Monday, December 19, 2011

Navegador - A wind in one's sail.

Game Designer - Mac Gerdts
Game Publisher - PD - Verlag / Rio Grande Games
Game Type -  Euro / Rondel

Navegador - A wind in one's sail.
Navegador is a euro-style board game by renowned designer Mac Gerdts. The game takes place in a time long ago when Portuguese explorers were mapping the globe inch by inch in a glorious race for fame, wealth and prosperity. You play one of these explorers vying for your place among the most revered. The game supports 2-5 players.

Once again Mac has chosen to use his trademark "rondel" mechanic, a wheel of sorts with different actions players can choose from as they go 'round and 'round. You can purchase buildings, workers, colonies and ships. There are actions to sail those ships out to sea as well as to utilize your buildings and add to your wealth. The actions are simple but when combined with the pacing of the rondel, it's trickier than it already sounds... but the truly wonderful quality of this game is that it's "trickiness" lies in the strategy and tactics rather than in it's rules.

Do you want to be a take on the challenges of setting sail into unknown waters? Are you eagerly anticipating settling the newfound land- harvesting the resources from the ground? Maybe the intrigue of an ever shifting market will reward your curiosity in industrialization? There are many roads to travel along, none without their own unique challenges and stories.

This review will center around a just few points of interest. There are plenty of rule re-hashes to found- I don't care much to add to the already adequate job these articles have done of explaining how the game works- I'd just like to tell you why it is I like it.

  • The Theme - I'm new to the business of writing reviews for Euro games but I can tell already in my 2-3 years of playing them that theme isn't going to be my introductory bullet point often. Theme isn't always as important for me as it seems it is to others, but when it works I enjoy it.  Somehow this game really gets the job done, as in, it makes you feel like you're getting the job done. You really feel like an explorer carving out your niche in the expanding landscape of the day. You're going to need a boatload supplies and money of course- let us not forget the ultimate motivator... well money and an unquenchable victory point addiction. One aspect I find especially thrilling is the exploring of new regions along the map. As you sail your ships into uncharted areas you earn the prestige of mapping the region for Portugal. Pushing forward to new regions allows one to settle more profitable areas on top of getting credit for the new discovery. Colonizing areas which produce valuable goods can earn you a lot of money, but only until the market bottoms out- opening the way for profit-minded factory owners to process the now cheap resources. The game very much has an ebb and flow, a rhythm. The activity comes in waves- as the tide inevitably goes back out to sea, so in come the shallow-water predators looking for a quick snack. 

  • The Market - After you begin to colonize some of the discovered regions goods start to show up in market- first sugar, then gold, then spices. One of the more mathematical points of the game is how the market works. During the game as you finance colonies you will begin to produce goods. Goods are traded in a  market that is open to all players willing to invest an action in on the rondel. There is a graduated scale in the upper left-corner of the board that dictates how much your goods are worth when you take them to market. Everytime you sell goods they are sold for the current market price but then afterwards the market is adjusted, driving down the value of that good for future sellers. Supply and demand. Another way to play the market is to invest in factories that process goods. When the goods are cheap and the market values low, the factory owner processes these cheap resources and sells them back to the market driving the value back up. So generally you'll end up having a couple players selling goods from their colonies while some of the factory driven players are setting up shop just waiting for the market to drop out so they can begin to make their piece of the pie. This happens across 3 different scales representing the market values for all 3 of the different goods. Again there's a rhythm to all of this dictated by which areas have been explored and thus maybe colonized, the factory prowess of the players and of course how many times the market is used as an action on the rondel. You see, you have to spend an action in order to sell or process.

  • The Rondel - This is truly the centerpiece of the game. To review this game and not make mention of it would be blasphemy. Designers and players alike gravitate towards this mechanic and it's simple nature. As the very first thing you do is pick up your pawn and move it to a new place on the rondel, this gives the turn a solid starting position. As silly as this sounds it really helps over analyzers get the ball rolling; to have limited choices as opposed to the overwhelming "menu" that's associated with many worker placement games and action point allowance systems. The game  moves along briskly because of this. I tend to lump my experience with this mechanic into one simple statement. Sometimes you ride the wheel and sometimes it rides you. As the round progresses around the table, each turn you can move your pawn forward up to 3 spaces (for free) around the rondel. If you'd like to go further than 3, the penalty is fairly steep, although sometimes necessary. This paces the game- you can't just keep doing the same thing over and over. You have to get all the way around the wheel again before you can choose your favorite action again. The trick is to make all of the actions in the path back to your niche as useful and impacting as possible. The only action that appears twice in the 8 separate action wedges is the market action, one that is almost a necessity in every strategy, the rest are spaced out among each other. There is a loose order of logistics involved, like buying ships before you can sail them and the similar- so as you race around the rondel make sure you're not passing up less useful but necessary actions! Inherently this leads to varied play. You simply do not have enough time or resources to do everything, although you do need to specialize in more than just one area of the scoring. Very often this game comes down to who can compliment their main strategy with some other useful ones. This is a theme that resonates throughout Navegador and might be in it's purest driving form right here in the action selection. The most notable of the actions along the trails is the "privilege" action. This is an area that allows you to pick from the available "scoring multiplier" chits in order to boost your chief strategies' point potential.    

