...easy ...easy ...eeesay...
Four players (Harvey, Shane, Jimmy, Nicholas). All experienced gamers. Second game of the evening (the 'main course') following Ad Astra.
The set up is the only bit of randomisation here, and though a little time-consuming (not very) everything was clear and straightforward.
Explaining the rules
There is an excellent rule book with this that makes things very clear and easy to understand. Somehow though, explaining it verbally was a bit trickier, and I think the others were not totally clear on what to do when we began. It is, however, pretty intuitive once you get going, and it was easy to clear things up. One rule was confusing - the explanation of how purchase actions could not be used to activate purchase actions (or something like that), but we more or less figured it out in conversation and it didn't come up anyway.
The game began extremely quickly. The first round doesn't have one of the game phases (salary, because you have no ability to pay), and so you are already well underway (you start with a 'building' in place on your player board anyway) within a very few minutes. Play proceeded at this kind of pace, and at first though there was some competition for control of Europe and the Mediterranean, it was very possible to discreetly develop your own empires abroad without invoking anyone's ire. I headed straight for the Carribbean (pretty much randomly) while Nicholas began colonising Africa. Jimmy and Shane fought for Europe, with Jimmy pushing hardest and gaining firm control there (and grabbing most of the development cards).
Truly, we were well into midgame also within a very few minutes, as there is definitely quite a long 'lead-in' to having enough population to really have a lot of choices on your turn. Well, let me modify that - you may have a good number of options, but you have few enough actions to carry out at first, so it makes for less 'choice' per se. Anyway, the point is we had I think about five buildings down each before the pace began to slow and decisions became more crucial. One interesting point is that my personal game involved a relative lack of 'bricks and mortar', as I thought of it (the ability to construct buildings of greater value). It is a nice mechanic that you can have multiples of the same building and that if you are short of resources and there are none left in your price-range that you can take one of the next value up anyway. This didn't arise, but it means you can't be left totally behind. I grabbed a few shipyards early on and this gave me a few extra shipping actions, which came in handy with my colonisation-heavy strategy (I left Europe pretty much alone).
Though the game is not random beyond the initial placement, that element of randomness does cause a certain amount of important game-play effects. Depending on where the action counters fall and what icons are most readily accessible, you can find yourself even shorter on decisions to make so much because of strategy, but of geography (or just the random result of where the counters went out). There might be an argument for some aspect of 'programming' in the initial counter placement, even just on a few of the links or something. Anyway, that's not how it was designed so that's academic speculation.
Again, the rule book is really superb, so there wasn't much room for messing up. I did make one serious error but spotted it quickly and corrected it before anything was damaged. When Nicholas had nearly succeeded in 'opening' Africa, I snatched the last spot on the shipping track, and then took the Governor card. Chuckling away to myself for my unusual nastiness, I began to have a strange sense that somehow it couldn't be that easy or mean (the game doesn't play 'mean'). A quick check of the rules and I realised my mistake. I handed over the Governor card and adjusted my tracks accordingly to reflect my real situation and Nicholas duly became Governor of the Africas.
The last three rounds or so were when the game really became intense. Right up to that turn all of us had begun wondering if we were playing it right, because comparatively little of the world was colonised (Asia and India were more or less ignored) and things had been moving so fast that it looked like we'd be done in minutes. But as the population tracks advanced and more actions became possible, the wheels began turning more slowly. Strategic decisions needed to be made and an eye had to be kept on the final scoring. One particularly crucial thing were the 'icon' markers on the player boards. In the endgame scoring, you 'round down' to the nearest icon rather than take whatever numeric score you are on, so it is vital to grab a few counters to get you to the nearest one if you have not gone to the '10' level, where each number has an icon. Again, just a few minutes earlier, Nicholas had been commenting on how it must be impossible to reach the higher numbers given how fast we were going, but in the end, it was very possible indeed, and necessary.
Jimmy's domination of Europe (and use of some slavery) meant that he alone had the realistic option to abolish slavery (take the fifth and final Europe card), which he did not. He did, however, grab a new VP scoring buildings and cards near the end which propelled him towards victory. My own feeble plan to attack one European city in my very last move and thereby secure that city plus the link to my Carribbean paradise was defeated by my failure to remember the actual cost of an attack (one to activate my barracks (because I didn't have an action counter anymore - I'd used it earlier), one to the stock and one to carry out the actual attack), and I was one population marker short. It wouldn't have won me the game, but I would have tied with Shane for joint second and last.
Yes, the game was a tie for first between Jimmy and Nicholas. Nicholas managed to generate a few last-minute actions by playing action markers, enough to grab those few precious points, and both tied at 50 VPs, I think. Shane ended with 48 and I with 46, as I recall. I could be wrong on the exact figures.
How did it play?
It played well. It is a nice game with a nice fluid flow to it. The pacing is strange though. Maybe when you've played it once, you are more careful in your decisions during the early rounds and thus the game would move in a more balanced way. As it was it felt like moving against mounting resistence - flying at first, then getting slower and slower as you got nearer to the end (which isn't a bad thing, it's just how it 'felt'). We all wondered if we were playing it right, and by the end though quite a lot of the world was, in fact, colonised during the last-minute rush for icons, there were still several untouched shipping track points and not all continents were open. We all wondered if a fifth player is needed to really make the game operate optimally.
Did you enjoy it?
Yes, I think everyone enjoyed playing the game. There is a good balance of individual strategy and interaction with others (though, as noted, I think a fifth player would really make it come alive). It is certainly a handsome, elegant piece of design and production, and there was a sense of ease and satisfaction about how you can develop your little empire that isn't at all multiplayer solitare. It is easy enough to attack, and you have to keep an eye out for what others are doing to either ensure your own safety or make them feel threatened. The game also encourages incursion by allowing you to place influence in colonies you have no shipping interest in, and that's a useful method of keeping everyone alert. You can't be 'locked out' of anywhere, not completely.
Will you play it again?
Oh, I think so. The group is fairly voracious and omniverious, but this is a nice Euro style conolisation theme that doesn't feel overly complex or abstract, and yet the theme is not so overtly militaristic as to alienate our female members (yes, that is true, not sexist - both of them are 'less inclined' towards military games and that's simply a fact). I would imagine this will get more table-time.
Would you recommend it?
Oh yes. It's handsome, easy to learn, surprisingly quick to play (even with the slow last rounds), and quite satisfying.
Nice session report Harvey - this one is well and truly on my radar and there was nothing you have noted which would dissuade me from purchasing in any way . Seems to tick all of the boxes so thanks for your observations . Thumbs your way .
Good session report. Thanks for the info and the time it took you to write this.
We all wondered if we were playing it right, and by the end though quite a lot of the world was, in fact, colonised during the last-minute rush for icons, there were still several untouched shipping track points and not all continents were open. We all wondered if a fifth player is needed to really make the game operate optimally.
While the board can open with 4 players if the shipping is heavy, generally it won't. The scaling of the game comes through player decision. There are 6 regions to open up. In 5p it is unlikely that you won't open them all, in 3p at best you'll probably open 4, while 4p is somewhere in between.
Perhaps somewhere in that rulebook on one of the sidebars we should have mentioned that so that people could play it knowing they wouldn't open everything.
What we wanted was a choice from the players about the how the game grew and opened up, rather than a decision to isolate areas at the start of the game ala Powergrid or other like games.
Because of the connections this should give players various competing goals to go after in terms of what they want open and what they don't. In 5p you can expect that everything will open so you can seed presence in all regions and then snipe city spaces as they open. Doing that in 3/4p can be very costly as the region might never open.
Anyway I'm glad you enjoyed it.