Medina is a game of palace building with a nice selection of large and colorful wooden bits. As you play Medina, you get to watch the beautiful 3-dimensional city take shape--very much like Carcassonne: The City.
There are 4 colors of palace pieces (black, brown, orange, gray), white stables, white inhabitants, white walls, and a set of 4 domes for each player in their respective colors. Each player takes their domes, and an equal amount of all the other pieces. These are all kept behind a screen during play to create some element of unknown.
The board starts out empty, except for 4 corner wall towers. The starting player places a single inhabitant on any space except an edge.
In turn, each player places any 2 pieces that are legal to play. Before I discuss the options, I need to define three things:
Palace: A palace is a group of adjacent palace pieces of the same color (and potentially attached stables). Adjacent means horizontal or vertical--not diagonal.
Claimed Palace: A palace is claimed when a player places one of his domes on it.
Completed Palace: A palace is completed when it is claimed, or when there's no room to add any more palace pieces to it.
A player may add the following types of pieces to the board on their turn:
Palace Piece: There may be, at most, one incomplete palace of each type on the board at any time. If you add a palace piece to the board, you must add it to this palace. If there is no incomplete palace of that color, you may place the piece on any legal location, starting a new palace. Palaces must not touch, even diagonally.
Stable: You can add a stable piece adjacent to any palace piece on the board (regardless of owner or completeness) as long as you obey the palace rules. The stable is considered to be part of the palace you add it to.
Wall: You can play a wall piece to extend any wall in either of two directions starting from the corner wall towers. The only restriction is that two opposing walls may never meet.
Inhabitant: You may add an inhabitant to either end of the current line of inhabitants. You may not play an inhabitant adjacent to two other inhabitants (ie no U-turns). If both ends of the line are blocked, you may play on any empty space.
Dome: You may play one of your domes on any unclaimed palace as long as you have not already claimed a palace of that color.
When there is only one player left with domes, that player must place at least one dome per turn. This prevents the situation where one player holds out until the end, and simply waits for other players to grow the final palaces to huge sizes.
Palaces are worth 1 point for each palace piece, each stable, each wall they touch, and each inhabitant they touch.
There are 4 palace bonus tiles: orange-4, brown-3, black-2, gray-1. When a player claims a palace of a given color, if that palace is larger (counting all palace pieces and stables) than all previous palaces of that color, the player takes the bonus tile. As more palaces are claimed or grown (by stables), the tiles can change hands. Palace bonus tiles are worth their numeric value in the final scoring.
There are also 4 wall bonus tiles. Whenever a wall piece is added that touches a claimed palace for the first time, the player owning that palace gets the wall bonus tile for that wall (based on the wall tower number). If a new palace is claimed that is touching a wall, or a claimed palace is grown using a stable to it touches a wall for the first time, that player also receives the wall bonus tile. Wall bonus tiles are worth their numeric value in the final scoring.
A deceptively simple game. At its heart, Medina is a game of chicken. Everyone is helping each other, in a sense, to build all the palaces. Everyone wants to claim the largest of each color. Therefore, no one wants to place that final palace piece that makes a palace too tempting. Remember, since you can place two pieces on your turn, you can add a palace piece then claim it by placing a dome. To balance this out, players will try to grow palaces in restricted areas. Palaces encroach on each other. Inhabitants cut them off.
Palaces can be complete but unclaimed. This occurs when there's no room to add another piece. This is often an effective way to safely play a palace piece: play a palace piece of a different color (or a stable, or an inhabitant) in such a way as to close off all expansion options. Now you can play a palace piece of that color elsewhere, starting a new palace. The completed palace just sits there waiting to be claimed by the poor sod who lost the game of chicken.
If you happen to claim a small-ish palace (say 3-4 pieces), you can sometimes work to keep it in contention for the palace bonus. You can play the next palace piece of that color into a very tight space. I've seen completed palaces of size 1. This reduces the number of palace pieces of that color, and the potential for larger palaces.
Claiming palaces near inhabitants is one way to increase your final score. However, once you do this, the other players are likely to make the inhabitant line turn away from your palace(s). Claiming palaces on the edge can gain you the extra points for touching walls, and perhaps a wall bonus.
Making the inhabitant line dead end (by walking them into a dead end or adding palace pieces and stables) gives you a nice option: you can now play a new inhabitant anywhere on the board. This could be in a location where everyone will be forced to place inhabitants along one of your palaces, or it could be in a location where you will choke up a lot of space for your opponents.
Stables should normally be saved to enlarge your claimed palaces so you can steal the bonus tiles, to make one of your palaces reach a wall, or, less often, for cramping the space on the board.
Walls are the most difficult things to predict or control. If you go for a wall bonus early, another player can simply continue the wall so that it touch their palace, stealing the wall bonus tile. Palaces in the corners of the board are less likely to be able to claim and hold on to wall bonus tiles for this reason. However, if you have a palace in the center of a board edge (particularly the long edges), you will need to use most of your wall pieces to make it connect. The other players aren't likely to oblige.
On a given turn, the decision of which pieces to play and where to play them can become excruciating. Sometimes, you play anything but a palace piece because you can't bear to give away a large palace or to claim one. But you quickly use up your walls and inhabitants, making the pressure increase. Claiming a palace often relieves a lot of this pressure temporarily, but it also does the same for the opponents.
Medina is a fantastic game for the right group. It is very accessible in that it is a very visual game with simple rules, but it is also very abstract. Every choice is vital. If your group enjoys Through the Desert, then Medina is probably a perfect fit.
Components: 10. It just doesn't get any better than this. Large, colorful wooden bits.
Overall: 8.5. A great game to play face-to-face or online. Almost no setup time. Simple play with complex decisions.