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The captain is a one-armed dwarf
He's throwing dice along the wharf
In the land of the blind
The one-eyed man is king...
We sail tonight for Singapore
We're all as mad as hatters here
--- Tom Waits, Singapore (Rain Dogs)
The Purchase: Every game purchase has a trigger - the thing that compelled you to trade your hard earned cash for a box of cardboard and plastic. For me, it was sitting at the table next to the one this game was being played at on two separate occasions. The raucous laughter and obvious high levels of interactivity put this quickly near the top of my list. And as luck would have it, a recent Math Trade brought this game fortuitously to my mailbox. I still had reservations, though, as the 'blind drawing' mechanic threatened (in my mind) to reduce this game to the Pictionary/Cranium shelf.
The Bits: The box is much smaller than I expected (especially for a Splotter Spellen release) but it is beautifully designed. I can't be the only one getting tired of box art representing various people loitering at the shipping docks. These boats are actually represented in the act of delivering (I looked really hard but still couldn't tell if the captains had blindfolds on). Inside the box, there is a beautiful, though admittedly busy-looking map of the world. This map is used only for putting the goods chits on. There are four smaller maps done on white boards that represent the near east (x 2) and the far east (x2) These maps are extremely simplified representations of the geographical areas that they cover, but are perfect for their purpose. The game also has cardboard bits (goods chits, warehouses, year markers, money in dalders), wooden bits (cubes that represent your men - sailors or merchants, depending on where they are placed) and a dry-erase marker for the white-board maps.
The Play: The rulebook does a wonderful job of introducing you to the historical period being represented. Where it fails is in splitting up the basic and advanced rules so that it is very difficult to learn the advanced game. Our group wanted to jump right to the advanced version, forcing us to jump backwards and forwards in the rulebook. We missed the occassional rule and had some early confusion. Checking out the 'Geek, of course, solved all of our problems. I highly recommend downloading the improved rules before attempting to play.
The following describes the Advanced Version of the game (the Basic Game has open contracts):
The players are merchants from Zealand competing with those bastards from Amsterdam in the spice trading markets. Players are forced to cooperate with each other to reach their destinations and fulfill contracts. The mechanics of the game do a good job of forcing this - a lone wolf player's boat is most definitely sunk.
The game is played in 6 phases:
phase 1 --- New Orders: every third year (the 'scurvy' years on the timeline), 3 new contracts come out for the players to bid on. If these contracts are not claimed (not fulfilled, but promised to fulfill) by the next scurvy year, Amsterdam adds it to its pile. These contracts can require 1 - 3 different or like goods and have various payouts/penalties on them.
phase 2 --- Scurvy!: if it is a scurvy year (as designated by convoys on the timeline), then the left-most sailor on each of the four boats is removed. The next sailor becomes the skipper. If the boat is rendered sailor-less, it is sunk.
phase 3 --- Investments: players each take a turn, and then each take another. They may choose one of the following actions:
------ Fitting a Ship: place four men(no less unless you run out of men or spaces to put them) onto one ship. You may split them between sailors and merchants but you must fill the lower numbered spaces first.
----- Bid on Contract: You may bid on a contract by placing a man and a year marker on it, the year marker representing the year you promise to fulfill the contract by. A contract can be claimed by another player if the bid an earlier year.
----- Pass or take back men from a ship still at harbour (this must be where those dock loiterers from the other game boxes come from).
phase 4 --- Sailing!!!: This part is the crux of the game: in order to represent the dangers of sailing these little-known waters, the skipper sails blind. Placing the marker at the starting line (representing the last of the known waters) and closing his eyes, the skipper starts to draw a line to what he hopes will be his destination harbour. Any other player that has a sailor on that ship may yell out one of five instructions (north, south, east, west, stop) for each sailor that he has on that ship. Any illegal or additional instructions are penalized by 5 dalders. The skipper may, at his choosing, stop sailing at any time in order to leave the ship safe for the next turn. If a ship's path should cross land, the other players must yell out Land Ho! loud enough for everyone in the venue to be distracted from their own games and the offending skipper is thrown overboard. The next sailor in line will take over the skippering duties in the following year. If no sailors are remaining, the ship and all of its goods are sunk. A good (or brave but stupid) skipper can choose to sail into a harbour, leave his eyes closed and sail on in an attempt to hasten a journey (maybe you shouldn't have taken that short contract after all). A ship must make it back to the starting line to safely get the goods to Zealand.
After all 4 ships (or at least those with sailors on them) have sailed, this phase is over.
phase 5 - Sales: any contracts that can be met are resolved. It is highly unlikely that a single player will have acquired all of the goods he needs to fulfill an order, so trading amongst players is pretty much essential. Some players may be able to play a successful game without every fulfilling a contract themselves. Any contracts that are due but were not met are penalized at this point.
phase 6 - New Year: the year marker moves up.
The game ends suddenly, when the VOC card (which was set up to be one of the 7 last cards) turns up. The player with the most money will be the winner, as long as he has more money then the cards that Amsterdam has accumulated (regardless, he still has beaten all of the other players and is still qualified to act smug/gloat/sing his own praises).
The Skinny: This game has trading, negotiating, bidding and planning. But let's be honest here - its the blind sailing that makes the game; everything else is there only to justify closing your eyes with a marker in your hand. This is a highly interactive game that can rapidly get loud and boisterous. Though we tend to play deeper, more strategic games, all of the players at our table had a fantastic time with this one. We rapidly learned who made good skippers and who tragically didn't.
There is a lot of fun packed into this little game. It can run a little on the long side - especially since there isn't a lot of meat on the bones - but its definitely worthy of hitting the table again.
Oh, and make sure to remove that nice table cloth. Some skippers be reckless.
Excellent review! I just spent last night punching the game and trying to learn the rules even thoughI have had it for months. I love the theme but it looks like it needs some more strategy for my group to like it. I have 3-4 good ideas to make it the ultimate Spice Trade game I've been dying to find or invent. Thanks for helping clarify the game rules and reaffirming that the game can appeal to deep strategy people.
Love 'em even if a few games get scuttled from time to time.
Yep, I got to try this the other night and had would grew with this.
Our game turned very cutthroat at the end. There weren't that many points to be had, so vicious bargaining replaced the goodwill present early on.