A year or so ago I reviewed Mare Balticum, a really good, fun game, from Leonardo Games. The mechanic which had the players on trawlers in the Baltic catching different types of fish worked very well, but each time I put the game out amongst a few other boardgames for players to choose which to play for the evening it was always left behind. The reasons given were that the cover artwork put them off and thus they never associated the good game with the box cover. At Spiel Essen 2015. last October, Leonardo Games gave me a copy of Magnum Sal for review which at the time I thought was their latest game but now know it to be released the year (2010) before Mare Balticum. I mention all this because my reasons for thinking Magnum Sal was the newer of the two games is that the cover for it is so much better. Having now played Magnum Sal several times my conclusion is that not only is its cover much better than that of Mare Balticum, but the gameplay is much more of a gamer's game.
In this year, 1368, the Polish King, Casimir the Great, established the Statute of the Cracow Salt Mine. Salt is soo valuable it is known as "white gold". MAGNUM SAL has the players in roles as managers of teams mining for salt in the Wieliczka Salt Mine. They have to extract the salt and sell it at market with the player making the most money for the King being named as the Royal Steward.
The main game board shows the main buildings of the Town that are associated with the salt trade. There is the Castle; where the King issues orders for various amounts of the different salt types, the Inn;where players can hire more workers. the Market: this is where players can Buy and Sell (actually Buy or Sell) salt cubes, and the Workshops; where useful tools are on sale. Now although this may look a little like the Pegasus Spiele/Eggertspiele game "The Village" the mechanic is actually quite different, though I suppose a good way to describe Magnum Sal is to say it could be the delinquent offspring of a union between "The Village" and "Coal Baron" (Eggertspiele/RnR Games).
Leading off the centre of the bottom edge of the board a mineshaft is laid. This is a single long tile that is split into sections of the mineshaft, used for up and down movement between the mine tunnels and the Town. The tunnels are made up of separate tiles that at the beginning of the game are turned face down and semi-randomly distributed in a specific shape (like a TV aerial) 4 tiles either side of the shaft one step down, three tiles either side of the shaft leading from the 4th step down and finally two tiles either side at the bottom of the shaft. I say semi-randomly because the 8, 6 and 4 tiles that are used for the tunnels are marked on their flip sides as I, II and III denoting where they can be placed - it is the order they lie in that is random.
The tunnel tiles are not flipped up until a worker is moved onto them. As soon as a miner is moved onto the tile it5 is flipped over and the appropriate cubes, as shown on the tile, are placed on it. These may be Brown cubes that represent barrels of the cheapest grade of salt. Green cubes that represent average value salt or, found on the two lower tunnels only, the valuable White salt. Nearly every tile will also be given Blue (sea water) cubes which have to be removed to allow the extraction of the salt. You need at least one more men in the tunnel than there are Blue cubes to extract Salt. So for instance, if there are 2 Blue cubes and 2 Brown cubes and 1 Green cube to extract all of the salt (2 brown and 1 green) a player would need 5 men, the other two pumping out the water. However many men are used by a player in the tunnels they become tired; all fatigued meeple miners are laid down. Part of the clever players tactics will be to know how to utilise their men to the best possible actions and only spending a full turn to Rest, this is when fatigued miners are stood back up - players have two actions per turn and must give up both actions to Rest their miners.
Play is in clockwise order from the Start player and each player can do 2 Actions on their turn, with the exception of the First player on their first turn as they are only allowed one action while all other players have two. This is to help balance the possible advantage of going first. For example one of the actions available is to visit the Inn and buy a new worker. The cost of buying workers goes up after the first one and there is a limited number of extra workers available each phase. Some of the possible actions may be taken twice but they may players may never visit the same building in the Town twice in the same turn. There are only 3 phases in a game so in a 4 player game one player will never go first and thus may be at a disadvantage; this is when experienced players skills come into play. There is a tendency for players going first to grab the extra player as their first action on their first turn because it is the cheapest, or to place an assistant in the castle because it is going to be worth 5 coins by the end of the turn if they can afford to leave it there.
