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Greg Schloesser
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Design by: Paolo Mori
Published by: What's Your Game?
2 - 4 Players, 2 - 3 hours
Review by: Greg J. Schloesser


Even if I ultimately do not enjoy the game itself, I am always delighted when I find a game that has an original mechanism. When the game proves to be thoroughly engaging, challenging and tense, then it will likely be a big hit and become a personal favorite. Vasco da Gama by designer Paolo Mori shows every sign of becoming just that - a personal favorite.

Published by What's Your Game?, Vasco da Gama casts players as wealthy ship owners vying to obtain the vast riches available along the African coast. In order to succeed, players must first obtain contracts, outfit their ships, enlist the aid of influential Portuguese nobles and hierarchy, and set sail for the African ports. All of this must be accomplished within very tight financial constraints. Players must carefully coordinate all of these tasks, while staying one step ahead of their eager opponents. Fabulous riches and lasting fame await the player who is the most successful.

Players each receive four action discs, a captain, one of the four special characters, and a starting supply of ten reals (coins). The game is played over the course of five rounds, after which the victor is determined.

First, let's examine the creative method and ramifications of selecting the numbers (there are twenty number tokens), which will ultimately determine the order in which players execute the various actions. Each round, a Vasco da Gama tile is revealed which indicates the number upon which the "free action" marker is initially placed. Later in the round, another tile will be revealed which will move that marker from -3 to +3 spaces. Every number that is located at or above the space occupied the marker is free to the players, while very action below where the marker is located costs the players 1 real per space below the marker. For example, if the marker is located on 10 space, then actions 10 - 20 are free. If a player has action #7, it will cost the player three reals to execute the action.

It is important to note that players will select the action numbers BEFORE the free action marker is moved. So, players must guess how far and in what direction the marker will move. As the game progresses through its five rounds, players can make an educated guess based on which tiles have already been revealed. However, one can never be quite sure just how or in which direction the marker will move. So, it is best to have enough cash on hand to pay for the actions if the marker descends on the chart, which is far easier said than done!

Beginning with the player who holds the Bartholomeu Dias tile, players alternate taking one of the available number tokens and then placing it along with one of their four discs into one of the four possible action areas. Players will do this four times, using all of their action discs. Each of board area can only accommodate five or six discs, so players must be sure to place their discs in the areas they desire before they are filled.

This number selection and action placement process is at the heart of the game and requires very careful planning. Not only is there the consideration of the potential cost of the action, but players must also plan the actions they will take during the upcoming turn. These actions often must be done in a specific sequence, as it is no use to plan on sending a ship on a voyage if the proper crew has not yet been assembled. More than once in each of the games I've played, players have improperly planned the sequence of their actions, much to their detriment. This is also the longest part of each turn, as there is often so much to consider, it takes players an appreciable amount of time to contemplate their options.

Now what about those actions? The board is divided into five sections, one of which houses the number tokens, bank and Vasco da Gama tiles, while the other four are the action spaces. These are the areas onto which players will place their discs to indicate the actions they desire to take. Players will execute actions in ascending order, so choosing a low number will allow the player to go earlier in the turn, but it carries with it considerable financial risk.

Recruiting Area. This area contains four windows, each containing up to five crew members. There are four different specialties (colors), and each ship must have a certain number of crew members, each of a different color. In addition, the area contains six captains for each player. When a player takes this action, he may purchase as many crew members from ONE window he desires. The cost depends upon the number of different colors he takes. If he takes crew members of just one color, he pays only one real, no matter how many tokens he takes. This cost rises up to a maximum of ten reals if a player takes crew members of all four colors.

In addition to crew, a player may also hire a captain. The cost is one real per crew member hired. Thus, the more crew hired, the more expensive the captain. Crew and captains do not have to be immediately assigned to a ship. Rather, they can be maintained until a ship is ready to sail.

Projects Area. Six ship contracts are available for purchase. Contracts list the number of crew needed -- all of different colors -- the rewards they generate when at sea (coins or victory points), and the highest port they can visit. I'll explain this when explaining the Navigation area. Players may purchase one or two contracts. One contract costs only one real, while two contracts cost the player four reals. Contracts are not complete until a player allocates the required crew and captain to it.

