Review – Sail to India

Sail to India continues AEG’s recent trend of bringing to the United States tiny little games that were Big in Japan (well, that’s what AEG calls them, anyway, I suppose I wouldn’t know if those games flopped in Japan). Unlike most of those micro-games, however, Sail to India was not designed by Seiji Kenai, but by Hisashi Hayashi, whose popular Trains AEG brought to the US and Europe last year.

What You Need To Know

–          A tiny little Euro-game: isn’t it adorable!

–          Explore and trade to go down in the history books for discovering a sea route from Portugal to India.

–          The defining mechanic of the game is that your little wooden cubes serve as everything – ships, money, VP, buildings – so you must manage them carefully.

Basic Gameplay

The central gameplay area for Sail to India consists of a card row, with Lisbon on the left, then three face-up cards, then six or nine face-down cards (depending on whether there are three or four players). Each card represents a coastal town on the way from Portugal to India, and includes two building spots and two trade good spots. The final card in the row (which is random, not a special card) is India itself.

Each player (3 or 4) starts with a stock of 13 cubes in his color, which will be used to track everything the player does in the game. Each player will start with six of these markers – four permanently separated to keep track of ship speed and technology, and the other two part of the general flow of cubes (one on Lisbon and one to be starting money).

Everything in Sail to India is tracked with these cubes and some cards. Each player has two personal cards. One is the Domain card, which contains the wealth track and is also used to store the ship speed and technology cubes (sorry, “Scientists”) at the start of the game. A cube on the wealth track is a Banker, and is worth however much money (up to 5 coins) are indicated on his spot. If a player needs more than five cash, he’ll need another cube to put on the wealth track. Starting wealth ranges from 2-4, depending on where you sit in the player order.

The second card is the Historian card, and has a VP track that functions the same as the wealth track. Again, each cube on the Historian track can be worth up to 5, and the player will need a spare cube to be able to go over 5 VP during the game (end of game VP scoring does not require loose cubes).

The cubes mark everything else as well. Ship speed went up? Move your ship builder cube over one spot. Bought a technology? Move one of your Scientist cubes onto the appropriate spot on one of the three technology cards (no more than one cube per spot, and there’s no way to get Scientist cubes so three is all you get).

That “everything else” includes the exploring and the trading. Cubes can be moved out from Lisbon down the card row, at which point they are ships. A ship that arrives at a coastal town can hop up onto one of the trade good spots, where it will wait until the player sells it. Or a player can move a cube up from the sea to build one of the two buildings available on the card. Cubes can always be teleported back to Lisbon (from the wealth track, from the VP track, from the sea, from being building, from being trade goods), but all other movement is regulated by actions.

On each player’s turn, that player takes exactly two actions, which can be taking the same action twice:

–          Employ: Add a cube from your stock to Lisbon. Often taken twice on the first turn. Make sure to check and see if you need to employ before taking actions that will grant cash or VP – nobody wants to leave VP on the table for lack of a Historian!

–          Move ships: Move any or all of your cubes that are at sea or on Lisbon. Ship speed starts at 1, but can be increased. If any of your ships are now on a face-down card, you can (once per turn, even if you move twice) reveal that card to gain a VP (or 2VP if you’re at India). Finally, any of your ships on the zone as an empty trade good spot can be moved up onto that trade good spot as part of the move action. One of the two central actions of the game.

–          Build Building: While converting a ship to a trade good is done as part of the move action, it takes a distinct action to convert a ship into a building. At the end of the game, all buildings are worth 1 VP, and each of the three kind of buildings has a distinct bonus. Churches are worth an extra end game VP. Strongholds let your ships launch from somewhere other than Lisbon. And Marketplaces serve as repeat-use trade goods.

–          Sell Trade Goods: The other of the central actions of the game, selling trade goods is the primary way to get money (and the only way without a technology). Cash and VP rewards are based on the number of different trade goods sold (up to 6). All cubes on trade good spots are returned to Lisbon (the ship has sailed home, presumably). Cubes on marketplaces contribute the indicated trade good but get to stay in place (the sell goods action cannot be taken using only Marketplaces). This generates cash equal to the number of different trade goods and at least 1VP once the three-good threshold has been hit.

–          Acquire Technology: Choose your technology, pay the appointed price, and move a Scientist cube from your Domain card to claim the chosen technology. Most of the technologies are sources of VP during the game, with one of the three boards being expensive end-game VP options.

–          Increase Ship Speed: Something of a specialized technology acquisition, taking this action will permanently increase all of your ship’s speeds – first from 1 to 2 (for 2 gold) and then from 2 to 3 (for another 4).

The end of the game is triggered when someone discovers India or when at least two players have no cubes left in their stocks. Each player gets an even number of turns.

Thoughts

Right from the beginning, Sail to India requires the players to make strategic decisions. First, with only a few coins, each player will need to decide whether to immediately upgrade ship speed, or try to grab a technology to milk the most benefits out of it. The ship speed is an obvious looking choice, but in my experience by the next time a player has the chance to grab a technology (after he’s taken a sell goods action) some of the most important opportunities to use the technology will have passed. And, while having slow ships is lousy in the long run, if you’re just looking at the first set of moves, it can be helpful to remember that getting two movement for two actions is the same as taking one action to increase ship speed to 2 and then one action to move two spots. For later players, what strategy to take will be heavily influenced (perhaps dictated) by the actions of the earlier players – but, then, a later player may have the starting cash to increase ship speed and buy a technology (or to double down on technology).

The overriding mechanical aspects of the game are probably (1) managing your limited number of cubes and (2) using your sell goods actions efficiently. Unless your game plan involves sailing directly to India very, very slowly, you will want to increase your ship speed. And those technologies (as mentioned above) are generally better earlier. But your sell actions are much better if they’re big (because of the VP increase). This requires more cubes, which is easier if you have more ship speed and/or a Stronghold, which is definitely affected by what trade good spots other players are grabbing (especially if you aren’t going first), and which may require sacrificing exploration VP, and so on. And the game is not going to last long enough to make the correct strategy one that spends a lot of time building up so that your massive fleet can sweep across the unexplored seas in wealth and comfort – if you go too far that way, someone else is just going to be out there sucking in all the exploration VP and ending the game. So there’s a lot of interplay between these factors in deciding the best course of action to pursue overall, and on each turn.

Overall, Sail to India not only presents a good strategic experience for a small-box game, but just delivers unique strategic (or tactical, or wherever one might fall depending on one’s personal understanding of those terms) experience that actively capitalizes on the limited components concept.

Leave a Reply