Designer: Mac Gerdts
Artist: Marina Fahrenbach, Mac Gerdts
Publisher: PD Verlag
So much of the spice trade in the East is linked to the Portuguese explorers that sailed around the Cape of Good Hope to colonize and establish trade routes back in the 15th century. Much of the Portuguese naval exploits was owed to Prince Henry, whose goes by Henry The Navigator. Sadly enough, there are more games dealing with the spice trade on Arrakis than from Malacca or Goa. What a shame really, since the culture, history and background of the nations involved in the spice trade is rich for the plumbing. I certainly would love to see more of this theme being represented in modern board game themes. In general, Navegador does a commendable job in capturing a very small slice of the spice trade. While greatly abstracted, the Eastward movement of ships sailing from Lisbon all the way to Nagasaki really serves as a visual reminder of how the Portuguese empire expanded through the seas. Not only that, it also functions as an internal game clock because as soon as a ship docks in Japan, it signals the beginning of the end of game play. This game clock is brilliantly thematic but at the same time, lays the foundation for a very quirky and uneven progression throughout the game. Whether this is a good thing, is up for debate.
Like all good modern day board games, players are struggling to gain fame and fortune in the high seas by spreading the mission of Prince Henry. This is done by building ships, recruiting workers, exploring the oceans, colonizing settlements along the coast, plundering the natural resource linked to the colonies and finally, setting up industries to produce goods based on the resources plundered. While you would expect the enormity of each these tasks to weigh down Navegador’s game play, in actuality, the actions are rather straightforward and not at all layered with chrome. As with many of Mac Gerdt’s designs, this one also features a rondel: a circular action wheel with multiple slices of pie, each representing a single action. In a player’s turn, he/she will move a player token clockwise on the wheel to select and perform an action. The first three choices in front of the token can be chosen freely. Subsequent moves beyond that requires a compensation of one ship on the main player board. Hence, if you want to do an action down yonder on the rondel, you must pay an extra ship for each action slice beyond the first three free choices. Expensive indeed. Such is the price of trying to short circuit action selection on a rondel. Because players only get to perform a single action, turns are rapid. Building boats, recruiting workers and building industries, shipyards and churches all happen instantaneously by paying the cost and either moving a marker on the track to note the purchase or, picking up the corresponding factory token to put on your own player board.
The three actions that are probably the most involved, are the marketplace, establishing colonies and sailing actions. Sailing ships from one ocean zone to the next automatically triggers exploration of the coastal settlements if the zone has never been explored. Each of the settlement will already have a selection of three predetermined resource tiles of the same kind, but with different values. The explorer who reaches the settlement first does not colonize the town, but will instead get some coin for his effort – the lowest of the three amounts printed on the revealed resource tiles. In addition, the intrepid player is also gifted with a blue disc to symbolize the pioneering explorer to sail the uncharted waters. These discs will score points in the end of the game.
To colonize a settlement, one must then recruit people from Lisbon to do that. Presumably, ships must load the boads at the docks in Europe and set sail for the untamed lands. This is again pretty abstracted. As long you have 2 workers in Lisbon, and a boat in the region of choice, a player can perform the colonize action to take one of the previously revealed settlement tiles. If all three tiles in each colony is take, no further colonies can be established in that zone.
Finally the marketplace allows players to sell commodities or produce goods. This is a central element of the game and a major source of income for players. I don’t think a player can ignore this aspect of game play at all if they want income. Selling commodities, either sugar, gold or spice is tied to the colony tiles picked up during colonization. Each tile symbolizes a unit of raw material offered by the colony to be sold in the market. Each unit commodity sold will earn income and lower the price in the global market, making subsequent sales less profitable. To increase the value of commodities, factories are needed to buy and convert them to other products. Thus, for each factory owned – and there are different types for each commodity – one good is manufactured and earning income while moving the commodities track the opposite direction to make it more valuable. In this way, the stock market tracks each commodity which fluctuates depending on sale of raw materials or production of goods.
