Reviewed by Greg J. Schloesser
(White Goblin, 2 – 5 Players, 2 – 2 ½ hours; $59.99)
It is sometimes difficult to believe that what is now the exceedingly crowded and congested island of Manhattan was once a virtually uninhabited wilderness. In the early 17th century, this wilderness was deemed by the Dutch as an ideal area for settlement, as it offered easy access to the rich hunting grounds and fertile forests of the vast continental interior. Trade with the local natives flourished, and “New Amsterdam” soon developed into a bustling city. The natives were pushed from their homes and forced to retreat further and further into the interior. Sadly, this was a scenario that was to repeat itself over-and-over for the next several centuries, as Native Americans were forced from their lands by the relentless encroachment of foreign settlers.
This forced expulsion of Native Americans is NOT, however, the central theme of Nieuw Amsterdam, a challenging new game from designer Jeffrey Allers. While this migration of the Native Americans plays a small role in the proceedings, the game mainly concentrates on the development of the island, trading with the Native Americans, shipping resources and farming. The player who is best able to manage all of these tasks will win the favor of the Dutch West India Company … and win the game.
The extremely congested board depicts the six districts of New Amsterdam and a section of the mainland where players will trade across the Hudson River with the Lanape, the local native population. Crowding the board is an array of holding boxes, player aid charts and explanatory symbols and icons. While these can be useful, they are initially confusing and create a muddled display. To begin the game, players each receive a set of buildings, starting resources, a wharf whereupon they will store goods, and a turn-order token. Players each place two buildings (termed “businesses”) into New Amsterdam and one building (“warehouse”) on their wharf.
Each turn begins with a bit of preparation: four land cards and four ship cards are revealed, the three fur trader locations are filled with furs (there are six different types of furs), and the twelve action tokens are mixed and placed the cash box. The cash box depicts four columns, each with space for two or three action tokens. These action tokens will be auctioned column-by-column. The player with the lowest turn-order token chooses a column for auction and places his turn-order token above that column. Bidding is on a “once-around” basis, with the currency used in the bidding being any combination of a player’s resources, including coins, corn, goods, wood and/or furs. The winning player receives the action tokens in the column as well as the turn order token that was placed there. He then gives his turn-order token to the player who chose that column. The player with the lowest valued token then selects another column for auction, and the process is repeated until all columns are won. Each player may only win one column, and the last player to win an auction gets the remaining column of action tokens for free.
What is so vital and intriguing about this auction process is that during the action phase players may only perform actions corresponding to the tokens they won. So if a player desires to perform a “land” action during his turn, he should strive to win a column containing at least one land token. Of course, winning auctions is highly dependent upon the number of resources a player possesses, so amassing an engine that guarantees a steady flow of resources is a critical component of success. Fall behind your opponents in generating resources and you will quickly be out of contention.
There are three steps to the action phase, which is always conducted in the same order: city, land, trade. Each player holding one or more action tokens in the active step will select and execute their actions in turn order. Each action gives the player two choices:
City. The player may place one-to-three buildings in New Amsterdam, paying one wood for each building constructed, or hold an election in New Amsterdam. An election earns victory points for the active player – three points for each district where the player holds a majority, or two points if the player is tied for a majority. There is another incentive in obtaining majority status in a district, which I will explain when discussing the special actions.
Land. The player may take one land card from the display, marking it with a timber, and placing it in a line to the right side of his wharf. When a land card is acquired, the natives move further inland, fleeing the encroaching Europeans. This is represented by moving one of the Lanape Longhouses one space upriver to the next camp. This will eventually have consequences when players elect to trade.
Alternatively, the player may clear land. To do this, land cards must be filled with houses. Each card can hold one-to-three houses. When clearing, the player clears all fully-occupied land cards and receives the amount of timber depicted on each card, as well as victory points based on the card located furthest to the right in his line of land cards. The amount of points increases the further along the line the card is located. For example, if the furthest card in the line that is cleared is located in the third position, the player earns six victory points. If it is in the fifth position, however, it earns fifteen points. These points can be significant.
Another incentive in acquiring in clearing land cards is that each turn they produce a regular supply of corn. Players must feed their people in the city, so a regular supply of corn is essential.
Trade. The player may trade with the Lanape, selecting one of the three boxes containing furs and paying the corresponding cost in goods. In order to trade, the player’s trading post must be located directly across the river from a Lanape Longhouse. Otherwise, he must pay one corn for each space he must travel to reach a Longhouse.
Instead of acquiring furs, a player may use previously acquired furs to fulfill the requirements of one of the ship cards. The player surrenders the required furs and receives the specified amount of coins as listed on the card. The ship card is placed to the left of the wharf. Players will earn goods each turn as depicted on the ship cards they have collected.
Players also earn victory points when fulfilling a ship card. Each card lists the exact number of furs that are required to fill that ship. A player earns more victory points if he is able to use identical furs. The first type of fur used in a shipment earns three points per fur, the second type two points per fur, while any other furs use one point per fur. For example, if a player fills a ship requiring five furs with three minks, an otter and a muskrat, he will earn twelve points (3+3+3+2+1 = 12). So, there is an incentive to acquire sets of identical furs when trading with the Lanape.
