Thursday, 20 September 2012


Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

The designer said what inspired this game was the sand drawings of Vanuatu. The locals draw complex single-stroke drawings made of unique patterns. The gameplay has nothing to do with this, but it is quite interesting. Over eight rounds, players explore the islands and seas of Vanuatu, doing various activities to earn money and victory points. You have a boat. You can go fishing, you dive for treasures, you sell fish to make money, you build stalls, you buy locally produced goods to sell overseas, you play tour guide, and of course, you get to draw turtles in the sand. There is a built-in limit to most of these activities. There are only that many tourists in a round (and it varies from round to round), there are only that many spots for stalls, drawings and tourists on an island, and there are only that many treasures and fish to be claimed from a sea zone. Throughout the game new tiles are revealed and added to the board, providing more items for player to fight over, but at the same time the players are also depleting these items. Positioning your boat is important, because most of the actions require your boat to be at the right place, e.g. next to the island where you plan to bring a tourist.

The key mechanism in the game is action planning, which is a form of worker placement. There are 9 actions you can do, but before anyone executes any action, there is an action planning phase. Every player has five action tokens to be placed on the action spaces. You can spread them out thinly over 5 spaces, or you can concentrate, having more than one action token for certain spaces that you are keen about. When it comes to action execution, on your turn, you can execute an action only if you have more action tokens on that action space than everyone else. If you are tied with someone else, then you are considered to have majority only if you are earlier in turn order. When you execute the action, you remove your action tokens, which would allow another player to have majority. If you don't have majority anywhere, you are forced to pick one space to remove your action tokens from without executing the action, i.e. they are wasted. If there are some spaces where you have majority and some where you don't, you must execute an action where you have majority, even if it would be ineffective. E.g. you have placed tokens to fish and to sell fish. If on your turn you have majority in the "sell fish" space but not in the fishing space, you must execute "sell fish" first, even though you have none to sell yet. That's another way of wasting your action tokens.

Turn order is important, because of how it breaks ties when two players have the same number of tokens. Turn order doesn't rotate. If you want to be start player, you need to take an action to claim this privilege. However, being early is not always good and being late not always bad. Let's say you are an earlier player. There may be some spaces where others have majority, and you hope they would take their actions quickly to pass the majority to you. But they may take their sweet time doing other actions, and because you go earlier, you also arrive earlier at the point of running out of spaces to choose from. So you are forced to remove your tokens without being able to execute the action. If you are a later player, you have less risk of encountering such a situation. Generally, it is still better to go earlier, just that you need to be wary of getting caught in such situations.

The starting setup of a 5-player game. There is an island preprinted on the board. Three sea tiles are placed next to it. Pink discs represent the abundance of fish, and brown discs represent treasures. The purple, orange and white cubes are locally produced goods. On the island you can see spaces for building stalls (square boxes), beaches for sand drawing (circle with turtle), and the max number of tourists allowed (number in white pawn). The row of boxes in the background are the action spaces.

Money is relatively tight in the game. You need money to sail, to build stalls (which are needed for selling fish, help tour guides make money, and score VP's at game end), and to buy local goods for export (earns VP's). Actions that let you make money are selling fish, showing tourists around and selling treasures. It's a delicate balance to maintain your cash flow, because if you run out of cash, your options will become limited. One tricky rule is you can never have $10 or more. Whenever you hit $10, it is converted to 5VP. Sometimes you don't want those VP's because you need the money for many other things.

There are special characters in the game. Every round you pick one from the pool before returning the one you are holding. That means you won't be able to pick the same character twice in a row. Also while you are picking characters, other players are still holding on to theirs, so this limits your choices further. Characters all give some special ability, usually associated to a specific action type, e.g. build a stall for $1 instead of $3. This encourages you to pick that particular associated action, and it also means you can guess what others are planning to do by their choice of character.

One of the character cards. The game components are in a mix of French and English, which is weird. This, I'm guessing, is the preacher. It allows you to execute an action even if you do not have majority in that action space.

The big tile is a character tile. This is the one that gives you a free goods cube of the same colour when you buy one. The small tile is a treasure tile. You can sell it for cash (one-to-one conversion), but if you keep it until game end, it's a one-to-two conversion to VP's. The black pawn is the start player marker. The thick disc is an action token. The house is a stall (for selling fish, amusing tourists and scoring at game-end). The thin disc is for tracking cash and VP's.

The Play

We did a 4-player game (player range is 3 to 5). Kareem was the only one who had played before and he commented that the game made him cry. But he was game.

Gameplay was mostly tactical, in hindsight. You don't really do that much long-term planning. Maybe some medium term strategy, like bringing tourists to an island where you have many stalls, so that the stalls will score many points at game end. Most of the time you identify the good moves based on the current situation, try to reap benefits efficiently, and then move on. The placement of new sea and island tiles is what drives the game forward. Each tile presents new opportunities that the players will compete for, but sooner or later the resources will be depleted and players need to move on to the next new area of prosperity.

