Posted by: gschloesser | September 1, 2011

Dutch Golden Age

Design by:  Leo Colovini & Giuseppe Bau
Published by:  Phalanx and Mayfair Games
3 – 4 Players, 60 – 90 minutes
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser

NOTE:  This review first appeared on the Boardgame News site 

Leo Colovini has designed dozens of games for numerous different publishers.  He is one of the most prolific designers in the gaming industry, and his games run the gamut from fast and easy fillers to deeper strategy board games.  He can generally be counted upon to include some original elements or concepts in his games, a feature that entices me to try most of his creations.  While I enjoy many of his games, for me, none have been truly outstanding.  That is no longer the case, as The Dutch Golden Age has become a personal favorite.  What is strange is that I almost abandoned the game after my first play, as I was the recipient of a whopping dose of bad luck when drawing cards.  Fortunately, I gave the game another chance, and now greatly appreciate the cleverness of the design.

As the title suggests, the game is set in the golden age of Holland.  The Netherlands were at the pinnacle of their power politically, culturally and economically.  Players attempt to simulate this rise to glory by amassing victory points in a variety of fields, including trade, culture, arts and others.  What intrigues me so much about the game is the latitude it affords players in accomplishing their objectives, giving players considerable freedom each turn and providing ample opportunities for cleverness.

The board depicts 16th century Holland, divided into ten provinces, two each of five different colors that correspond to the different fields mentioned above.  Also present is the Dutch East and West Indies, as well as a chart representing the guilds for these five fields.  Ringing the entire board is a track containing dozen of spaces, each listing two of the provinces.  Players receive a limited supply of movement tokens and influence counters, as well as ten guilders.  All of these items will be in short supply during the course of the game, which forces players to utilize these resources wisely and make some very tough choices.  The board is seeded with two movement tokens and one influence counter from each player.

A player’s turn consists of the following actions:

Move the Steward.  The player rolls two dice and moves the Steward pawn clockwise along the track.  Income is earned for each player who has movement tokens and/or influence counters in the provinces listed on the space where the Steward lands.  Since money can be extremely tight, this is an opportunity to earn a guilder or two – or more – so players will often relocate their movement tokens during the game in order to increase the odds of receiving income from the Steward.

Free and Special Actions.  Here is where the bulk – and beauty – of the game occurs.  Players can mix and repeat these actions as they desire, which is where the opportunity for creativity and cleverness surfaces.  Some of these actions are considered “free” in the sense that a player does not need to control or have a presence in a specific province in order to execute the action.  These include:

a)      Move a movement token.  A player may move a token as far as he desires at a cost of one-half guilder per territory moved.  Yes, there are ½ guilders in the game!

b)      Place a new influence token.  To place an influence token, the player must gather three of his movement tokens in a province.  The movement tokens are removed from the board, and an influence token is placed.  It may only be placed in a province that does not already possess an influence marker from any player.  Controlling a province with an influence marker allows the player to execute the special action associated with that province, which will be explained in greater detail shortly.  Further, it does give the player a chance of earning income if the Steward lands on a space listing that province.

c)      Gaining Control of a Guild.  As mentioned, there are five guilds, one for each field – investments, population, art, colonies and culture.  Each of these corresponds with two provinces on the board, and is easily identifiable via color.  Controlling a guild allows a player to execute the action associated with that field just as if he controlled a province of that color.  This allows a player to execute an action even if he does not control any provinces in Holland that allows that particular action.  Or, it allows a player to perform a particular action multiple times if he controls a province and the corresponding guild.

Each guild track has numbers ranging from 3 – 10.  The first player to place an influence marker on a guild places it on the lowest number and pays that amount in guilders to the bank.  If an opponent wishes to gain control of that guild, he must pay more in order to place his marker one space above the existing influence marker, which is then removed and returned to its owner.  Thus, the cost to control a guild becomes progressively more expensive.  A player’s control is tentative, and control usually changes often during the course of a game.

