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INDONESIA

[In this issue of GA REPORT, we welcome first time contributor Joe Huber. Joe is a well known gamer and he writes:

“I grew up playing Acquire and Civilization, and still enjoy both games today – if few of the wargames I also played back then. In 1995, I got back into gaming, discovering both German games (particularly Settlers of Catan and Auf Achse), 18xx (particularly 1830 and 2038), and TimJim/Prism games (2038, Fast Food Franchise and Time Agent). Most of the games added to my collection since have been German in origin, mostly light games and heavy games (as I usually find the middleweight games lack the fun of the light games or the control of the heavy games).”

True to his word, Joe focuses on one of the heavy games out there: Indonesia.]

(Splotter Spellen, 2-5 players, ages teen to adult, 3-4 hours; about $90 )

 

The market for deep, complex, and long games is a small one – and the number of companies that specialize in the market is correspondingly minute. This has helped Splotter, a small, independent Dutch publisher, to really make a name for itself. While their games haven’t drawn universal acclaim – many of their games are felt to be “fiddly”, with a significant portion of the length of the game spent on bookkeeping tasks – Roads and Boats and Antiquity (Spring 2005 GA REPORT) in particular are highly regarded by many fans of the genre.

For me, however, games such as Antiquity and Bus showed plenty of promise but just didn’t succeed, on the whole. The fiddly aspects of the game, as well as assorted other issues I perceived with the designs, kept any of them from being hits with me. Still, there was plenty in the games to urge me to keep an eye on the company, and to continue to consider purchase of their games in spite of the high costs typical for a small publisher that does not compromise on quality. So when I saw positive comments about Indonesia, in particular an indication that it was less fiddly, I was intrigued – and went ahead and ordered the game.

Indonesia, designed by Jeroen Doumen & Joris Wiersinga, is an economic development game. Players operate various concerns across Indonesia, producing such goods as rice, spices, rubber, and oil, and then must work with shipping companies (also owned by the players) in order to deliver these goods to the various island municipalities. This is carried out over three eras comprised of approximately five rounds, with each round consisting of seven phases. The player with the most money when the game ends is the winner.indonesia

The first phase is carried out only at the beginning of a new era. In this phase, additional cities are added to the game. This mechanism is critical to the game, as at the end of the previous era there are typically not enough destinations for goods; the introduction of new cities helps to avoid player frustration. The second phase is a once around bid for turn order, wherein the player who went first in the previous round must bid first for turn order, thereby being at a significant disadvantage in winning the bid. The turn order bid has a particularly nice feature – money bid by each play is not returned to the bank, but instead kept by the player until the end of the game. However, money bid is no longer available as working capital, thus forcing players to carefully balance the desire to go first with the need to keep sufficient liquidity.

The third phase of a round is mergers. Mergers are really the heart of the game – in turn order, each player who has the right to propose mergers may do so, within a certain set of restrictions. The player proposing the merger makes the first bid on the merged company, and all players eligible to hold the combined company may then bid. Usually, only companies of the same type (for example, two rice companies or two shipping companies) may be merged; however, a rice company may be merged with a spice company to form a siap-faji company, typically reducing competition and gaining greater room for growth in the process. Once a merger has been proposed, it will occur – there is no way for a merger to be stopped after it is proposed, only the question of who will take the resulting company. Mergers are not possible the first round of the game, which allows players a chance to understand the other mechanisms in play before being required to understand this critical element of the game. The fourth phase of a round is the acquisition phase, in which players may, in turn order, acquire one or more companies up to their current holding limit. Unlike most games of this type, the acquisition of companies is free – one just needs to choose which one is desired.

The fifth phase is research and development. Players may develop one of five different capabilities – a bid multiplier (making one’s player order bids go much further), slots (the number of companies a player may hold), mergers (the number of companies that a player may propose the merger of), expansion (the amount a player may expand each of his companies), and holds (the number of goods a player’s shipping companies may deliver for each company on each of their ships). These, again, occur for free – but only one may be selected each turn. The sixth phase is the heart of the economic game, the running of companies. In turn order, each player operates one company, continuing through the turn order until all companies have operated. The operation of shipping companies is trivial – when the company operates, it just expands based upon the expansion capability of the owning player, up to the overall limit of the shipping company. The operation of goods companies is significantly more complex. First, the company must deliver all of its goods possible. Each basic city will take one good of each type each turn. The money for the good is given to the player owning the operating company – but the player must take out of this a payment to the owner of the shipping company used for each segment along which the good was transported. This may even result in a net loss for the owner of the goods company, if the item must be shipped far enough. If the goods company manages to deliver all of its goods, it may expand for free; if not, it must pay the value of its goods for each expansion. Finally, each round ends with a city expansion phases, in which every city received its maximum allocation of all of the goods in play expands, thus allowing delivery of two or even three goods of each type to the city in future turns.

