a couple coins. There’s a spot for buying character cards. Some spaces allow you to acquire one of the four building tiles: glass factories, shops, palaces and special buildings. Then there is a separate action in which you can build those you’ve previously bought – but only up to three at a time. However, you must pave the streets first so that your businesses have a place to set up shop. Those tiles are free, but count towards the three per turn limit. You’ll receive 1-3 points for placing factories, shops and palaces, respectively. The special building lets you draw a card which represents a unique enterprise that provides an ongoing ability.
As you establish your little mercantile empire, you’ll want to profit from it, of course. In that case, there’s an action in which you can produce glass from your factories. No worries – blazing furnaces and blowing are not required. Simply draw a glass bead from a bag for each factory you wish to activate. You’ll lose some points for producing pollution, but you can earn up to 20 coins for selling three beads of the same color. A little less if you only have one or two. You can also earn income from shops. These come in three colors, while many of the street tiles randomly have one or two matching pedestrians. If you have the appropriate shops matching the same colored customers traversing the streets, you can earn some coins. It may not prove as lucrative as producing glass, but at least you avoid the point penalties.
A final couple actions deal with gondoliers. I thought these guys were just important to lovers drifting romantically along the canals; but turns out they’re crucial to the local economy. Who knew?! One space allows you to buy or sell back your personal gondoliers. You start with five and can acquire up to two more. Or if you’re low on dough, you can pawn one off for a while. With the final action spot you can pay to place your gondolier on any one of the islands’ docks – 2 coins to claim your own spot or 5 to nab another player’s place. Once committed to an island, the gondolier remains there for the game.
This element requires some planning because you use gondoliers to claim objectives on character cards. And that’s important as you should be earning the bulk of your points from them at the end of the game. Cards require meeting certain conditions on islands. One might be looking for the most shops of a specific color. Another might award points if you’re the only merchant with a certain building type. Others award points for various combinations and numbers of customers, Palace crests, total buildings or majorities. There is quite a variety. Some specify an island on which you must satisfy the condition, while the majority let you pick. The only stipulation is that you must use a gondolier to claim it. And each gondolier can only be used towards one card.
As soon as two stacks of development tiles are emptied, the end game is triggered. When everyone’s had their final turn, players score their successful character cards and add those points to their running total. The winner is the most successful merchant of Murano and never has to pay for a gondola ride again.
Blown Away or Shattered?
There are games thick with theme. Every mechanic intuitively integrates with the growing narrative. Every action makes sense within the story. Every turn you eagerly jump at the chance to move along the adventure.
Then there are games like Murano. A conglomeration of mechanics and rules that could really be about just anything. Still, they layer this skeletal structure with an innocuous, sometimes contrived, but always colorful skin that looks appealing – and dares you to defy their reasoning. They’re rather brash about it, come to think of it.
Murano laughs off any criticisms about its theme – or lack thereof. It would readily admit the story is as generic as the hundreds of Euros before it. European city? It’s in the name of the game. Renaissance setting? Check. Merchants producing profits and resources? Oh, yeah. It could have just as well been about New York taxis with all of its design mechanics in place.
Sure, all of its elements are associated with the real Murano. Glass-making, canals and gondolas, palaces and shops. Yet the how, where and when you establish buildings doesn’t make sense within any context except that the rules stipulate to. Some actions are free because they’re available, while others will cost you money because they’re not. And ironically, the product for which the islands are most renowned – glass – is actually only a small part of the game. There’s no rhyme or reason or logic. That’s okay. Because Murano is a very good design.
Inka and Marcus Brand first used a communal rondel ringing the board in their 2007 release Guatemala Café. Don’t let the square game board fool you. While not the usual shape associated with the mechanic, the design functioned just like a rondel. The same aspect holds form in Murano. And it’s implemented quite smoothly.
For one, it’s extremely intuitive. Wherever the credit lies – with the Brands, the artist and/or the developer – the visual and graphic designs are informative without appearing cluttered. You’re pretty much able to figure out what the bulk of action spaces do just from the iconography. There’s plenty of room, clean delineation between spots and each one has a bow-pointed symbol clearly denoting which direction to scull the little gondolas along. Even though a lot of activity transpires in the middle of the board, the action track commands much of your attention. It’s attractive and will be the focus of your planning. That’s not to say the rest of the board is lacking. It’s double-sided for player count and is generally just as pleasant. Although, it can be hard to discern from a quick glance which undeveloped sites are for street tiles and which are for buildings.
