Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday, 20 March 2015

Whither the Indies?

What is remarkable about Sail to India is that it packs an incredibly big game in tiny box, both in terms of its theme and its sometimes harshly efficient Euro style game play. From the designer of String Railways and the Origins award winning Trains, Hisashi Hayashi, and published by Alderac Entertainment Group as part of its Big in Japan line, it is a game of mercantile exploration and adventurism. Designed for three to four players, aged twelve up, it is a game of resource management and worker placement, that sees the participants attempt to sail to the orient in search of glory and riches.

Sail to India is set during the Age of Discovery. The Mediterranean is under Osman Turk control and the great empire of Portugal seeks trade routes to the East. To do so, its merchants and nobles are dispatching explorers to sail south along the coast of Africa and round the Cabo da Boa Esperança in search of a route to India. Each player must manage his resources, and know when to invest in his ships and technological advances, when to discover new ports and establish facilities, and when to reap the riches and the glory.

Thus Sail to India has big themes, but where a classic board game might come with a big board and counters to represent the ships and various goods and buildings. The little box that is Sail to India does it all with just twenty-eight large cards plus thirteen wooden cubes per player. Of these cards, three are given to each player. These are a Domain card, used to track a player’s wealth, the speed of his ships, and his technology; a Historian card, used to track a player’s Victory Points; and a Reference card. He also receives three cubes to invest in technology, one to track his ships’ speed (initially one, but can be bought up to three), and starting wealth (varies upon starting order). This leaves eight cubes, which essentially represent investments that a player can make as ships, goods, buildings, wealth, and glory (Victory Points).

Of the remaining cards, they form the route to India, consisting of coastal towns along the coast of Africa. Each Coastal Town consists of two buildings—churches, markets, and strongholds—which grant Victory Points when built, trade goods that can be sold for wealth, potential Victory Points at game's end, and the sea. They are laid out in a line, with Lisboa at one end, followed by the coastal towns, of which three start face-up. They are known destinations. The others will be revealed as ships sail further and further round the coast of Africa and beyond until the last, India, is reached. At game's start each player also places one of his cubes as a ship on Lisboa.

On his turn, a player has several options, but can only do two of them. These include employing markers, moving ships, selling trade goods, constructing buildings, acquiring technology, and increasing ship speed. Employing ships means taking a cube from a player’s stock and paying one wealth to turn it into a ship in Lisboa. Moving ships involves a player moving any or all of his ships in any direction, up to his ships’ speed. If he moves his ships into a new coastal town, it is turned over and he earns Victory Points. To sell trade goods, a player moves his ships from the sea into the trade good spaces on the coastal towns. These are sold for wealth and Victory Points, the greater the number of types of good, the greater the reward. The markers for the trade goods are returned to Lisboa. For two wealth, a player can turn a ship into a building which now belongs to that player—churches give two Victory Points; markets only give one, but serve as a permanent trade good; and strongholds also only give one, but also serve as a starting point instead of Lisboa. To acquire technology, a player pays the coast and places a technology marker on the correct space on the technology cards. There are three of these cards, giving a total of twelve technologies. They have various effects, such as Printing Press giving a Victory Point when a technology is acquired, the Factory giving extra wealth when trade goods are sold, or Mission Church giving extra Victory Points for churches built. A technology can only be purchased once. Lastly, a player can increase his ships’ speed, first to two, and then three.

Play lasts an hour. It ends when the last coastal town is turned over and India is discovered, or when two players have run out of cubes. After that, everyone gets another turn and the game ends.

What makes Sail to India challenging is three factors. First, a player only has eight cubes to use as ships, trade goods, buildings, and so on. Second, they are interchangeable—ships can become trade goods which become ships, ships become buildings, and so. Third, a player needs to use some of these cubes to track his wealth and Victory Points, and since the tracks for both only go up to five, if a player earns enough to have six or more wealth or Victory Points, then he needs extra cubes—which have to come from those in play and not from those in stock. If a player has no cubes in play available, then he cannot track this extra wealth or Victory Points. Essentially, keeping track of his wealth and his glory (Victory Points) takes effort as reflected by the need for the extra cubes.

Sail to India is nicely presented. The cards are easy to use, the reference cards are very handy, and the rules clearly written. The artwork is in keeping with the game’s enjoyable theme, which is elegantly implemented in the game play. Similarly elegant is the balance between taking actions and using cubes and using cubes to keep track of a player’s wealth and Victory Points. Above all, Sail to India packs a lot gameplay and choices in quite a small box.