Roads and Boats is a four-hour, complex Eurogame from Splotter Spellen. You build and manage a complex ecology of factories, transportation network and transporters (vehicles/vessels). It is a development game, an engine-building game as well as a pick-up-and-deliver game. That in itself doesn't sound all that remarkable, but somehow Splotter still manages to put together a game with their unique signature. It is satisfying to see the economy evolve and to have built your little empire. There is a story progression similar to Le Havre. What you need and what you do differ from early to mid to end game. There is a mean streak in that land, buildings and goods do not belong to anyone - you only own transporters and the goods they are carrying. It doesn't matter whether you built the factory or whether the good was produced from "your" factory. The game can be aggressive and confrontational with players needing to protect their turfs using walls and then also demolishing those walls to penetrate "enemy territory".
The game is a race against time to produce the most valuable (victory point-wise) goods in as much quantity as possible. I constantly feel a sense of purpose throughout the game, and time flies by. Producing shares (the most valuable good) is a long and challenging path where long-term planning and meticulous coordination are required.
Each round of the game has four pretty straight-forward phases. First is production. Buildings that harvest natural resources like clay pits, woodcutters, stonemasons, and oil rigs always produce goods. Buildings which turn raw materials into finished products produce only if the required input is supplied. Second is movement. All transporters like donkeys, carts, rafts and ships move, load goods and unload goods. This is when raw materials need to be supplied to factories or to construction sites. Third is construction. Roads, bridges, buildings and walls are constructed. Fourth is wonder construction. This is basically a countdown mechanism. Every player has the opportunity to contribute goods at his home tile towards building a wonder. Victory points will be rewarded depending on the contribution. When the wonder completes, the game ends. Regardless of whether anyone contributed to wonder building in a round, a neutral brick is always added to the wonder, so the clock is always ticking.
The main way of earning victory points is by producing goods which are worth VP - gold nuggets are 10VP, coins are 40VP, shares are 120VP. Naturally, the higher the VP value, the more difficult it is to produce. Players need to set up a complex production chain, and also a good supporting infrastructure - roads, bridges, and transporters - to make sure it runs efficiently. It is important to produce improved transporters because at game end, only goods loaded onto your transporters belong to you and are thus worth VP's to you. So you want transporters with high load capacity.
Most players think the game is best with two, and I know it's a long game, so for my first game I decided to just do a 2P game with Allen.
We used a 2P map recommended by the rules. It has some rivers which will be helpful. I (green) picked a tile next to the lake as my home location, because there was a mountain tile (reddish brown) next door on which I could potentially build a mine, and the stone plain (grey) which I could potentially quarry stone to make bricks was not far away. However later on Allen built a board factory on the mountain, so I could not build a mine there anymore. He picked a starting location right next to the other stone plain, and he quickly built a stone quarry there. Both our home tiles were forests (dark green with spots), and we built woodcutter huts to harvest logs.
The larger squares are the production buildings while the smaller squares are the goods. At the start of the game I had three donkeys to carry my goods. See how busy they are. I didn't quarry stone to make bricks. I built a clay pit on the river bank instead. Clay collected can be brought to a brick factory to be turned into bricks. That does mean one additional step compared to directly quarrying stone and making stone bricks, but each unit of clay can be turned into two bricks, so there's an advantage too.
I use the two smaller containers for the goods, and the larger tray for the buildings and other components.
Before the game starts, you need to place a transparent plastic sheet on top of the terrain tiles. During the game, when you build roads or bridges, you use a marker pen to draw them directly on the plastic sheet. This can be rubbed clean after the game. At this point in the game Allen and I had started building roads (black lines). Notice in the lower left there are two geese. When left alone on a pasture (light green tile), two animals (no more, no less) will breed and produce a third animal. There must be no building, no transporter and no goods around. They like their privacy.
You can see here the goose offspring. Also Allen and I have extended our road networks. Allen has built a raft factory, the light blue square next to the river. Rafts are the most primitive water transporters.
The only use of geese in the game is research. You need two geese and one paper to research a new technology. Don't ask me. I have no idea how this links to real life. Technology provides access to more advanced forms of transportation, specialised mines, and the oil rig.
At one point in the game Allen sent a rogue donkey into "my" area and stole my goose. I had previously bred geese, and had discovered one transporter technology. I maintained two geese so that I could continue to breed them for research. I had been neglecting them when Allen's donkey marched in and grabbed one of my unattended geese. Geese are a type of goods and thus don't belong to anyone if not loaded onto a transporter. This rogue donkey incident brutally reinforced this principle. With one goose left, I was not going to be able to breed geese anymore (well, unless I could steal one back from Allen), and my research was at a dead end. I quickly resolved to end the game as early as I could. If the game continued for long, Allen would gain a technological advantage over me. I contributed to building the wonder as much as I could, to expedite the game end.
Allen and I are now busy shipping raw materials upriver to construct new buildings there. There are mountains (reddish brown tiles) upriver, and gold to be mined!
This was the first mine (the brown pillar) ever built. That little bag represents the mine. Whenever a new mine is built, you place three iron ore and three gold ore into a bag with the same number as the mine. Thereafter you randomly draw an ore out of the bag at every production phase. When I first opened the game I was puzzled why they gave such small bags to store the game components. Only after I read the rulebook I realised the bags themselves are game components. Allen also bought a copy of Roads and Boats and he only realised this when I told him. He didn't remember whether he had thrown these bags away. Time to hunt.
We now had carts, the medium-level land transporters. Cart factories are pink. Allen built one near the bottom right, I built one at the top left.
At this stage we had five mines in total built, two built by Allen, and three by me. Allen had the specialised mine tech, which meant he could build mines that only produced gold. My mines randomly produced gold or iron. However mines don't really belong to anyone. You just need to have a transporter on site and priority in turn order to grab the newly produced ore. So Allen and I stole each other's gold in alternate rounds. The player in later player order always has priority to trigger a change in player order.
These bars placed at tile borders are walls. After than rogue donkey incident I became more conservative and played more defensively, building walls to stop Allen's transporters from making excursions into my area. Walls can actually be used offensively too, blocking opponents from buildings that they themselves build. It's nasty! Natural wood coloured walls are neutral walls, and don't hinder movement. You place a neutral wall when you demolish an opponent wall. It is a reminder that future wall construction on the same spot will be more expensive.
That black square tile in the foreground is a mint, which produces gold coins from gold nuggets. This was as far as Allen and I managed before the game ended. We were not able to build stock markets, which are the ultimate form of wealth. Although I did try to speed up the game end by actively contributing to wonder construction, I think not reaching stock markets is more due to our own inefficiency.
Our game took about 4 hours, but there was little downtime, because players execute action simultaneously unless there are points of conflict. I was constantly engaged, and in fact I felt pressed for time. I wanted to go for stock markets, but time ran out. It amazes me how a 4-hour game can make me feel I don't have enough time.