Some, but not all, of the buildings in the town, have a space for an assistant. Basically this is a worker who stands there throughout the turn and gains 1 coin every time that building is visited. Depending on how the game is going the assistant can be valuable or it can be a waste of a worker. Although the game is semi-reset at the end of each phase - all workers leave the town and the mine, orders and tools remaining are removed and replaced and salt may or may not be added to the market - the extra workers you have bought stay with you, thus it is generally a good idea to have as many extra workers as you can before entering the third and final Phase.
Magnum Sal is a game of so many options and so little actions. It is cleverly worked out and uses resources brilliantly.Take Mining for instance. Players not only have to have the men in place to extract the ore (cubes) and remove the water, they also have to have an unbroken line of miners to the town from the tunnel. Obviously with miners at a premium it is highly unlikely that a single player will be able to extract salt and immediately get it to the surface on their own. Therefore the unbroken line of miners can belong to all players, the only downside is that the player extracting the mine has to pay 1 coin per cube per miner in the line who doesn't belong to them; there is no bartering or honour system and nor can you give salt cubes in place of cash. The game is a fascinating system of actions, planning and doing what's right for you above doping the dirty on another player, at least most of the time.
Tools cost 3, 4 or 5 coins depending on where they lie in the market. If the 3 is bought the others slide down one and another tool is added in the 5 spot. Tools are one shot per phase and are turned face down once used and turned face up when the reset occurs. There is some luck in when the tools come into play and at what cost, but overall the game doesn't rely on luck but on seeing several moves ahead and planning and plotting your way towards the goals you have set for yourself. Orders do not cost any money but to claim the VPs associated to them you have to collect and give up the required salt in the necessary quantities. The higher VPs are found in the lower levels of the Orders stack and towards the end of the game you may well see the lead on the VP track changing often as players who have stock-piled cubes now do their best to get to the castle and grab the higher valued contracts. If you have a worker on the track to the Castle you must have the correct salt cubes to fulfil a contract at the start of your turn. If you do not, because you made a mistake or because the contract was taken by someone else, then you have to pay a fine.
There are minor variations on play for two or three player games and even a "mapped mine" variant where the tiles that make up the tunnels are face up from the start of the game. Once you have played the game as it is supposed to be played over and over, many times, and maybe find that you are then playing each game almost to a formula then there are all manner of ways you can try out. For example, it is also possible to simply shuffle the tiles and distribute them without taking note of the number on their flip side so that White salt/all salt might be found on any level. Of course this makes the Mines totally random, but it also changes the way players approach the game, especially if you keep the contracts/orders in their proper order. Of course you could randomise them also, but when we tried it the game became all about luck and we weren't keen on it.
MAGNUM SAL is a clever game for 2-4 players, though we figure 3 is the optimum number (as already mentioned that way every player gets to go First once), and it can be played through in about 90 minutes, though it will probably take just over the 2 hours for your first game and perhaps just a little less for your second. After two games you should be pretty well up on the possibilities for all the Actions and Buildings which makes your planning and thinking for each turn take just that little bit less time. Magnum Sal is for players who like to plan, don't mind a little luck, and enjoy management and resource games.
This pic shows the board and the mine just after set up and a couple of turns of play. Top left (as you view) on the board you can see the Contracts (or Orders) and top right are the available Tools and the stack of Tools cards. There are workers in the mine shaft and five of the tunnel tiles have been investigated and mined (the workers are laying down flat).
These two pictures show the same board and mine a little closer.
A little later into the game you can see that the player to the right of the board has accumulated 4 tools cards.
The miners have gone further down and into the second tiewr of tunnels where there are more valuable salt cubes and a lot more water. The Orange worker is about to fulfil a contract. They need either 2 Green cubes to get 13 VPs or a Green cube and a White cube to gain 17 VPs.
The bottom of the mine has been reached and breached. Water floods in and here we see it being equal to the amount of salt. The solo Orange worker cannot extract any salt without help.