Posted by: gschloesser | August 2, 2011

Goa

Design by:  Rüdiger Dorn
Published by:  Alea & Rio Grande Games
2 – 4 Players, 2 – 2 ½ hours
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser 

Goa is designed by Rüdiger Dorn, whose other efforts include Traders of Genoa, Emerald, Space Walk, Gargon, Ex und Hopp and others. More recent designs include Jambo and Arkadia.  Of these, his deepest game is arguably Traders of Genoa. While most folks seem to delight in that negotiation-heavy title, I found it to be too much of a good thing. The constant series of negotiations wearied me, and I have long since left that one behind. 

Goa, however, immediately intrigued me. Although I generally perform abysmally at auction games, the mixture of mechanisms, decisions, and seemingly numerous strategic paths to follow are fascinating.  Numerous sessions have done nothing to dampen my enthusiasm … although it certainly confirms my status as a lousy auction-game player!

In Goa, players represent “Portuguese merchants involved in the spice trade”. Players acquire plantations, found and develop colonies, and attempt to extract the greatest yield from their holdings. The goal is to be the wealthiest and most advanced merchant in all of Goa.


Similar to Princes of Florence, the game has two distinct phases. In the first phase, players participate in a series of auctions, acquiring tiles which grant the players special actions and/or abilities. After the series of auctions, players each take turns performing three actions (more with the ability of extra action cards). These actions include upgrading one’s capabilities in five different categories – shipping, taxes, harvesting, expeditions, and attracting colonists – as well as founding new colonies. This aspect of upgrading one’s capabilities has some similarities to several games, including the Cities and Knights expansion in the Settlers of Catan series. Deciding how to use these three actions is a major aspect of the game, and there are a wide variety of paths to pursue.

The game is played in two turns, with each turn consisting of a series of four rounds. During these rounds, four tiles on the board are auctioned, in addition to the “flag” counter, which gives the winner an extra action card and the right to determine the starting location on the subsequent round. Each player will place one tile up for auction, with the exception of the holder of the flag, who will be able to conduct two auctions: one for the flag and one for a tile. However, which tile a player can elect to auction is limited by a clever system. The holder of the flag places this marker onto any tile, or next to a tile along the edge of the board. The next player may only place an adjacent tile up for bid. The following player can only place a tile up for bid that is adjacent to the second player’s marker, and so on. Thus, as the merits of the tiles are studied, the players can attempt to place their auction markers in an attempt to increase the likelihood that certain tiles they prefer come up for auction – or avoid certain tiles, if that is their preference. Very clever.

Auctions are conducted using a simple, once-around-the-table method, with the auctioneer having the final bid. He also receives the funds from the winning bidder, unless, of course, he wins the bid himself, in which case he pays the bank.

The tiles won during the auctions provide a variety of special actions and abilities. Some are plantations, which are placed directly onto the player’s board, and produce commodities (ginger, pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg and/or cloves) that are used to advance the player’s marker in one of five categories listed above. Each category requires certain types of commodities, so a player must carefully weigh which plantations he desires to acquire and which crops he wishes to harvest. This will dictate which advancements he can procure.

Other tiles give the players immediate gratification in terms of ship, colonist and/or extra action cards, while others give the players ongoing bonuses of money, colonists, ships or spices on each turn. There are several tiles that grant end-of-game victory points, while others allow the players to alter the rules in some fashion. Choosing which tiles to put up for bid, which to bid upon, and how much to bid are all decisions that can cause considerable angst for a player. But it is a good angst.

After four rounds of auctions (4 tiles and the flag), each player takes turns performing three actions, one action at a time per player. These actions include:

1) Progress on Development Board. Each player has a development board depicting the five areas that he can improve during the course of the game. Each area can be developed four spaces, with the cost to move up clearly depicted on each space. The cost is always a specific combination of spices (sometimes just one spice is required, particularly on the early upgrades and with the colonist upgrades) and ships. The cost rises with each subsequent development, so players must develop a substantial plantation system to supply the required spices. In addition, they will need to periodically exercise the “Build Ships” action in order to re-stock their supply.

The further a player develops each category, the more victory points he will earn. The victory point levels are 0, 1, 3, 6 and 10 points for each category, depending upon the player’s level of progress. Further, players will earn extra action card and expedition cards for significant development. This provides yet another incentive for players to develop all of their categories, and to reach the top two levels of development before their opponents.

2) Build Ships. A player may exercise this action to acquire more ships. The number of ship cards received is dependent upon the player’s development level on the “ship” category of his development board. The higher his progress on his chart, the more ships received.

3) Harvest. The player’s plantations produce. He may add new spices of the appropriate types to his plantations. As with ships, the amount of spices he receives is based on his level of progress on his development chart.

