Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Goa – The Review

The spice trade was big in the 1600s. The seafaring colonial powers of the time competed to found colonies where the exotic spices thrived. The spices brought money, and the money brought fame and influence. The Portuguese colony of Goa in India was a place where spice merchants and intrepid explorers made names for themselves. Players take this role in Ruediger Dorn’s Goa.

Each player is the proprietor of an expedition and spice-trading company based in Goa, India. He begins the game with a bit of money and some resources – a chartered ship, the technology to harvest one unit of spice a season, a minor settlement in the islands that he has taxation rights over, and one band of intrepid explorers. Each player also has license to participate in a customs auction, where all sorts of goods, rights, services and privileges are placed on the market. Using their seed money, their meager resources and their wits, the players parlay their holdings into great wealth and assets. The greater the assets, the greater the prestige garnered. At the end of the game, which lasts two periods of four years each, the player with the most prestige wins the game and is declared the greatest personage of the period.

Ruediger Dorn’s best-known game prior to Goa was the exquisite game of trade and negotitation, The Traders of Genoa. Goa shares the multiple options and roads to victory of The Traders of Genoa, and is just as much a meaty strategy game as its predecessor. Dorn teams up with well-known strategy game publisher Hans im Gluck for Goa, which was released as a big box game in the same line as Euphrat & Tigris and Amun-Re. This results in an exquisite production. The main auction board is a four-fold affair with a linen finish and a beautiful layout. The multitude of tiles is thick and likewise linen-finished. (I love linen finished anything!) The eight player mats, two to a player, are less substantial but serviceable, having been printed on glossy thick cardboard. The game comes with 16 grey markers for the player mats, and a bag of colored wooden spice counters. Finally, the smallish cards are given the linen finish once more, to complete a wonderful package that lives up to Hans im Gluck’s lofty reputation as a producer of beautiful games.

The Game

The heart of Goa is its innovative auction. Large square tiles representing goods, services, rights and privileges are laid out in an 8 x 8 grid. Player then proceed to whisper in the ear of customs, identifying which items they would like to see auctioned off in that year. This doesn’t guarantee that the player choosing an item will win it, just that it is available at auction. This is accomplished by players placing auction markers on tiles. The lead player begins the game with The Flag, which signifies the right to choose a starting point for selecting tiles to be auctioned off. He puts The Flag up for auction. The next player must choose a tile adjacent to the flag. The next must choose a tile adjacent to the tile chosen by the previous player, and so on, ending with the Flag player choosing the final tile. Auctions then occur for each tile, each auction going once around the table, beginning with the player to the left of the auctioneer and ending with the auctioneer. Should an auctioneer win the bid for his own tile, the proceeds are accrue to the bank. Otherwise, the auctioneer is paid the winning bid. A player may win one, all or none of the tiles up for bid.

Once the auction for the year is completed, the players go about operating their companies. Each player has three actions in a year, chosen from a menu of six possibilities. The player may charter ships, harvest spices, tax his settlements, dispatch explorers, or attempt to found a colony. A player may also choose to invest resources in improving any one of his five basic capabilities, increasing their utility when used subsequently. Improvement of a capability requires an expenditure of spices and ship charters, as spices are brought back from the colonies and sold to finance the new infrastructure. Each capability has five stages of development, and the cost to improve each is identical except for the required spices.

Spices must be grown in spice plantations or in colonies. The rights to plantations are purchased at auction. Colonies are founded by recruiting and dispatching colonists to try and gain a foothold in a distant spice-rich island.

Once all players have taken their three actions, plus exercised the rights to any additional actions gained, the year is over and the players return to auction at the beginning of the next year. At the end of the fourth year, any remaining auction tiles are discarded, and new tiles are laid out for the second half of the game.

At the end of the game, prestige points are tallied. The greater the stage of development of each capability, the more prestige is gained. More colonies founded grant more prestige. Unexpended fruits of expeditions also garner prestige. The greatest wealth grants prestige. Finally, certain holdings, rights and privileges won at auction provide prestige. The player with the greatest prestige at the end of the game wins!


Goa is a complex game, and its strategies aren’t easy to explain in a straightforward manner because throughout the game players are trying to place values on moving targets and are trying to keep tabs on an economy that inflates and deflates. However, there are some basic principles to the game.