In addition to the six normal contracts, there is one special Sao Gabriel project. The cost to acquire this contract is one real per crew member the ship requires. However, the ship comes complete with a crew. Only a captain needs to be assigned. Thus, while this may be more expensive in terms of reals, it is often a good deal as it saves the time and finances of acquiring the required crew.

Navigation Area. This is where players launch their ships, sailing them to the six different ports along the African coast. Each port can accommodate a certain number of ships, with each space carrying a value ranging from 4 - 11. Natal is the lowest and smallest port on the map, with space for -nly one ship of a value of 4. The number of ships a port can accommodate increases the further up the map one progresses. For example, the port of Mozambique has space for three ships, with values of 6, 5 and 4, while Calicut -- the largest port -- can accommodate six ships with values ranging from 7 - 11.

As long as space is available, a ship can sail to any port the player desires. However, it can only fill a space if the number listed on the ship is greater than or equal to the value listed on the space. So, a ship with a value of "7" can land in any space whose value is 7 or lower. It is quite possible for players to land their ships so as to block the landing of their opponent's ships. Going earlier in turn order is certainly beneficial when attempting this maneuver.

When a ship first lands, it will earn a number of victory points equal to the value of the space. These points are significant, and they present the players with a dilemma: place a ship on the highest possible space in order to earn more victory points, or place it on a lower valued space to potentially block an opponent. In addition, a player earns a port bonus when initially landing a ship. The bonus varies by port, and can be an additional ship contract, a crew member, a captain or reals. Securing a needed item often takes priority over potentially higher victory points.

Character Area. There are four characters available, as well as two chests of reals. Players each begin the game with a character, but they can be recruited from them by another player. Characters grant a variety of abilities, including victory points, a missionary (which serves as a fifth type of crew), an extra action or a merchant ship, which can be used to acquire a port bonus and/or block an opponent's ship placement. The powers of the characters are quite useful, and skillful use of them can result in some very clever maneuvers. Instead of selecting a character, a player may opt to select one of the two chest of money available, the amount in each varying from turn-to-turn. Money is usually in short supply, so this is a good influx of income -- if you can beat your opponents to it.

Once players have taken all of their actions, players receive income from their ships in port as specified on the counters. The ports are then examined from top-to-bottom, and if a port is completely filled, ships located there will attempt to sail to the next highest port. Before sailing, each ship in the filled port earns additional victory points (ranging from 1 - 5) as listed on the port. Beginning with the ship nearest the coast, players then move their ships to the next highest port, IF a space is available. They must follow the same placement rules as when initially landing, but no new victory points or bonuses are earned. Again, players are faced with the choice of landing the ship at a space that grants more victory points, or occupying a lower-valued space to deny an opponent the opportunity to land. Any ships that cannot legally land are discarded, with the captain being returned to its owner.

This navigation aspect encourages players to begin their initial landing of ships along the lower coast. Then, as ports fill, the ships will sail up the coast, collecting more victory points each time a port fills. The danger, of course, is that one might be blocked entry into a port by opponent's ships or merchant ships. Placing one's ship first in a port decreases this likelihood, but does not completely eliminate the danger.

After the fifth round, players may launch any ships to which they can assign the required crew and captain, receiving three victory points for each shipped launched. Additional victory points are earned for every three reals. The player with the most points becomes the wealthiest ship owner in Portugal, and wins the game.

Vasco da Gama is a rich game, filled with lots of options and difficult decisions. While the game does fall into the category of "worker placement", the game goes beyond that label. The system affords wide latitude for clever play by creatively combining the different possible actions and characters. I have been impressed by the clever maneuvers players have executed, and have performed a few myself. I always appreciate games that allow players to exercise some creativity in their actions.

I also appreciate the originality of several game mechanisms, particularly the method of selecting the number tokens that determine the order in which actions will be performed. There is a lot to consider during this phase, and the potential costs add a bit of risk to the proceedings.

The only drawback is the length of the game, which has been taking us 2 ½ - 3 hours to complete. I don't mind longer games, but it is an obstacle to many gamers. The estimated time on the box is 1 - 2 hours, but I don't see us getting under the two hour mark. There simply are too many choices to make. Again, I don't mind this at all, but for some, it is a turnoff.

