Sunday, 5 April 2015

New Amsterdam

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

New Amsterdam is the old name of New York, or more precisely, Manhattan, which was originally a Dutch colony. It was traded to the British in 1664, and given the current name then, in honour of the Duke of York, who later became King James II of England. In the game of New Amsterdam, players are immigrants from Europe settling down in the new world and establishing businesses. You build new farms in the countryside, you build shops in the city, and you trade with the natives for fur to be sold back to Europe.

The game is played over 6 rounds, and the objective is to score the most points. There are a few different ways to do this. Each round starts with an auction phase where sets of 2 or 3 action tokens, and turn order markers, are auctioned off to players. This is then followed by three different action phases, in which players get to execute specific action types, using the action tokens they have just won.

These are your resources at the start of the game. You have one warehouse at the harbour, which can store four goods (black cubes). If you need to store more, you have to build more warehouses. You trade goods for fur with the natives. The yellow octagonal pieces are corn. You need corn to "feed" your shops. Every shop you own consumes one corn at the end of every round. If you can't "feed" it, you have to close shop and lose points. It's just like Agricola, except your shop can "die"! The brown pieces are wood. You need wood to build shops, to build farmhouses, and to move your trading post. You use cash in the auctions, and also for executing special actions. At the bottom right are the fur pieces. You trade with the natives for them, and then ship them back to Europe. You'll earn some cash (a one-time gain), and secure a permanent supply of goods.

These are the three action phases in every round. The first is the city phase (orange). If you have a city action token, you may either build 1 to 3 shops in any of the six districts, or you may score points using your shops. You score for each district where you have at least one shop, and you score more if you have outright majority in any district.

White is the land phase. You may either acquire a piece of land, or clear land(s) to start operating farms. To start operating a farm, you need to have built farmhouses beforehand. When you clear land, you will gain a one-time bonus of a bunch of wood and some victory points. Thereafter you will harvest corn at the end of every round.

Blue is the trade phase. You may either trade for fur (with the natives), or ship fur back to Europe.

At the start of every round, four new land cards (right) and four new ship cards (left) are revealed. The land cards are what you may claim if you have a land action token. A land card indicates how many farmhouses you need before you can clear the land and start running your farm. It indicates the one-time wood bonus and also the corn production level. Each time a player buys a piece of land, he is effectively driving the natives away. One native settlement will be moved further inland, and as the natives migrate away, it becomes harder to trade with them.

The ship cards specify the number of fur pelts required to complete a sale. The coin icons mean how much you'll earn for the transaction, and the black cubes mean how many goods you'll gain every round from then on.

That classy wooden box at the bottom right is used during the auction stage. The large round tokens are the three types of action tokens. During the auction stage they are randomly dealt into five columns. In this photo, two sets have been auctioned off.

At the top left are three areas where you can trade with the natives. In the first "retail" box you may trade one-for-one any number of times (one good for one fur pelt). In the other two "wholesale" boxes you must trade 3 or 4 goods for the whole set of 3 or 4 fur pelts.

This is the city area. If you own shops here, you can use them to score points. There is one scoring round at game end too which does not require you to spend any action. Each of the six districts here shows one special action. In every action phase of every round, everybody has the opportunity to execute one special action, even if he doesn't have an action token for that particular action phase. Normally it costs $1 to perform a special action, but if you have the most shops in the district for that special action (including being tied for most), the action becomes free for you. Besides this, shops also make money for you at the end of every round.

These bread loaf-like pieces are natives' settlements. Across the River Hudson you can see the players' trading posts. Each time a player buys a piece of land, one settlement will be displaced and the natives will move upriver. In order to trade with the natives, your trading post needs to be aligned with at least one native settlement, else you need to pay corn to travel upriver to trade. You can take a special action to move your trading post upriver, which costs 1 wood. This photo was taken in the early game, and no settlements were displaced yet.

The Play

When I play a new game, my first instinct is usually to analyse the scoring methods, and then pick out one specific strategy to stick to as much as possible. When I played New Amsterdam and tried to determine what the broad strategies were, I had some vague ideas, but there seemed to be no clear-cut, specialised strategy. You can't really focus on one area and neglect others. If you want to focus on building many shops and using them to score points, i.e. city actions, you still need the corn to "feed" your shops and the wood to build them in the first place. So you must do some land actions - chopping wood and growing corn. If you want to focus on trading with the natives, you still need wood to build warehouses to store the goods to be used for trading, and you still need wood to keep moving your trading post. It seems to me you need to have some balance in your strategy. You probably can emphasise some scoring aspects more than others, but I don't think you can afford to neglect any part of the game. I find this intriguing. This is a little like Through the Ages. Opposite examples would be Navegador and Race for the Galaxy, where you normally need to focus on a particular path.