However, the marketplace does have rules to limit the transactions one can perform. Every time you visit the marketplace, you can either sell or manufacture goods for each commodity type but not both. Which means you either get to sell your 3 shipments of sugar from the colonies, or use your 2 sugar factories. It is likely most folks will choose the option that brings maximum profit, unless of course you are playing defensively to manipulate the stock market and prevent your opponents from cashing in. There is a thematic disconnect here: the sale and manufacture of goods are independent events. You cannot send your raw commodities directly to the factories you own for production. Odd disconnect, but one that is necessary for stream lining the decision tree in the game. As is the marketplace is already quite fiddly and doesn’t need more complexity.
Which brings me back to the tempo of playing Navegador across the three phases. Yes, the game pace changes three time. First, as the first explorer rounds the Cape of Good Hope and then again when the first ships sails past India. In each phase, the pace of the game picks up and certain things become more expensive. Whereas in the Atlantic ocean, all ships move one sea zone with each sailing action, ships move 2 and then 3 zones in the successive phases. This means, the pace of exploration picks up. Basically, ships can sprint past the African continent and reach the Straits of Malacca in short order. Once you get past phase 3, the game is probably one or two turns away from ending, IF there are enough ships to make a push to Nagasaki. The bar to pass here is that two ships must be lost in order to reach Japan. So, you need at least an armada of three ships in the South China Sea.
Essentially, the game feels distinct in all three phases. I would say more than half to two thirds of the game is spent in the Atlantic ocean where players build up an “engine” of income and ships, by stockpiling colonies and factories. In phase 1, building ships is also significantly cheaper. Thus taking advantage of this era to construct ships is a wise move to make a push for the upcoming expedition to the East. However, money is pretty tight early on, and every action feels costly. This is perhaps the crux of the game and likely how victory is decided. How well you plot your course in the early stages will be played out in the last third of the game. For example, if you don’t already have a healthy supply of ships enroute to Japan when the first ship explores Malacca, you will be left out of the exploration race….. which is perfectly fine since the game is won or lost based on specializations for scoring, an area that I think Mac Gerdts excels in.
In Concordia, players each have their own collection of scoring attributes they are chasing after, but not so face dow that you are completely detached from the main board. Same to a certain degree with Navegador. The final action I have yet to mention, is the Privilege action. Here, players get to pick up multiplier chits for specific victory point scoring criteria, and there are five: exploration, factories, shipyards, churches and colonies. In each player score board are five columns that corresponding to the scoring criteria, with empty slots below for placing these chits. Each of these chits have a specific value and that value is the same for all chits in a particular column. But one can pick multiple chits (up to 3) of the same scoring criteria to amplify scoring. For example, each colony chit is worth 1 point and you start with a pre-printed value of 1 point on the board. Hence if you have 3 chits +1 pre-printed value and 5 colonies at the end of the game, you will get 20 points. Same with the other scoring categories. The only difference is the pre-printed values are different across columns. Some categories like exploration, churches and shipyard start off with higher predetermined values. Scores are tallied for all columns, including cash, and the winner is the one with the most points.
I have played Navegador twice, but years apart. It is not enough to probe the depths of the game, but just enough for some initial impressions. I recalled that the first game tanked, in part due to the unanticipated tempo of the game, which was again evident in our recent play. I was a little more aware of the quirk the second time around. The way the game progresses, is more a feature than a bug. In both cases though, the explorer who reached Japan won the game via scoring the heavily on the explorer tokens. I understand this is a powerful strategy, but one that can probably be countered. Unlike the first game, I have a much more favorable feel the second time around. There are several aspects of the game that I enjoyed, chief among them, the rondel mechanism and the simple scoring matrix used in the game. Here, scoring is straightforward. No convoluted scoring. You just tally up the categories on the personal board and determine the winner. This also places more emphasis on performing the privilege action, early and often – something we all neglected to do. I already said how much I enjoyed the theme of the game. I am however, a little more ambivalent about the marketplace. This is the main generator of income for most players and in the first half of the game, the marketplace is heavily utilized, to the point that most players have to visit the action not once, but twice in each turn around the rondel. As I mentioned, the marketplace can be fiddly and it was constantly used in the game. So, the marketplace dominated a lot of the first half action. It’s not a big concern, but one that I noticed. Beyond that, Navegador is a solid rondel Euro, one that I may keep in the collection, but wonder how often it will make an appearance on the table because if push comes to shove, Concordia will be my preferred Mac Gerdts design.