Posted by: gschloesser | August 12, 2011

Vasco da Gama

Design by:  Paolo Mori
Published by:  What’s Your Game?
2 – 4 Players, 2 – 3 hours
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser 

Even if I ultimately do not enjoy the game itself, I am always delighted when I find a game that has an original mechanism.  When the game proves to be thoroughly engaging, challenging and tense, then it will likely be a big hit and become a personal favorite.  Vasco da Gama by designer Paolo Mori shows every sign of becoming just that – a personal favorite.

Published by What’s Your Game?, Vasco da Gama casts players as wealthy ship owners vying to obtain the vast riches available along the African coast.  In order to succeed, players must first obtain contracts, outfit their ships, enlist the aid of influential Portuguese nobles and hierarchy, and set sail for the African ports.  All of this must be accomplished within very tight financial constraints.  Players must carefully coordinate all of these tasks, while staying one step ahead of their eager opponents.  Fabulous riches and lasting fame await the player who is the most successful.

Players each receive four action discs, a captain, one of the four special characters, and a starting supply of ten reals (coins).  The game is played over the course of five rounds, after which the victor is determined.

First, let’s examine the creative method and ramifications of selecting the numbers (there are twenty number tokens), which will ultimately determine the order in which players execute the various actions.  Each round, a Vasco da Gama tile is revealed which indicates the number upon which the “free action” marker is initially placed.  Later in the round, another tile will be revealed which will move that marker from -3 to +3 spaces.  Every number that is located at or above the space occupied the marker is free to the players, while very action below where the marker is located costs the players 1 real per space below the marker.  For example, if the marker is located on the “10” space, then actions 10 – 20 are free.  If a player has action #7, it will cost the player three reals to execute the action.

It is important to note that players will select the action numbers BEFORE the free action marker is moved.  So, players must guess how far and in what direction the marker will move.  As the game progresses through its five rounds, players can make an educated guess based on which tiles have already been revealed.  However, one can never be quite sure just how or in which direction the marker will move.  So, it is best to have enough cash on hand to pay for the actions if the marker descends on the chart, which is far easier said than done!

Beginning with the player who holds the Bartholomeu Dias tile, players alternate taking one of the available number tokens and then placing it along with one of their four discs into one of the four possible action areas.  Players will do this four times, using all of their action discs.  Each of board area can only accommodate five or six discs, so players must be sure to place their discs in the areas they desire before they are filled.

This number selection and action placement process is at the heart of the game and requires very careful planning.  Not only is there the consideration of the potential cost of the action, but players must also plan the actions they will take during the upcoming turn.  These actions often must be done in a specific sequence, as it is no use to plan on sending a ship on a voyage if the proper crew has not yet been assembled.  More than once in each of the games I’ve played, players have improperly planned the sequence of their actions, much to their detriment.  This is also the longest part of each turn, as there is often so much to consider, it takes players an appreciable amount of time to contemplate their options.

Now what about those actions?  The board is divided into five sections, one of which houses the number tokens, bank and Vasco da Gama tiles, while the other four are the action spaces.  These are the areas onto which players will place their discs to indicate the actions they desire to take.  Players will execute actions in ascending order, so choosing a low number will allow the player to go earlier in the turn, but it carries with it considerable financial risk.

Recruiting Area.  This area contains four windows, each containing up to five crew members.  There are four different specialties (colors), and each ship must have a certain number of crew members, each of a different color.  In addition, the area contains six captains for each player.  When a player takes this action, he may purchase as many crew members from ONE window he desires.  The cost depends upon the number of different colors he takes.  If he takes crew members of just one color, he pays only one real, no matter how many tokens he takes.  This cost rises up to a maximum of ten reals if a player takes crew members of all four colors.

In addition to crew, a player may also hire a captain.  The cost is one real per crew member hired.  Thus, the more crew hired, the more expensive the captain.  Crew and captains do not have to be immediately assigned to a ship.  Rather, they can be maintained until a ship is ready to sail.

Projects Area.  Six ship contracts are available for purchase.  Contracts list the number of crew needed – all of different colors – the rewards they generate when at sea (coins or victory points), and the highest port they can visit.  I’ll explain this when explaining the Navigation area.  Players may purchase one or two contracts.  One contract costs only one real, while two contracts cost the player four reals.  Contracts are not complete until a player allocates the required crew and captain to it.

In addition to the six normal contracts, there is one special Sao Gabriel project.  The cost to acquire this contract is one real per crew member the ship requires.  However, the ship comes complete with a crew.  Only a captain needs to be assigned.  Thus, while this may be more expensive in terms of reals, it is often a good deal as it saves the time and finances of acquiring the required crew.

