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Review: Sail To India

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Sail To India - Components

I brought Sail To India to my game group recently and when I pulled it out I was met with the illustrious task of describing it.  In a panic I said something like “it’s a cube management game where you move cubes around and whoever moves their cubes around better wins.  Also there are cards and it all fits into this cute little box.  Oh yeah, and you’re trying to sail to India. Cubes!”  I thought this would really get everyone excited but apparently it was not quite as enthralling as I had expected.  If I had practiced this ahead of time it would have ended with me throwing my hands in the air and magically raining cubes from the sky.  Cubes of GOLD!  Wait no, that would hurt.  Just regular painted wooden cubes then.  Unfortunately I hadn’t planned out my amazing sales pitch and it ended with me desperately trying to open up the box in order to throw the cubes at my audience to convince them that it was fun.  Perhaps my description wasn’t so bad after all or maybe it was just the threat of being pelted with cubes that convinced a full group to play with me.  The most important thing is that everyone ended up enjoying the game so let me start over and tell you what Sail To India is really all about (besides pushing cubes around).

How It Plays

The Setting – Sending brave adventurers to discover wealth along the route to India (or staying home and working less exciting jobs)

Follow the journey of one cube, I mean man, as he seeks to discover his lot in life.  We’ll call him Christopher Cubelumbus, oh wait wrong era, let’s go with Vasco da Cuba.  His journey starts in Lisboa where he heard that nobles are seeking brave men to set up a trade route to India.  They’re after great fame and fortune but all this cube, er man, wanted was a steady job.  The ship builder constructed a fine vessel for Vasco and his first assignment was to sail down the coast to seek extravagant wares.  So off he went navigating the calm and crowded waters until he made it to the first coastal town on his map.  Vasco knew he’d better make a quick stop to pick up some of their famous coffee.  Now back to Lisboa to sell the coffee along with some sugar to sweeten the pot.  Two coins seemed like a fair trade and the noble was so pleased that he promoted Vasco to the position of banker to oversee the funds.  As it turned out, being a banker was pretty boring.  But once the money was used by the local scientist to research the latest in nautical technology it was back to Lisboa Port to captain another ship.

This time Vasco resisted the siren call of jewels and spices and let his peers stop in town while he sailed to uncharted waters.  To his dismay there were just a whole lot more coastal towns along the way and no India in sight.  In an effort to impress the nobles he recorded his somewhat banal findings and once again found himself back in Lisboa, this time employed permanently as a resident Historian.  After all, someone needed to record all the prestigious things that his employer, the noble, was doing.  It appeared this was a bit of a dead end job so Vasco hung up his captain’s hat, buckled down, and got to work.  Once there were too many great deeds for Vasco to keep track of all on his own (about five or so) more historians joined him.  Eventually some other persistent sailor made it all the way to India in a truly culminating moment and all of Vasco’s hard finally work came to bear.  He was summoned along with his historian brethren, the scientists, and all the land owners along the coast to recount  the great things that their nobles had done.  Among them, the greatest was crowned king of Lisboa!

Vasco retired to the countryside where he contented to live out the rest of his days in peace.  But every now and then he would venture back to the bay to see all the cubes hustling and bustling around town and sailing down the coast on their own incredible adventures.

The Gameplay – Cube of all trades, Master of one (at a time)

In Sail to India there are many characters (cubes) that will share in equally eventful stories of their own as they journey around Lisboa and down the coast towards India taking on many different professions along the way.  The players represent the nobles that are seeking to gain prestige by trading, discovering new towns, buying land, and acquiring groundbreaking technologies.  Now, I don’t want to mislead you into thinking that Sail To India is a particularly thematic or immersive game.  In my original spur of the moment description I opted to paraphrase the preceding narrative by simply calling it a cube management game because, mechanically, that’s what the players are doing.  But before we get into the gameplay let’s start by talking about what makes this game unique.  Sail to India attempts to accomplish a lot with very minimal components which puts it vaguely in the microgame camp.  It comes with 52 cubes, 30 cards, and a rulebook packed nicely into a compact box.  The game manages to get a lot out of these meager bits by utilizing the concept that cubes represent different professions based on where they are located.  If a cube is on your wealth track then it’s a banker, on your victory track it’s a historian, in front of a coastal town card (in the water) it’s a captain, on a trade good spot it’s a trader, and so on.  In actuality they are representing resources (money, vp, goods, ships) but thinking of them as people gives them the flexibility to bounce around the board between different professions allowing a cube to represent money at one point and then a ship at another.  This mechanic is central to the gameplay and allows for a flexible system that can squeeze a meaningful game out of a handful of cubes and a couple dozen cards.

Sail To India - Occupations
Cubes take on different roles depending on where the are located. Here you can see Blue’s Captains and Traders, Yellow’s Ship builder and Banker, Green’s Historians, and Red’s Scientists.

