With only Dave arriving for games tonight, we decided to try out one of the longer Essen games - Indonesia from Splotter. We knew time might be tight, but how else might we explore the game and its mechanics.
Having read the preview in Counter #30, I thought this might be the right time to get a Splotter game. While famous for their game Roads & Boats, it is one of their lesser known games (Cannes) that I have played a couple of times as Dave owns a copy. So I was at least familiar with the Splotter style of game.
The comments in the preview made Indonesia sound like an interesting game. Key factors from the preview that got my interest piqued - player interaction (especially after Antiquity was deemed a bit more solitaire-ish by some comments) and lower bit density (not the 1000's of pieces in Roads and Boats) - while still having a variety of decisions and strategies to pursue. As Essen seemed to most economic venue to get a copy of the game, it was added to my list of Essen purchases.
In (here's a surprise for you) Indonesia, players operate companie to maximize their cash by game's end. Cash is earned by delivering goods (rice, spice, rubber, siap faji, oil) via shipping companies from the producing areas to the cities that will consume those goods. Each company (production or shipping) is owned by one of the players in the game. As goods can only be delivered by sea, the owners of the shipping companies will get income everytime their ship(s) are used. One nice rule that prevents players from abstaining from shipping on another players line - each producing company must ship and deliver as many goods as possible even if it means operating that turn at a loss. But as the value of the goods increases (e.g. oil is worth more than rice), there is always a balance of which production stream will actually maximize income for the players.
Initially, the cities on the map only want 1 of each good produced. But should a city receive 1 of each produced good in a single during a turn, it expands and can accept 2 of each good produced. So cities can grow and demand more goods as the game progresses.
In most economic games, there is usually some cost to acquiring a company, but not in Indonesia. Each person in turn can acquire for free as many companies as their portfolio can hold. (I will discuss in a bit how this is changed.) As the game progresses - companies can be merged to form larger companies combining their assests. Mergers must be between like companies (ie rice with rice, or shipping with shipping) with one exception. Siap faji is a spicy rice dish and is produced by the merger of spice and rice. In fact, it is only by merger of these two commodities that siap faji can get produced. While normal mergers between 2 companies might involve one company buying the assets of the other company, in Indonesia it is done a bit differently. When a merger is announced, any player can bid (and buy) the combined assets. So a non-owner could announce the merger between 2 companies on the board and end up owning the combined assets. This helps keep the company ownership dynamic allowing for changing tactics as the game progresses.
Initially players are limited in their portfolios. They may own only 1 company, can't announce mergers, can only expand production modestly, and have ships that can carry only 1 good. But each turn, players may invest in R&D and increase one of their abilities by 1 step. So R&D can be invested to increase the number of holdings from 1 company to 2. Or R&D can be used to increase the size of the company held from 1 certificate to 2 - which means that the player can now announce the merger of size 1 companies. Or R&D to allow for more rapid expansion, or to have ships that can carry more goods. While these improvements are free, each player can only improve one per turn, so there is a race and balancing act to determine with areas of their portfolio need enhancing in the next turn.
The end result is typical Splotter - lots of tactical paths to acquire cash, lots of choices to make, but also lots of potential impact as the implications of choices might not be fully realized until later.
With the rules explained, Dave and I started out by placing the initial cities on the board. Cities were placed in Java Barat, Sulewesi, Sulewesi Utara, and Java Timur. While Dave started with a rice producing company, Rich went after shipping hoping to gain when Dave was forced to ship. As Dave's company had produced and sold the max, it was forced to expand. Similarly, as Java Barat received all the goods produced on the board at that time (only Rice), it also expanded. When Rich started another rice company in Bali (adjacent to the shipping company), Java Barat expanded again as it received 2 of all the goods prodcued on the board at that time. Dave started a shipping company hoping to ship his goods rather than pay Rich
This cycle of produce rice, ship rice, and expand continued until Dave announced a merger of the shipping companies. While it was a modest merger that Rich acquiesed to Dave, it did give Dave a shipping channel right through the heart of the board that he would capitilize on as the game progressed. As the shipping capacity increased, Dave could send and sell his goods without paying for shipping while Rich was forced to give Dave a cut of his earnings as he was forced to ship over Dave's lines.
When the next round of companies was made available, Dave merged his own rice and spice companies into a siap faji company. (It was here that we did make a modest mistake - as Dave owned both we thought that he could just merge the companies without putting them up for bid. We realized later in the game that this was wrong.) With siap faji to ship over his own lines and sell, Dave began to generate serious cash.
