Maharaja: The Game of Palace Building in India

Maharaja is a game that doesn’t get a lot of love, especially these days. At one point, it was in the BGG Top 100, but I think it has since been largely forgotten or replaced by newer games. Designed in 2004 by the dynamic duo of Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling, I would consider Maharaja to be a medium-heavy Euro game. The primary mechanics are area control, simultaneous action selection, and a bit of route building, and plays in about 90 minutes.

Maharaja is one of those games that is really not hard once you know how to play, but it has a lot of moving parts to it, which can make it difficult to learn, especially for inexperienced gamers. The goal of the game is simple: be the first to build your seven palaces in the various locales of India. To do this, players must build travel routes that connect cities (where most of the action happens) and villages (stops along the way to cities), build palaces in the cities, and try to have the most influence in each city, especially the one where the Maharaja is.

This brings me to a unique facet of the game: the scoring. This game has no points, but rather each turn is “scored” based on the influence in the city where the Maharaja is, with money being awarded to players in the city, based on who has the most, second most, etc. Each turn, he will move to a new city, with only that city scoring that round. This makes for some interesting strategy, because you need to think about where the Maharaja is currently, but also where he will be in coming rounds. The strategy goes even deeper since the players can potentially reroute his path to make them visit or not visit a certain city. It may be that the Maharaja visits single a city several times in one game, thus scoring the city again and again, or that he never visits a city at all.

The basic flow of play involves players simultaneously and secretly selecting two actions out of a possible 9. The actions usually involve building routes to villages and cities, building structures in cities, especially palaces (the ultimate goal of the game), taking income, switching play order, or changing the Maharaja’s path. I won’t go into extensive detail about these actions, but suffice it to say you have a number of interesting decisions to make in your action selection. You’ll constantly be finding yourself one dollar short, or having another player select a certain action that completely throws off your best-laid plans. Despite its nature as a Euro game, there is definitely some nastiness and player interaction to be found here, even if indirect.

Some people feel that this game has a runaway leader problem, specifically a first-player-always-wins problem. I’m not so sure, and I feel that it ultimately comes down to how everyone plays. Without a doubt, going first is awesome. In the first round, the first player to act does indeed seem to have an advantage, because they can go the Maharaja’s city before anyone can and build the best palace (I forgot to mention, the first player to build a palace in a city gets more influence there than someone who builds there later). Sure, all the other players can probably get there too, but it’s hard to achieve as much influence as the first player, since he/she gets the sweet bonus.

Thus, if everyone just rushes to the city where the Maharaja is, more than likely, the first player will have the most influence at round’s end, meaning they get the most money and are in a better position for the coming round. (Yes, a player may later spend an action to become the first player, but your actions are so limited that it may not seem worth it.) However, if players strategize more long-term, trying to get influence in the Maharaja’s next destination, this rich-get-richer thing doesn’t seem to be such an issue.

However, one major downside to the game is that there can come a point where a player basically has no chance to win. Because the winner is the first to build their final palace, you can think of a player’s built palaces as sort of victory points. Since building a palace is incredibly expensive, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to build more than one per turn. What this can mean, then, is that if I have a round where I don’t get enough income and thus can’t build a palace, but all my opponents can, I am basically one “point” behind. When this happens, it can sometimes stay that way, where I am always behind by one point. In a recent 5-player game, we had a situation where two players were down to their last palace, meaning the game was very likely to end that turn, and the other three of us still had two palaces each. For the three of us that we’re behind, it didn’t feel like our turns mattered. Sure, we could do some kingmaking, but ultimately, there was basically no possibility of victory for us. When this happens, it can spoil the end-game for losing players, because it can feel like a lost cause.

Unlike many Euros where analysis paralysis can really slow a game down, it does not feel that way here. In Maharaja, all players are selecting their actions at the same time, so if there is AP going on (and there will be, especially later in the game), it’s going on for everyone at the same time.

The production quality is high. This is a pretty game. The pieces are nice, especially the glass palaces, the board is laid out in a very straightforward manner, and the player aids are helpful in answering questions. Some new players have felt that the dials on which players select actions can get a bit confusing, since the action symbols can be similar and easily mixed up. Not a huge issue, though, because once players figure out the game, the symbols become much easier to navigate.

Maharaja is a game I would recommend for gamers with some experience with deeper games, especially Euros. There have been novice gamers to whom I have tried to introduce the game, and they just couldn’t wrap their mind around all the symbols, actions, and pieces. I will say that the game does not overstay its welcome, and even with 5 new players, it shouldn’t take more than 90 minutes. (To put it in perspective, on average, this game takes about a half hour less than Power Grid.)

On the whole, I enjoy Maharaja. It is a clever game with some very interesting strategy. It is not without its problems, but it is definitely worth a try if you can find it.

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