To start the game each player is given a set of cubes in their color and a couple of cards with tracks for their wealth, victory points, ship speed, and starting scientists.  One cube is placed on the wealth track at 2-4 wealth dependent on player order, one is placed on the ship speed track at level 1 (indicating that ships can move one space per action), and three cubes are placed in the technology area to represent available scientists.  Then a row of coastal towns is lined up starting from Lisboa and continuing towards India with the first three towns revealed (face up) and the rest unexplored (face down).  One cube of each color is placed in Lisboa and the remaining ones form a stockpile of unemployed citizens.  There are also three technology cards (each with 4 available technologies) that are placed between the players.

In turn players are given two actions to take that allow them to utilize the various different professions.  Your main option is to use your captains to move ships along the coast towards India.  Any available workers in Lisboa may first be moved to the water in front of Lisboa to captain ships.  After this all ships may move a number of towns down the coast based on your current ship speed.  If a ship is moved to the water in front of a town that has not yet been discovered then that town’s card is flipped face up and the exploring player receives one victory point, we’ll come back to tracking your points shortly.  After all ships have been moved then any number of them may become traders by moving up to an available trade goods on the coastal town which they are stationed at.

Any time a VP is gained it’s the historians job to keep track of those points.  If there is already a historian on the VP track then they are moved up the corresponding number of spots as long as they don’t exceed the maximum value of 5.  If there isn’t a historian or all historians are currently indicating 5 VP then one may be moved from Lisboa or any available captain or banker may immediately switch professions to become a historian in order to count the VP gained.

Sail To India - Coastal Towns
The long journey from Lisboa to India

Once you have one or more traders available you may then use an action to sell their trade goods.  All traders that opt to sell their goods are moved back to Lisboa and wealth and VP is gained based on the number of different goods sold.  Wealth is tracked similar to VP but is managed by bankers on the wealth track.

Bankers allow you to spend your hard earned money to do one of several actions.  First, you can increase your work force by spending one wealth to move an unemployed worker from your stockpile to Lisboa making them available to captain a boat or become a banker or historian when one is needed.  Second, you can pay your ship builder to increase the speed of your ships.  Spend the indicated cost and move the ship builder one spot forward on the track to indicate a permanent increase in speed for all of your ships.  Third, you can use one of your available scientists to acquire an unresearched technology.  There are twelve available technologies at the beginning of the game each providing a bonus towards certain professions or end of game scoring.

The last way that you can spend wealth is to have a captain in front of a coastal town buy an available building in that town.  Buying a building costs two wealth and requires you to move the captain from the water onto the building.  There are three types of buildings: Churches, Strongholds, and Marketplaces.  Churches are simply worth 2 VP at the end of the game.  Strongholds are worth 1 VP and let you place boats directly in front of their coastal town when moving a worker from Lisboa to the water to become a captain.  Marketplaces are also worth 1 VP and have an associated type of good that they count as whenever you trade.

When a player explores the last coastal town, India is discovered and that player earns two VP instead of the normal one.  All other players get one final turn before the game ends.  Alternatively if two or more players have no cubes left in their stockpile the game end is triggered as well.  Guess you’ll have to wait until the next game to discover India, sorry!  All players add up the points from their historians, buildings, and end game scoring technologies and the player with the most points becomes the new king of Lisboa.

Smooth Sailing or Micromanaging the Stormy Seas?

I haven’t been a huge proponent of the Microgame fad that seems to have become quite popular over the last couple of years but Sail To India has successfully challenged my view.  I enjoy games that have a simple ruleset but limiting the components along with the rules seemed to needlessly handicap designers from producing games of any meaningful depth.  I’m not saying that lighter games can’t be enjoyable but I already have my fair share of decent fillers and felt like microgames weren’t trying to be anything more than gimmicky minimalist fillers.  I’m still quite skeptical of microgames in general but I’m no longer writing them off entirely because one game proved that you could approach minimalism in a meaningful way.  Let me expand a bit on why exactly Sail To India impressed me so much.

A Fluid Cube Pushing Experience

In Sail To India your cubes represent nearly all trackable information in the game.  In fact the cards exist only as a way to provide context to what the cubes are helping you track.  The clever bit is that the cubes aren’t bound to one area, they are fluid in their ability to track different information based on what you choose to focus on.  Rather than having one cube dedicated to tracking all of your wealth you are given a more involved constraint: cubes may be assigned to the wealth track to maintain up to five wealth each.  This means that when you are broke your wealth track will be empty, freeing up a cube to help somewhere else.  It’s true that you’d generally rather have a cube stuck tracking your money then have no money at all.  However, you’re incentivized to spend all your money in order to free up your banker for shipping.  The choice gets even more interesting when you consider tracking your victory points with historians.  As soon as you gain your first point you’ll have to permanently assign one useful cube to sit on the VP track.  If that wasn’t agonizing enough you’ll face the same decision every time your newest historian reaches the five point threshold and a new one is required.

