The Jewel in the Crown

Review of board game Maharaja by Pevans

The basic mechanics of Maharaja are those of a simple wargame: you move units into the same area as an opponent's and roll dice to see who is removed. However, it is much broader and rather more subtle than that. To start with, the good looking map shows the Indian sub-continent from the foothills of the Himalayas to the island of Sri Lanka (aka Ceylon, Serendib). The time period covered by the game runs from the Aryan invasions of 1500 BC to the establishment of the British Raj in the mid-1800s. And the movement of units across the board represents the migrations of peoples as much as battling armies.

This description will no doubt be ringing bells with many of you by now: Maharaja is based on the highly successful Britannia, which dealt with the migrations of peoples into the British Isles from the Romans to the Normans. Maharaja is pretty much the same game system, transferred to a different geography and time period. There are obviously some changes to deal with the different circumstances, but any Britannia player will find that the rules are mostly familiar. What I shall do is cover the new game and add a note for Britannia players.

Following History

The object of Maharaja is to accumulate Victory Points. Each people scores these at specific times in the game for things such as occupying certain territory or removing units from a particular opponent. In this way players are encouraged to pursue historical goals. Each player controls a number of different peoples who come and go in the course of the game - collectively they form that player's faction. For example, the Mauryans appear at the start of the game, but will probably have disappeared by the time the Mughals arrive on the scene. This does mean that you need to play the game a few times to get a feel for how the different factions score their points - until you do, you won't know who's doing well or badly.

Each people comes onto the map - often from outside India itself - and tries to carve out some territory, displacing the previous occupants of the land. This provides a good simulation of the way a people can get pushed out of its original territory into another, be assimilated into another culture, or hang on in the same place for generations because no-one else is interested in their real estate. History of the World does the same sort of thing, too, but with a rather different game system.

The game provides opportunity for both tactical and strategic play on several different levels: trying to get the most points with a particular people or using one people to prepare the way for another member of your faction. At certain points there are major invasions - reflecting a particularly large or fast historical movement of peoples. This usually gives an opportunity to score a lot of points and it's important to take it. Or try to, at least, since the vagaries of the dice mean you may not get what you hope for.

Colonials

The early stages of the game follow this ebb and flow pattern as different peoples spread across the map only to be chased by a new migration. About three quarters of the way through a new element is added when the European powers arrive. They have a big advantage over the locals. Luckily there aren't that many of them, but they can also arm their allies - who are usually (surprise, surprise) from the same player's faction. The final twist in the game is the establishment of the British Raj. In the last couple of turns it becomes to each people's benefit to spread as widely as possible (to hold territory) and then ally themselves with the British (so that they can't be attacked by the British or their other allies). And the whole map goes pink!

Britannia

Players of the older game will be pretty much at home with the rules for this game. There are some changes in the effects of leaders, but the major change is to make the European powers suitably strong in contrast with the Indians. The submission rule allows peoples which have been reduced to a minimum size to submit to others: but only for one turn at a time. What isn't clear is whether submitted peoples score victory points - they can deny other players important VPs by submitting, so to be able to score as well would add insult to injury. The major change is just in having different map, peoples, and goals: you will need to play through a few times to get the hang of it - which I have not yet done.

Finally

Maharaja is not a game for the casual player: it is a long game to play and needs to be played through a few times to understand the whole cycle of what happens in the game. It will be enjoyed by both wargamers and serious hobby games players - the same people who like Britannia. But: I feel that part of the appeal of Britannia was always that it dealt with a history and a geography familiar from schooldays. You could relate the game to King Alfred burning the cakes and the Battle of Hastings, for example. I don't think this is true of Maharaja and I suspect the game will have less appeal because of this. I also found that the additional rules, although there were few of them, made it seem a more fiddly game than Britannia. And I am still left with one question: why can't Avalon Hill spell Maharajah?

Maharaja was designed by Craig Sandercock and published (in the USA) by Avalon Hill (now part of Hasbro). It is for 4 players (with options for 3 or 5) and takes 5-6 hours to play. Pevans rates it 7/10.
This review was originally published in Games Games Games 86, November 1994.

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