Special actions require the player to have an influence counter in a province or guild.  The player inverts the counter and takes the associated action.  The population (green) provinces allow the player to place a new movement token on the board, and are the only action not associated with a deck of cards.  Most of the actions are simply drawing a card from the appropriate deck:

  • Investment (yellow) cards provide income, and can range from 5 guilders for a single card to 20 guilders for an identical set of three cards, which take longer and are more difficult to collect.
  • The purpose of Colony (blue) cards is to assemble a fleet in order to sail to the West or East Indies.  This requires a player to collect a ship, captain and cannon card.  There are wild cards in the deck that can substitute for a missing component.  Once a set is assembled, the player may place an influence marker on a space in the East Indies.  Once the five spaces in the East Indies are occupied, players may begin placing influence tokens in the West Indies.  These spaces will allow the player to begin selecting spice cards, which yield higher income than the investment cards.  In addition, presence in the Indies earns players victory points.
  • Spice (orange) cards work much like the investment cards, but the income ranges from 7 guilders for a single card to a whopping 27 guilders for a set of three identical cards.  A player must have an influence marker in the Indies in order to select spice cards.  The cost to select these cards increases the later a person arrives in the Indies.
  • Art (brown – but they appear red!) cards are artists.  Artists are commissioned to complete works of art.  Each card will list the number of turns they will take to complete the work, and the amount of victory points they will grant a player when the work is completed.  Each turn, when a player performs an art action, he may place a guilder on the card.  When the card accumulates the proper number of guilders (as listed on the card) the work is complete, and the victory points are earned.  Artists are a relatively long-term commitment, but the yield in victory points can be significant.
  • Culture (grey) cards are a mixed lot.  The deck contains some cards that match those found in the other decks.  Many of the cards are governorships, which grant the player a victory point, but also earn income for the listed province when the Steward lands on a space listing that province.  Other cards simply grant victory points.  While pursuing a culture strategy can be risky, obtaining numerous governorships can provide a steady source of income and earn numerous victory points.

A player may opt to not execute a particular action, choosing to auction that action instead.  The winner of the auction pays the active player and takes the appropriate action.  Often, this is a method for the active player to earn extra guilders in order to perform other actions.  It is the ability to mix and repeat these actions that provides such tremendous flexibility for the players.  Players can perform a few actions, auction an action to gain needed money, use the money to grab control of a guild and take the associated action, which might generate more income, allowing the player to do another action … you get the idea.  There are tremendous opportunities to string together a series of actions in clever fashions that can produce some astonishing results.  It is what makes the game so special.

At the end of each turn, the player must announce the number of victory points he has accumulated.  This is a bit tedious, requiring players to tally their points each turn.  A chart to record victory points would have been very helpful.  Victory points are earned by influence counters in Holland and the Indies, movement tokens in Holland, completed art works, governors and windmills, and for every ten guilders.  If a player reaches 33 victory points, the game ends immediately in victory.  While the game box lists the playing time as one hour, ninety minutes seems to be the more common playing time.

The biggest potential drawback in the game is that many actions require players to collect sets of cards.  Cards are drawn randomly from the decks, so while the law of averages should even things out over the course of the game, it is possible to have a bad run of luck and draw cards you are not collecting.  I suffered this fate in my first game, and it almost dissuaded me from playing it again.  Fortunately, such persistent poor luck has not surfaced in my future games.  The fact that it can, however, is a concern, but the charms of the game have been enough to overcome this one potential flaw that can possibly surface.

Leo Colovini has designed numerous clever and pleasant games, some of which I rather enjoy.  None, however, have captured my fancy as much as The Dutch Golden Age.  His creativity is in full bloom here, and the wide latitude the system provides for players to create clever moves and pursue various strategies is tactics is brilliant.  There are multiple strategies and combinations of strategies to pursue, which helps each game feel fresh and different.  The variety of mechanisms blend together well, and players are challenged each game to find the proper strategies and combinations that will lead them to victory.  This is, in my opinion, Colovini’s best.

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