Article originally published at Westbank Gamers by Greg J. Schloesser
Many, many gamers are becoming more and more familiar with the quality games being produced by the German gaming companies. Fortunately, they are beginning to find a faithful following here in the United States. However, what about some of the other European countries? Don't they have gaming markets, too?
Well, the release of Svea Rike has finally brought some much needed gamer's attention ... and praise ... to another European country - Sweden. In fact, it was Svea Rike that made me look into other Swedish games a bit more deeply. That is how I discovered Ostindiska Kompaniet (East India Company) and was able to secure a copy via a trade with a Swedish internet buddy.
The game, which won the Swedish Game of the Year back in 1992, is very attractive with designer Dan Glimme having done a superb job on the map and components. Thanks to the help of several internet buddies, I was able to gather lots of material and suggested variants, including several of my own, which I think aided player interaction and made the game a better one.
The game centers on the affairs of the Swedish East India Company (OK ... admit it ... how many of you even knew there was a Swedish East India Company?) in the late 1700's and early 1800's. Each player is attempting to develop profitable trade routes between Sweden, Cadiz and the Far Eastern ports of Surat, Porto Novo, Canton and Nagasaki. Ultimately, profits made are used to purchase shares in the East India Company and reinvest in more cargo to continue the trade routes. Ultimately, the wealthiest player is the victor.
The game sequence follows a pretty rigid pattern. Players must purchase goods in Gotheborg using their central bank of Swedish currency, known as riksdalers. They then set sail for Cadiz, where these goods are sold in exchange for the Spanish currency of piastres, which is the only currency generally accepted across the Far East. From Cadiz, players set sail to any one of the four Far Eastern ports, or visits to more than one, and may purchase some of the variety of goods that are offered using these piastres. Once the ships holds are full, or a player decides to cease purchases, he heads back to Gotheborg to sell these rich wares. These are sold in Gotheborg for more riksdalers, which may be used to purchase shares in the East India Company and refill the ship with goods to continue the cycle.
There are lots of other considerations. Each ship has a maximum capacity, measured in laster, that it can carry. Each good purchased has a corresponding weight. So, one must be careful in his purchases to optimize the space available so that ships sail at or near holding capacity. One cannot simply purchase goods at will, however. Each turn spent in a port allows the player to reveal two new goods cards, each of which can vary in type, weight and cost. So, one must weigh whether it is worth purchasing the goods when immediately revealed, or spending valuable time remaining in port hoping to reveal goods more to one's liking. Speed counts in this game and time spent in a port trading can come back to haunt a player.
The ultimate price of each good is determined by use of price cards. When arriving in port, a player can usually only sell three goods per turn in port. If the top price card is not to a player's liking, he can select another card. However, if that price is also not to his liking, then he must wait to sell his goods until the next turn when he can attempt to reveal a new price card. Again, time is critical so there is always a choice of whether to accept the current price or remain in port in hopes of a better deal.
Movement of the ships is largely regulated by use of action cards, of which each player always has three in his hand. The game departs from most traditional games in that there are no hex grids or movement spaces per se. Rather, Glimme opted to utilize a 'miniatures' method of movement, wherein measuring cards are used to determine sailing distances in a rather free-form manner. This does, admittedly, slow the game down, but it can cause some interesting blocking situations wherein players can maneuver their ships in such a fashion as to block the shortest route, forcing their opponents to take a longer and more time consuming path. I feared that I wouldn't like the movement system, but actually found it added significantly to the feel of the game.
Action cards also can give certain rewards, such as bonuses for selling certain types of goods in a port, or cause setbacks, such as crew sicknesses, water-damaged cargo or loss of provisions. We used a variant that I proposed which allowed players to use 'harmful' cards on opponents. We did, however, place a restriction that a player could only suffer one negative action card per round. This greatly added to the player interaction in the game and did provide a method to slow down a player and act as a thorn in his side. I would HIGHLY recommend the use of this variant in any game of Ostindiska.
Another factor to deal with are the dreaded "Logbook" cards. One of these cards, which usually adversely affect a player, must be drawn each time a ship passes Madagascar. Also, certain action cards also call for the drawing of a Logbook card. These cards are designed to represent the perils of sea voyages. These can wreak havoc on a voyage. I suffered so much water damaged cargo, which cuts one's profits in half when they are sold, that my fleet was accused of being a Swiss cheese fleet ...full of holes!
The original game is designed to end once the 16th and final East India Company share is purchased. At that point, the player with the most shares is victorious. We utilized a variant proposed by Stuart Dagger wherein other factors also went into the calculations to determine the victor. In addition to the share price, which could increase based on a variant suggested by Stuart and modified by me, riksdalers, piastres, ship values and cargo on board are also factored in to determine the ultimate victor. This is a much more realistic and fairer method, in my opinion.
We also utilized the variable player order method, wherein players selected cards numbered 1 - 5 to determine the player order for each round. This, too, adds spice and uncertainty to the game. Highly recommended.
The set up of the game has each player beginning in various locations with various amounts of cash and cargo. It seems to have been thoroughly playtested and appears well balanced. The game runs smoothly, although there tends to be some confusion amongst the two types of currencies used in the game. I think players should adjust to this with repeated playings. There was also the problem typical of many miniatures games of having to measure each movement using the movement cards. I would strongly urge all players to adopt an attitude of 'leniency' in this regards. No since spoiling the game by arguing whether or not the ship's bow is a millimeter off from reaching a port.
The game does tend to move slow. Someone had suggested that perhaps the measuring cards could be revised so that each movement of a ship took it a bit farther. This would certainly speed things up and make the journey across the seas quicker. This would be a good thing as there is quite a bit of down time as players continually sail across vast expanses of ocean.
The main thing I would recommend, however, is to only play the game with 3 or at most 4 players. Five bogs the game down and there is significant 'down time' between moves for a player. This is one of those rare games that is ideally suited for 3 players.
In spite of these problems, I really enjoyed the game. Now, it is not a game with high player interaction, negotiation, deal-making or backstabbing. However, it is an intriguing trading game and utilizing the variant wherein 'bad' action cards may be played on opponents really aids in the player interaction department and does provide a method of slowing down opponents. I enjoyed it and feel I will enjoy it even more with subsequent playings, especially if played with only 3 or 4 players.
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