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[Review] Goa

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Joined: 03/23/2011

Occasionally, when I play a game for the first time, it overwhelms me slowly as the game progresses, until I get to the point and smile, saying, “This, is a great game - a true ‘gamer’s game’.” I’ve only felt that way about three games in the past twelve months: Princes of the Renaissance, Maharaja, and now Goa (Rio Grande Games, 2004 - Rudiger Dorn).

One of my favorite types of games to win is one with a multitude of options, one where every turn you can do something different, yet one that doesn’t require so much thought that decisions can’t be made quickly. Some have loudly proclaimed an ultimate strategy on the internet; but since neither I nor anyone I play with reads such articles, we’ve found that games are close, fun, and offer multiple paths to victory. Goa certainly isn’t for the faint at heart, for those expecting a quick, light game; but when you want to play a game of great strategy with only a smattering of luck, Goa is your game!

The game board is placed (where else?) in the middle of the table, with a development and supply board given to each player. Each player places a success marker (gray cube) at the top of each of the five development columns on their development board, and up to five numbered auction markers (depending on the number of players) on their supply board. Several piles of commodity cards are placed face up on the board: money, in “1”, “2”, “5”, and “10” denomination; colonists, in “1” and “3” denominations; and ships, also in “1” and “3” denominations. Each player receives four ships, two colonists, and ten coins (except the start player, who receives the flag and only seven coins). A pile of spice tokens (ginger, pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves) are placed near the board, as well as a pile of action cards, and a face down pile of shuffled expedition cards. A stack of “A” tiles is shuffled and twenty-five of them are placed face-up in a grid in the middle of the board, with the remainder not used in this game. A stack of “B” tiles are placed face down next to the board, as well as four face-up stacks of colony tiles.

The game has two parts (A & B), each split into four rounds. The first thing to occur each round is the tile auctions. The player who has the flag places it in any empty space or at the perimeter of the grid next to a face-up tile. The player then places their number “1” auction token on the flag. The next player places their number “2” auction token on any adjacent tile (even diagonally) to the flag. This continues until all players have placed one auction token on a tile (for a total of one more auction than the number of players.) The auctions then occur, starting with auction #1 (which is always the flag), and proceeding until all auctions are finished. Starting with the first player, each player makes a bid, starting with zero, each bid surpassing the previous one. Bidding continues until all but one player pass. The highest bidder pays the player whose auction is occurring (noted by their colored auction token); unless it is that person, they pay the bank. The player who wins the flag takes it, placing it in front of them, as well as one action card. The tiles do a variety of things:
- Some tiles give the player an immediate bonus, such as two action cards, four colonists, etc. These tiles are discarded after use.
- Mission tiles are placed face down in front of the player, giving bonus points at the end of the game.
- Plantation tiles have one to three spots on them, with a certain type of spice indicated. These tiles are placed in one of the player’s four slots for plantation tiles on their supply board (they can replace one) and each spot on the tile filled with the appropriate spice token.
- Some tiles are placed in front of the person, where they can be used once each turn - such as gain one colonist, one ship, etc.
- There are other tiles that allow the player to take a special action, or switch tiles, etc.

After the final auction, the action phase of the turn begins. Starting with the player with the flag, and continuing clockwise around the table, each player takes one action. This continues until all players have taken three actions (although players may discard an action card to take an additional action.) Actions include:
- Build ships - the player takes ships equal to the current number on their “build ships” development track.
- Harvest - the player takes spices and places them on their plantations and colonies, equal to the number on their “harvest” development track.
- Taxes - the player takes gold coins equal to the number on their “tax” development track.
- Expedition - the player takes expedition cards equal to the first number shown on the “expedition” track. The second number on the track determines their maximum hand card limit.
- Development Board progress: The player may move one of the success markers on one of their tracks down one space. In order to do so, they must pay the required number and type of spices shown between the two spaces, as well as one ship for each spice expended. The first player to reach the last two rows of each column draws one expedition card as a bonus. Each player also gets an extra action card for each row that ALL of their tokens has reached, starting with the second row.
- Found a colony: A player names which colony they are attempting to found, each with a required number of colonists needed (Quilon - 6, Cochin - 8, Madras - 10, and Calicut - 12). The player then draws the top two cards from the expedition deck and turns them over, revealing two to six colonists. The player then adds the number of colonists shown on their current spot on their colonist track. If necessary, they may also pay colonist cards to increase their total, which must meet or exceed the required number. If they succeed, they go through the colony tiles of that name, taking the one of their choice (they provide one or two resources of two or more types), placing it face up in that colony’s space on their supply board, filling it with the matching spices. If the player fails, the colony is not founded, but the player gets a colonist for their trouble.
- Expedition cards, besides having symbols on them (for end of the game scoring) and a number of colonists (for founding colonies), have a special action; there are many different types. These actions can be taken for free at any time, giving the player extra money, etc. Other expedition cards modify actions - such as allowing a player to progress without using ship cards.