Navigation Area.  This is where players launch their ships, sailing them to the six different ports along the African coast.  Each port can accommodate a certain number of ships, with each space carrying a value ranging from 4 – 11.  Natal is the lowest and smallest port on the map, with space for only one ship of a value of 4.  The number of ships a port can accommodate increases the further up the map one progresses.  For example, the port of Mozambique has space for three ships, with values of 6, 5 and 4, while Calicut – the largest port – can accommodate six ships with values ranging from 7 – 11.

As long as space is available, a ship can sail to any port the player desires.  However, it can only fill a space if the number listed on the ship is greater than or equal to the value listed on the space.  So, a ship with a value of “7” can land in any space whose value is 7 or lower.  It is quite possible for players to land their ships so as to block the landing of their opponent’s ships.  Going earlier in turn order is certainly beneficial when attempting this maneuver.

When a ship first lands, it will earn a number of victory points equal to the value of the space.  These points are significant, and they present the players with a dilemma:  place a ship on the highest possible space in order to earn more victory points, or place it on a lower valued space to potentially block an opponent.  In addition, a player earns a port bonus when initially landing a ship.  The bonus varies by port, and can be an additional ship contract, a crew member, a captain or reals.  Securing a needed item often takes priority over potentially higher victory points.

Character Area.  There are four characters available, as well as two chests of reals.  Players each begin the game with a character, but they can be recruited from them by another player.  Characters grant a variety of abilities, including victory points, a missionary (which serves as a fifth type of crew), an extra action or a merchant ship, which can be used to acquire a port bonus and/or block an opponent’s ship placement.  The powers of the characters are quite useful, and skillful use of them can result in some very clever maneuvers.  Instead of selecting a character, a player may opt to select one of the two chest of money available, the amount in each varying from turn-to-turn.  Money is usually in short supply, so this is a good influx of income – if you can beat your opponents to it.

Once players have taken all of their actions, players receive income from their ships in port as specified on the counters.  The ports are then examined from top-to-bottom, and if a port is completely filled, ships located there will attempt to sail to the next highest port.  Before sailing, each ship in the filled port earns additional victory points (ranging from 1 – 5) as listed on the port.  Beginning with the ship nearest the coast, players then move their ships to the next highest port, IF a space is available.  They must follow the same placement rules as when initially landing, but no new victory points or bonuses are earned.  Again, players are faced with the choice of landing the ship at a space that grants more victory points, or occupying a lower-valued space to deny an opponent the opportunity to land.  Any ships that cannot legally land are discarded, with the captain being returned to its owner.

This navigation aspect encourages players to begin their initial landing of ships along the lower coast.  Then, as ports fill, the ships will sail up the coast, collecting more victory points each time a port fills.  The danger, of course, is that one might be blocked entry into a port by opponent’s ships or merchant ships.  Placing one’s ship first in a port decreases this likelihood, but does not completely eliminate the danger.

After the fifth round, players may launch any ships to which they can assign the required crew and captain, receiving three victory points for each shipped launched.  Additional victory points are earned for every three reals.  The player with the most points becomes the wealthiest ship owner in Portugal, and wins the game.

Vasco da Gama is a rich game, filled with lots of options and difficult decisions.  While the game does fall into the category of “worker placement”, the game goes beyond that label.  The system affords wide latitude for clever play by creatively combining the different possible actions and characters.  I have been impressed by the clever maneuvers players have executed, and have performed a few myself.  I always appreciate games that allow players to exercise some creativity in their actions.

I also appreciate the originality of several game mechanisms, particularly the method of selecting the number tokens that determine the order in which actions will be performed.  There is a lot to consider during this phase, and the potential costs add a bit of risk to the proceedings.

The only drawback is the length of the game, which has been taking us 2 ½ – 3 hours to complete.  I don’t mind longer games, but it is an obstacle to many gamers.  The estimated time on the box is 1 – 2 hours, but I don’t see us getting under the two hour mark.  There simply are too many choices to make.  Again, I don’t mind this at all, but for some, it is a turnoff.

I am excited about Vasco da Gama, and consider it to be in the top tier of games released in 2009.  It has many of the elements that appeal to me, and it should be quite popular with folks who enjoy strategy-heavy games.  It is likely a bit too involved and complex to be considered for the Spiel des Jahre, but it should be a strong contender for the International Gamers Award.  It is a journey well worth taking … over and over again.

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