The setting in West of Africa is yet another one of those farming-in-an-exotic-location type, like Puerto Rico and La Granja. The location they picked is the Canary Islands. It is a game about planting, harvesting, selling crops and then eventually spending the money to build settlements to earn victory points. This all sounds rather dull and been-there-done-that. However I was pleasantly surprised after playing it. The impression it left me was completely unexpected. This is a brutal, boardgame version of Race for the Galaxy!
With components so cute and colourful, "brutal" is probably the last thing you imagine it to be.
On the board are seven islands. Those on the west are fertile and suitable for agriculture, but you are not allowed to build settlements here. Also crop prices here are low. The islands on the east are the other way round. You can't plant anything here, but you can build settlements. Crop prices are high. The islands in the middle are between these two extremes. They have land for agriculture, land for settlements, and even multipurpose land.
Everyone has one boat and three workers. You can ship crops to islands with better prices to make more money. Workers help reduce the cost of planting. Agricultural land can be reused - after you harvest, you, or another player, can plant again. Residential land cannot be reused. After you build a settlement you never tear it down. The numbers on residential plots are the costs of building settlements. Settlements are all worth a fixed 3VP, so everyone will fight to build on the cheaper plots first. Building settlements is the biggest source of victory points.
Your goal is to reach 25 victory points. Once a player reaches 25VP, you complete the round, then compare scores, to see who wins (it is possible that two or more players exceed 25VP). VP mostly come from building settlements, but there are other sources. At the end of every round, mayoral elections are done on every island. Your goods are worth 1 vote each (they represent your influence), your workers and ship are worth 2 votes each. Mayorship comes with 1VP, plus the exclusive rights to build settlements on the island in the next round, until it's election time again. At the end of a round, the richest player also gains 1VP. At game end, every $10 is 1VP. However you can hoard at most $45, i.e. a max of 4VP from unused cash.
These are the mayorship tokens, specifying the island and also reminding you to claim the 1VP.
The overall flow of the game is rather simple - you plant crops, you harvest, you may ship crops to another island, you sell crops to make money, and eventually you spend the money on building settlements, which give you points. This doesn't sound like much, but the devil is in the details. Let's take a closer look.
Everyone has the same set of 13 cards. Each card specifies an action or a location. Each card has a value too (top corners). At the start of every round, you secretly pick 4 or 5 cards to use for performing actions. If you pick 5 cards, you need to pay $4. Once everyone has picked cards, you announce the total value of your cards. Turn order is determined by this total. Whoever has the smallest total goes first. Turn order is important. E.g. you plan to plant on a particular island. If another player has decided to do the same, and he goes before you, he may use up all the farmland leaving you with nothing to do, wasting a complete round. This is very painful. Normally the more valuable actions and locations have higher card values, so if you want to perform a strong action, the risk is higher. This is the part of the game which makes you nervous.
In this photo, the cards are: plant crops, sell crops and move workers.
The first card is move ship. The third card is a location. Location cards are paired with other action cards. When you plant crops, sell crops or build settlements, your action card must be paired with a location card. This means you are using two cards for one action. If you want to do two different things on two different islands, that's four cards!
This is called the minus card. It has no action or location, but it has a negative value. It's only use is reducing your total card value. This can be crucial if you need to fight for turn order. Whenever you use the minus card, you pass it to the next player. So this is a card you need to use carefully. It can be a matter of life and death.
The number of settlements that can be built in a round is limited. With 4 players, the max is 6 settlements. This again emphasises the importance of player order. Once the settlements for the round are exhausted, no one else can build any more until the next round. The cubes in the player colours mark the turn order.
The harbour on each island has a limited number of berths for ships. In this photo, the light blue rectangles are the berths. The rightmost island has five berths, so there is enough for everyone. The next island Fuerteventura only has one berth. The yellow player's ship is here now. Both the islands on the left have two berths. Both blue and green ships are at the leftmost island. When a ship arrives at a full harbour, it displaces one ship of its choice, pushing it to the next island. This doesn't sound like much, but it can really mess up a player's plan. In our game, Sim got his ship displaced by Jeff, and this one simple displacement cost him the entire round. Sim had planned to use his ship to transport his crops from one island to another, and then sell them there so that he could build some settlements. Jeff was earlier than him in turn order. When Sim's ship was displaced, it no longer had enough moves to transport his crops to the right location. That meant being unable to sell his crops since they could not be delivered to the island he had picked to do the sale. No sale, no money, no settlement, an entire round wasted. This was a huge hit to his tempo. This is the kind of disastrous screwage as seen in Vanuatu. This is the kind of situation when you see people pale.