After all players have taken all their actions, the round ends, and another auction round begins. After four rounds, all remaining “A” tiles on the board are discarded, and twenty-five “B” tiles are laid out. Four more rounds then occur, after which the game ends. Players then add up their victory points:
- Victory points for any mission tiles they might have (2 or 3)
- Victory points for any single plantations they have (1 each)
- Victory points if they completed the “Duty mission” tile (4)
- Victory points for like symbols on any expedition cards in their hands. (1-20, depends on how many like symbols they have - there are five different types of tiles.)
- Victory points for the number or colonies the player has (1, 3, 6, or 10)
- Victory points for each success marker, depending on what row it has reached. (0, 1, 3, 6, or 10)
- Victory points for the player with the most money (3)
The player with the most points is the winner, with ties broken by the amount of money!

Some comments on the game...

1.) Components: The game certainly has a lot of them, for its fairly medium-sized but sturdy box. Fortunately the plastic insert holds them well to the point that I haven’t bagged most of them up yet (I will bag the auction tokens). The spice tokens are little wooden bags (or mushrooms - it depends on which way you look at them) or different colors. We kept forgetting what each spice was and started calling them what the little pictures on the tiles looked like (peas instead of pepper, etc.). The tiles were nice, easy to distinguish, and were quite thick. All the cards were of the small size that is so prevalent in games today but were again easy to distinguish and handled wear and tear quite well. The board is thick and has very clear art on it, showing exactly where all the card stacks and pieces go, as do the smaller, thin cardboard player boards. The auction tiles are round cardboard tokens of each player’s colors. Both the auction tokens as well as the ship, colonist, and action cards are double sided, which REALLY helps make the game easier to handle. The art on the game depicts the early 1500’s and looks nice (hey - it’s not fantasy!). Everything comes in a nice package that is pretty good, especially considering how inexpensive the game is currently. All components are language independent.

2.) Rules: The rulebook is fairly lengthy for a German game with twelve large pages, filled with small type, pictures, and illustrations. The full-colored book is quite excellent, splitting each part into sections, with the last two pages showing a full turn round. This, of course, doesn’t prevent questions, as one can tell by going to and checking out the rule queries. There is quite a bit of activity there, but the designer, Rudiger Dorn, has answered questions, and there is an official FAQ (not that I’ve had to use it.) I won’t lie and say that the game is easy to teach; it’s definitely in the meatier section of German games. But once learned, it all comes naturally. I compare its complexity to that of Princes of Florence, and experienced German gamers should understand it quickly. I wouldn’t spring this game on a person new to German games, however; unless they had a high analytical mind.

3.) Strategy: Even if one quickly grasps the game, the strategies aren’t immediately obvious. There are so many options to take, and so much available to a player on their turn, that it can overwhelm new players. Everything fits together like a tight, oiled machine, so players must watch all of their resources carefully. Are ships more important than colonists or money? It all depends on your strategy, and I really enjoyed how the game rewarded both those who took extreme strategies, and those who tried to play evenly. The development boards reminded me strikingly of those in Industrial Waste, a game I am decidedly neutral on. In Goa, however, whenever a player increases a development track, the benefits can be used immediately; and all of the tracks are so useful and so helpful, that it is agonizing to pick which one to advance.

4.) Auctions: The auctions almost seem like a sub game but are crucial. Getting the flag is important, as the extra action cards are immensely powerful and useful, as is going first. At the same time, knowing which tiles to go for as well as the placement of the auction tiles; it almost feels like a game in itself. I enjoy auctions; and even though they are nothing special in this game alone - together with the rest of the game, they really make me catch my breath when playing.

5.) Unbeatable Strategy: Some folks have claimed that the game is “broken”, as there is one superior strategy to take. I have seen some debate on the subject; but I can’t help you out there, as I always ignore such threads. I don’t want to have an “invincible strategy”, and since none of my gaming friends read such threads, our games have always been enjoyable. And in all the games I’ve played, I haven’t seen any strategy emerge; so I’m pretty comfortable.

6.) Time and Players: I really wish the game allowed for five players, but I guess it would have gotten fairly crowded. Still, the game plays very well with two (a surprise), although I prefer the full compliment of four. Games last about ninety minutes, which is a great time for such a strategy filled, deep game.

7.) Theme and Fun Factor: Okay, the theme is miniscule; although we often spoke of moving “peas” and “carrots” around on ships. The strategy is superb, though, so I could care less about the theme. Most of the fun comes from seeing how your strategy plays out and the auctions. It’s not a game where everybody is shouting in laughter, but a thoughtful, well-planned game of excellence.

Goa is a tremendous game - one of my favorite “heavy” games ever. I love games that give piles of options and that have a variety of ways to score. The game takes the best part of lesser games, such as Industrial Waste, and comes out a shining jewel. There’s nothing really new or brilliant about the game, but its combination of auctions, resource management, and action options really make a game of fantastic proportions. If you are looking for a light, quick game, Goa probably isn’t for you; but if you are looking for one of the deepest, best games of 2004, then Goa is the best choice you have.

Tom Vasel
“Real men play board games.”

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