#021 East Indiaman (2018)
Designer: David Wang
Artist: To-Yan Chen
Player Count: 2-4
Time: 50-80 minutes
It is the 17th century. Trade rules the world. It is not only the Age of Discovery but the height of the Mughal Empire of India—then the richest country of the world with 25% of the world GDP. Build your fleet of East Indiamen. Journey to the East for spice, cotton, tea, and fine china. Journey to the East to build your empire!
East Indiaman was a general name for a ship in any of the East India Companies. East Indiaman, the game, is an economic set collection worker placement game with some of the best wooden ship tokens ever designed.
What’s in the box?
On your turn you must take 2 of the 7 possible actions. The same action may be repeated twice.
5. Trade cargo! Trade 2 spice cargo ships for 4 tea cargo ships! Rearrange the cargo ships on your player boards accordingly! Opium (unpictured) always sells at a cost of 2.
The game ends at the end of the 5th round. Players receive VP from trade posts, having the majority of trade posts on a particular good, sets of fulfilled orders are multiplied by the investment level (on their personal player board) of that particular good, and by positioning on the Arms Level track. The player with the highest score WINS East Indiaman!
Now the opium trade is a touchy theme, so I’m not going to delve into it. However, I do understand that the theme alone may drive some away from this game. If you’re able to see past the theme, I’ll begin exploring some of the design issues I had with East Indiaman—mostly minor nitpicks.
Minor Nitpick Number One. I thoroughly enjoy stock manipulation games, and the market is indeed an enjoyable mechanic in East Indiaman. However, why is there a token for opium? It never moves up or down in cost, so it seemed a little odd. Every game I played of this, a new player would instantly notice the uselessness of the opium token.
Minor Nitpick Number Two.The original game board design used skulls & cross bones instead of anchors as the icons for the sea actions: buy cargo, build trade posts, and smuggle opium. I don’t understand why it was changed to the anchor. The skull & cross bones icon would have made it much clearer which actions are affected by pirates and which aren’t. This proved difficult for players at first, and I found myself reminding them through out the first few rounds.
Minor Nitpick Number Three. While the art on the order cards is great and fits the theme of the game, the art was a bit non-sensical at times. I would have liked to have seen more historical art involving popular traded goods or historic moments in the 17th century. I think this was a missed opportunity to add history and texture to the game. I don’t think it needed paragraphs of flavor text but a few words or a date would have really elevated this game to another level.
Minor Nitpick Number Four. There are four player colors in the game: red, yellow, green, and blue. There are four resource colors in the game: red, yellow, green, and blue. DO NOT DO THIS! EVER! Having player tokens and resource tokens be the same color leads to confusion with new players and casual gamers. These colors are often chosen because they’re cheaper and color-blind friendly; however, modern designs have come up with several creative ways around this. Having uniquely shaped ship tokens is a great design choice. Having the player tokens and resources be the same color is not. This would have an excellent opportunity to explore colors from India. Why not use the colors of the different flags of India throughout time? This unfortunately could be a deal breaker with some gamers and could have been easily avoided. Despite this, it never really becomes a problem, but it did get sour faces around the table every time I taught the game.
Don’t let those amazing ship tokens fool you. East Indiaman, much like trade in the Indian Ocean at the time, is mean. It’s mean on players, and players are mean on each other. What starts off as a simple resource management and trading game, slowly evolves into a tight economic race for dominance. The game is fairly tight and one wasted action could cost you several points and potentially the game.
The driving mechanic in the game is the Arms Level track. Being first is everything. The main way to push ahead are those order cards and purchasing the right cards to score on the right rounds. Ideally, you need to buy at least 1 card per round, but hopefully 2. This is the race. Players will be ruthlessly buying and trading goods to buy the correct cards as efficiently as possible. Having only 5 rounds in the game and having limited actions forces players to play this tight and ruthless game. I have never seen a game where the leader of the Arms Level track didn’t win. It’s a powerful mechanic and may be too powerful for some players who desire lighter games.
Buying cargo and building trade posts is incredibly expensive in this game; however, they are necessary in order to increase fleet size as well. And like most worker placement games, getting more workers is paramount. The design choice to make your workers your resources is an extremely interesting one. You may have a large fleet, but you will burn through them quickly. You’ll need several workers to buy a good and one more to be the good. This design choice asks or rather demands the player to make carefully calculated moves as action price increases dramatically. Due to all these restrictions place on players who are now forced to play this tight game, it felt odd that the market of order cards is discarded at the end of each round. The random input generated from 8 new order cards at the start of every round is hard to mitigate against. Opium, as a result, becomes incredibly powerful. However as it can only be sold as pairs, don’t expect to be able to corner the opium market anytime soon. At most, I’ve seen a player sell opium twice. Being able to sell opium and having enough ships to carry all the traded goods are two separate problems that need to be accurately resolved and timed in order to truly pay off.
Despite the tight game play, East Indiaman is actually quite simple to play. The only hurdles in the game are realizing your workers are also your resources and knowing how to play after a player passes. The iconography could have helped a bit more there. Yes, the bottom right corner of the board has a reminder, but most new players of the game never noticed it. One more hurdle that needs mentioning is the rule book. It’s fine and does its job; however, the layout and design felt like the rule book from a war game—one giant outline and blocks of texts. This hurts the game as it’s really not that complicated to learn. Thankfully there were enough pictures and examples inside to hold your hand and guide you in the right direction.
While not incredibly innovative mechanically or thematically, East Indiaman is a really good game. The game play is quite simple; however, there its an ocean of calculations to cross with each action. The math is so palatable and interactive that not once did this game fail the phone test. Not once in all my games were phones taken out (excluding pictures obviously). You’re invested in every action your opponents make as they dramatically alter and increase action costs. It can’t be said enough that those ship tokens are fantastic and add a great splash of color to the game board. Having virtually all the player tokens and resources in the game by ships was a bold design choice and I’m looking forward to seeing more from this publisher DSW in the future.
Gamer: Cardboard East recommends East Indiaman for gamers looking for a mid-weight euro game with solid table presence. While mechanically it doesn’t offer anything innovative, it does force tough decisions on players and demands tight game play. It offers a rather difficult solo variant, and those wooden ship tokens (meeples?) are AWESOME!
Family: Cardboard East recommends East Indiaman for casual gamers looking to explore more mid-weight euro games with an easy learning curve but with tight rewarding game play. Those ship tokens are easy on the eyes too!
Party: Cardboard East does not recommend East Indiaman for the party environment; however it is simple enough for gamers to enjoy with a glass of their favorite booze or a bottle of Kingfisher!