I am excited about Vasco da Gama, and consider it to be in the top tier of games released in 2009. It has many of the elements that appeal to me, and it should be quite popular with folks who enjoy strategy-heavy games. It is likely a bit too involved and complex to be considered for the Spiel des Jahre, but it should be a strong contender for the International Gamers Award. It is a journey well worth taking -- over and over again.

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Tiago Silva
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Funny you say the game took so long.

I've only played this once, and the 1st game (excluding rules explanation) took us 1h20 - 1h30. This was a 3 player game, but NONE of us played the game before, so i'm assuming we will be quicker.
The reading and understanding of the rules was hard, took about 45mins, probably because our group only played lighter games before, like Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne and Acquire. But when we actually started playing it all made sense pretty quickly.

Great detailed review.
Cheers

PS: we used the nice player aid found in the files section, and we kept following the procedure, i'm sure it helped
 
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Snowball
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I found Vasco da Gama to be quite fast, under 30 minutes/player.
 
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Paulo Soledade
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From my experience, 90 minutes is the usual time of play. With 2 players, usually one hour (experienced players).
Good review.
 
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Andre Metelo
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Great review...

Typically we do 3 players in about 45 to 60 min. This is a great game.

 
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Ben
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Thanks for the thorough review! I'm glad you like the game; It's one of my favorites (hence the microbadge).

I just wanted to chime in and agree with the others that Vasco da Game plays quickly for us -- too quickly, in fact. My biggest complaint about the game is that it falls into an odd gap: heavy enough that it's likely to be the only game we play on a normal evening; but so short that it lacks the sense of grandeur (its the best synonym I could think of for epic-ness) that I enjoy in my single-play games. As a result, I waffle between 8.5 and 9 in rating this game.

If you have a group that is calculating enough to make this a 2+ hour game without frustrating you with AP, you should enjoy it. We tend to fly by the seat of our pants with this game, which undercuts some of the tension.
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nathan hayden
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tdbs wrote:
Funny you say the game took so long.

I've only played this once, and the 1st game (excluding rules explanation) took us 1h20 - 1h30. This was a 3 player game, but NONE of us played the game before, so i'm assuming we will be quicker.


our group experienced similar time. around 80 minutes. 3 players. learning game.
 
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Don Barree
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We've played 3 four player games thus far and none of them have gone over 2 hours.
 
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Greg Schloesser
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I'm coming to grips with the fact that our group, for the most part, is slower than many other groups. I'm not sure why that is the case, and indeed, if it really is a bad thing. I don't always equate faster with better, and sometimes feel folks put too much emphasis on playing swiftly. There has only been a few games wherein I felt we were being unnecessarily slow, and wished things would move at a faster pace.
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Shane Walsh
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Excellent review Greg - I've not seen your offerings here so much lately but really value your reviews in times past as I was getting into the board gaming world .
I do tend to agree with you though as sometimes 90 minutes for a game can be a fairly rubbery figure - take setup/teardown and it can be 30 minutes or so longer .
As an example we played 2 games of Tinners Trail the other night (excellent medium weight game by the way!!). I consider it a fast playing game and if you asked me with regards to timing I would have said it was a 60 minute affair . Interestingly , with just the odd diversion it took us just 15 minutes short of 4 hours to complete the game twice. The first was played with a newbie but a switched on one who had little difficulty picking things up .
Finally , I purchased VdG just this afternoon - almost solely on the basis of the small number of reviews currently available . Your weighty addition makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside and I look forward to playing it .:
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Greg Schloesser
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Port Power 1914 wrote:
Excellent review Greg - I've not seen your offerings here so much lately but really value your reviews in times past as I was getting into the board gaming world .


Thanks so much for the kind words! I'm certainly not as active on the forums as I was in the past. It is simply a matter of time. I've been EXTREMELY busy with other matters, and have an incredibly hectic schedule for the first 7 months of this year. I'm still writing and posting reviews, but session reports and forum participation have taken a back seat for now.

Port Power 1914 wrote:

Finally , I purchased VdG just this afternoon - almost solely on the basis of the small number of reviews currently available . Your weighty addition makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside and I look forward to playing it .:


I think you will really enjoy it. It is one of my favorites of 2009.
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Matt Smith
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Nice review. My buddy's wife bought this game for him, and I'm really looking forward to playing it.

