By now you will probably have noticed that Mississippi Queen is a game about boats – paddle wheel steamers, to be precise – and their movement. As a matter of fact, that’s pretty much it if all you are looking for is the basic playing principle. Then again, you might as well call an iPhone ‘oh, just something to with which you can dial a number and call someone’ (although, as a matter of fact, that is indeed possible, at least sometimes). For the curious among you, however, we urge you to read on…
The goal of the game is to navigate your boeple down the Mississippi river without colliding with river banks and islands, and pick up two passengers along the way before a gentle arrival at the docks of your destination – and of course finishing the cruise ahead of the competitors.
Your boeple comes with two paddle-like hex-shaped plastic ‘wheels’ with numbers from 1 through 6 on them – a red one to indicate your speed, while its black counterpart shows your remaining supply of coal.
Having a floating vehicle is fine and dandy, but what you also require for a river cruise is… well, a river. The Mississippi consists of twelve river tiles of identical shape, designed in a way to allow for the next tile to be added either straight ahead, or with a sixty degree turn to either the left or right. New tiles are always added whenever a boat finishes on the last tile that currently forms the river, a die roll deciding how the next tile is placed. On the other hand, tiles are removed from the river once the last boeple has left it downriver. That’s not really relevant in gameplay terms, but in extreme cases the Old Man River might try to cross itself in the course of the game if the old tiles were not removed.
The tiles themselves all consist of 20 hexes, most of them water, but quite a few of them represent islands, with some of the islands donning houses and a corresponding pier to one of the adjacent water hexes. These piers are where the aforementioned passengers come aboard.
At the beginning of the game, the start tile (which has five starting positions) is placed on the table. The river tiles are shuffled, and one random tile is added in the ‘straight’ position. Then players put their boeple onto the start tiles, with the speed indicator at 1 and the coal supply at 6. After this set-up is complete, the player in starting position one goes first, with the other players (this time only) following in clockwise order.
At the beginning of their turn (and only then), the player has the option to adjust the speed of their boeple. Adjusting the speed by 1 is free of costs. If a player wants to change speed by more than one, they have to pay one coal for each further point of speed, both for increasing and decreasing. Therefore changing to from any speed to any other between 1 and 6 is technically possible; however you will run out of coal quickly if you flaunt this option.
Furthermore, each player has one free 60 degree turn in their move. This can be taken at the beginning, during or at the end of the move. Additional turning is possible, but each additional turn also costs one coal.
Thus the boeple take off down the river, and the game board is continuously assembled ahead and disassembled behind them. And while our wheel paddle steamers are not exactly flying the Jolly Roger, competition can be quite fierce on a narrow river.
In each new round, the first thing that needs to be determined is the turn order. The frontmost boeple gets to move first, with the trailing vessels following in order of positions. This becomes a crucial point when more than one player is heading for a pier to pick up a passenger, as jockeying for positions is crucial. On the other hand, the leading boeple will find itself subject to the occasional, very likely plan-crushing jostle.
Oh yes, there is pushing on our Mississippi, and more often than not getting into harm’s way like this can ruin a player’s chances of winning. To push another boeple, all you need is a speed surplus (as jostling will allow you to move one space less than your speed indicator says), and an empty water hex to push the victim to. Therefore, being ahead and moving first is obviously good, but it is not without perils.
As already indicated, collisions mostly occur when players get in line to pick up the required passengers from one of the islands. ‘Passengers’ in this case means little white plastic ladies, who happen to be stranded on the island and in urgent need for a ride. But while they are looking to hitch-hike downriver on any passing ship, they are still ladies, so you cannot expect them to turn stunt-women and jump over to your ship as you steam past at breathtaking speed. No, you obviously have to slow down to speed 1 as you finish your turn on the hex with the pier to actually invite her on board. This means that you will be forced to come to a halt twice during your trip, significantly impeding your progress. (The “little white plastic ladies” could have been “southern belleeples”, just as an example. The missed pun is coming out of this year’s bonus. – The Editor)
Fortunately your competitors have to suffer the same fate, but still: the fact that you will need to slow down for the odd girl along the river bank requires you to choose carefully which island to sail to, and how to best do it without losing too much ground and time. Coal comes in handy as it allows you to break and accelerate more quickly, but overspending tends to prove fatal at the finish.
Dwelling on the topic of the end game, finishing works very much like picking up passengers. Once the final river tile is placed, another roll of the die decides on which side of that tile the finish is placed. This yields three hexes regarded as finishing positions. The first player to finish a turn here – again slowing down to speed 1 is required – takes the glory of victory, the other players aligning to take the remaining positions.
The verdict on Mississippi Queen is a bit tricky. It is an inherently nice game with some very good ideas on movement and game board (i.e. river) set up, and the fact that is a race it certainly holds a competitive factor that is more directly visible than collecting victory points, and therefore has the potential for an exciting game. Also, the rules are straightforward, making both explanation and game time very reasonable. Nice tiles, pieces (especially the paddle wheel-shaped indicators in the boeple merit a few nice words) and the fact that Mississippi Queen was actually honored with winning the Spiel des Jahres honor in 1997 and you would assume that the game is a great way to spend your playtime.
Unfortunately it is not that simply. The game certainly has its moments, and it allows players some influence and interaction. At the same time, one cannot help the feeling that Mississippi Queen is showing its age somewhat, on a number of levels.
For one, the (now almost standard) equalizing factor is missing, which can make the game a painful experience. Unlike other games which feature rules in place to favor players who fell behind early, Mississippi Queen makes hardly any attempt to try and get you back into the hunt. Except for the (mostly negligible bonus) of knowing where the river heads next and where the islands are on the next tiles and thus being able to better plan ahead your cruise, once you fall behind this is usually where you stay.
Therefore, once being pushed aside in an inopportune moment that cause you to lose 2-3 rounds and you can be basically out of the hunt for the win. The pushing mechanism, which comes at no risk for the pushing boeple, also displays too high a possibility for other players to end up as kingmakers.
While such mechanisms are not unique to Mississippi Queen, the players’ options are usually too limited and especially the game time is too short to allow any real catch-up once you are caught out of position or are forced to make a detour, which takes away some of the fun the game could hold.
Overall you get away with the feeling of a solid game, but at the same time you wonder what additional touches or modifications might have been possible that would have made a good game a still better one – especially considering this was the cream of the crop back in 1997.