Sunday, 21 June 2009


Indonesia is the most expensive game that I have ever bought. It is a niche game. Small publisher (Splotter from the Netherlands), complex game (well, to be precise, a complex Eurogame), really targeted for the hardcore gamer. In the past I probably would not have bought it. Unfortunately I find that my game-buying habit could not resist the permeation of my wife's logic - "you work so hard, you should pamper yourself a little". I have even pre-ordered Martin Wallace's Automobile. This was the first time I initiated a pre-order by myself. So I now tell myself - buying games is not about the cost. It's about buying games that you will play and will enjoy. So I try to be selective about games that I buy, one gauge being that I expect to play them at least 5 times in the first year, but I don't think too much about the price now.

Indonesia is an economic game, about expanding your companies and meeting the demands of cities, about setting up shipping routes to deliver the goods, and very importantly, about the acquisitions and mergers of companies. You win by being the richest at game end. There are three eras in the game, and in each era there are a number of companies of different types that can be acquired. The era usually ends when there are no more companies to be acquired. Acquiring companies in this game is actually free. I guess it actually symbolises you starting a company. The interesting part is the mergers. These are the bold strategic moves that can win or lose you the game, whilst the expansion and operations of your companies are more tactical and incremental in nature.

To give an overview of how mergers work, the R&D (Research & Development) aspect needs to be explained. There is a "slot" technology that determines how many companies you can own. There is a "merger" technology that determines the maximum number of company deeds that can be involved in a merger you propose. Every company starts as one with a single company deed. When two such companies merge, they become one company with two deeds. If this larger company merges with another single-deed company, the merged company will be a 3-deed company. So you cannot propose a merger that involves 3 deeds, if your "merger" technology is not at level 3. You also cannot propose a merger if you do not have a free slot. However, one interesting thing is, you can propose the merger of two companies even if neither are owned by you. This means it is possible for you to take over two companies owned by your opponents in one go! When a merger is proposed, noone can prevent it. The companies will be merged, and the question is only who will own it. All players, including the former owners, must have cash in order to bid for the merged company. If you own one of the former companies, let's say one that was 9 times bigger than the other merged company, you can't just pay some spare change to buy over the other smaller former company. You need to have enough cash to afford the whole of the merged company. After the merged company is won by a player, the bid is paid to the two former owners, according to the ratio of the previous company sizes.

The supply and demand of the game is also interesting. At the start of each era, the players get to place some new cities. Cities are your sources of demand. A city of size 1 demands 1 of every type of good that is available on the board. Cities of size 2 and 3 demand 2 and 3 of each type respectively. If a city is fully supplied, it grows one size. Players can manipulate whether cities grow by supplying or not supplying certain goods to them. One interesting thing about meeting demand is if there is demand, and you have the ability to meet it, you must meet it, even if you will make a loss from the business transaction. Why a loss? It's because when you ship a product, you must pay the shipping company. Sometimes the money you earn from selling your product is not enough to cover the shipping cost. Hey, that reminds me of how expensive shipping boardgames from USA to Malaysia is. Because of this "must supply" rule, sometimes you'd rather not expand your company (to produce more goods). Turn order is also important because if there is another player producing the same goods as you, you may want to ship first, so that you can choose to fulfill the demand of cities nearer to your production company, or you may simply want to be able to sell your products (when overall demand is less than supply). However, you may also want to ship your goods last, because you may be hoping that your opponent will be forced to ship to those ulu-ulu (distant / rural) places, so that you won't be forced to do the same because the demand at such places has been fulfilled.

Indonesia set up and ready to go. The table on the bottom left shows turn order and technology level. The large square tiles are the companies available to be acquired (to me it feels more like companies that you can start).

The transparent green, yellow and red beads are cities of sizes 1, 2 and 3 respectively. The small yellow tokens are two different rice companies. The expansion of a company is blocked by other companies and by cities, and of course also by geography.

This was the start of Era B (the new companies that become available have a "b" on the bottom right of the company deed tiles). The types and mix of companies available at each era change.

Close-up. The red tokens are Siap Faji - microwave meals. Siap Faji companies are the result of a special type of merger, between a rice company and a spice company.

So there are quite a few interesting mechanisms to consider in this game. I quite like it. So far I have only played one game, and it was a 2-player game. 2-players is not a very good way to play the game. The ideal number of players is supposedly 4 players (the game officially supports 2 to 5). In our game, the companies merged and grew to be very large. Because they were so big, it was a pain in the neck managing the operations of the companies. This is a game with many pieces, and with a lot of physical work to do. You need to keep flipping tokens back and forth. This is too much work for 2 players. The count of tokens and the number of companies on the board will probably be about the same no matter how many players you have. So having 2 players do 4 players' work is tiring. And slow. I think we spent about 4 hours, and still hadn't finished the game. It would probably be over the next turn, but Michelle was just too tired to go on and conceded defeat.

The game is actually not all that complex. You can go through one round quite quickly. It's the operations part of the game that can really slow down and drag. There are many interesting decisions to be made throughout the game. The evaluation of companies is interesting. But this is a game that the publisher would be justified to include a calculator in the box. When merger time comes, because the increment in bid must be a multiple of the number of tokens of the merged company, a calculator will really come in handy, especially when you have company sizes like 13. Some people think Power Grid needs a calculator, which I disagree. It's just addition. In Indonesia, you have multiplication.

One complaint I have is Sabah is ugly. Sabah is my home state, and is a part of Malaysia, not Indonesia. Sabah is the north eastern province of the Borneo Island, the big central island on the board. If you compare it to a real map, it looks nothing like the real thing.

On a more serious note, what many people have complained about - the poor usability design - is quite true. Some spaces are too small. Given that you need to do so much token flipping, the board should be designed to be more practical. It does look good, but usability could have been better.

So will Indonesia meet my 5-games-in-first-year-of-purchase target? It may not, simply due to the ideal number of players being 4. Michelle didn't like Indonesia, at least not with 2 players, because it was just too tiring. In the same amount of time we could have finished a game of Through the Ages with an hour plus to spare. Is Indonesia worth the money I paid for it? I think so. I think so, because I do quite like it. However it'll probably be like Die Macher and the Axis & Allies games - something that I'll get to play only once in a long while, but I'd really enjoy those games. Can you find other games of about the same style and complexity that have the same fun level, but are cheaper? That's a definite yes. So, to buy or not to buy, I guess that depends on your personal criteria.

Other expensive niche games that I know of include Planet Steam and Antiquity. They both sound like games I'll like. I'm hoping Planet Steam will be republished and will become cheaper. I doubt Antiquity will be republished, and the cost being probably double that of Indonesia, I don't think I will buy it. I don't have a money printing machine at home yet.

21 Jun 2009. Correction: I mean to say Antiquity, and not Roads and Boats, in the paragraph above.

1 comment:

Aik Yong said...

I think someone in my group has this, hope to try it soon!