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DRCongo: HOPE OUT OF HORROR

Reviewed by: Pevans

(Ragnar Brothers, 1 to 4 players, ages 14 and up, 120 minutes; about $70)

That’s “Democratic Republic of…”

drcongoboxThe first thing to get straight about this game is its title. It is not, as many people think (all right, I thought) on first sight, Doctor Congo… It is the latest heavyweight strategy game from the Ragnar Brothers. It is definitely a complex game and I will have to gloss over some aspects or this will be less a review than a re-writing of the rules. The Ragnars acknowledge the game’s complexity, introducing the rules in four stages. While I appreciate the approach, I have two problems with it. The first is that the gamers I play with have all proved equal to learning the full game the first time they sat down to it. The second is that any query means you have to check in four places to be sure you have the full version of any particular rule. Make that five if you’re playing the solo game – which I recommend, by the way, as it’s an excellent way of getting your head round the rules. What I need is a separate rulebook for the full game. Maybe if I keep saying that one will magically appear… For this review, I will be looking at the full version of the game.

Those who know the Ragnars’ games will be aware that their earliest creations came with a printed cotton ‘tea towel’ as the board. In a nod to their history, there is exactly this for DRCongo. While this worked fine for the monochrome maps of History of the World and Backpacks & Blisters, the full colour affair for DRCongo is less successful. I think it’s the way the colours run and the need to iron the cloth before playing… However, the game comes with a more-than-serviceable mounted mapboard and I value the nod to the past.

As you’d expect, the map shows the Democratic Republic of Congo, divided into provinces. Each province has marked spaces where industries of different types can be built, a capital and some potential links to other provinces by rail or ship. Players’ markers represent industries, cities and transport, which they will build and then use to produce goods and transport them to market. All three of these will score points for players at the end of the game. Players also score points for developing their cities during the game. You can immediately see the thrust of the game: develop industries, sell your products to earn the money to develop further and do so better than your competitors to win the game.

Provinces on the east and west edges of the board have export routes, allowing players to sell goods for substantially higher prices than they can get from the internal, domestic market. The routes to the east go to the rest of Africa, while the sole province – Bas-Congo – on the Atlantic coast provides the only route to the rest of the world and the highest prices. Tactically, then, there is an early advantage to the player/s who build industries in Bas-Congo or can export through it. The game starts with government-built ship and rail connections from Bas-Congo through Kinshasa, the capital, to one other province, Bandundu, which is thus important at the start, too.

Players begin the game by drawing an ‘Industrial Baron’ card which gives some small variations in starting money, depending on the home province. They immediately place a peacekeeper and build an industry (more about these later) in their home province, giving them a starting position on the board. However, they must pay for these, reducing the capital they have available. The question then is whether to concentrate on your home province or go for Bas-Congo and the rich export route. The important thing, I find, is not to let one player have a monopoly on the potential riches of Bas-Congo and Bandundu. My house rule, by the way, is to remove from the deck the baron who has Bas-Congo as his start province, shuffle and deal players two cards each, giving them a choice of starting locations. (I’m tempted to keep the Bas-Congo card for myself, but I suspect my opponents would be on to me after a couple of games.)

The game is played over a number of rounds (called “phase-cycles” in the rules, which is an effort to be crystal clear that just confuses me), finishing at the end of the round in which the total value of cities on the board reaches a target. The target starts at 30, but reduces at the end of each round. My experience so far is that the game ends more quickly than players expect. The total value of cities on the board stays low initially, but then accelerates quickly. Seven-eight rounds are all that’s needed.

drcongo3The first thing each round is a quick auction for Ministerial posts in the Government. This is once round the table, starting with the current first player, who sets the opening high bid. Other bids must be different from any other bid and either less than the high bid or at least double it. This is a neat little mechanism that plays quickly and provides some tactical opportunities. There are three Ministers available and players choose one in order of what they’ve bid. As you’d expect, these provide some interesting opportunities, which I’ll come back to after I’ve dealt with one other element of the game.

The big problem with the DR of Congo is that it’s not a peaceful place. There are always insurgents popping up, represented by an insurgent piece (wooden pawn) in the province. If there is an insurgent in a province, players can do nothing there. Nothing can be built, produced or shipped through the area. However, players – and the government – have ‘peacekeepers’ (wooden playing pieces in their colour) that can be deployed into the provinces (at a cost). If there is at least one peacekeeper in a province, the insurgency is ‘suppressed’ and players can do things (e.g. transport can move one good), but the insurgent needs to be removed for this to be at full strength (e.g. transport moves all goods).

At the start of the game, a “minor” insurgent is placed in every province. That’s right; the players can do nothing without deploying peacekeepers (to a maximum of two per province for each player). Minor insurgents can be removed with a score of five or more on an ordinary six-sided die, adding the value of any city in the province and one for every peacekeeper there. It costs $1,000 (players start with $10,000 plus a bit) to deploy a peacekeeper, but it’s a necessary cost.

In each round, players will carry out four actions. However, before each set of actions, an action card is revealed. The first half of the card shows which provinces insurgents appear in, if the provinces are currently peaceful. Worse, some of these will be ‘major’ insurgents. These attack under their own steam and are only removed on a seven or more (die roll plus city value and peacekeepers). Ow! The up-side of this is that players whose peacekeepers are involved in the defeat of a major insurgent gain a ‘medal’ (victory point). A tactical point here: it’s good to have your peacekeepers in pairs (of course, you have five pieces just so you can’t keep them all in pairs). If a major insurgent pops up and you lose when it attacks, you lose one peacekeeper, but the remaining one continues to suppress the insurgent. The other thing to note is that developing a city makes a province safer from insurgents.

