Review: Goa

Goa, by designer Rüdiger Dorn, is a game for 2-4 players set in colonial India where players are working to create the most successful colonies. Success comes through skillful advancements on a number of technology trees, monitary gain and establishment of colonies. The game works very well with any amount of people, though I prefer 4 players. This does make an excellent 2 player game, by the way, which is a huge plus as good meaty 2 player games are hard to come by. In terms of feel and complexity, I would compare this game to Puerto Rico, where you are working on resource management and investments into improvements. Additionally, it is the case that you will be investing in one thing to get another to get another thing. This is a very meaty game. Lots of choices to be made each turn, many ways to win and much more to do than a turn will allow - even more so than Puerto Rico. For this reason, I find Goa more interesting and lasting than PR, which plays pretty much the same each time. Sessions move along quicky with almost no downtime and last anywhere from 45 minutes to 1.5 hours. One nice point here is that the actions phase of each person's turn is split up in three actions with each player taking a pause after one action to let others take their action. In this way, instead of a player taking a long time to make three moves, each player makes one move in turn. As such, turns between players move fast enough that one has just enough time to plan a next move before it then comes up.

I really enjoy this game and find that it is both fairly easy to teach and learn. The games tend to be very close nail biters. Player interaction is about midway into the scale here. Turns are divided into two parts - an auction and actions phase (I suppose like Princes of Florence). Interaction comes through the auction which is very interesting in itself and more dynamic with more player interaction than PoF. The actions half of turns are solitare affairs, but players need to keep an eye out for each other to monitor each others cash, which is critical for the bidding.

Components
Components are fair for today's high standards and include 8 player mats (two types per person), an auction board, mid sized cards which are the different forms of cash and discoveries, advancement tiles, some wooden marker cubes and finally color coded wooden spice tokens. The game graphics are fair to good - nothing particulaly wrong here and the information design works fine. Though a few of the discovery cards are ambiguous and need lookups. Mostly the game lacks a strong, unique visual personality or a cohesive look, which is pretty typical, I suppose. The cover is your typical ship/period man look. It tells a story, but lacks style or mood. Below, can be seen a cover I designed/painted which has more personality, giving the game a distinct identity. The player mats are of flimsy card stock which is unsatisfing, but not uncommon. On the other hand, the tiles are nice and thick, which is satisfying. Finally, the midsized cards are produced well. I appreciate the fact that they did not use paper for the money here and understand that, as cash is very secret, cards might be better than coins Though somehow I would probably have wanted coins and tolkens for cash, colonists and ship currencies.

Current Cover

My refreshed cover
The look refers to the flatness of period artwork
and has an antiqued feel. The colors and background
pattern refer to an Indian weave

The Boards
Let me begin by describing what you see in front of you before speaking of gameplay. Each person has two different player mats. The larger player mat is a grid of 5 vertical tracks going from top to bottom. Players have a wooden marker on each track to measure their progress (investments into) different improvements. This includes ship improvements, harvesting spices, taxes, discovery cards and finally colonist recruitment. This is the heart of each player's game. Additionally, each player has a colony mat, which has 8 spaces for tiles – 4 for plantations that can be purchased and 4 for plantations that can be colonized. A common board is primarily for a unique auctioning system which is a large grid of tiles. The common board also holds all the cards, which is helpful.

Primary board with bidding section in the center, money cards on the left and various other cards on the right. The bidding section includes many tiles – all unique – some of which will be left unused by game end.
Image by Pregremlin

Individual player’s mat with the five vertical progress tracks. From left to right, Ship Improvements, Harvesting, Taxation, Discovery and Colonization. Between each level is an icon of a spice or group of spices needed to advance to the next level.
Image by John Carlton

Individual player’s supply board. Players may establish a maximum of 4 plantations and 4 colonies indicated by tiles. Spice tokens can be harvested and used as a sort of cash.
Image by John Carlton

Goal of the Game

Like most of these games, players are working to get the most VPs. The nice thing about this game as they can be obtained in many ways. Players get VPs through each advance down their 5 tracks, certain tiles which they purchase, each colony they establish, gaining sets of discovery cards and finally having the most cash at game's end. Lots of things to go after here. While some pursuits seem more powerful, it isn't entirely clear to me if there is the "killer" way to go.

Game Play
As mentioned, the game plays in two distinct parts – an auction and then player actions. The auction part is quite unique and works very well here. It's not your typical and allows for economics to change a bit from game to game. What we have here is a square grid of revealed tiles which are available to be auctioned off. The tiles are randomly distributed in the grid in setup. There are more tiles than turns, so some will go unused at game end. Also, there are two halves to the game, the only difference being that when the second half is reached, any remaining tiles to be auctioned from the first half of the game (the "A" tiles) are removed from the game to be refreshed with the "B" tiles. This brings into play more powerful tiles later in the game so that the game escalates nicely.