One minor quibble with your review: You said players are vying for the riches along the African coast. According to the game manual, Vasco de Gama was actually trying to find a route to India to open the spice trade. So, while several of the ports are in Africa, and mechanically they are the goal, thematically they aren't the goal. And the final port is in India, not Africa.
 
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Seth Jaffee
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gschloesser wrote:
I'm coming to grips with the fact that our group, for the most part, is slower than many other groups. I'm not sure why that is the case, and indeed, if it really is a bad thing. I don't always equate faster with better, and sometimes feel folks put too much emphasis on playing swiftly. There has only been a few games wherein I felt we were being unnecessarily slow, and wished things would move at a faster pace.

I have played VdG 1 time, and it didn't take anywhere near the length of time you're talking about. We were new except the teacher who had played 1 time.

I don't think it's about hurrying or playing swiftly - ask any of my friends, they'll tell you I take more than my share of time to take turns sometimes! I agree there are things to think about, but honestly there's not SO MUCH to consider that a 5 round game of Vasco da Gama should take more than 30 minutes per player.

Reading your review I wonder if this didn't impact your game length:
Quote:
Beginning with the ship nearest the coast, players then move their ships to the next highest port, IF a space is available. They must follow the same placement rules as when initially landing, but no new victory points or bonuses are earned. Again, players are faced with the choice of landing the ship at a space that grants more victory points, or occupying a lower-valued space to deny an opponent the opportunity to land.

I don't think there's a choice involved in moving the ships up. It's possible that Wystan taught us wrong, or that you misspoke in your review, but if you were taking time agonizing over how or where to navigate your boats when a port is full, that could be causing a longer-that-it-should-be game length.

In addition, I think this game could suffer from the Caylus syndrome - when I first played Caylus, games were taking 3-4 hours easy. To an extent this was due to it being a complicated game and often times a teaching game, but mostly it was because of the "Who's turn is it? Oh, it's me? Ok..." thing. I noticed Caylus speed up drastically when one player would oversee the bookkeeping when resolving the road, and a lot less time was spent waiting for people to notice it was their turn.

VdG has a similar dynamic with the numbered actions. You might enjoy a speedier game if one person takes charge of the resolution phase and calls out the numbers, and if someone doesn't immediately act, that person (having surveyed the board to find out who's turn it is) can announce "Blue - it's your turn." Then the Blue player can say "oh, it is? Sorry, I'll buy 3 crew..." instead of everyone sitting on their thumbs for 10 seconds, 15 times out of 20, 5 rounds in a row (that adds up to about 12 minutes). Another, similar time sink is the bookkeeping at the end of the round. Again, one player should go down the line and announce "Yellow gets a point and a coin, blue gest 2 points... etc," for boat income, then the VPs for filled ports, then zip the ships up according to their algorithm (no decisions). This could easily save another 12+ minutes per game.'

I did enjoy VdG the other night, and I hope to play it again soon. I will note that the Boat that comes with Crew is a WAY better deal than buying crew! Highly recommended.
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Steve Duff
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sedjtroll wrote:
I don't think there's a choice involved in moving the ships up.


You're correct, there isn't. The only choice is the initial placement. After that, the leftmost ship moves up and takes the leftmost possible spot.
 
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Sheldon Morris
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gschloesser wrote:
The only drawback is the length of the game, which has been taking us 2 ½ - 3 hours to complete. I don't mind longer games, but it is an obstacle to many gamers. The estimated time on the box is 1 - 2 hours, but I don't see us getting under the two hour mark. There simply are too many choices to make. Again, I don't mind this at all, but for some, it is a turnoff.

My group suffers from slow decision making as well and therefore took about the same amount of time as you experienced when we first played the other day. Granted, it was the first time any of us have played the game. Still enjoyed it though.
 
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Stanislaw Juzwicki
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We played our first game yesterday. Two players, both heavy overthinkers. It took 2 hours + 15-20 mins to explain the rules.

As I said we calculate way too much for our own good, so that ate a good chunk of time, but on the other hand we are quite good at game management, so no time was lost on figuring out whose turn it was or things like that. We play swiftly, we just take too long to consider all the options

I think that given some experience we can make it 1.5 hours for a 2 player game, but I don't see it taking any less.
 
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