Every action is precious. The game feels very tight and you always feel you are short of actions. The auctions for actions are intense. It is a one-round auction, so you need to think carefully how much to bid. If you bid too low, an opponent may overbid you. If you bid too high, you may be wasting your resources unnecessarily. You need to watch what your opponents are doing, guess which actions they will go for, and estimate how much they are willing to pay. In our game we tended to bid around 6 to 8. The highest we went was about 10. I don't know if that's normal. The last player to claim any action tokens gets them for free. Although he only has two sets to choose from, saving money (and resources) just might be worth it. Ivan won the game, and I remember there were quite many times he was last to claim action tokens. I spent much in the auctions, and often won the first player order marker too, but I came last. I wonder whether I have been spending too much. Or maybe I just played poorly.

One thing that really accentuates the scarcity of actions is it often costs two actions to get something done. If you want to get a farm running, you need to first spend an action to acquire a piece of land, and then you need to spend another action to clear it for farming. In between these you need to perform a special action to build farmhouses too. If you want to sell fur back to Europe, you also need at least two actions, one to buy from the natives, and another to ship the fur to Europe. It is not exactly easy to do two actions of the same type within the same round. Sometimes if you're unlucky you don't even get to do the same action in two subsequent rounds. If you do your follow-up action only in the third round, that's half the game (which has 6 rounds) to complete one operation. Competing for actions and using your actions effectively are a key challenge in this game.

One aspect which surprised me is the difficulty in managing the various resource types. You have cash, corn, wood, goods and fur, and they are needed for different activities. In the city area of the board there are two special actions which let you buy or sell corn or wood, which is basically converting between resource types. At first I thought these were rather weak. If you plan and manage your resources well, you wouldn't need to waste your special actions or money on these right? Wrong! It turns out that estimating the types of resources you need, producing the types of resources you need, and managing the resources you spend are not easy at all.

One thing that was a drag was our game sometimes moved rather slowly. I find that New Amsterdam is a game that is not easily analysed. There aren't many actions. Planning how to use them can be a very involved affair. Evaluating how much a set of action tokens is worth during the auction stage is tricky. There is a lot you can consider - which opponents will want it, how much they are willing to pay, what you yourself can do with it. In games with very deep repercussions, I usually don't bother thinking too far ahead. I calculate a little, and rely on gut feel. In our game I often executed my actions before my turn came, when I knew they wouldn't affect other players' actions. I guess I was impatient. Maybe that's why I came dead last.

My holdings. At the bottom left I had built my third warehouse and could store 8 goods. I had done shipping four times, and was now earning 7 goods per round (black boxes). I had three pieces of land, two of which had now been turned into farms. The third one had not yet been cleared, thus the wood marker on it.

These were everyone's shops at game end. Ivan (yellow) and Henry (blue) had the most, each having presence in five districts. I (green) had shops in three districts only and Dith (orange) two.

This angle is probably more familiar to most people. This. Is. Manhattan.

The Thoughts

New Amsterdam is a Eurogame, that's for sure. I find that the setting is very well integrated with the mechanisms. I feel this is a theme-first game. Ultimately it's still a VP-scoring game, but I find that I can't fiddle with the system without associating my actions with the story. The actions feel natural. I like that the strategies are not immediately apparent, which unfortunately is not the case for many Eurogames nowadays. Sometimes I feel like I've seen one, I've seen them all. With New Amsterdam I don't get this feeling. It's not quite like anything I've played before. It is not anything ground-breaking, but it is definitely not another bland VP-scoring Eurogame.

Managing your resources is a challenge. When I played I always felt I was just short of this resource, or just short of that resource. The game is very tight. Actions are very limited and you really can't afford to waste. In some aspects the player interaction is very critical - the bidding for action tokens and turn order, and the area majority competition in the city area. In other ways player interaction can be low - e.g. when you are managing your own little business empire, building farmhouses, building warehouses. Interaction can be in the form of whoever comes first having more choices. Overall I'd say the player interaction is high. You will get into each others' ways.


Xanthe (zopie71 on BGG) said...

I just found your blog via BGG. I'm new to gaming and I love that you share such a good amount of information on the games you play. It helps me a lot to see photos of a game in progress. Thanks!

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Thank you! Glad you find the information useful. :-)

Ivan Ho said...

Great review! This is a very underrated game

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

I think it's at least partly because the game doesn't have any particular mechanism that you can explain in words or by video and immediately catch attention (unlike a mechanism like bag building which sounds interesting but actually is just deck building). New Amsterdam needs to be played in person for you to realise the intricacies. I'm quite intrigued.