Monday, 4 October 2010

Vasco da Gama

The Game

Vasco da Gama was a game I played at Old Town Kopitiam, Cheras, on Fri 1 Oct 2010. It is a medium-high complexity Eurogame, and it uses the worker placement mechanism, which is nowadays widely used and has been suffering from some backlash because of this. Vasco da Gama has been getting mostly positive reviews, but there are also negative comments saying that it very much epitomizes the "typical Eurogame", that it lacks innovation. So this was a chance to find out for myself what that game was like.

Is this game you purchase expedition projects, recruit captains and crew, and send ships out on expeditions. There are different types of projects (or ships) you can buy. Every ship needs a captain, and a certain number of different crew types in order to be ready to sail. The ship also has a value, which determines how far it can sail, the higher the better (and more expensive of course). The expedition mechanism is quite unique, and is something that seems to be less mentioned than the worker placement mechanism. There are 6 ports on the map, each with a different number of slots for ships, and each slot specifying a minimum requirement (for the ship value). When you send a ship out, it can go to any slot as long as the minimum requirement is met. You get a landing bonus and you score victory points. At the end of each round, if a port is full, the ships score some victory points, and are then forced to move to the next port. However, there may not be enough slots at the next port, or a ship may not meet the minimum requirements of the available slots. In such cases, the ship is discarded. The expedition mechanism is the core of the game. You earn victory points when your ships reach a port, when a port becomes full, and also possibly at the end of every round (depending on your ships). There are landing bonuses (which can be projects, captains, crew or money), and some ships also give income at the end of every round. All other aspects of the game are just means to help you work towards the expeditions.

The twist that Vasco da Gama adds to the worker placement mechanism is the uncertainty of how much it will cost to go earlier. There are discs numbered 1 to 20 determine turn order and action cost. When you choose an action, you must also select a numbered disc to put on top of your player action disc. Every round there is a threshold set beyond which actions are free. E.g. if the threshold is 8, then actions 1 to 7 will cost money, and actions 8 to 20 are free. Action 1 will cost $7, action 2 $6, action 3 $5, and so on. If you can't pay, or decide not to pay, you earn some consolation cash. The tricky part is that after all actions have been chosen, this threshold may shift up to 3 steps away (either way) from the base value. In the best case you may save $3 for some of the earlier actions that you have chosen. In the worst case you may have to pay $3 more, which is a lot in this game.

Other areas of the board are for buying crew, buying captains, buying projects (I think of them as ships), getting cash, and claiming a character. There are 4 characters which give different benefits: an extra action (normally you have 4 for each of the 5 rounds), a special crew type (missionaries), start player privilege and a merchant ship. The merchant ships are owned by noone. If you gain and deploy one, it only gives you the landing bonus and does nothing else for you. However, it can mess up the expeditions for other players (occupying a spot they need), or help you with the expeditions (completing a port to help your ship score and progress to the next one).

The game board. The upper right section is for recruiting captains and crew. The lower right section is for gaining cash or employing one of the four characters. The lower left section is for buying projects (ships). The upper left section is the most critical expedition section.

Close-up of the projects (ships) section. When you place your coloured action disc, you must add a numbered disc on top. In this area, you can buy one project for $1, or buy two projects for $4, or buy a special project for the number of crew members it needs. The special project is special because once bought it is immediately flipped over to become a ship (without you having to supply the required crew). It can be expensive but it saves you a lot of trouble.

The crew / captain section. When you recruit crew members, you pick from one of the four doorways. The cost depends not on the number of sailors, but on the number of different colours, i.e. you can recruit 5 sailors of the same colour for $1! You can recruit 1 captain with every batch of sailors you recruit, and the cost of the captain is the number of sailors you recruit. Continuing the example above, you'd be paying $5 for the captain, which is very expensive. This is another dilemma for you to ponder over.

The Play

We did a four-player game, Jeff (game teacher and played once I think), Pang (1st time), Jimmy (played once) and I (1st time), which was the full player count. We played about halfway when Jeff realised a critical rule mistake, and we had to restart. We had been resolving actions by area as opposed to by number. Oops. Surprisingly none of us felt it was a problem up till then. It was upon a double check that Jeff realised the mistake. I think he felt something was off because the game seemed more restrictive than the previous time he played.

