Designer: Jeroen Doumen, Joris Wiersinga
Artist: Herman Haverkort, Tamara Jannink
Publisher: Splotter Spellen
What an idyllic, picturesque setting… little do they know the hardships of transporting goods in the game proper. (Photo credits: Tiago Duarte@BGG)
I have long owned Roads and Boats but never found the time to play the game. The timing just wasn’t there. Recently, in my attempts to further reduce my collection, I decided to give Roads and Boats its due. Unfortunately we managed to get through 3/4 of a two player game before calling it quits. So, this really isn’t even a “complete” initial impression technically speaking. Well, since the game is leaving my collection, I don’t so much have a choice if I wanted to pen my thoughts.
Surprisingly, this is one and only time I have played a Splotter game. I have, of course, heard of the magnificent company that produces top notch games for gamers. It’s a company that cares more about quality than aesthetics. A company that prides itself in developing complex, sandbox style games that allows gamers to explore and stretch the boundaries of the game system.
Much has been said about Roads and Boats. It is really hard to categorize the game beyond that of a non-streamlined pick up and deliver resource conversion game. My initial hesitation for not bringing out the game was really due to my belief that the rules for the game are complicated. That’s actually not true at all. The game rules are really short and easy to digest, possibly 8-10 pages at most. That’s because most mechanistic elements of the game share a similar strucuture. It doesn’t matter if a factory is producing wagons or if a sawmill is producing planks, the idea is always similar: a producer requires input and generates an output. So, the rules really aren’t that complicated.
The game is actually very aptly titled: Roads and Boats because building a network of roads and river ways to transport raw materials or produced goods from one point to another is the entirety of the game. The person who can do that most efficiently given a set of unique terrain will win the game.
Most of the game can be summarize as follows: players individually build their network of producers and factories linked together by a series of roads and rivers. The ultimate goal is to build advanced structures that generate goods which produces wealth points. In the case of Roads and Boats, only 3 items generates wealth points: Gold nuggets from mines, gold coins produced by gold nuggets from the mint and stock certificates made from gold coins in the stock exchange. The point values for these outputs are not equal. A stock certificate is worth 120WP while coins and nuggets are worth 40 and 10WP respectively. Clearly, making stock certificates is the ultimate goal here if one can pull it off. But, getting there is challenging as there are lots of intermediate steps along the way.
The game starts with a blank slate where players choose a home base and with minimal resources. The first steps is to start cranking out raw materials which will then be fed to factories or secondary producers. Because only one structure is built on each tile, and the terrain type limits construction of specific buildings, players will quickly run out of space. So care must be taken to build only what is needed or, piggy back on what others have constructed. More on the piggybacking later. Once the raw materials (wood, stone, clay, etc.) are extracted from the terrain, an efficient network of roads and also river ways must be used to move the goods from point A to point B so that the inputs and outputs of a factory go to where they are supposed to be. For example, after wood is produced, they need to be transported a sawmill to make planks, which must then be transported to a different terrain tile to build a paper mill, which then generates paper that must be sent to the stock exchange and so forth.
To transport goods, a series of different transporters must be built. Starting with the versatile donkey that can cross any terrain without roads, but only for short distances, players must upgrade their transporters to move on roads (wagons, trucks) or via waterways (rafts, boats, steamers). Each of these transporters will have a carrying capacity and maximum distance for movement on land or water. Thus building transporter factories to upgrade transports will allow more efficient movement of goods across the map, but also, when the game ends, all wealth point generating items must be situated on transporters. So, upgrading these transporters is essential at some point.
There are a lot of decisions to be made in Roads and Boats, which is to be expected of a sandbox style game. But the initial steps for each game feel quite programmed. For one thing, constructions of raw material producers like the woodcutter (wood) or the quarry (stone) and their corresponding secondary seem to be a must. In order to build more structures, you will always need planks and stone. So, you cannot get away from building these basic structures. Beyond that, there is a wider choice of deciding which transporters to build. If the map features a lot of water tiles, then a focus on factories that build water transporters might be warranted. Conversely, if your road network is solid, then wagons and trucks are the best bet. Ultimately, your choices of transporters will be largely dictated by the placements of your industries near bodies of water or road network.
