Ostindien Company

Designed by Jean Vanaise
Published by Piatnik
Reviewed by Mike Siggins

£20 ($30)
3-5 players
75 mins

There is no doubt in my mind that Jean Vanaise is one of the more creative minds working in the field of game design. With just the one hitch. While his ideas are always interesting, without exception the execution is flawed. Take a look at Chicago, Minos and Sindbad as examples of unfulfilled promise. Even Shark, his best (though least creative) work, has more than a few rough edges. So does he break the pattern with Ostindien Company? No, sadly, he does not.

OC is a game on the now increasingly well-worn subject of shipping valuable goods for sale at a high profit. Thematically, it follows G&RRR's Ostindinska Kompaniet almost exactly but is a considerably simpler game, having neither the innovation of Die Hanse nor the atmosphere or system strength of OK. Essentially, three to five players choose which ships to load with their goods, move the ships back to the European port, and sell the goods for money. As we shall see, there are variables that affect the basic structure. This cycle is repeated five times and the player with the most money is the winner. We had played just three runs when we decided to call a halt, and each one had taken around fifteen minutes. The fact that it was going to repeat ad nauseam, and was less than skilful, lead us to halt before the end.

At the start of each round, five coloured ships line up on the start spaces in the far east, needing to travel fifteen spaces to reach home, with only the first three ships home scoring. Each player is dealt a hand of 6 varied goods cards which he 'loads' onto the ships, using a notepad to record his selection. His choice is however limited to one type of good per ship and to a maximum of three pieces per ship. His choice is also dictated, mistakenly it transpires, by the movement cards he holds which indicate which ships he can move initially, though more cards are picked up later. And that's it for the planning phase.

A turn is straightforward. Roll the two special dice (a Vanaise trademark) and then play a movement card. The dice either allow the movement of a ship, or change the price of one of the goods at home - randomly, you'll note. The movement cards move a ship of the same colour one, two or three spaces whatever the outcome of the dice, though it can be doubled by one of the die combinations. Meanwhile, back at home, the prices of the four commodities moves up and down in accordance with the dice. They all start at five, but by the time the ships dock, the prices may be as high as twenty or as low as one. Beyond rolling the dice, and being dealt the right or wrong cards initially, you have virtually no control over these prices. If Rice shoots up to 15, and you don't have any, tough. If your ship arrives with three cargoes of silk, worth but one, tough again. Meanwhile, your grinning opponent is raking it in. Logically, this luck element would even out over the five races but this is random pain of the Siedler variety.

The opening choice of ships would be a saving grace if you had any real feel for which ships you could get home quickly, and what the cargoes would be worth on arrival. But you don't - once the dice get going the prices bounce around virtually uncontrollably, and once you have played the few cards in your hand and replenished, you may never pick up the right colours again. Almost pure luck here then. The situation is aggravated in two further ways. Apart from just one dice combination, which allows ships to be moved backwards, you have no way of hindering other players, or knowing whether you are, so you just help yourself and keep your fingers crossed. Finally, and the bit that made me groan in disbelief, is that the prices established in the first round don't even stick around for the second phase - I was hoping for a method of choosing what cargoes you took on the second run. But we don't get that involved. The game just resets everything for each run and you effectively play the same game five times.

As it stands then, the game has very little going for it on the skill front. However, without making it too complicated, I can immediately see some changes that might have helped. If your hand of movement cards were larger, as in Formel Eins, you could make an educated guess as to which ships would be good bets. Combine this with an Airlines style selection system, with four face up piles of movement cards, and you could have something starting here. The price mechanism would need to be damped down, to avoid the huge spread of moves, and there definitely needs to be some form of continuity through the five phases -perhaps by choosing, one by one, your cargoes for the next trip. Okay, I agree this is all derivative stuff, but isn't it better to be derivative and have a decent game than be original and have too high a luck quotient?

So, having seen how it works, we come to the crunch question. Is Siggins once again criticising a game for failing to be what it isn't? Despite the designer's past 'hobby' form, the big box, the high price and the 10+ age range, I conclude OC has to be targeted at the younger family gamer. There is precious little indicating otherwise. And if this is the case, that is fine and this is a simple, light, luck based, somewhat repetitive system. Whatever, in case you were interested, interaction is low, boiling down to just the race mechanism and trying to work out who is who, which is not difficult once the chips are down (literally). The only excitement, mild it must be said, comes when there is some doubt over who will squeeze in to the finish first.

Not a great game then, but it could have been fine with a little more thought. The idea is nice enough, there is an interesting race mechanism linked with a price index, which all offers bags of scope. But none of this is exploited. I am reminded of Die Erbraffer which was not far short of being a good gamer's game as well as a decent family offering. I think it is feasible that a game can be designed as both, but many designers (Knizia being a notable exception) just don't seem to bother going that extra mile. Perhaps they feel they don't have to? But I've said this many times already, and I doubt the situation will change simply by my moaning about it.

Ostindien is a game with plenty of potential, and in the hands of a Knizia, Moon or Teuber would have doubtless bloomed, but we are left with a game that relies so much on guesswork and luck that it cannot be recommended to the gaming market. However, the game is clearly aimed at the family audience and for them, it may just pass muster. But I have my doubts. Given that Piatnik have an enviable track record in this field, I have to say that this release is somewhat anomalous, but then again it is the first time to my knowledge they have used Jean Vanaise. One to pass on then, or perhaps a candidate for the occasional gamer's menu.

The Game Cabinet - editor@gamecabinet.com - Ken Tidwell