I first played Roads & Boats last year, with Allen, as a 2P game. For a brief overview, follow this link. Recently Jeff suggested playing it (he hadn't tried it before), and we arranged to play on one of the regular Boardgamecafe.net Friday gaming nights. This time it was a 4-player game - Jeff, Dith, Boon Khim and I. I was the only one who had played before. Here's how our game went, plus some of my additional thoughts at the end.
The map we picked was suitable for beginners. There were enough resources (especially mountains) so the players didn't really need to compete for space or resources. In Roads & Boats you can set up your own map, but we were beginners so we stuck to the recommended maps. I was green and I started in the lower right quadrant. Jeff was blue, upper right. Boon Khim yellow, upper left. Dith red, lower left. I picked a spot next to a river, with the intention of using the river for transporting goods.
At the start of the game our only mode of transportation was donkeys. On the right, the two geese left alone on a pasture will breed. In the game, geese are needed to discover new technologies. This makes no sense thematically, and even the designers make fun of this in the rulebook. However game mechanism-wise it is very interesting. You need to remember to breed your geese and manage when they get converted to new technologies.
We had started building roads now - the black lines drawn on the transparent plastic sheet on top of the tiles.
My (green) little kingdom. I had now built a raft workshop (light blue square), so I was making use of the river. In the background you can see Jeff (blue) had sent a raft over to raid my goods. He had grabbed one of my tree trunks. Jeff was first to go offensive, and I was the first victim. There was a lake in the middle of the board, and Boon Khim's and my areas had rivers running to the lake, so we were vulnerable. Jeff built a raft workshop at the shore of the lake, and launched a pirate raft against us.
I hurriedly built walls along my coast to prevent further attacks. Jeff could spend wooden boards to destroy my walls and harass me more, but he decided to not spend the effort, and switched to bug Boon Khim instead. He actually managed to steal gold from Boon Khim! That is a big deal, because gold is worth victory points.
In Roads & Boats the bigger square tiles are the factories or production facilities. The smaller square tiles are the goods or resources.
Dith's (red) area didn't have any river, so he operated purely using land transportation.
Jeff (blue) had a river in his area, but he didn't make use of it for transporting goods. In fact he had to spend stones to build a bridge across it to allow him access to both banks.
Boon Khim's (yellow) area. He had a mine now (the brown pillar) on the brown mountain tile.
I found that compared to the others, I built fewer production facilities. I produced less, and had to be very careful with how I spent my resources. The others often produced so much that they had surplus lying around. I didn't build many factories because I wanted to save space for other factories I was planning to build. You can only build one factory per tile, and once built a factory cannot be demolished. I didn't want to build too many factories because it would force me to spread out, and some of my factories would end up being quite far from others. By being compact, I hoped to save on transportation time. I'm not entirely sure whether this is a good idea. High production has its merits. Perhaps it depends on the type of map.
Look at Jeff (blue). Now on the right he had extended his road to the tile right next to my (green) home tile (the one with a green house - as in green-coloured house). Even the blind could see he didn't have good intentions. I quickly walled up this front, and he later decided I wasn't worth the trouble.
Both Boon Khim (yellow) and Jeff (blue) had sent their transporters into Dith's (red) territory. Dith had completely surrounded his home tile with walls, but not before one of Jeff's donkeys sneaked in. Now the donkey was stuck (you can't move through other players' walls) and needed to be rescued by other transporters. Jeff would need to tear down a wall to let the donkey out.
I was third to build a mine. Mines are important in this game because they produce gold, and gold is the base product that can be upgraded to higher valued products. Gold ore is worth 10VP. When turned into coins, it is worth 40VP. When coins are turned into stocks, it is worth 120VP. In our game I was the only one who built two mines. This later gave me a strong advantage.
Boon Khim (yellow) not only trespassed into Dith's (red) land. He also started building his own walls, like he owned the place. Well, strictly speaking, according to the rules, no one owns any land, building, or road. You only own walls, transporters and goods on transporters. Walls are built to block off others, but they can also be built to secure passage for your own transporters.
One section of Dith's (red) wall had been destroyed, and replaced by the natural coloured wall piece. Natural wall means no wall, but you still need to place the pieces to remind everyone how many times a wall has been built / rebuilt / destroyed at this border. So the two wall pieces here means a wall had been built and destroyed twice. Each additional time a wall is to be built or destroyed, the resource cost will increase.
