By Andrew Joyce
This review is a summary of an audio review by Get on Board. Click here for the full audio review (from episode #12) ›
No, this title is not a telegraphing of my emotions about the game – instead, “Mottainai” literally means “What a waste!” in Japanese. It’s kind of an odd thing to name a game, but that’s the way the monk rumbles. Mottainai is a “spiritual” successor to Glory to Rome, and it’s definitely more available than it’s older brother! Let’s see if it’s as good as the original:
In Mottainai, you play as a group of Buddhist monks, competing to assemble the best gift shop in the monastery. You’ll accomplish this by building works, which are cards from the deck which grant you special powers. Every card is multi-use, so you’ll use the same deck to hire helpers in your gift shop, support and cover works, and conduct actions each turn.
Every morning, you’ll play a card from your hand, which sets the action you will take. Then, you’ll have a chance to follow each other player’s action from last turn, and finally, you’ll get to do the action you played down. The cards in Mottainai are multi-use, so they can be an action at one time, a work at another time, and support and helpers at still other times.
The goal is to build five works in your gift shop, after which you’ll total up points, hand out a few bonuses for backorders, and pat the winning monk heartily upon the back!
I’m going to steamroll right into the tragedies about this game, and boy, there are a few. First off, let’s address the theme. You play as monks designing artifacts to sell in a gift shop? Your monks can pick up artifacts off the floor? You have a display wing…oh, and also another display wing? You can ‘cover’ some of your artifacts with extra materials that you store – OK, I’ll cover this shuriken with some stone. That’ll bring in the sales!
There’s no thematic connection here – worse than that, the theme actually detracts from the mechanics, because it muddies the reasons you’re even manipulating all these cards. Mottainai has a few compelling mechanical ideas, but they’re not tied to a theme that makes any sort of sense. So as far as theme goes, Mottainai is a big swing-and-miss.
Second, Mottainai has a few issues with those mechanics. At the core, yes, this is a very similar game to Glory to Rome (we’ll review that next week!), but some key elements have been changed. Mottainai has a 54-card deck, every card of which is unique. For a game that features game-breaking powers on each card, this puts a huge amount of your strategy up to luck of the draw. So your opponent drew the Shuriken, and he stole one of your buildings? How sad! The randomness of the card draw could be all right if you had enough time to build a tactical engine up based on the cards you draw, but that’s the final sin of Mottainai – it’s over way too quickly.
There’s value in simplicity, but Mottainai feels unfinished more than anything. It’s stunningly simple to build five buildings in the lick of time, and all those crazy game-breaking abilities that seem so interesting (luck notwithstanding) play hardly any factor in the outcome. Sure, it’s cool to use an ability once or twice to do something cool for yourself, but you’re definitely not building an engine or finding cool combos between cards in Mottainai – there’s just not enough time.
This game does have a few things going for it, though. It is, after all, a direct descendant of Glory to Rome! The action selection and multi-use cards have survived, and these remain one of the more satisfying elements of the design. Chudyk even worked in a few innovations on Glory to Rome, such as forcing you to wait a turn to follow your opponents.
This changes the dynamic of the game, and it makes you think about what other players are doing, what they will be doing in the future, and how you can avoid giving them free assistance. When I play Mottainai, at least I care what the other players are doing.
There’s also still a possibility for game-breaking zaniness to break out. Though Mottainai is much shorter, and the crazy combos will be rarer, you can still land some satisfying 1-2 punches. It’s just that you don’t often have the time to set up an elaborate combo, because one of your opponents will probably just end the game before you have time to unleash your engine.
Mottainai does have one big advantage over Glory to Rome, and that’s the fact that it’s currently in print. And to be fair, most readers will probably only ever approach this game in isolation from its older sibling. But I can’t separate the two in my mind. Mottainai is a direct descendent of the venerable Glory to Rome.
Unfortunately, not all of the DNA has transferred seamlessly, and Mottainai is a different game in places. I found that Mottainai muddied the waters of a great card game, introducing extra bookkeeping and stripping out so much of what made the original satisfying.
For an opportunity to have a sequel to my favorite game still in print, and available today, Mottainai is – regrettably – “what a waste!” A forgettable theme, muddied mechanics, and an unsatisfying game arc make Mottainai a hard pass from me.