The auction begins with the player holding the first player flag tile. This tile is put on the edge of the auction grid next to any auction tile or, when the grid empties through tile purchases, the flag may be put in the grid next to tile. The first player puts his colored #1 token on top of the placed flag to designate this as his. It will be auctioned off in a bit, as well as others chosen and he will get the proceeds of this. The player to his left now picks any tile orthagonally adjacent to the flag and places his #2 colored token on that tile. Play follows for the next players in the same manner with the placement of their #3 and #4 markers. After each player has picked a tile next to the previous one selected, the bidding begins on the flag marker proceeding one at a time in numerical order to all the tiles selected for bidding. It is a once around bid which begins to the left of the player who selected the tile up for bid. Players bid for money and bids must be progressively higher. Players may pass and may bid on as many of the tiles selected as they have cash for. The highest bid wins each tile and money is paid to the player who selected the tile. In the event the player who picked the tile also wins the tile, money is paid to the bank. In this way, we begin to see an economy develop as money either exchanges hands (inflation) or goes out of the system into the bank (deflation). Less money between the players generally means lower bids as money is only good for this purpose (excepting VP count at endgame).

The tiles come in different forms, all good things, but basically they are a way to get ships, spices, cash, discovery cards, colonists, extra turn cards, VPs and, very importantly, plantations. Lots to get here and plenty for all. Some tiles give a nice lump sum, while a few others offer players a small turn by turn income of one of these goods. Additionally, players can pick up some tiles which grant a special action to happen. The flag tile is the first to be purchased and grants the player who purchases it an extra action (turn) as well as the opporunity to be first. Also of great importance, they get to choose where to put the flag on the following turn's auction. This is very advantagous as they can manipulate, through careful placement, what tiles might come up for bidding. If they put in an area where tiles have been removed in previous auctions, there might only be one orthogonally adjacent tile for other players to pick and they might not be the most desirable tiles. In this way, the bid will be low for the other player's tiles and they won't get much cash. Or, if there is a particular tile the flag bearer is interested in, he can set the flag next to or near that tile to try to get that up for bidding. So, as you can see, there is much more than a simple bid going on here, which is very interesting.

The second part of the turns are the actions. Players get 3 actions and take one at a time rotating around the board until they all have played out their actions. After this, any players that have received an additional turn card may expend this at this time. On a player's they may do one of 6 things all of which correlate to one of their 5 tracks:

1. Build ship(s) (get ships) - Ships are needed for Action 6 to advance a track.
2. Harvest (get spices) - Spices are needed for Action 6 to advance a track.
3. Tax (get cash) - Cash is needed for the auctions. Also, the player with the most cash at game end gets some VPs.
4. Discovery (get discovery cards) - Cards offer bonuses and VPs at end of game.
5. Create a Colony (get a colony plantation) - Plantations are places to receive spices from Action 2 or from bonus cards or tiles. Also, these colonies give VPs. Colonies also come fully stocked with spices.
6. Advance on a Track - Increases the yield of Actions 1 - 5 above and give VPs.

Each track on the player mat has 6 levels, starting on top at the first level. Investments in each track (action 6 above), advances a marker down the scale which will yield greater results when taking actions 1 - 5 above. These results are clearly notated on each space of each track, so players know what each advance will get them in future.

Action 1: Build Ships. The player may get the number of ship cards that is indicated by the level on this track.

Action 2: Harvest. The player may receive the amount of spices indicated on that level of this track. The spices the player may receive come in 5 flavor varieties all themed appropriately. A player must have a matching spice space open on one of their plantation tiles to receive the spice from this action. The plantation tiles, which can be purchased in an auction or obtained through action 5 (colony above), each have 1 to 3 spaces on them with which to receive spices. There the spices are stored until used. Additionally, each space indicates a certain spice, or at times a number of choices of spices that are only allowed to be stored there.

Action 3: Tax. The player may receive cash from the bank in the amount indicated at this level on the track. Money is tight in the game, so this can often take up one action each round. It is also interesting to note that if players are not taking this action in general, bids in the auction will stay pretty low as there is little money in the economy. As more people tax, bids get higher and you will need to keep up or fall behind in the bidding.

Action 4: Discovery. The player may draw the amount of Discover cards indicated on this level of the track. Each level also has a limit of such cards that can be held in one's hand at a time – the limit starting with 1 card allowed in a hand going to 5 at the bottom of the track. The Discovery cards are pretty powerful, though a bit uneven. Some cards being more powerful than others. Nonetheless, one can generally expect to get goods (like ships, spices, cash, colonists, extra turns, etc) or get discounts for advancing up the track. These discounts can be very, very effective in advancing on the tracks quickly. Some cards can be turned in at any point during any turn, while others take an action to turn in. Once a player gets along on this track, drawing 2 or 3 cards can potentially give the equivalent of 2 or 3 turns, which is fantastic.

