East India Company is, I believe, the first major release from G&RRR Games of Sweden. The designer is Dan Glimne who you may know from his Alga days or more likely as the inventor of Spears' Andy Capp and GW's quirky but novel Dungeonquest. Dan claims to have spent over 500 hours on the game, which makes it something of a labour of love, and I for one am glad he put in the effort.
In much the same way that England had its own powerful East India Company, Sweden too saw a massive rise (and decline) in Far East trade during the eighteenth century and this is the subject matter of the game. Apparently, given a seafaring tradition and a gap in the market, G&RRR decided that this would make for an ideal game launch for Sweden. It garnered excellent reviews from the Swedish pre-Christmas newspapers and a good level of sales, good enough in fact to sell out the first print run, so now we know what they do above the Arctic circle during those long winter nights. Still can't see this happening in England for some reason.
The general theme of the game is, predictably, to make money by trading between Sweden and the Far East. This is done in two distinct steps. Firstly, Swedish export goods are purchased with Swedish Riksdollars, carried from Gothenburg to Cadiz on your ships and sold for Spanish Silver Piastres, the only currency acceptable to the traders of the East. The loot is shipped to India, China or Japan at your discretion and trade goods are purchased with Piastres and brought back to Gothenburg to be sold for Riksdollars at a substantial profit. As a rule, you can expect to treble your investment (or more) on a good run, though bad luck, water damaged goods and variable prices can all affect the net take.
One lazy, but bright, player wondered why he had to go all the way to the Far East to make money when he could just sail home from Cadiz with the Piastres and convert them into Riksdollars for a reasonable turn in perhaps a tenth of the time. Presumably the answer is that there were no Bureaux de Change in that period, though the rules do quote 5 Piastres to 1 Riksdollar as a workable exchange rate for calculating victory totals. Sumo's history consultant felt there may be some customs and excise intervention in effect in Sweden to prevent such antics, but then again it could just be a small oversight in the game mechanics - the rules neither permit nor prevent it happening. Overall, I would think that even if you made enough Sweden-Cadiz-Sweden circuits, the profit margin available in Cadiz would not make enough cash to rival the Far East trips, but I'd be interested in any experiments or views.
Each player is given two ships and, refreshingly, unique start positions with varying money and goods. One player might be stuck in port waiting to sail with the other ship in Cadiz, while another player might already be heading back home with a valuable shipment. These openings seem to be well balanced - one quickly concludes that a fair proportion of the 500 hours was spent in testing. Play of each turn is simple enough; you lay an event card from the three in your hand, move your ships and then replenish. The card will usually offer improved movement for one or more of your ships, but there are adverse card results which, if ignored by deferring their play, might eventually result in something nasty such as rotting victuals or hitting the doldrums. Other benefits and disasters can befall you throughout the game by way of Logbook cards (a form of maritime Community Chest) whenever a ship passes Madagascar.
If you can handle the resulting storms and tempests, the movement system has both strengths and a slight weakness. Rather than using hexes or area movement for the ships, they are moved using card templates corresponding in length to the four possible ship speeds, rather in the manner of miniatures gaming. This means the ships are placed on the unmarked map in their precise headings and position, to be moved off in a straight line next time using the card as a measure. There are a few minor problems here, all of which will be familiar to figure gamers. Firstly, there is the outboard motor assisted ship that somehow gains an extra half-inch each turn, miraculously outpacing its rivals, secondly there is the pinball tilt or typhoon sneeze which scatters the ships to the four corners of the globe and thirdly there is the rather bendy and inaccurate nature of movement through narrow straits using thin, pliable cardboard as a measure. None of this is insurmountable but I would have preferred area movement and increased speed, though another player suggested pre-printed, sectionalised trade routes which would also appeal.
The other side of the coin is that in using the freeform moves, there is a strong element of Regatta by which you feel as if you are actually sailing the ships. As a result, we had a couple of interesting and tight races (even though no blocking is permitted) back from India. It's a close call, and there is nothing much wrong with either method. Whatever, the general feeling among the players was that ships moved a little slowly overall and that the four categories of move might be scaled up by 50% or more to speed things up (the wide expanses of ocean take a good while to cross). I see no reason not to do this, though the designer may have his reservations.
The real strength of the game is in the flavour generated by the actual goods bought in the eastern trading ports. I don't know exactly what it is about the subject that appeals, but a game system that allows one to sail into Canton or Surat bulging with Piastres, check the traders to see what is on offer and buy in a cargo of Mother of Pearl, Rattan, Litmus and Arrack, really has me sold from the start. Okay, so the Litmus might get wet on the way back or your ship may be hit by a hurricane or scurvy, but I still have this overwhelming feel of the character of eighteenth century trading, something that I've not come across so strongly anywhere before. Yup, I liked this part of the game.
The trading sub-system that generates all this is quite basic, though completely fitting. On arrival in port, you can reveal two cards from the face down pack, which shows what goods can be bought, how much they weigh (you have restricted holds) and what they cost. The latter is likely to be the limiting factor, even if you made a packet in Cadiz, but two shiploads of Piastres really gets those traders leaping about. If you stick around for another turn in port, or have specific event cards, you can turn over more cards each turn until you have filled the hold, spent all your money or have decided to move onto another port to collect a different type of cargo. This latter is often necessary as there are worthwhile cash bonuses for delivering various obscure combinations of merchandise to Gothenburg.