Jostling at action token placement was fun - the type with pain involved. I think everyone experienced some screwage at least once and likely more than that. You need to be keenly aware of the turn order, and all the possible token-placement circumstances that can ruin your round. Sometimes you want to take a bit of risk and hope that things will work out and you can do all the actions you plan for. Sometimes you just have to pay the price (of taking fewer actions) to make sure you do get to execute these crucial actions. Being first player is no guarantee of smooth sailing. It is possible that others may decide to place more tokens per space, and those spaces happen to be where you only have one token.

Black discs on the islands mean those beaches have already been claimed for sand drawing. I have two stalls on the island on the right. Each stall scores 2VP per tourist. Having two stalls means 4VP per tourist. So I keep sending tourists here. There are already three tourists at this point.

I (green) decided not to compete on the far side of this photo, and thus was first to sail towards the near side.

The three ships at the bottom left represent foreign demand for goods, i.e. what you can purchase locally to sell overseas. A ship sails away once all requested goods are supplied to it, freeing up a slot for the next ship.

There is a constant feeling, at least for me, of always barely making ends meet. During the game, every round I made barely enough money to allow me to do other actions I wanted to do. Then we discovered one very clever move. If you can time a sell fish action precisely when you are at $0, when you have 3 fish, and when fish price is $3, you will make $9, i.e. just short of being forced to convert $10 to 5VP. Another nice trick which I saw Kareem do was to have taken the buy-goods character (which allows you to get a free good), and then buy the $3 purple good (which gives 5VP each) when there is demand for at least two. The second free good would give an additional 5VP. That's 10VP for one action, which is a lot.

I made a mistake in the rules. In the first and last rounds there should be no new tiles revealed. I taught the others to play with new tiles being revealed starting in the first round. That caused a problem in the last round, because with no new tiles revealed in the last two rounds, we ran out of useful things to do. Resources that we could fight over had been mostly depleted by the last round. Furthermore the tourist tile in the last round was 0, i.e. no tourists that round. It was an awkward final round with very little to do, and thus unusually intense competition for the buy-goods space. Sorry guys, my bad.

Due to my mistake, there was little to do in the last round except to fight for buying goods. Having action token stacks of 3 or 4 is not normal.

The Thoughts

I find the game very finely tuned - resources are being fed into the game system at just the right rate to make sure there are enough different things to fight over, yet in each aspect the resources are scarce enough that players need to work hard to compete. The game is quite tactical. You live in the here-and-now and usually focus on making the most out of the current situation and the opportunities that present themselves. There is some medium- to long-term planning, e.g. stall scoring at game-end and the positioning of your boat, but you are not really building any engine or empire based on any master blueprint. The action planning is unique and fun (the type with screwage). You can say Vanuatu is just another efficiency game where you try to make the cleverest plays round-to-round, needing only to look ahead just one or two rounds at any one time. In fact you can even say the rounds feel repetitive, because they are not really all that different. Probably the only thing that requires really long-term planning is how the play area expands and how you want to move your boat to make sure you always have something useful to do.

However I find myself liking Vanuatu despite these negative-sounding observations. Might be because I won (and I didn't expect I would until near game end). The graphics contributed to that too. There is a leisurely I'm-an-island-dweller feel to the game, despite the unforgiving action planning mechanism. You feel like you are living day-to-day happily making the most of each glorious day, not worrying about what may come tomorrow. Every day is an exciting new day. I like that the theme and mechanisms (at least those related to the actions) are quite consistent. Abstracted, but consistent. Fishing, selling fish, exporting goods, building stalls and their mechanisms in the game all make sense to me. The action planning mechanism doesn't feel realistic though. It's a mechanism for the sake of gameplay. However with other aspects of the game making up for it, I don't mind the thematic disjoint, like I do in the other recently played island-themed game Hawaii, which I think is actually more strategic. I didn't like The Speicherstadt because I felt it was one clever mechanism wrapped in a dull game. Some may see Vanuatu this way, but I find the wrapper in Vanuatu much more interesting. It has a spatial aspect. There is a constant balancing act of maintaining cash flow. The actions in the game blend much better with the setting. When I play the game, I feel the designer had decided on the setting first, e.g. the various actions the players can do, before translating them into game mechanisms - some make money, some earn points. The actions are then balanced to make the game work. This is as opposed to getting the mechanisms to work and then applying a setting.

I really like the drawings and graphics in this game. Comic-like but classy.

Vanuatu reminds me a little of Antiquity, in how resources are being depleted as the game progresses. However it doesn't have a downward spiral that you need to crawl out of. There is a more-or-less regular supply of new resources (not entirely unlike a drug dealer supplying dope), and in the worst case you run out of opportunities to score more points. You don't get starved to death and you don't need to lay body bags in your storehouse.

Here's how you draw a turtle.


Anonymous said...

Great post! Definitely one of my favorite new games

James Torr said...

Great post! I fell in love with this game on my first play of it, and you did a good job articulating why, with both its strong and weak points. I agree about the comparison with Hawaii.

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

When I try to be rational, I feel I should like Hawaii more than Vanuatu. But I decided to go with my heart. Afterall we're playing games and having fun here, not doing maths (not to say that can't be fun).