Another help against insurgents is the first of the Government ministers. Once insurgents have been placed, the Defence Minister deploys government peacekeepers and may use them to attack insurgents. Again, the Minister is limited to five and no more than two in any province. However, they are a great help in keeping insurgents under control. I suggest that this Minister is the most valuable in the early rounds of the game. However, he is limited in what he can do by the action cards, which may even force him to remove peacekeepers from the board.

drcongo2The action cards also determine what the Finance Minister can do. Specifically, change the prices of one or two commodities. This can be useful, but doesn’t make a huge difference. Finally, each action card specifies how much money goes to the Interior Minister. If a player controls this Minister, they get to take actions on behalf of the Government. They can only spend the money that’s on the card to do this. The player then gets a kick-back: up to half the amount spent, taking this from the card too. Tactically, it can be useful to have the Government building industries, developing cities or placing transport, but it’s even more useful to get that cash. It takes a round or two for a decent amount to build up on the Interior Minister, so this is well worth keeping an eye on for the opportunity to use it. Once the action card has been completed, with the Defence and Finance Ministers doing their thing, each player in turn carries out an action – there’s a turn order marker for the Government as well as the players. Before taking their action, players may deploy peacekeepers and attack with them. Actions are pretty straightforward – build an industry, place a transport, develop a city, produce goods or sell – and are listed on an aide memoire tile for each player. The other side of the tile shows what things cost. The cost of building an industry depends on which type of industry it is: food is the cheapest, oil the most expensive – but their products are priced accordingly. They can only be placed where there is a vacant industry space of the appropriate type, so it’s worth keeping an eye on what can be built where – and what tiles you have left, as you’re limited to these.

Ship and train tiles can only be placed on vacant spaces of the appropriate type and then allow any player to move any number of goods between the two provinces they connect. Trucks are a bit cheaper and can be placed on any border, but can only move one cube at a time. A province’s capital town can be developed into a level 1 city. Once this has been done, the owning player may develop it into a level 2 and finally a level 3 – each player only has one level 3 city. The cost of developing a city is both cash and industrial output. The player must flip over as many industries as the level of the city and at least one of these must be in the same province (and the others in neighbours). These industries cannot produce goods in the same round. However, they also discount the cost of developing the city.

Industries are also flipped over when they produce goods. One or two pastel-coloured wooden cubes are placed on the flipped industry tile (some spaces show that industries there produce two cubes, so these are the positions to take first when placing industries). Players can also use an action to sell one ‘set’ of goods (the set being everything they have of one colour/type). They will have the opportunity to sell everything after all four actions, but there are tactical reasons for selling early. The first of these is, of course, to get the best price.

Selling goods is a separate phase, after all four sets of actions have been completed. In this phase players sell one set of goods at a time. With the exception of electricity – hydro power – the cubes can be shipped via available transport capacity to a province with an export route or sold locally. Those exported are placed on the highest empty space on the appropriate price track, starting with the current price, to a maximum of three cubes per space. Goods exported outside Africa via Bas-Congo get the higher price shown on the space where they’re placed, exports to the rest of Africa from the eastern provinces get the lower price and anything and everything else is sold to the domestic market, at a very low price.

Hydro works differently: each cube supplies electricity to one city – in the same or an adjacent province – or goes to the local, domestic market. Cities are flipped over when they’re supplied so that they can’t be used again. This is another incentive for developing cities: they provide a captive market for your Hydro plants, which can be very lucrative as you develop the city further. The down side of this is providing a market for another player’s Hydro.

Selling is done in player order: each player selling one set, then the next player selling one and so on. The price gradually declines, so it’s good to get in first. Though if you lose out on one type of good, you may get in first with another. A bit of arithmetic is needed here to calculate your best sequence. The other thing to consider is that the first player with nothing to sell must drop out and take last place in turn order for the next round. Thus, selling goods as one of your actions can be a useful tactic for the round, but may compromise your position for the next round.

At the end of the round, the price markers are moved down to the next empty space, thus reducing prices for next round (but not below a minimum). However, prices are always boosted a bit at the beginning of each round and the machinations of the Finance Minister can change them a bit. Other tidying up between rounds includes flipping industries and cities back over, adjusting the various markers and re-setting Action cards. If the game hasn’t ended, it’s time for another round.

There is one additional wrinkle in the game: Support cards. Three of these are always available and they provide a useful boost: making something cheaper, giving a player extra money or allowing them to bend a rule. Each player may only take one Support card during a round and must use it (or not) immediately thy take it. These can be very useful tactical advantages, so keep an eye on what’s available and when you could use it.

As you can see, there’s a lot going on in DRCongo. The obvious strategy is to concentrate on building industries initially to build up your income and then switch to developing cities for the victory points. However, cities plus Hydro industries can be a good combination for providing income and cities also help remove those pesky insurgents. Hence, there’s a balance in what you’re doing. I find the insurgents are the biggest constraint to expanding. If players work together, and use the government peacekeepers to good effect, the insurgents can be kept suppressed and then removed. Developing cities allows peacekeepers to be re-deployed to other provinces, gradually expanding the areas that are peaceful and stable. However, the random way insurgents crop up and the competition between players mean you can never be sure of having a secure base.

DRCongo: Hope out of Horror is an impressive game, both in the way it models the potential development of a troubled part of the world and the decisions it forces on players. The strategy is clear, but players must keep tactical flexibility to take advantage of opportunities and cope with setbacks. Making good use of the Government Ministers is important, particularly in the early stages of the game, and this is a key area where players need to get ahead of their opponents – one reason for building up an initial war chest. Your first game will always be a learning experience, but once you’ve got to grips with the rules it’s a subtle game that produces close results. DRCongo gets 8/10 on my highly subjective scale.

 

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