Action 5: Create a Colony. Here, players get a chance to add another plantation tile to their board. Additionally, the more colonies one gets (to a limit of four), the more VPs they will receive here. Each of the four colonies are different and get progressively more expensive but offering more spice choices and amounts of spices they can hold. Generally, players will seek to get the cheapest first, working their way up, as it takes a lot to build up a colonist base for each colony. For colonies, colonists are needed. Players add the number of colonist cards they wish to spend with the number that is on their 5th track (colonist track). To this, they draw two cards – each card yielding an additional 1 - 3 colonists. It's a bit of a crap shoot here and one must determine whether they want to hurry the process and take a chance good cards come up or save up to ensure a success. If, after pulling the two cards, the total reaches that needed for that colony tile, they are successful and they may pick a colony tile. Each colony has 5 tiles to choose from and are slightly different. So, being the first to get a particular colony, will offer more choices, which can be very advantagous. The player also receives the plantation fully loaded with spices, which can be really helpful. If one fails to get the needed amount, no action is taken, but they do get an extra colonist card for their troubles. Because turns are one of the most precious things players have, losing a turn or sometimes two can be devistating. This often makes picking this action a tough choice.

Action 6: Advance on a Track. As mentioned, each space on each track has a payoff amount for the corresponding action. In addition, there is a cost for advancement indicated for each space. Each advance down a track gets progressively harder to obtain requiring spice(s) and a ship for each spice. To advance one down (and you may only move one space per action), costs a specific spice or spices depending on that space you wish to advance to. Individual types of spices tend to favor each track. For instance, for the Ship track, a clove spice is always needed to advance, followed by one or more of the other spices depending on the level. In this way, players can plan to focus on advancing down certain tracks by focusing their spice plantation purchases on certain spices. Very nice! In addition to increasing payoff amounts for actions, higher advances will pay off more VPs at end of game. Part of the agonizing decisions that need to be made revolve around which track to advance. Ideally, you want to advance everything, but it is not possible. Generally, players will specialize in one or two tracks as VP payoffs increase at greater amounts the further down the track one goes. There are also a few incentives to consider. When a player advances all tracks down to level 2, they get a free extra action card, which is pretty valuable. The same goes for advancing all the tracks to level 3. This promotes a balanced strategy. On the other hand, an incentive is given for the first person to get to level 4 and to level 5 in any one track. Each of these will pay off that player 1 free discovery card. This promotes a specialization strategy. Every little bit counts in this game as all resources are in high demand.

There are some other rules, but for the most part, this is what you can expect from the game.

Ending the Game
The game lasts 8 rounds, 4 for the first half and 4 for the second. The only reason the game is split in half is that after the 3rd round, all the unpurchased auction tiles are discarded out of the game and the grid is fully replenished with new, more powerful tiles. After the final person has taken their last action available in the 6th round, the game ends and players tally their VPs. VPs come from the level that one is at on each track with increasing payoffs per level as follows from level 1-6: 0, 1, 3, 6, 10. Amount of colonies a player has established pays off VPs from 1 - 4 colonies as follows: 1, 3, 6, 10. Certain tiles purchased also pay offf VPs. Having sets of discovery cards left in one's hand at games end also pays off. What I haven't yet mentioned is that on the bottom of each discovery is one of six symbols. Matches and large sets can pay off big here. Each unmatched card is worth 1 VP going up to 20 VPs for a six card set! This can be enourmous as total VPs range in the 30s and 40s VP count. Focusing on advancing the discovery track and getting discovery cards can be a good strategy here.

Conclusion
I really love this game. I'd say it has gotten around 10 plays now and it is still riveting fun each time! This is one of those games where there is never enough turns to do what one wants, so hard choices need to be made to prioritize actions. Every play, this game is a heart beating, nail biting affair as the game is tight and every action so precious. Should I tax this turn to help me in my bidding or am I secure relative to the other players? Should I harvest this turn to get spices at my low level here? This will only get me 2 spices, or should I take a chance with the cards for a colony which will get me 2 spices as well? I really, really want this tile, but this is my only bid tile. If I win the bid, I pay the bank and get no cash this auction. Or similarly, should I bid up the other player on my tile, knowing that he wants it. If I win, though, I'm going to pay dearly for it as I'll not get any cash this auction. Should I bid on a plantation to get the spices? (Plantations come fully loaded with spices.) On one hand, long term I don't want it, on the other, I get the spices which will save me a turn of harvesting.

As the saying goes, so much to do and so little time!

- Mike