Goa is a new game from Ruediger Dorn. His last big box game was Tranders of Genoa(2001). Since Traders of Genoa was quite unique and solid game, Goa made many gamers curious of his recent design changes. The fact that Goa was one of the most popular games at Alan R. Moon's Gathering of Friends promoted the expectations too. My impression after actual play is that this game is a real gamer's game which is somewhat hard to grasp at once the nuance of.
The game is about portuguese traders in India in 16th century, but now we all know that the theme does not really matter here, right? 2 to 4 players can play this game, and the basic system of the game(auction round followed by action round) reminds me of Princes of Florence. I am about to explain the game in detail now, but frankly I'm lost where to start from.
The game is mainly composed of a main board where you place the tiles for the auction along with other cards, plus warehouse boards and development track boards for each players. Besides the tiles for auction, there are colony tiles which players will found in their warehouse boards. Money is made of several types of cards according to their amount. Colonists and ships are also made of cards, each representing 1/3 colonist(s) and ship(s). There are also extra action cards which give you additional action at the end of the action round, and expedition cards which play many roles during the course of the game. Finally, there are 5 types of spices(10 of each types, total 50 - these wooden pieces with the shape of spice bag are really cute), and development level markers(grey cubes).
There are two types of tiles, A and B, 27 each. Since the auction board has only 25 spaces, 2 will be left out of the play. Basically there are 4 types of tiles, and each has different use. Some are plantation tiles, which you place on the warehouse board then use to produce spices. Some give a player money or resources right away, while others give a player certain amount of money or resource every turn. Some you can use only once during the game. Lastly, there are tiles which give you VP directly at the end of the game.
Before starting each era(A or B), you lay down 25 tiles randomly on the auction board. The method of auction is similar to the use of action tower in Traders of Genoa. First, the starting player places the flag marker so that it neighbors a tile, then places an auction marker on it(i.e he's auctioning off the flag, the right to start the round). Clockwise around the table, other players picks a tile to auction off and place auction markers on them : the selected tiles must be adjacent to each other, either orthogonally or diagonally. Once every players finish placing auction markers, the starting player gets to place one more auction marker of his own, this time on a tile. So in each auction round, the flag + as many tiles as the number of players will be auctioned off.
Now, in the order of numbers on the auction markers, the auction begins. It's once-around auction, starting from the player who sits left to the auctioneer(the owner of the auction marker). At the end of the auction, the auctioneer can either sell the tile/flag receiving the highest bid himself, or buy the tile/flag himself, paying highest price to the bank. The auction is one of the only two methods of earning money in the game(except some special tiles), so you really have to decide well when to sell and when to keep. Of course this is hard.
Once the auction is over, the owner of the flag begins the action round. Players perform 3 actions in clockwise order, 1 action at a time(3 rounds). While the auction happens around the main board, action round is played around player boards. There are 6 actions in the game.
If you look at the development board, there are 5 tracks of development - ship building, spice harvest, taxation, expedition and colonists. Every player starts the game at level 1, and the highest level is 5. The first action is to advance one level in one of the tracks. The development is done by shipping spices to Europe using the ships. Pick up spices from the warehouse, then pay as many ship cards as the spices with them to the bank in order to develop an area. The types and number of spices needed for each progress are all different, so you have to carefully manage your warehouse.
The remaining 5 actions are each connected to the 5 development tracks. Ship building action will give you certain number of ships(ship cards) according to your ship building level. Harvest action will give you spices according to your harvest level. But you must have empty spaces in your warehouse in order to harvest. Provided you have the needed space, you can pick up any kinds of spices you want(some plantations and colonies can store only certain kinds of spices). Taxation action will give you money according to your taxation level. Expedition action enables you to draw certain number of expedition cards, but there is also a hand limit when you choose this action. Now this can be confusing : this hand limit only applies when you choose this particular expedition action. That means there are other ways of obtaining expedition cards, but the hand limit only applies when you take the expedition action.
Expedition cards play various roles in the game, so I will explain them here. An expedition card contains three meanings. The upper half of the card represent the action you can perform when you use the card from your hand. Some of them you can use alone, others you use to aid your action. Lower left section has the number of colonists you get when you flip this card trying to recruit colonist in order to found a colony. Lastly, the lower right section has 6 different symbols, each 6 times(there are 36 expedition cards). When the game is over, you get scores for the sets of same symbol.
The last action is to found a colony. The colonist development track shows the number of colonists who will help you founding one(also you get an extra action card whenever you develop this track). There are 4 spaces for colonies on the warehouse board. Each colony produces different spices, and requires different number of colonists to be founded. First you declare which one you will found. Then flip two expedition card from the stack on the main board. Add the numbers of colonists. Add the number of your development track to that. You also can play the colonist cards in your hand. If you succeed in meeting the required number of colonists, you can place a colony tile on the warehouse board, along with the spices. But if you cannot meet the requirement, you fail. But you get one colonist card when you fail, so that you'll have a better chance next time.
Once every player finishes 3 actions, extra action round is performed by the players who are willing to spend their extra action cards. After that, a round is completely over. And after 4 rounds, A era is over. Discard all the remaining tiles, place B tiles randomly on the board, then play another 4 rounds. A and B era have different tiles from each other, so the nuance of the game changes as it progresses.
After 8 rounds, you score points.
- development track : 0/1/3/6/10 points according to the level
- colonies : 1/3/6/10 points according to the number of colonies
- expedition card set : 1/3/6/10/15/20 points according to the size of sets
- most money : 3 points(when tied, every tied players get 3 points)
- plantation tiles : some of plantation tiles have VP marked on them
- special tiles which can give you additional scores
This is roughly how the game goes. But it's hard to know how it feels from this explanation. The game play is critically dependent on the management and timely use of cards and tiles; and all the sub-systems are connected by the cards and tiles too. There are small amount of text on the tiles, but the images are really intuitive. You will get the hang of it after a few uses. But I will not go into the details of their functions here.
Now you'll wonder how the game plays. Quite dry, actually(I told you that the theme does not matter here). The designer, Ruediger Dorn, has succeeded in creating a well developed, complex game using a hodge podge of subsystems very closely. Viewed from a gamer's viewpoint, the system is so complex that he cannot see anything else. A player told me that it felt like playing game systems, not a game. For example, you get the feeling of building up your island, producing goods and selling them in a game of Puerto Rico. In Goa, all you can see is the development level track, which is quite abstract. The adaptation of action tower of Traders of Genoa in the auction board was a brilliant idea by itself. But it really didn't feel so real in the original Genoa game; in Goa, it feels way too abstract(I guess no theme could make it up here).
The player board thing and developing one's own tracks can make the game look like it lacks player interaction. It's hard to know how to play against other players. Since the scoring happens in so many ways, it's not easy to know who's in the lead during the game, let alone how to block him. Since the tiles are the heart of the game, the only way of blocking other players effectively is the auction, that is, restriction of the money. As a result, even though you hardly use your money during the action round, the flow of money in the auction round becomes much important.
Is Goa a game not worth the effort? No. While it's dry, every hardcore german strategy gamers will want to confront this complex game system. The subtle flow of the game, the integration of various sub systems deserves compliments. It's hard to read the game at a single glance, which also means the game proceeds in multiple layers, requiring various strategy and flexible tactics. Goa is a gamer's game which is utilizing various recent game systems very well.
Oops, I did one thing wrong. The extra action card is earned when all prosperity markers of a player have reached second, third, fourth and fifth level. Thank you Derek for clearing things up.