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Darrell Hanning
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This review originally published in Boulder Games Game Notes #14

In the seas of the blind, the sailor with one eye kicks butt.

Splotter Spellen, a gaming company in Arnhem, Netherlands, developed something of a cult status with Roads and Boats. After all, how many games start the players with donkeys and geese, and end with them building currency mints? Roads and Boats is a little strange, even by European standards, but should be a mandatory experience for anyone who ever has to plan projects involving time-dependencies.

VOC! is the latest fare from Splotter Spellen, and has its own charming element of quirkiness. VOC! is not meant as an acronym (and if treated as such, should be pronounced most carefully). Instead, it stands for Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or Dutch East Indies Company. The game puts the players in the roles of investors and sailors from Zealand, one of the competitors to Amsterdam in the seventeen years prior to the formation of the Dutch East Indies Company. The players will claim goods delivery contracts, outfit ships, and attempt to cooperate in obtaining those goods, and bringing them home.

“Attempt” and “cooperate” are very much the words of the day, in VOC!. Attempt, because unlike other European games that look like it coming out of the box, this one relies in part on the dexterity and spatial perception abilities of the players. Cooperate, because like many other European games which it also resembles, without cooperation you are toast.

The board appears to be the reproduction of a period map, of the Indian Ocean and western Pacific, ranging from Saudi Arabia to New Guinea. On this map there are ten ports at which various goods are available. The fundamental object of the game is to get the proper goods back to Middelburg, Zealand, fulfill those contracts you have claimed, and in doing so make more money than the other players, by the end of the game. The main obstacle in this is the concept that you cannot navigate the seas without the cooperation of the other players. This reminds me of a similar concept found in Die Hanse, one of the first of the “Euro-style” games I bought.

One of the most humorous situations I have observed in recent years is the pitting of the average American gamer against a European game system requiring player cooperation. This dichotomy of philosophies is probably no more pronounced than in the case of American wargamers – and particularly young wargamers – confronted with the unpalatable task of (gasp!) cooperating. In this, RPGers probably have something of an advantage, if you can get them to play this game at all. They, at least, are accustomed to “traveling” in “hearty bands”, at least until such point that they think they can stab each other in the back, and run with the dragon’s treasure. But I have yet to see a game in which cooperation is crucial to the degree it is in VOC!

In addition to the game board, you’ll find beginner and advanced rules, 10 wood cubes each in 5 colors (representing players’ merchants and sailors), goods markers, contract year markers, money markers (thankfully of different sizes for each denomination) warehouse markers, contract cards, a high-quality, fine-point, erasable marker, and four little wipe-off boards that make the game so deliciously different.

On the game board, there are holding boxes for the contents of four merchant ships – the Woestduyn, the Liefde, the Hart, and De Maen. Not exactly Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria, but these brave vessels are all you get. (They do have one advantage over other ships, however, in that when they sink, they’re available again on the next turn!) The Woestduyn and Liefde are navigated on the two wipe-off boards showing the western half of the game map. The Hart and De Maen are likewise restricted to the eastern half of the game map, shown on their respective wipe-off boards.

In the basic game, sailors and merchants are assigned by the color-coded squares found on each ship's holding box. In the advanced game, the players are given more freedom in assigning their personnel. Either way, there will be a row of sailors along the top of a ship’s holding box, and a row of merchants along the bottom. The leftmost player cube in the sailor row is the Captain of the ship. The leftmost player cube in the merchant row has the first option to pick up goods in a port.

Once a ship is “outfitted” with crew and merchants (or, in the advanced game, when the Captain feels he has enough men on board), the fun begins.

The Captain of a ship is given the wipe-off board for that ship, and the erasable pen. He places the pen at a start bar marked near the bottom (or “south” end) of the board, and closes his eyes. (Yes, you heard me right, he closes his eyes.) He then has the responsibility of blindly drawing a course on the map to one or more of the ports, without intersecting a coastline (crash) or going off the map. How does he do this you ask? Well, for every sailor on the ship that another player has, that player may call out a direction once. This direction can be one and only one word, from the list of “East”, “West”, “North”, “South”, or “Stop”. So, if Fred is the Captain, and Kevin has two sailors on board, and Patricia has two sailors on board, then Fred will draw the ship’s course with his eyes closed, and Kevin and Patricia will each be able to call out directions on two occasions. Fred can choose to stop drawing anytime he wishes – and this is almost always a prudent thing to do.

