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Subject: Guatemala Cafe -- Session Report rss

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Greg Schloesser
United States
Jefferson City
TN
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Note: My full review of Guatemala Café will be published soon. What follows is an abbreviated version.

Even though I am not a coffee-drinker, I certainly appreciate the wonderful aroma of freshly-brewed coffee as it wafts through the air of our home each morning. I also enjoy walking down the coffee aisle at our local grocery store, delighting my olfactory glands with the rich odors of the various beans. I was quite surprised when I opened the box of Gautemala Café, one of the latest board games from Eggertspiele, and was confronted with the same pleasant aroma. I’ve always enjoyed the “new board game” smell, but it never did smell anything like coffee!

The reason for this smell is that the game – at least the German version – contains a bag of actually coffee beans. While they have absolutely no use in the game itself, they are in keeping with the theme of harvesting and shipping coffee beans. Set in the Central American country of Gautemala, the game challenges players to establish plantations, recruit workers, build road networks, and transport their coffee beans to the docks for sale. While this sounds quite involved, it is actually a fairly simple game, and everything is conducted in a very abstract manner.

Two large, double-sided boards are placed side-by-side. The “production” board depicts a swath of Central America, and an assortment of workers, plantations, ships and sacks of coffee (scoring tokens) in five colors are placed on it. A path rings the board, upon which the “buyer” will move. The “plantation” board, which depicts a section of the Guatemalan countryside, will serve as the landscape upon which plantations will be erected, roads constructed, and workers and ships employed.

On his turn, a player will first move the buyer clockwise 1 – 3 spaces, then purchase from 1 – 3 items from the row or column adjacent to where the buyer comes to rest. A player may opt to move the buyer one more space, but at a cost of two centavos. The idea is to maneuver the buyer to a row or column that contains items you wish to acquire.

When a player takes items from the production board, he MUST place them onto the plantation board and pay the associated cost. The cost depends upon what section of the plantation board they are placed. The plantation board is divided into three sections, and the cost is higher the closer the pieces are placed to the docks. Boats can be placed into one of the four docks, and will increase the value of one’s harvest IF the corresponding plantation is connected to the dock by roadways.

Each player may only establish one plantation of each color, but often a player will ignore one or more colors, concentrating his efforts on the other colors. Workers are placed adjacent to plantations of the same color and/or workers of the same color. The more workers a player have connected to his plantation, the greater the yield. This yield can be doubled, tripled, or even quadrupled if he is able to connect the plantation to a dock via roads, and the dock contains 1 – 3 ships of the matching color. This is a major goal of the game, but opponents will conspire to prevent you from obtaining numerous workers and ships of one color.

Whenever items are removed from the production board, they are replaced by neutral road tokens. Roads must be placed on the designated paths on the plantation board, but there is no cost for their placement. The supply of roads is limited, and there are not enough to connect all plantations to the docks. There is a bit of a race in obtaining roads and making connections to the docks.

Instead of taking and placing items, a player may instead opt to take a coffee sack, which triggers a scoring and earns the player 6 centavos. The colors of the sacks match the colors of the plantations, and the scoring will only affect the plantation of the matching color. Each player will score points for the number of workers attached to their plantation of the matching color, and this amount can be increased via dock connections as described above. Each opponent has the opportunity to block the scoring by playing a coffee sack of the same color. This doesn’t prevent the active player from earning his income, but it does block all points from being scored.

Once a coffee sack is taken and scoring conducted, the sack is placed on the first empty space at the end of the scoring track. This is a “timer” mechanism, as the game ends when a player’s score marker meets the row of coffee sacks on the track. The player then replaces the coffee sack taken from the production board with one of his choice from his supply.

The game has quite a few elements to consider and balance. Choosing which plantations to concentrate on is important, and a wise player will attempt to accumulate as many workers of those colors as possible. It is wise consul to not allow an opponent to gather too many workers of one color, as the potential scoring benefits are enormous, especially if that player is able to connect those plantations to docks containing ships of the same color. As such, there is a bit of a race to acquire certain workers and docks, and this can be quite competitive if multiple players are concentrating on the same colors.

The plantation board also presents some interesting placement dilemmas. Space is limited, and it is often possible to block the growth of opponents’ plantations by careful placement of your own workers and plantations. I’ve seen some plantations be constructed, but rendered useless by having the surrounding fields quickly occupied by opponents’ workers. The limited supply of roadway tokens also can cause a potentially profitable plantation to be significantly reduced due to lack of a dock connection. In spite of its pleasant theme and abstract representation, there is ample room for aggressive actions.

The theme is certainly one that could have been used to develop a deep production, shipping and market game, filled with intricacies and nuances. However, the design team of Inka and Markus Brand has opted for a much more abstract representation. The game is easy to learn and play, yet does present players with some interesting choices and strategies. A large part of a player’s strategy may well be determined by the color of the coffee sacks he draws during the game’s preparation, so players will be forced to adapt to this situation. The game plays well and is an entertaining affair.

That being said, the game really isn’t terribly deep, nor does it seem to vary much from game-to-game. There isn’t a lot to explore in these Central American lands. Guatemala Café isn’t likely a game you will pull out week-after-week, wanting to explore further facets that you have not yet discovered. Rather, it is a pleasant game that you will likely play a few times a year with different groups. Viewed in that light, it is perfectly acceptable and a fine first effort from the designers.

Rhonda, Bo and I cultivated the fields of Guatemala, constructing plantations and recruiting workers. Bo and Rhonda both made efforts to develop white plantations, but all other colors remained relatively uncontested. Bo was able to construct a massive red plantation, but it was located the furthest from the docks. We successfully blocked several of his scoring attempts, so he was never able to fully reap its potential harvest. Rhonda’s tan plantation was sizeable, while I managed to grow both my black and brown plantations. Fortunately, I managed to connect both of these plantations to the docks, and enjoyed two very good harvests. This was enough to capture the victory.

Finals: Greg 32, Rhonda 20, Bo 15

Ratings: Greg 6.5, Bo 6, Rhonda 5.5
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