I (green) was the only player whose road network did not connect with those of other players. Dith (red) and Boon Khim's (yellow) road networks had pretty much merged into one big network. Boon Khim's network hooked up to Jeff's (blue) via that one road, which later became a key channel of aggression between them.
At the lower edge Dith did have one road extending towards my area, but at this stage he only intended to use it to ship his valuables away from Boon Khim and Jeff, and upgrade them into improved goods. The option to invade my area was there, but eventually he didn't take that path.
At this point I had built my second mine, at the bottom right.
My little kingdom still remained the smallest. Perhaps it was because I produced barely enough for my own consumption, and did not have any tempting surplus lying around, the others didn't perceive me as a threat. They didn't bother me much, but they fought like rabied dogs among themselves. That was of course fine with me. I could peacefully plan my development.
Look at the many transporters belonging to Jeff (blue) running around in Boon Khim's (yellow) area. Jeff had even built walls in this area.
Boon Khim wasn't going to let Jeff get away with this easily, and launched his own offensive against Jeff. Gosh, I am making a complex economic Eurogame sound like an Ameritrash-style wargame. Here Boon Khim had one truck carrying enough boards to destroy a wall, and another truck with enough stones to build his own wall.
Some of Jeff's (blue) gold ore in the top right corner was later stolen by Boon Khim (yellow). Jeff overlooked one avenue of attack, and Boon Khim took advantage of that. Boon Khim had his revenge!
This was Boon Khim's (yellow) home tile, and it had become a battleground. In the background to the left is Jeff's (blue) donkey which had stolen some gold ore from Boon Khim. It still hadn't returned home. Jeff had yet to launch Operation Saving Private Ryan.
Finally Ryan was on his way home. Those two yellow trucks (Boon Khim's) were very tempted to run him down, but rules were rules, no violence allowed.
Notice some of the walls here are up to the third level.
This was the board situation at the end of our game. Only Dith and I managed to build stock exchanges, which produced stocks - the highest valued product. Dith's advancement was overall fastest in our game, but he was only able to produce one stock. Although I was slightly behind, my two mines allowed me to produce two stocks, and this was what won me the game. Towards the late game Dith knew I was racing against time. I needed to produce my second stock to win, so he tried to speed up the game by actively contributing to complete the wonder. Too bad the others were not all that keen on completing the wonder, so eventually I was able to produce my second stock.
My (green) little kingdom was still using its initial donkeys at game end. I never upgraded them to wagons. I did build a truck factory, but I could only afford to produce one truck. It did help tremendously though. My two stocks are on the right (black square tiles with a yellow rectangle on them), next to my donkey.
Near the end of the game, I realised I had taught one rule wrong. A good can only be moved by one transporter within the same turn. Although it can be passed to another transporter at the end of the movement, this next transporter is not allowed to carry it further. During our game we had allowed this back-to-back movement, which was wrong. I know I certainly made use of it. I think the others did too. If we had used the correct rules, we would not have been able to move our goods around as quickly. So possibly I would not have produced stocks, or would not have produced two of them.
I mostly played a multiplayer solitaire game, concentrating on my little empire and not bothering others much, only occasionally putting up defenses when I saw threats. I worry whether Roads & Boats will become multiplayer solitaire if everyone plays this way. It would become a long race game and efficiency game with players building their respective ecologies in isolation. However, I was able to play this way only because the map setup allowed me to. On a tighter map, or a map with limited resources, I would have no choice but to fight for land and goods. In fact, I might even need to do some collaboration, constructing buildings together, taking turns to use it etc. Even on a map of abundance, the players can actively engage one another if they choose to (what a nice way of saying "attack"). What Jeff did in our game may be very worthwhile - spending few resources and committing few transporters but being able to disrupt your opponents' progress, and even steal their points.
If you ask Dith, Boon Khim or Jeff, they would say no way this is multiplayer solitaire. They certainly had much "active engagement" during the game.
Now that I have played my second game, I think the development outline in each game will be similar. You will need a sawmill quickly. You will need to breed geese. You will be working towards mines, and aiming for minting coins and creating stocks. You will be making adjustments here and there, depending on the map and your opponents' actions, but the general direction will be similar. It is the differences in the details which make the game interesting. Experienced players will be able to take a look at the map even before the game starts, and already make rough plans on how to tweak their development strategy to make the most of the terrain.
The pacing is an important aspect - whether and when to speed up or slow down the wonder construction. Contributing to the wonder gives you points too. Even if you don't mess with you opponents on the board, manipulating the wonder construction progress can greatly affect the outcome of a game.