Harvesting is automatic. It happens at the end of every round and all crops go to the storage space. No need to spend any action. However since it happens at the end of a round, your end-to-end flow from planting to building a settlement will span at least two rounds, with the harvesting happening at the end of the first round. Two rounds is the minimum. Sometimes when you want to transport your crops to another island to sell them at a higher price, things may take longer. Sometimes when you don't win the right mayorship at the right time, the process drags even longer.
You have a limited number of crop markers (four sugar canes, two grains and two grapes). You can only have this many markers on the board. E.g. if you have harvested four sugar canes but you have not yet sold them, you won't be able to plant any more sugar canes because the markers are still waiting to be sold. Each farm plot also specifies what you can plant, so that's yet another restriction you need to consider. On this island in this photo, you can only plant grains or grapes.
The crops selling price is on the left of the island name. On Gran Canaria you sell crops for $9 a piece. The lowest price is $6, and the highest $12. The default cost for planting crops is $3 per piece, but this can be discounted if you utilise your workers.
West of Africa is a game of careful planning and risk calculation. From the start you already sense the precariousness. The reason I feel it is like Race for the Galaxy is it also has the simultaneous action selection mechanism. In Race, you want to guess your opponents' actions because you want to make use of them to give you an edge. Usually it's because you want to gain something extra. Sometimes you take a risk, betting that your opponents will do a certain action, while you pick another action which depends on them having picked that action. In West of Africa, guessing your opponents' intentions is not about gaining some bonus, it is more often a matter of survival, of being able to do anything at all. If you misread your opponents, you may end up completely wasting a round. Thus the "brutal" in my one sentence summary of the game.
You face a dilemma right at the beginning. Everyone needs to do the first step - planting crops, so most likely everyone will be fighting for farmland. Is it always worthwhile to pick the lowest valued cards to ensure you go first? Or do you go for the higher valued actions and locations, hoping that the others are all going to play safe? After the first round, it can be easier to predict your opponents' moves, because your tempos may go off phase. Players may spread out to be at different stages of the production cycle. If you are the only person with sugar cane markers to plant, you can rest assured no one will take those sugar cane farmland from you.
Being out of phase with other players is generally a good thing. You will likely have less competition. You worry less about your ship being displaced. You worry less about others fighting for the same mayorship as you. However, it may not be wise to slow down your tempo just for the sake of going out of sync with your opponents. Afterall, this is a race to 25VP.
Your treasury stores at most $45. This forces you to go through the production cycle multiple times. You can't simply amass a lump sum of money and instantly build tons of settlements. The limited number of crop markers also forces you to go through the cycle many times. This means you will encounter plenty of situations where you conflict with others. You constantly worry about whether you are able to execute the actions you want to do. You are often torn between playing safe and taking a risk hoping to gain more, or simply hoping to be a little more efficient. This is a game where you need to read your opponents.
The track at the bottom is the score track. In our game Dith (red) gambled on the first mover strategy, spending a lot of money to build settlements cheaply in the early game. This gave him a significant lead, but also put him at risk because his cash flow was crippled for some time. It took a while for him to get it back to form. He was hoping to surpass 25VP before anyone else caught up, which meant he needed to end the game as quickly as possible. Eventually it did work out for him.
This was when the game ended. Dith was the only one who made it past 25VP.
West of Africa is a gamer's game. Despite the idyllic art style and the cute components, this is not something for introducing newbies to the hobby. It is a game of outguessing and outmanoeuvring your opponents. You do not inflict direct harm to your opponents, but sometimes the indirect harm is just as devastating, or worse. You will find yourself planning your actions nervously, quietly contemplating the many risks before you. The production cycle is simple, but there are dangers in each step. There is a need to plan ahead, e.g. if you want to build settlements, you need to wrest mayorship from the incumbent. The game doesn't feel long, but many apparently small decisions feel weighty. There is more than meets the eye in West of Africa.