As I was writing this review, prominent internet reviewer Brian Bankler put together a fine strategy guide to Indonesia on his website: (http://gaming.powerblogs.com/posts/1156089692.shtml). Like Brian, I’m still trying to make full sense of the strategic choices in the game. There are a large number of conclusions that can be reached quickly – for example: city growth is to the advantage of the producers and disadvantage of the consumers, forming a siap-faji company is best when it both reduces competition and increases growth opportunities, and effective shipping must balance routes, city locations, and hull capacity.

Taking advantage of these observations is far more difficult. Mergers make Indonesia a far more dynamic game than others of its ilk – losing control of a company is just a matter of course, rather than something that will only happen intentionally or through negligence. As a result, the critical R&D phase must be considered not only in terms of the present situation, but in light of future possibilities. While all of the selections are beneficial, some can be problematic in certain circumstances. For example, hull capacity is generally useful – but only for a player with a shipping company, and only to the extent that it maximizes profits by encouraging shipping across long distances. And expansion is generally of minimal use for a player emphasizing shipping, as those companies very quickly reach their maximum potential. But in each of these cases, a merger that causes a shipping magnate to lose one or more shipping companies may soon result in a drastic reevaluation of the value of these research tracks; it is wise to consider such possibilities regularly during the game, and adjust R&D strategies accordingly.

One of the harder elements to judge in Indonesia is which mergers to bring off and when – assuming, of course, that a player has pursued the merger track. There are a few companies that tend to merge particularly effectively in my experience – Northern and Southern shipping companies, when brought together, can be extremely profitable. Such a combined shipping company also provides flexibility for founding a goods company, as the free shipping of goods along extended routes allows players to go later in the turn order without worrying about the nearby cities having filled. Another very successful merger tends to be the creation of the first siap-faji company, as this typically creates a company that has two (or more) options for shipping.

Looking at the problem generically, then, what are the strategic options?

I. Shipping Magnate. Found a shipping company, acquire merger capability is another play founds an appropriate second shipping concern (or delay for a turn by adding a slot otherwise), merge two complementary shipping companies, and then alternate expansion of shipping capacity with the growth of a goods company.

II. Entrepreneur. Never acquire merger capability, but instead focus on successfully running various businesses. Make certain to have enough slots for when good merged companies become available, and aggressively defend profitable companies.

III. Technologist. Get into new goods early, and emphasize expansion capability so that they grow quickly. Allow companies to be merged away once competition appears.

IV. Merger specialist. A player who can control the mergers can often find bargains and focus on effectively running established companies rather than the development of new companies.

There are undoubtedly other effective strategies. But above all, flexibility is required. If notions can’t be carried through as planned – because another player is willing to bid too high, corporations aren’t founded as expected or other difficulties – alternate plans must be pursued. Much as with Puerto Rico (Spring 2002 GA REPORT), effective tactical play comes first.

Complex economic games tend to be games of limited appeal, and Indonesia is no exception. It’s not a family game or a game for casual gamers – there’s simply too many difficult choices to make and not enough guidance for Indonesia to have wide appeal. But for those who enjoy games from the genre – fans of 1830, for example – there’s a lot to like about the game. The variance offered in the choice of city locations keeps the game feeling fresh. This also makes it more difficult to master the game, which helps to keep new players in the game. In my experience players do improve over time, which could make the game more difficult to bring out when the difference in skill levels becomes significant.

The theme of the game is not strong, but the mechanisms support it well. In particular, the need to send goods via boat forces shipping between the islands, and the ability to form siap-faji by merging rice and spices fits the region well. At its heart, however, Indonesia is more a setting than a theme. Another key factor of the game for many is its length. I’ve seen the game complete in less than two hours; I’ve also seen a group take more than six hours to complete the game. It’s definitely a game that benefits from an effective banker – one who can maintain momentum. As a practical matter, most groups seem to be able to play a full game in roughly three hours.

I have enjoyed Indonesia quite a bit since my first play; my only large concern – that the game would fell into fixed patterns – has been alleviated with each successive play, as no two have proceeded in the same manner. I’m really pleased to feel that I continue to learn more about the game with each play, as it keeps up my interest in continuing to bring it to the table. Which, given the cost of the game, is a very good feature – I definitely feel I’ve received my money’s worth, and that in the long term it will be a bargain.- – Joe Huber


 

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