I had one captain (short dark blue guy) and three crew members of different colours (think of colour as specialization). I had three projects, one of which had been flipped over to become a ship. You can flip a project to the ship side any time, as long as you "pay" the required number of crew members of different colours. The project side of the tiles show ship value (top left), number of different coloured crew members required to flip it (top right), benefit provided every round in cash or victory points when it is at a port (bottom right), and how early it comes up (bottom left). The ship side of the tile only shows ship value (top left) and benefit for every round it is at a port (top right).

The strongest impression I had of the game was how tight money was. The uncertainty of the action cost was a big source of cheers and groans. In some rounds when the cost was +2 or +3 more than the base cost, many of us got in trouble, being forced to forfeit some actions and earn the consolation cash instead (which was usually not much). Sometimes when the base cost was high, we had to plan to collect consolation cash, because with 4 players, 16 of the 20 action discs would be claimed, so some of us were forced to take the low numbered action discs which we knew we couldn't afford. Because of how tight money was, the fight for those 2 money spaces was intense. The irony was if you wanted to go early enough to claim the money, you might need to pay money to go earlier in the first place, making your net earning less. Also another player might gamble on the actual action cost to be lower, and take the action disc with an even smaller number than what you had chosen. Then you'd be stuck with 2nd choice instead of 1st. This is brinkmanship.

These are called the VdG (Vasco da Gama) tiles - the source of pain and relief (at different times). The scroll on the top left tells you how much the action cost for the round will shift. It is revealed only after everyone has placed his action discs. The number on the top right is the base action cost for the next round, and the two numbers on the lower right are the cash made available at the money spaces for the next round.

I didn't do so well in managing my cash-flow and was often poor. I did manage to get a number of captains early, so that I didn't need to worry about that aspect much for the rest of the game. Captains always return from expeditions (unlike crew which needs to be recruited again), so after an expedition ends, you get the captain back and can reuse him for the next expedition. I didn't do so well in getting projects (ships) or crew. One thing that amazed me a little is how none of my ships launched were sent back early. Not that I had many. But they managed to keep moving from one port to the next, and they kept giving me income and victory points.

Jeff wasn't so lucky with the timing of his expeditions. I'm pretty sure he sent out more and better ships than I did, but many of them were sent back early when the port they were in became full, and they couldn't get a slot at the next port. Well, at least he still scored for the ship launch, the landing bonus, and full port bonus. He only missed the longer term regular benefits.

Jimmy probably did about the same as me. Not sending out many ships, but overall I think still more than me. Pang accumulated a huge crew and held out from starting expeditions. He sent out quite a number of (neutral) merchant ships when he held the merchant ship character. Then suddenly in the 2nd half of the game he sent out 3 huge expeditions at the same time, all to the furthest (and most profitable) port. That gave a huge launch score. Although at the time that port didn't have any other ships, before game end, it filled up, and he scored the full port bonus for his 3 ships. That sealed his victory. Our scores were Pang 81, Jeff 64, me 61, Jimmy 53.

In the 4th round, Pang (yellow) launched a massive armada with ship values 11, 11 and 9. That's 31 points!

In round 5, the most distant port filled up.

In fact, most of the ports filled up. What a sight it was.

The Thoughts

Vasco da Gama was more complex and more interesting than I had expected. The twist it adds to the worker placement mechanism is nice, and creates a lot of tension, but what captured my interest more was the expedition mechanism. Not that it was very original, but to me it was fun. You need to coordinate all your other actions in the game to help you compete in the expeditions. I had expected a medium weight game, but now I think it is a medium-heavy weight game, because of how you need to plan and coordinate your actions towards success at the expeditions. Often actions by other players can mess up your plan and you need to adapt and even change plans completely.

I find the game very interactive. How to pick the numbered discs is a tough decision. Which of the four areas to compete in first is a tough decision. Managing your finances is very challenging. As for being a "typical, unoriginal Eurogame", I'd say indeed there's nothing very innovative or new. However I do find it challenging, interesting and satisfying. I do think the artwork is rather boring. Very typical Eurogame style. And you have those characters with unique abilities, which appear in so many games. I think these, plus the usage of the worker placement mechanism, turn us jaded boardgame veterans off. So if these are the reasons why Vasco da Gama doesn't interest you, I say give it a chance. Surely Hansa Teutonica has even more boring artwork and theme, but it's an excellent game.

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