Considering the plethora of islands found in the west Pacific, this blind-but-slightly-informed navigation routine means ships can and will run aground – particularly for those new to the game. Whenever a ship does run aground, the left-most sailor on board (aka, the Captain) falls off, and the piece is returned to the owner. If this happens enough, the last sailor on board will fall off, and the ship sinks, taking all the merchants (and any goods they may have) to the bottom. As players gain experience with this exercise, they’ll learn such things as drawing more slowly, so people can help them better, and also learn to stop on their own sometime shortly after the last assistance is provided.

Provided a ship reaches one of the circles depicting a port on the ship’s navigation board, then the ship is considered to arrive at that port. It’s even possible for a Captain to manage to draw to more than one port on a turn, though I’ve personally only seen that happen once. Once the Captain stops drawing, merchants on board the ship obtain commodities from any ports reached during that move, starting with the first port reached, and with the left-most merchant on the ship. Each merchant can only “carry” one good back to Zealand, and may not exchange for a different good at a subsequent port, so a player must choose carefully. Alternatively, players are free to discuss trades, such as I’ll take tea back for you, if you’ll trade it for pepper when (if) this ship gets home.

Once the Captain has “turned the ship around” and is heading home, he must strive to cross a “bar” drawn near the bottom of the navigation board. This bar crosses less than half the width of the board, so beginners may wish to assume that the bar crosses the entire board, at least for the first few games.

In the advanced game, there is a year marker for each turn (1585-1602) in the game. When a player claims a contract, he must use one of the available year markers in doing so. If another player believes he can deliver the contract sooner, than he or she is free to snap up the contract from the current holder, and place an earlier year’s marker on it. (Kind of like Name That Tune.) So, if things are looking good for your own contract, it probably behooves you to “upgrade” your claim to an earlier year of fulfillment.

Contracts can also be fulfilled by cooperating players, and the profits split per whatever they agreed upon. Indeed, one viable strategy for the game is to pursue sharing of contracts with multiple players (though not too many with any one player), as this insures that multiple players will have a vested interest in the success of the pertinent voyage or voyages.

What contracts are not claimed by the players are snapped up by “Amsterdam” – a space on the game board representing Zealand’s main competition during this period. Whatever contracts Amsterdam claims, Amsterdam completes, and their contracts are totaled at the end of the game. It is therefore conceivable that “Amsterdam” defeats all the players.

The other difference in the advanced game is that players are not required to outfit ships based on the color-coding of the sailor and merchant boxes. The ship needn’t be completely manned to leave port, either. This adds an element to the game which is welcome in that it seems more consistent with the theme – your fortune being more dependent on mustering sufficient enthusiasm in others to co-sponsor the endeavor.

VOC! has a different feel than even most European games, thanks to the party-game-atmosphere, blind-drawing element. Not everyone will appreciate this element, and if you find yourself amidst a pack of uncooperative gamers, the overall impression of the game can be on the negative side. VOC! revolves around this concept, and if the game has a failing, it is perhaps a lack of other elements to augment the experience. In an eerily appropriate comparison, Reiner Knizia’s Merchants of Amsterdam has the Dutch auction clock providing an element of dexterity and levity, yet there are plenty of other considerations to occupy the players – enough that some dispense with the clock-based auction mechanism altogether. VOC! is perhaps too dependent upon its gimmick. I suspect it will be a game with a small but faithful following. I, for one, am willing to play it at a moment’s notice, but I know that some of my fellow gamers who have tried it are not of the same mind.

And if VOC! sounds to you like great fun when served with alcohol, just remember – friends don’t let friends draw drunk.

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Wade Broadhead
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Great review I'm sold. I want to sponsor a Spice Trade Theme night and this would be perfect.
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Eric Johnson
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Thank you for a well written and informative review, Darrell. It's much appreciated and has helped me to decide whether to but the game.
 
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