Review: Magnum Sal

Posted by James (admin) on July 12th, 2011

Magnum Sal was a game that caught my attention just before last year’s Spiel in Essen as I like worker placement games; however, I never got to play it and, until recently, kept missing opportunities to do so at one of my regular groups.  Magnum Sal is a game about Polish salt mining – yes, you can’t beat it for having a theme that makes it different to other games.

Each player starts with a few miners which they can use to either go into the mine or they can be an assistant at a town building.  Each turn, players take turns taking 2 actions each (place workers, use building, extract salt).  The goal is to make as much money as possible (primarily by mining salt).  There are two distinct areas of the game: the town and the mine.

In the town, the player can use buildings to: buy tools (special one-use abilities and money at game end), hire extra workers, visit the palace (to fulfil a contract for lots of cash), pump water out of a mine (making it easier to get the salt out), use the market, etc.  Also, most town buildings have space for one worker so that they get income each time any player uses that building.

Most workers, however,  get used in the mine – brown salt is the worst, green salt is average and white salt is the best – and the better salt is lower in the mine which usually takes more workers to extract and transport.  If a player wants to extract salt they can remove a number of cubes equal to the number of their workers on the relevant tile minus the number of water (blue cubes); however, they also need to pass it up the line of miners to the surface and must pay other players if they are using their opponents miners for any assistance in this transporting.  So, a miner can be a good source of income if they are used to transport a lot of other players’ salt.

Once a player has salt on the surface, they can sell it at the market but will mainly use it to fulfil contracts at the palace as these pay out good amounts of cash if you have the specified combination of salts.  However, a player can only fulfil a contract if they have a worker who has waited long enough at the palace to be seen so timing that worker’s arrival with having the right salts can be critical and other players can upset your plans if they get there first.

The game takes place over 3 phases.  Each phase ends when at least 5 contracts have been completed at which point all miners are withdrawn from the mine and town.  The player with the most cash wins.

I enjoyed Magnum Sal as I found there were some difficult decisions to be made and getting the most out of your 2 actions felt appropriately restrictive so choices and planning were important.  There were a few occasions when I didn’t have much I could do on a turn towards the end of a phase (especially the final phase) but not very often.

You are able to plan between turns but other players’ actions can mean you need to re-think your actions when it gets to your go as only then do you know for sure what you have to work with; however, players susceptible to analysis paralysis may need to be prodded to ensure the game keeps its pace.  There were some moments that felt quite tense as you waited to see if other players would do something that would upset your master plan (which are always good signs for a game).

There is a fair amount of interaction but it’s mostly passive, i.e. fulfil a contract, extract salt or buy a tool before someone else can.  There are a few interactions such as moving water cubes from one mine tile to another which can directly affect other players but these are the exception.  This is why you can plan your future actions between turns but it also means it’s difficult to actively hinder any players who are doing well.

I like how the game resets a bit each phase as it ensures the game doesn’t stagnate and players have a chance to do things differently.  Next time, I’d play with the mine tiles face-up, rather than hidden, to reduce the luck element as these are laid out randomly and you can end up spending an action to explore a tile that doesn;t have the type of salt you really want.

I’m not sure I can pinpoint any unique game mechanics that make Magnum Sal different to any other game but the combination of available actions work well and the costs seem well-balanced.  It seemed to be quite a long game and I think the 90-minute estiamte on the box for 4-players is a bit optimistic unless all players know the game very well.  So, in the end, Magnum Sal is a solid worker-placement game which I liked, enjoyed and would definitely play again, but there are some other worker placement games that I prefer.


[Played with 4 players]

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