Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
Vanuatu, by designer Alain Epron and published under his own Krok Nik Douil Editions, has a theme I initially found a bit off-putting in its uniqueness. Essentially, each player represents a native villager on the archipelago of Vanuatu, doing the sort of things that the natives typically engage in: fishing, looking for sunken treasure, drawing on the sand, and attracting tourists. This did not initially sound interesting, as tense and brutal games do not frequently have a sedate island theme, but the description still had a few items that caught my eye, with the most prominent item being, “Vanuatu is a strategy game of programming and majority featuring development, blocking and a lot of interaction between players”. That bit, plus my decision to read the rulebooks of a certain category of games, meant that I would definitely be checking it out.
Interplay Variability And Luck
Due to my propensity to want to play my favorite games extensively, interplay variability is an important factor in determining both whether a game enters my collection in the first place and if it will stay there once it arrives.
Generally two things are, to a lesser or greater degree, the sources of interplay variability: a high degree of informational content, with lots of information to absorb, understand, and manage; and a high degree of interaction, allowing players to create new strategic challenges for each other. Vanuatu looks like it will have the interplay variability I crave mostly because of the second item: the large degree of interaction it has in both action selection and action resolution.
Random factors, and how they are used, are frequently a consideration when I acquire a game. I don’t have any particular problem with luck or dice-driven mechanics in general principle, but there are certain types of luck that do rub me the wrong way. Vanuatu does not have these forms of luck, but it does have three items, that may negatively affect individuals who have a higher sensitivity than I do:
1) Archipelago tiles, which are used to build the map, are randomized before the game starts. You are able to look ahead and see what is available in the next round from the beginning of the previous round however, allowing some ability to plan for future tiles.
2) Tourist tiles which determine how many tourists are available on a given round. A new one is drawn every round, with no future information available.
3) The three available demand tiles, which determine the goods that can be delivered for points. These are changed out at the end of any round where they filled up.
The Vicious, Interesting, Action Selection Phase
The heart of Vanuatu is its action planning system. In each of the game’s eight rounds, a player has a total of five pawns to place, two at a time, into one or two of the nine action spaces. After the action planning phase occurs, players take turns removing their action pawns from these spots and performing their actions. There is however a risk here, in that if it comes to a players turn and there is no space in which they have a majority, with ties being based on player order, they will find themselves unable to perform an action. I admit the potential viciousness of this is appealing, even as I suspect that it will be relevant only part of the time.
Those who have the least ability to break ties have the largest ability to determine if tie-breaking is necessary, as they will have a better idea of where they need to place their tokens. This limited ability to react to the later action selections means that the first player will frequently have to double up on certain locations as a defensive maneuver, reducing the number of options they will have on a given round. Even if blocking itself is only going to be sometimes relevant, the fact that you can be forced into taking actions in a non-optimal order so as to avoid giving up actions will always be relevant, and should result in some very interesting decisions during this phase.
The available actions are:
1) Sail: Move up to three spaces, paying one vatu (the games currency) for each space traveled through.
2) Build: Put a stall on an empty slot on an island adjacent to your boat. This costs three vatu.
3) Explore: Explore a shipwreck, gaining a shipwreck tile equal in value to the treasure disks on the space. Remove one treasure disk. This tile can be either exchanged for money equal to its value or turned into victory points equal to twice its value if saved until the end of the game.
4) Fish: This works like Explore except you remove fish disks instead of treasure disks. The fish tiles are used for the Sell action.
5) Sell: Sell your fish to an island that has one of your stalls and is adjacent to your boat. Gain money per fish based on the current fish price (3->2->1) afterwards push the fish price down by 1.
6) Buy: Buy a cube from an island adjacent to the player’s boat, spending money based on the type of good and getting victory points based on the type of good if there is an available demand tile wanting that good. Bonus points are provided if you are placing the last good on a demand tile
7) Draw: Place a player disc on a draw space on an island adjacent to your boat and get three victory points.
8) Transport: Put a tourist on an island where there is at least one stall. Gain 1 vatu for each stall on the island.
9) Rest: Take a rest token. There are four of these, with one providing the first player position for the following round, and the others providing a mixture of victory points and vatu.
The Money Bottleneck
Another example of the viciousness of the games is how money is spent and distributed. Without a stall you can’t sell fish for vatu (the main source of income) and any tourists you deliver will give victory points to other people at the end of the game. As these two actions are also two of the three ways to get additional money in the game, it is very important that you build a stall early in order to be able to pay for the actions you need to win. After the stall is built the biggest way for you to get money is to claim the first fish sale of a round, and I suspect that much of the early game will end up being a grand contest to see who can get the first 3 fish pay-off with whoever is able to identify when the action cost is no longer worth the return on investment also being in a good position. Once you have this money you have more flexibility to move around the board (remember, movement costs money!) and performing expensive actions like building more stalls and buying goods to trade for victory points.
This is one of the Essen releases I am most excited about. The game looks like it will be fairly tight with lots of strategic ambiguity and interesting decisions from beginning to end. The ability for other players to effect each other’s positions in addition to the more eurogame standard of competing for scarce resource should guarantee lots of interplay variability, and the modular board construction and area movement requirements should offer a nice spatial dimension to the game. It is unfortunate that this does not seem like it will end up being readily available in the US, but it looks like it will be good enough that it is worth importing. Hopefully I will get my copy pretty soon after Essen!