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VOC! Founding the Dutch East Indies Company» Forums » Sessions

Subject: VOC Session Report rss

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J. R. Tracy
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New York
New York
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We finally got a chance to try this navigation game, known as either VOC ('Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie') or Naar de Oost! ('To the east!'). Each player represents a merchant from the Zeeland town of Middleburg, trying to compete with Amsterdam for exotic commodities from the far east. The commodities include nutmeg, cinnamon, tea, coffee, cloth, cloves, and pepper.

Every three turns a set of contracts are drawn from a deck - each represents a number and quantity of commodities that must be fetched back to Middleburg in order to collect a certain amount of money. When a player chooses a contract, he also picks a year by which time he promises to fulfill it; failure to do so incurs a penalty, usually about half the completion value. Contracts vary widely - cloth is easy to get, with an accessible port loaded with four cloth tokens, but cloth contracts don't pay much. Pepper has a better payout, but the pepper tokens are strung out one per port along treacherous straits. Tea is a big ticket item, but the round trip to China is no picnic.

Players have at their disposal four ships, two for the Indian Ocean and two for the Pacific Ocean. The trick is the ships are usually crewed by several players, creating a cooperative element. In crewing a ship, a player alternates between merchant spaces and sailor spaces, and can only place four pieces in a given action (with two allocation actions per year/turn). With six merchie and six sailor spaces, a typical ship sails with three players each with four pieces committed.

After contracts are claimed and ships fitted, the real fun begins: sailing to the east! The last player to place a sailor is the captain, and his shipmates offer navigation advice. The ships are sailed by having the captain trace the path using a dry-erase pen on a glossy map of the relevant ocean. 'How hard can that be?', you might ask. Well, pretty hard - because the captain has his eyes closed. His shipmates are allowed one instruction per sailor they have aboard - legal instructions are 'north', 'south', 'east', 'west' (bet you didn't see that one coming) and 'stop'. If the ship bangs into a landmass, the open-eyed players call out 'land ho!' and the ship loses the captain. Should the ship lose all its crew, it sinks along with any commodities aboard; the only solace is the players get their crewmen back and the ship is immediately available next turn for a fresh journey. Ah, ships at sea face one further hazard - every three turns scurvy strikes and claims a sailor aboard each ship. In sum, it's a hazardous enterprise.

Our game was a museum-quality spectacle of sound strategy and crisp execution, right up until the first gamepiece was played. I claimed a contract for coffee, available in friendly Mocca, on the Red Sea, a mere 3/4" past the straits of Bab el Mandeb. 'Piece of cake', I think to myself, and figure I can get it done in four years. Sheeyah, right. I'm joined on my journey by Dan and David, looking for cloves and cinnamon between them, available over in Malabar and Ceylon. By game end, this particular trip was known as The Voyage of the Damned.

Chris chooses to chase some cloth in Bengal, and Dutch, Chris and I launch a pepper expedition to Indonesia.

Our Indian Ocean journey has a promising start, but we take three years (and a sailor) to negotiate the Bab el Mandeb coming and going. That leaves us with a small disagreement on the quarterdeck - I need to get back home before my contract expires, but David needs to get to Ceylon because *his* contract expires the next year. Dan is captain, and finds my argument (and a 60% cut of my contract) more persuasive. David takes this in stride, crossing Dan off his Christmas card list and promising an interesting sailing experience should he succeed to the captain's post. Dan, with only my one command to work with, sails for home. I expend my one instruction with 'south' to get him pointed toward the finish line. Dan approaches the line...and stops a quarter inch short and turns north! I think he's just messing with David and David thinks he's betraying me. Eyes firmly shut, still sailing, Dan turns south again...and stops once more, still a quarter inch short of home, and opens his eyes. He pulled off the double - my contract expires worthless (well, actually with a five point penalty to me) and David is still pissed off! Sweet!

Meanwhile, Chris sails off to Bengal...alone! Yes, eyes closed, he sweeps north through the Indian Ocean and deftly pulls up a half inch or so short of port. He manages to complete this route two more times, one of them also solo, and so this is christened the Greenfield Passage.

Our pepper voyage is dicey and involves at least one "East! No, I mean West!" incident. Despite that, we cruise in with only one inadvertent landfall.

Over the course of the game, the Voyage of the Damned takes about nine years, Dutch leads an epic journey to China and back, Chris manages his aforementioned Bengal trifecta, and I twice give illegal commands. We also have a memorable simultaneous double command, where David says "South" just as I shout "Stop!" - two commands wasted. I'll leave it to you to guess which particular ship suffered that little beauty.

By around turn ten or so, the contracts run out and the game ends. Dutch wins, with about 44 points, with David coming in the high 30s, Dan in the low 30s, Chris near Dan's level, and me wallowing in the mid 20s. All told, it was a blast. The game has some massive holes, and Dan's tweaking of the contract phase might need another look, but the sailing is a total hoot and rightly the focus of the game. There is also some strategy involved with resource commitment - scoring hte choice seats on a ship and also possibly stealing contracts (by promising to bring them in earlier). With the right players in the right frame of mind, this game is a treat. If you like your hatches tightly battened, though, look elsewhere. I would be happy to try this again some time.
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Roy Hasson
Israel
Kfar Saba
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Excellent session report.

Could you explain some more about the rules holes, and how to "plug"
them?
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J. R. Tracy
United States
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New York
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mogli43 wrote:
Excellent session report.

Could you explain some more about the rules holes, and how to "plug"
them?


Roy, as it happens I'll be getting together tonight with a couple of guys who also enjoy the game - we'll give it some thought and I'll try to post a summary in the next couple of days.

JR
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Luish Moraes Coelho
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It seems that J.R.´s plans of talking about rules holes have been lost somewhere in the deep ocean. Or are they floating around inside some bottle?
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