Once returned back to Europe, trade goods are priced off of a stack of ready reckoner cards which are flipped to show selling prices of imports in Gothenburg, though the system also holds for the preliminary Cadiz deals. Full demand is ever present, so your goods always sell; the system is not that complex in the demand-supply-price area, but the random nature of these cards gives an appropriate feel for the level of game we are dealing with. Basically, the price varies and you imagine the demand. On the cards, the value of each type of cargo is listed next to its tonnage and the general trend seems to be that there are rare, volatile items (Art, Litmus, Mother of Pearl?) that vary in price far more than commodity goods (tea).
This adds another dimension to deciding what to bring back on each trip as you may be full to the gunwales with Japanese erotica only to find the price in Sweden consistently deflated (due to the buoyant home market, one presumes). This does work both ways though, giving rise to impressive income streams, and you also have the option of deferring the sale for a turn or more in the hope that the next card will improve the deal. But time is money, and you need to decide how long you can afford to be out of action in port while waiting for a decent price. Clever stuff, not too onerous on the maths front, and quickly resolved.
Once you have made your fortune in this inflationary environment (I think it would be impossible not to make money on a trouble free run), you start the whole cycle again but with the option of fitting out another ship (viable in a three or four player game I would think, risky with more) or buying into Ostindiska Kompaniet shares. These cost 100,000 Riksdollars (or about the third of one run's profit) but the owner of most shares at the moment when the sixteenth share is sold is the winner. Cash is therefore important, but only to buy the key shares or break ties. Once bought, the shares have no value beyond offering a gauge of who is winning, but the resulting device of a variable finishing point is a good one, giving the feel of needing to race back to sell your goods in case all the shares disappear to rivals. In this rather roundabout way, the need for speed is neatly built into the system.
Despite this game enforced urgency, the first game we played (three players, six ships) took around three hours plus half an hour to set up and learn. I have a gut feeling that this is a little too long for the content but I can also see that the game is nicely poised such that any delay in trading, bad luck or duff decisions will really cost you. In fairness, a lot of the three hours was down to unfamiliarity and the language problem on the event cards - although we had them translated on separate sheets, it really needs English cards for maximum speed because you use and refer to them every turn. Whatever, I felt the three hours would definitely reduce substantially and the other players felt it wasn't overlong anyway. As a guide, we managed to make three sizeable deliveries each (from as far away as Nagasaki) which easily generated enough cash to complete the game, but you could always reduce the time limit in a number of ways, preferably by reducing the number of shares in issue.
I also think the game has a fair degree of luck and that the decision making is not too testing, but the overall picture holds together and to an extent I was carried along by the flavour which helped to camouflage the system a little, though I feel this element would fade in subsequent games. Whatever, the player who made the best buys did end up winning, so skill seems to play a large enough role. I suspect the rub is that there is an awaful lot of sailing to achieve the fairly low level of runs - the emphasis is directed away from shortish runs and lots of small trades (a la Merchant of Venus) to long runs and a few large shipments. The success of those runs is therefore crucial and if you have two or three bits of bad luck, I doubt you will be on the podium come game end. Ironically, this implies a longer game would be a good thing and the rules suggest doubling the cost of the shares to achieve this. God forbid that I should commend a longer game, but combined with the quicker ship moves, this may well expand the range of strategies on offer and dampen the luck factor.
A major plus for Ostindiska is its production standards which exceed anything put out by even the German and French companies. This is all the more impressive as Dan Glimne did most of it himself on a domestic computer (see the letter column for details). Everything bar the rather flimsy paper money is of high quality, the artwork and cards are very atmospheric and the detail is there right down to individual ship names. I understand the game costs about £27-30 in Sweden, and I can see why, but it shouldn't be much more to get hold of over here. What we do need now is the name of a Swedish shop or wholesale outlet that will supply by mail order - Dan or Bert, can you help?
In summary, Ostindiska Kompaniet is an above average game with plenty of flavour and a modicum of decision making, though admittedly with a few minor aspects that I might have treated differently. As I said, the emphasis of the game comes over towards sailing rather than trading, though this could be tweaked as mentioned above, and of course this isn't necessarily 'wrong' for a country with a lot of crinkly coastline and quite a few ships. It is also a shade long for what goes on, but it undoubtedly didn't drag and there was enough variety, action and flavour to maintain interest throughout. In many ways I am tempted to call it a middleweight game - it is far from simple, but is not as complex as some. As I said above, I think the game would speed up with familiarity and English event cards, but it would definitely slow again with more players and ships.
I would certainly rank this one on a par with Merchant of Venus (imagine how much better that could have been with just such a historical setting), but I still feel, perhaps wrongly, that the ultimate trading game is yet to be invented and that this is the subject that might well fit it best. I think all it would need is a spark of originality to really have a game to get excited about. Then again, perhaps I am hoping for too much from the genre and we may have got there already but Ostindiska benefits from being the first to tap this rich historical vein and it portrays it well. So, none of this is to detract from Ostindiska Kompaniet, which is a game to rank with the best trading systems and bodes well for forthcoming games from G&RRR and by extension, Sweden, though at 500 hours a shot, we may have a little wait before the next one. Recommended.
On to the review of Battle Masters or back to the Introduction.
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