Playing Goa many times reveals that one can only concentrate on two capabilities at most and develop those to their maximum potential. The other three capabilities would then be left lagging. A popular choice for concentration is the expedition capability. More advanced Expeditions allow a player to draw and hold an increasing number of expedition cards. These items are random, but can be fairly useful. The most worthwhile allow a player to develop capabilities without using some resources, which essentially saves an action or two.
I believe this is the best approach to take in Goa – what is the cost and utility of one action? It is clear that an action begins with a very basic value of four ducats, which is what one can get if using a taxation action. As each capability is developed, the utility of an action becomes increasingly more valuable. A player should strive to use his actions on his more-developed capabilities as often as possible, and use his less-developed capabilities less in order to maximize his actions. This would tend to indicate that the more flexible capabilities – Expeditions and Taxes – would be those best suited to development. Expeditions are good because there are cards that can substitute for all the other capabilities, and they provide prestige at game end. However, Expeditions are random. Taxation is the other main track. Cash allows a player to be a force at auction. However, that is another problem all its own.

Goa’s auction is, for the most part, a closed economy. The money supply begins at exactly 37 ducats in a four player game. Money only leaves if a player buys his own tile. Money enters via the Taxation action, play of certain Expedition cards, or via certain tiles purchased at auction. If a player has a substantially stronger cashflow than his opponents, he can take control of The Flag, and proceed to purchase it each turn from himself, along with the tile he chooses, without giving his money to anyone else. If there is a tile being auctioned by another player that he desires, he can probably outbid everyone, but in doing so he inflates the economy.
The other thing to remember in the auction is that it is usually disadvantageous to purchase your own tile because in doing so you deprive yourself of a cash inflow. However, if you subscribe to choosing a tile that you do not intend to win and leave it to other players to auction off a tile you do want, you expose yourself to defensive play. There is an important tradeoff to keep in mind there.

Goa’s scoring is triangular in progression . This supports the development of capabilities to their maximum, rather than developing all five capabilities evenly. While it does require more resources to advance a capability at an advanced stage, those resources should be attainable with less actions as the game wears on. This applies similarly to founding colonies and retaining Expeditions.

A final note on the auction and defensive play. My play group tends to play games in such a way as to not give the other players anything in the way of a free lunch, or even a cheap lunch. Never give up big trades in Puerto Rico, never let an early Jester go for less than four digits in The Princes of Florence, never let a player suckle on the teat of a Monument for more than a turn or two in Euphrat & Tigris. In Goa, defensive play is best employed in the auction. Never let a player get an early Nutmeg or Pepper plantation, and if it is unavoidable, make sure he pays every cent he has. Since most of our play group subscribes to selecting a tile that they do not want in order to reap income, the Nutmeg usually ends up being bypassed. The Flag bearer then has the opportunity to position the succeeding auctions so as to avoid the Nutmeg and any free colonists as much as possible, to hamper production of the appropriate spices. If you can’t have the Nutmeg, make sure no one gets it at any price. This kind of play makes Goa a much tighter, tenser game, and underscores its nature as an extremely interactive, thematic game of business maneuvering and screwing your fellow entrepreneur.

Reviewer’s Tilt

I love a complex game with multiple mechanisms. Goa is such a game. From its unusual auction where players have the capability to deny resources to the table, to the action phase where creative play is possible with the combined use of Expeditions, tiles and resources, to the quest to gain that edge that will grant you the prestige necessary to pull ahead, Goa is replete with conflict and conundrums for the discerning German game fan.

Goa does have a steep learning curve, especially for play on the auction board. Over the course of many plays we have seen Expedition-focused maneuvering go from the path of choice to just one among the possibilities due to play adjustment in the group. (We played with the correct hand size rule from the outset.) Play on the auction board began as an afterthought. Now, it is the focus of the game, and all actions emanate from the results of each auction. As in many designs, players are free to take risks with the Expeditions and the founding of colonies if they wish – some players prefer to never attempt founding a colony unless it is assured of success. It works either way. This is a strength of the design. The tension is always present.

The game plays best with four players, and is surprisingly excellent with two players for a game that relies on an auction as its centerpiece mechanism. Goa with three works well as long as players refrain from any alliances, since two players can easily shut out the third player from auctions by purchasing each other’s tiles every time. The game is surprisingly fast once players gain experience. The action phase tends to become quicker than the auction phase the more plays a group has.

Marry intricate mechanisms with a rich theme, vicious player interaction and top notch physical presentation, and you have a game that is a must for the shelf of any fan of German strategy games.

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