Not only does this system provide unique and meaningful decisions but it is incredibly intuitive and easy to explain.  Cubes that were traded as goods can immediately be sent to track the wealth and points gained from the sale.  Likewise, when a new coastal town is discovered, the ship that revealed the new card is always available to become a historian to track the point you just gained for exploring.  The movement of cubes between the different playing area is very fluid and as cubes are removed to track points new ones can be employed to replace them.  It’s easy to see what resources you currently have and what options are available to you as all the actions are tied to moving cubes from one area to another.

Sail To India - Setup
The red player’s initial setup

 Adding Variety Through Technology

This ruleset is so simple and streamlined that it leads to quick turns but the main downtime during your first game will likely come from learning the available technologies.  Luckily there’s a very good reason for their inclusion that makes it worth slowing down your first several games.  Being limited to two actions per turn is a big part of what keeps things moving at a brisk pace, you can’t pull off elaborate maneuvers because the board will change between your turns so you have to execute your plan in short bursts.  There’s exactly one way to earn money (selling goods) so the flow of the game is centered around moving your ships in order to acquire trade goods to sell.  The subtlety of the games comes in deciding how to spend your money and knowing when to hold off on trading by leaving your ships in the water.  You will generally be spending your money to make your shipping and trading more efficient: add more ships to your fleet of traders, increase the speed of your ships, or purchase buildings to provide more goods (Marketplace), provide better positioning (Stronghold), or simply earn points.  The complexity and variation is added to this formula when you consider the various technologies.

Unlike the other ways to spend money, technologies offer a significant branching point in the strategies between players.  They let you specialize by becoming more efficient at certain actions than the other players.  There are many different strategies to pursue, each with it’s own mix of technologies (of which players are limited to three).  This naturally pushes players down different paths and prevents everyone from doing the exact same thing.  But you aren’t forced to be so specialized that you won’t still be competing over both trading and exploring with the other players.  There are limited spots for goods, especially in the crowded towns close to Lisboa, and only so many new towns to explore before players arrive in India.  Tension remains high throughout the game as players are limited by actions, money, and competition from the other players.

Sail To India - Technology and Reference Cards
The technology and quick reference cards

Building an Engine of Cubes

Sail To India provides a natural progression over the course of the game by slowly adding in more cubes which can in turn be assigned to specialized tasks (such as buildings of historians) or increase the size of players’ fleets.  This progression is so natural that by the end of the game the engines that players built up may even start running themselves.  This isn’t to say that there aren’t a lot of meaningful decision to be made as players build their engine but based on the strategy an engine may kick into autopilot sooner than others.  This may lead to a somewhat scripted and anticlimatic ending for some players as their optimal moves are rather obvious.  I don’t generally view this as a downside for a quick engine building game because turns are fast and players get to see their engine in full swing just as the game comes to it’s climax.  The game doesn’t stall out at the ending so it feels more like a natural conclusion then the game taking over and playing itself out.

The beginning of the game can also face the challenge of having somewhat scripted moves available to the players, especially on the very first turn.  On one hand it gets the players into the action by giving them relatively simple and straight forward decisions.  In most of the games I played the first two players did the exact same thing (Recruit/Ship, Upgrade/Ship) grabbing up all the goods in the first two towns and leaving the third and fourth players with less obvious choices.  This isn’t to say that those are the most optimal moves for those players.  Simply put, they are the most obvious moves when you are first learning the game.  On one hand it shows that the options available to the players are pretty intuitive and once you get past the first turn things start to branch out enough that the scripted openings starts to fade away.  Experience with the game will also provide players with alternative ways to start the game as they race for key technologies or prioritize exploring over trading.  There are plenty of options and just because some are more obvious then others doesn’t make them better.  That’s the trademark of a well balanced game.

Summary – The bottom line on Sail To India

Sail To India embraces the microgame concept by introducing the innovative mechanic of using cubes to represent different occupations (and resources) as they move naturally between the areas of the board.  I was incredibly impressed with how such a simple system could leave room for very meaningful decisions by keeping money and actions tight while players built up their engines.  I’d pitch Sail To India as the euro gamer’s microgame and for anyone interested in how minimization can be used as a boon rather than a limitation I’d highly recommend giving it a try.

 

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank AEG for providing us with a review copy of Sail To India.

Summary

  • Rating 8
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Summary

Pros

  • Compact and Streamlined design
  • Takes advantage of minimal components in a unique and game defining way
  • Quick gameplay that still leaves room for plenty of meaningful decisions
  • Technologies encourage players to pursue different strategies and provide different paths to victory

Cons:

  • Can feel scripted at times, especially near the end of the game
  • Getting behind can put a player out of contention
8 Very Good

I love optimization and engine games with tableau builders and card driven ones being my favorite. This usually means medium-heavy euros and medium-light card games.

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