4) Taxes. You just cannot get away from ‘em – even in the Far East! The player takes ducats from the bank, the amount received being based on his level of progress on his development chart.

5) Expedition. The player takes one or more expedition cards, the number again being based on his level of progress in this category on his development chart. Expedition cards grant special powers, such as the granting of new ships, colonists, ducats, spices, etc. Others allow the player to attempt to found a colony, reduce the cost of advancing on his development chart, etc. These cards can be quite powerful.

Unfortunately, the player cannot simply grab all the cards he can get his greedy little hands on. Each player has a limit to the number of cards he can draw and the number he can keep. These limits are based, of course, on the player’s current level in the expedition category on his development chart.

Expedition cards have a further benefit, which can be substantial. Each card depicts a symbol, representing various commodities and riches. There are five different categories, each appearing six times in the deck. At the end of the game, a player will earn victory points for accumulating expedition cards with matching symbols. These points can tally as high as 20 points if a player collects all six of one type. Thus, the player is presented with a tough choice – use the cards for their immediate benefits, or save them in attempts to build sets. Again, tough decisions! 

6) Found a Colony. Each player can found up to four colonies. Colonies give the advantage of producing even greater yields and varieties of spices. Plus, the more colonies a player founds, the more victory points he will earn.

Founding colonies requires the player to have a set number of colonists at his disposal. The player’s progress on the colonist section of his development chart will provide a base number of colonists, but these are never enough to found a colony. Players can supplement this by colonist cards in their possession, and by attempting to attract new colonists via the expedition cards.

When a player attempts to found a colony, he first declares which of the four colonies he is attempting to found. The required number of colonists ranges from 6 – 12. He then reveals two expedition cards. Each expedition cards depicts a colonist icon with a value of 1 – 3. If the total of the two cards revealed, added to his “base” number of colonists as depicted on his development chart, equals or exceeds the number required by the chosen colony, the player is successful. If he is a few colonists short, he can make up the difference with any colonist cards he possesses. He then takes the colony, places it on his development chart and adds the appropriate number and type of spices to the colony. There is much celebrating.

If, however, the player fails in his attempt to found a colony, all is not lost. The player receives a colonist card as compensation, which will help make it easier to be successful on his next attempt.

Of course, choosing which actions to perform on a turn is one of THE major aspects of the game. You ALWAYS want to do more than the three actions allow. Having an extra action card or two can be a huge benefit. So how do you get those extra action cards? There are two main ways:

1) Win the auction for the flag marker. This automatically gives the player an extra action card.

2) Win a tile that gives you the ability to take an extra action card.

A player may only hold one extra action card at the end of his turn, so the rule is “use ‘em or lose ‘em”.

After all four rounds of auctions are held, the remaining tiles are removed from the board, and a new set of 25 tiles are placed. To paraphrase Herman’s Hermits, “Second turn, same as the first!” Repeat the same procedure again with four rounds of auctions and player actions. After the second turn, the game is over and victory points are tallied.

There are numerous ways in which to earn victory points:

1) VPs for the positions of the five markers on your success track. This can be major.
2) VPs for the number of colonies the player has founded (1 – 10)
3) VPs for expedition cards, based on matching symbols (1 – 20)
4) VPs for the player with the most ducats (3 VP)
5) VPs for “single” plantations (active and discarded) – (1 VP each)
6) VPs for special “duty” tiles won during the game (requires six spices to be surrendered – 4 VP)
7) VPs for the special “mission” tiles won during the game (2 or 3 VP)

The player with the most Victory points is declared the most prestigious merchant, and is elevated to a position of great power and respect.

As you can probably tell from my above comments and remarks, I really like this game. There is a LOT going on here – almost too much. It is quite difficult to assess the value of the various tiles, determine which ones to bid upon and how much ducats to spend, choose which actions to exercise, which spices to select, which colonies to found, etc. Choosing is the key requirement here, and those choices can be excruciating. It is these types of tough choices, tossed at me in abundance, that help make a game rich and meaty. Goa has these choices in abundance.

Now, I am not one that derives much enjoyment from dissecting a game, analyzing every possible choice and strategy in an effort to determine the most cost-effective strategy or most optimum path to pursue. That doesn’t excite me. But, for those that do find such exercises stimulating, then they should find enough material here to keep them occupied – and the game discussion boards overflowing – for quite some time. Like them, I will enjoy the many challenges the game offers. 

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Responses

  1. The auctions in Goa are snappy and substantial but the analysis paralysis between them slows things down a bit. If I were in the mood for either an auction or a development game, I’d pick something different. But for both in the same game, this is the best choice of all. (8/10)

  2. I am caught in the bind of not wanting to do the analysis or more likely not able to do it well. So I always leave the game wishing I could do better but thinking I should probably just not play if winning is the only thing. (6/10)


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