As players move through the different phases of the game producing and transporting goods, building industries and positioning themselves to build a stock exchange, they will eventually bump into each other on the map. If the map is small, conflict will arise sooner. When that happens, players get to utilize buildings or industries constructed by others and also possibly pick up unattended goods. For example, instead of building my own wagon factory, I could send my mule carrying two stone to an opponent’s factory to make a wagon. If however, there are two unattended stone chits on the wagon factory, I can use those to make my wagon instead. It matters not who moved them there, I can use it if these goods are unattended. This also means that valuable commodities such as gold from gold mines or fuel from oil rigs can be “stolen”. So, there is direct head on conflict where you get to “steal” stuff from others. To fend of these leechers, walls can be built to block access to a particular tile. However, these walls can also be torn down.
Besides the three wealth point generating goods, the base game also has one additional way for scoring points: That is the contribution of goods toward building a wonder. Based on the amount of goods players sacrifice and at which stage of the game, players get to place bricks on the wonder at the end of each round. Bricks are placed row by row bottoms up and points are calculated and shared by all contributors when a row of bricks are completed on the wonder. The construction of the wonder also acts as a timer and the game ends when the wonder is completed.
First off, Roads and Boats is a tour de force of sandbox style gaming. Because the game has few restrictions in how one develops their own network, the game can be both liberating, but also unpredictable and potentially frustrating for some. Establishing home base is the first move in the game but there are no restrictions as to where you can place the home base. Ideally, you want to choose a nice, plump region with lots of different terrains to support your structures but also far away from initial competition. But there is nothing that prevents you from establishing a home base in a tile right next to your opponent. Doing so while change the entire context of the game from a relatively solitary experience to one that is high conflict. That is at once really cool and disturbing at the same time. This means that the action of one player can tilt the game in one direction resulting in an unsatisfactory experience for some. If you are one that loves engine building and optimization in your own space, there is no guarantee that will happen if you find yourself pitted against an aggressive opponent hellbent at raiding your gold mines. Sure you can erect barriers, but the game will feel distinctly different. I can also imagine that if the fight for resources between two players become intense, then the third player that is developing peacefully will be reaping the rewards from your struggles. The game feels fragile that way. Now if your gaming group is not conflict-averse, then this might not be a big deal, but I cannot imagine this going over well with a mixed gaming group.
The ability to steal resources can also particularly frustrating in Roads and Boats because timing and movement is everything in the game. Materials must be moved from point A to point B to be converted into item C in a precise manner. If one goods is unattended and stolen because your transporters cannot reach the site in time, then the timing of everything else will be out of sync. That would be immensely frustrating for me at least. It’s impossible to constantly guard a gold mine each turn and so, I guess you have to weigh the risks of intrusion from your opponents. I don’t mind conflict, but there is something unsettling about it in Roads and Boats because so much of the game is building toward setting up the infrastructure for resource conversion. If the very thing that you set up is stolen from you (such as the gold nuggets) and the entire assembly line collapses because of lack of raw materials. That just plain sucks. I really don’t know how often that can happen, because I haven’t played enough, but I guess I would do that to an opponent if I could.
On the other hand, there is something about Roads and Boats that is liberating. I can’t help but compare the rule book for Roads and Boats with other modern games. The rules are sparse to give players maximum flexibility in designing their network. Perhaps that’s the sort of trade off that one must expect if you want a sandbox style gaming experience. That rules are kept at a minimal so that players have to decide how best to navigate the system. Sure, more rules can be imposed on the system to curb some situations (i.e. home base must be 5 tiles apart or no stealing in the first 5 rounds), but that kinda defeats the purpose of a sandbox gaming? There is infinite replayability in Roads and Boats here as you can design whatever terrain configurations for each game.
Roads and Boats is intriguing and frustrating to me at the same time. If there is a game that fits the bill of “I admire the design but don’t really want to play it”, Roads and Boats will currently occupy the top spot. There is something amazing and unique about the sandbox nature of the game that it fulfills a primal gaming urge. I can do whatever I want with my network and set it up however I want: There are no tile limits, no restrictions for placements, no minimum setup distance. Nothing. In a way, this is the antithesis of the tightly regulated Euro games that controls and restricts many aspects of the game to promote equal competition. In Roads and Boats, you can set up your home base right next to an opponent and steal their planks in turn 2. It may not be the winning strategy, but maybe, it can. The game can be as aggressive or solitary as the players collectively decide. It’s entirely possible the entire game is played without a single interaction between players. Yep. Liberating and frustrating all roll into one.
Perhaps with enough investment in the game, I may actually come to love Roads and Boats. It really requires effort to learn and play with a group of equally invested friends. I think only then, will the game really fulfill its true potential. It’s too bad because I know there is something great underneath this game that I am unable to tap at the current stage of my life. As such, I have to bid a fond farewell for now. Perhaps our paths will cross again in the future