  • The Scoring - Multiple paths to victory are something I look for in my game purchases. To me this one of the most important ways games can appeal to my need for variety play-to-play. More than a box full of cards or endless expansion possibilities, this aspect excites my gaming mind like almost no other. What I like about this game is that this apparent at a mathematical level. Now don't get me wrong, besides the market/economy aspect of this game it doesn't come across all that mathy. The different strengths one can excel in are fleshed out to include quite set of moving parts. Every one of these strengths is also intertwined among the others. It's the way you want to shape your strategy that will affect texture of your secondary pursuits. The neat thing about this all, is that now matter how many times the Venn diagram overlays atop itself there is a fair mathematician feeding the boilers below. At the end of the game each colony, factory, discovery, shipyard and church you've managed to amass through the game are scored. So for example, each of your colonies are worth a base of 1VP. So 6 colonies, 6 points- but as mentioned earlier the privileges will allow you to score more in the areas in which you've collected them. On your player sheet, each of the scored equities have a base value and a place to add some privilege chits below them to make them worth more. Each privilege, depending on the category, also has it's own value. They each add 1 or 2 points to the base value of these assets. So for instance, if you manage to get 2 of the "colony privileges" each worth one point, your colonies would each be worth 3 points (1+1+1). The shipyard and church chits are each worth 2 extra points per chit and the buildings themselves are worth 3 points, but this is off-set by their increased drain on money and worker resources. So throughout the game, especially during your first few overall plays, you'd barely notice all of this underlying math, but the balance is achieved through such simplicity- it really is beautiful. This paragraph could go on for quite sometime explaining all of the particulars, but in the interest of not confusing myself, these are the basics. The game's choices are so interwoven and overlapping that the multiple paths to victory seem legitimate and almost theme-based rather than founded on the broken backs of playtesters. 

  • The Map  -  I like the map. I like it a lot. It takes on the appearance of a yellowed cartographer's scroll. The colors are understated yet clear and brilliant. I've been a sucker for maps since I was a little boy- was always fascinated in history class by the rough estimations of coast lines, the subtle decorative desires of artistic cartographers craving more than just accuracy out of their hard work.  There's room enough on the board for both the building market and "trading market" as well. Each asset has it's own icon, which roughly equates to less than 10 intuitive symbols to remember. Everything is made very clear from premise through delivery. There are no cards, just tiles, a welcomed relief. The rest of the bits range from adequate to above average. The ships have interesting lines and are sculpted out of wood as well. Nothing too special, but aesthetically pleasing. The factories and buildings are wooden bits; and the colonies and privileges are tiles/chits. The money is chipboard as well, but fairly large in size and inscribed with one of four clear denominations.  Finally each player gets a player-mat that is made of cardboard  and is of an appropriate thickness. Overall I'd say I am very pleased to own this game based on the components. It's something I very rarely think about unless it's because they are of unacceptable quality, but in this case it's the opposite. 

  • 2P Scaling -  My main gaming partner is my friend Nicole and most of our games are played heads-up so I'm always looking for good 2P options. That being said, Navegador is not "best with 2", but it does scale down very well. As I'd say 90% of all my BG plays are 2P I have a pretty good idea of what I like in a two handed game and what I don't. One thing that I find rare among games that scale down well is that they maintain the pacing and feel of the bigger player count games. Navegador manages to feel similar to the bigger games with only 2. Usually when games attempt this sort of stable quality through different player counts you'll need the addition of special rules or a dummy player. Not here. Sure there are some differences in the "tightness" and overall available space with more players but Navegador hold up really well. The required amount of effort it takes to keep pushing the exploration horizon further doesn't suffer one bit. The fact that players must begin with their ships at the beginning of the nautical path assures that a certain amount of actions on the rondel will need to be undertaken before one can get up to the cusp of new territory. There are more privilege chits to go around, leading to some more focused attempts at specializing, but the scoring tension and race for the chits doesn't seem to dwindle that much. Things that don't work quite as well as I'd like: the market and the Navegador "special ability" card become a little less interesting. Less moving parts in the market leads to some stagnant activity as far as price "setting" and manipulation and the Navegador role can come across as a little inelegant with 2. These maybe two areas that follow true to the "it's not bad, it's just different" mantra. 

If I had just played this game once I probably would have rated it a 10, but after a couple plays it's clear it isn't my favorite game. That being said I would still put it in my favorite handful of games. It has a palatable sense balance and varied strategy. The underlying work the designer has done allows the thematic to rise above the mechanical. I really enjoy the overlapping scoring combined with a theme that is nothing short of a multi-tasker's paradise. The way the thematic elements mirror the interwoven scoring is really satisfying. The game plays fairly quickly with a minimal amount of book work and pause between turns. This keeps the game moving even at higher player counts. This is my first exposure to Mac's work and it's a success. I really look forward to trying Antike and the upcoming two player variant Casus Belli, the theme here seems even more up my alley. Imperial (2030) looks interesting and might provide an inlet to more economic centered games while still giving players in my group a certain sense of familiarity. I'm very much looking forward to that one too. All in all, I couldn't be happier with the game and it's been one of the best plays I've had since finding out about all of these "strange games".

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