Second, rondels are a great mechanic in managing the action selection process. Some hardcore gamers find them restraining. There’s often little to no logic behind why some actions are available, while others are not – except that, like mom, the rules “say so.” Still, they’re generally helpful in presenting a range of choices, which aids planning, keeps things organized and reduces analysis paralysis (see below). Many times, they will absolutely limit the range of options available to a player on a given turn. Usually, however, they provide some means to pay for an action that’s not immediately available for free. In some cases, every action will still be accessible as long as you’re willing and able to afford it. Such is the case with Murano. There are eighteen spots for eleven individual actions – five options are available twice and one is present in three places. It creates a wonderful tension between settling now for something that’s free, versus what might be worth spending for something better.
The track, therefore, is both limiting and malleable. At first glance, it looks really restrictive, and there is that potential. You can do anything on the board, but it still hamstrings you in the sense that you need a sizeable income if the gondolas are all backed up. That makes money a rare commodity. Not only does it cost to manipulate the rondel to your benefit, but many of the actions themselves require coins to resolve. So spending the money to gain access to a certain spot might be moot if you don’t have any left to take advantage of it. Indeed, a comfortable savings is significant in order to enjoy that leeway and if you don’t set up shops or factories to generate income early on, you could be up the canal without an oar. The game suffers from the inverse of the runaway leader syndrome – more of a falling behind loser issue. What makes that whole characteristic even far more interesting is that coins do not count towards victory. You need money to secure the elements that earn you points, but garner nothing from a pile of cash, in and of itself. Okay, so money is a tie breaker, but that’s all…
Finally, the action rondel leads to Murano’s greatest attribute to my mind: no downtime. This is one of the fastest-paced games I have ever played. Even with the full 4-player count, you’ll generally experience minimal wait between turns. You move a boat – or two or more – and take an action, which literally amounts to nabbing and or placing at most a few coins, pawns and/or tiles. The most difficult thing to resolve is moving your point marker along the track, which is only numbered every fifth space. I can’t stand it when victory point tracks do that!
Now you may ask, “What about players prone to over analyzing things?” Sure, that player personality can obviously spring up with any game at any time. And you do have to plan ahead in this one. However, I think Murano alleviates that paralyzing tendency. Namely, while strategy is definitely present – as is sticking with it a requisite – it’s at least not terribly deep enough to cause a brain freeze. Interestingly, much of it is formulated and developed as you go along, in a sense. The character cards you receive will likely dictate what goals you’ll strive for. The challenge is in meeting those conditions via the ever-changing rondel – what’s available to you or what you can afford to free up. All while managing that tight economy.
So Murano is firmly medium-weight in complexity requiring players to navigate a few steps for any meaningful accomplishment. With the exception of a couple of actions, it’s never about grabbing something and immediately enjoying its benefits – and those two exceptions only involve getting some quick coins in case you’re cash-strapped. Want to generate income? Well, first you need to buy a factory or shop tile. Then on a subsequent action you can build it, placing it on the board. But you won’t earn any profit until selecting a third action which activates one or the other, whichever you decided to construct! At the same time, you’re developing the islands along with your opponents, so what they build is going to affect what you’re laying out. Sometimes they unwittingly aid your cause, while at other moments you’ll be ready to throw them off the wharf. I really enjoy how the design requires piecing those actions together and it’s satisfying when accomplished.
Amidst all of the rondel manipulation and board development, the characters cards play an intriguing and significant role, both in the game play and overall design – perhaps the most important. One, they require just as much gradual build-up to capitalize on. You have to buy them. And each one you acquire is more expensive than the next. Then you must line up the actions in order to meet the specified conditions on the board. And you have to get your gondoliers to the appropriate spots to claim them, which is yet another action. Also, these cards provide most of the points, so you’ll need to plan accordingly to be victorious. Finally, they generate the game’s only amount of randomness (aside from pulling beads when producing glass) and account for its replayability. Not every card will be used from game to game, so you’ll have different goals each session. Now it doesn’t change things tremendously. However, it’s enough to keep each play different and fresh.
Murano is a strong Euro that fits most of the genre’s stereotypes. It is a well-designed game with almost no randomness and a theme that could stand in for just about anything. But what it lacks in immersive game play, it more than makes up with player-driven decisions, opportunity for smart planning and an intuitive rondel that gives the game some fun tension and keeps it moving along at a brisk pace. Murano isn’t going to bowl anyone over, but most players should find weaving its latticework of mechanics and other elements satisfying artwork. It knows its place and lasts about as long as it should, which means this solidly middle-weight title is eloquently shaped and never overblown.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Mayfair Games for providing a review copy of Murano.