Realizing that rice was just too cheap, Rich moved to acquire a rubber company and shipping in the same area on the Western side of the map. On the Eastern side, Rich also started a shipping company in Halmahera which he extended to Maluku hoping to force Dave to use his line. But instead, Dave could work around that restriction, so in hindsight, Rich might have been better served to have his shipping line connect to Bali (where Rich had some production companies). This is one of those cases where a decision seemed fairly clear-cut when made, but the implications resounded throughout the game.
Dave had established a rubber company in Kalimantan Barat with a production of 7 and announced it would merge with Rich's rubber company with a production of 3. In fact, Rich was about to announce this merger as he needed to gain production and could not afford to lose these fields. From the initial bid of 300, the final price rose to 720 before Dave passed. While Rich gained the rubber production, he had to pay Dave his share (7/10 of 720 or 540).
As Dave now had empty slots in his portfolio (having given Rich the rubber company), Dave set out to fill his portfolio with new companies and continue to produce and sell.
With the game about half-way done, it was time and we called the game. Summing up cash at that point, Dave had 2297 rupiah while Rich had 1068 rupiah. (If the merger were undone, the money might have been a bit closer.)
As we tidied up the game, we both found that we had enjoyed the experience. We had played for about 2 hours but it did not feel like 2 hours. As the comments above might indicate, I started taking good notes, but the game so captured me that my notes became fewer and fewer as I immersed myself into the game. That is the sort of immersive experience I enjoy in a game.
Yes, there were some beginning mistakes. Looking back, I might have done better to start a spice company instead of a second rice company even though the shipping wasn't there. This would have slowed the growth of Java Batar slowing some of the cash flowing into Dave's treasury. Again, a short term pain might have a longer term gain in the game. Also, this might have set me up to be more active in the siap faji merger when it was announced.
Similarly, there is thought to be given to the shipping lines - with only a limited length - how best to use that length and what is gained by growing through mergers. In fact, mergers will be the engine of the game, this is not a game about taking a company and nursing it through the game. It is about taking a company, extracting wealth out of it and then moving on to a more profitable earnings engine - be it a larger, merged company, or using mergers to gain cash, while freeing up portfolio space for a different company.
As I thought about the game the next day, one game that kept coming to mind was Logistico. In Logistico, players are trying to maximize money by paying transport costs for goods before selling them at their destination. Logistico is certainly a brain-burner of a game that has felt more puzzle-like than game-like. Indonesia has removed some of that puzzle or rather better incorporated that puzzle into the game mechanics such that it feels more game-like. The primary difference is that Logistica has fixed sources and destinations, so one is only working to minimize the transport cost to gain the earnings. In Indonesia, much more can be done in terms of expanding production, shifting companies, adjusting portfolio that the game is more enjoyable as a result.
With the need for shipping to move every good, I have seen comments that this might be a disguised "railgame" as the shipping lanes might dominate. Now Splotter did venture into the 18XX genre with Ur: 1830 BC, but I am not familiar with that game to comment. Certainly in the early portion of the game, the shipping fees can be quite substantial compared to the prices received for rice or spice. And as the production companies grow and are forced to ship more goods, often over longer distances, the shipping fees can increase. So there is some benefit to having a dominant shipping line. But the shipping fee is fixed and the later production goods are worth more, so an early shipping lane may or may not be able to carry its advantage into the later stages of the game.
Dave and I both noted that money seemed to grow exponentially in the game. The first turns saw modest income, but it got bigger and bigger with each passing turn. (This is definitely a game that is improved with poker chips instead of the included paper money. The rules comment that the 5 rupiah bits might be helpful to help tally shipping costs, but we did just fine without them, counting and paying in chips). As we ended our game in the middle, I do not really know how the endgame will play out (or pay out for that matter).
Finally, I know some folks have commented on the "poor" graphics of the game. I like them. They are evocative of the time. Yes, the regions are listed in a cursive script that might be a bit hard to read, but after a while, we didn't notice and were playing with the game without stopping to ponder what was meant. The only ambiguous area - the sea connection (or lack thereof) between Java and Bali - has been clarified by the designers. North of Java and South of Java are 2 separate sea areas and would need 3 ships (via Bali) to ship from a production company in the North to a city in the South.
Based on this single playing, I have already rated Indonesia an "8" - which is essentially my highest rating as I don't rate any game a "10" and have only a couple of "9"s awarded. This is a very good game that I will suggest for play and would never turn down when offered a chance to play. About the only demerit I can give it is game length. Set aside 3-4 hours for this game, but it will be an enjoyable 3-4 hours when it does hit the table.
I've just bought this game. It was on my wishlist, but viewing Scott Nicholson's video review at http://www.boardgameswithscott.com/?p=17 of "Indonesia" pushed me over the buying line.
Your session report gives a great description of what's hidden in the rules. Thanks for putting this up!