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Sail to India

Reviewed by: Derek Croxton

(Alderac Entertainment Group, 3-4 players, ages 12 and up, 60 minutes, $19.99)

sailindia1Sail to India, designed by Hisashi Hayashi, is what you would probably call a micro-game: it is inexpensive, has few components, and is playable in under an hour. Some people like micro-games, some don’t. I will admit up front that I have always liked them and I find them even more fascinating as I get older. In theory, there should be more of a risk factor in micro-games than in larger games becausecompanies have less invested in them and stand to make less profit. Sail to India is not a disappointing effort, however; it is both fun to play, strategic, and full of theme. One striking thing about Sail to India is that it contains very little luck. It is a card game of sorts but the cards are common to all players, so there are no bad hands to ruin play and no dice either.

The principle of the game is simple enough. The “map” consists of 13 cards, one for Lisbon and 12 more laid out in a row next to it. The first three cards are face up; the remaining ones are face down until discovered. All of the cards contain the same elements: two buildings that can be purchased, two trade goods, and water at the bottom for ships that are at sea. Each player starts with a single ship in Lisbon and a small amount of money that he can spend to acquire more. Ships sail out, one card at a time, and can “acquire” a trade good by moving onto the icon on the card if no one else is already on it. Selling goods nets you one gold for each different type of good and possibly some victory points if you sell enough of them. The gold can be re-invested in purchasing more ships or increasing your ship speed so that you can move two or three cards at a time. The ships that were on the trade goods go back to Lisbon and have to start their voyages over again, so speed can be important.

You get victory points from selling goods, from sailing onto undiscovered cards, and for purchasing buildings. There are three types of buildings: the marketplace (which gives you a permanent good), the stronghold (which allows you to sail from its card rather than starting in Lisbon) and the cathedral (which is worth an extra victory point). There are also 12 technologies that aid with various aspects of the game or give bonus victory points.

1105(1)The game would be interesting enough if this were all there were to it but it has one additional feature that really sets it apart: the same markers (colored cubes) that are used for ships are used to record gold and victory points. If you have any gold, you have to employ one cube as a “banker” to keep track of it and, if you go over 5, you need additional bankers. Similarly, you need to use a cube as an “historian” to record your victory points and additional historians for each multiple of 5 points. The positive side of this is that the markers are interchangeable so if you spend your last gold coin, you can use the marker as a ship – until, of course, you acquire more money. The down side is that you have to make difficult choices about managing your cubes. As victory points accumulate, you end up with more and more markers tied up as historians. Is it worth it to convert one ship into an historian to record that one extra victory point you just got or would you rather forego it and use the ship for further explorations?

You get two actions per turn and it takes one action and one gold to buy a new marker. It’s not too hard to get more markers into play but it is difficult to strike a balance among using them as ships to grab trade goods and to explore, converting them to useful buildings, and permanently giving up a cube to record victory points. Moreover, the game ends after two players have all their tokens in play. By becoming the first player to get all your tokens into play, you are allowing another player to choose the end of the game. The essence of the game is the balance between acquiring more markers, using them as ships to acquire money, buildings, and victory points and figuring when the end of the game is coming. The technologies provide an additional decision nexus. The game reserves three markers for technologies so you don’t have to worry about using up your ships for that but each technology can only be bought by one player. Some of the in-game technologies are definitely more helpful than others, and the most expensive four give victory points for various factors and are often decisive.

Besides two players using all their markers, there is a second game-end condition and that is that someone sails to India – that is, moves a ship onto the furthest card from Lisbon. This presents a problem that the designer does not seem to have dealt with because there is nothing stopping a player from sailing a single ship one card toward India every turn, collecting a victory point for the discovery, and doing something else with his other action. In 12 turns, the game will be over and he will almost certainly have won because the other players can’t hope to score as many victory points in such a short period of time. Of course, they can take advantage of the same strategy by increasing their ship speed and doing some exploration of their own but that only makes the game end sooner and other strategies all the less viable. Some players have raised this issue, but I have yet to see an adequate response from AEG. Our group’s solution has been to treat a ship that discovers a new card as “used,” and therefore returned to Lisbon, just as though it had been used to sell a good. This seems to balance the game nicely and make a variety of winning strategies possible. It just seems odd that no one found this apparent glitch in playtesting, especially considering that the game was published in Japan before coming to America.

The title, Sail to India, sounds awkward as though it was literally translated from the Japanese. The artwork is adequate but not inspiring. The cards are decently illustrated but the brown background on all of them (as well as the box cover) feels depressing, not like the excitement of discovering a trade route that will alter world history. The pieces are simply colored cubes. They could have been ship figures but that might have been confusing considering that they are also used in other roles. At least everything is clear and easy to read. I particularly like the fact that the money and victory point tracks have very large spaces making it easy to read when there are multiple markers present.

I consider this game a little gem: little in size, little in playing time, and little in complexity. I wish it came with 2-player rules but there are a few variants about for those who want to go that route. If you’re interested in the subject of exploration, you will probably find this an enjoyable game. Even if you aren’t into the subject matter, it is still a challenging puzzle of a game.


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