With each action performed, a player may also perform a special action. This action may be performed before or after performing the regular action. Each district in New Amsterdam depicts a unique special action. It normally costs a coin to perform one of these actions, but if a player has a majority in a district, he may perform the corresponding action without paying the coin.
So what are these special actions? It is worth a detailed look.
Lumberyard. The player may purchase any amount of wood for one coin apiece, or sell wood for one coin apiece. Other than clearing land, this is the only manner in which wood can be acquired. Wood is required to construct buildings and for moving one’s trading post up the river.
Granary. Just like the lumberyard, the player may purchase corn for one coin apiece, or sell corn for one coin apiece. Corn is needed to feed the people in New Amsterdam, as well as for paying the cost to trade when the Lanape are further upriver than one’s trading post.
Docks. The player pays one wood and adds a warehouse (building) to his wharf. Players must do this in order to store more goods. Otherwise, if they don’t have enough space, excess goods are lost.
Millwork. The player adds one-to-three houses to his land cards by paying one wood apiece. This is a necessary step before a player can clear his land, thereby gathering wood and providing a steady source of corn.
Black Market. The player may purchase one-to-three random furs by spending three, six or nine goods and/or coins. Furs are required to fulfill ship requirements, which provides victory points and a regular supply of new goods.
Trading Company. Pay one wood to move your trading post one space upriver. As mentioned earlier, a trading post must be located across the river from a Lanape Longhouse in order to avoid paying corn to execute a trade.
The variety of regular and special actions gives the players fairly wide latitude in executing their plans and gives the game great variety. Wisely choosing and cleverly combining the actions are keys to success. Accomplishing this can be quite challenging, which is part of the game’s appeal.
After all actions are executed, players collect corn based on their cleared land and goods based on their collection of ships. They must feed their people by paying one corn for each business they have in New Amsterdam. The penalty for failing to do this is severe. Each business a player is unable to feed is removed and the player loses two victory points for each one removed. Finally, players earn one coin for each district wherein they have a business, plus one additional coin for each district in which they hold a majority. It is important to receive a steady income of coins, so constructing and maintaining businesses in New Amsterdam is important.
This process is repeated for six turns, after which final victory points are tallied. There is a final election in the city, earning points for those players possessing or tying for majorities in each district. Players earn points for the rightmost filled, but un-cleared land card in their display. Finally, players earn a point for each fur in their possession, and a point for every three resources they possess. The player with the most victory points is declared the victor.
Nieuw Amsterdam is a challenging and unforgiving game. If you make an early mistake, you will likely be waging an uphill fight for the remainder of the game to get back into contention. Mistakes and oversights are also easy to make, as there are so many factors to consider. It is vital to get an “engine” going early, making sure you have a steady supply of corn, coins and wood to accomplish your objectives. Failure to establish this early will likely prove fatal.
Since a player can only execute the actions that he wins during the auctions, the auction phase is critical. Assessing what is needed is important, but if a player does not possess the resources to compete in the bidding he will likely have to settle for actions he did not prefer. Again, this is a setback, and in a game that only lasts six turns, setbacks are virtually insurmountable.
The inverse of this is also true. A player who successfully establishes a steady supply of resources early is going to be very difficult to catch, as he will have the resources required to both win and execute the actions he desires. His opponents will be virtually powerless to stop him. In this game, the rich really do get richer, which is problematic. No one really enjoys having to play turn-after-turn chasing the leader when there is little, if any chance to catch him.
There are a lot of factors players must consider each and every turn. Corn is needed to feed one’s people, so acquiring land is important. Wood is needed to construct the houses which allow land to be cleared, so acquiring wood is essential. Coins are important in bidding and in executing the special actions, so constructing businesses in New Amsterdam is needed. However, one should be careful not to overbuild, as it becomes difficult to feed all of those businesses. Lots of victory points can be earned from fulfilling ship contracts, but players need goods to purchase the furs. One must also be sure to construct enough warehouses to store the goods earned from ships. There is a lot to balance and accomplish in just a half dozen turns.
There is a lot to like in Nieuw Amsterdam. I do have concerns, however. As mentioned above, the game is unforgiving, and an early mistake or misstep can virtually eliminate a player from competition. The pitfalls are many and sometimes not so obvious. Auctions are always perilous, as it is often difficult to access the proper value of a collection. A player can often make decisions that may seem wise at the moment, but the passage of a turn or two makes the folly of that decision apparent. It wouldn’t be so bad if these pitfalls were able to be overcome, but in a game with only six turns, it is often impossible to recover. This is harsh. The game also has a pronounced “runaway leader” issue. If one player gets the jump on his opponents, he will be very difficult to catch. The game provides no mechanisms to rein him in.
I am also not happy with the duration of the game. In spite of only being six turns, there is an awful lot to ponder and plan. This has translated into very lengthy games of nearly three hours, which simply feels too long. The box boldly proclaims a playing time of ninety minutes, but we have never come close to finishing within that optimistic time frame.
In spite of these many drawbacks, I am still intrigued by the many challenges and options the game presents. They are formidable, truly testing the players’ skills. I enjoy games where I feel challenged and can look back after its completion and analyze what I should have done differently in order to perform better. Nieuw Amsterdam is one of those games. However, I seem to be in the minority here, at least within our gaming group. Most folks in our group have found the game to be a rehashing of familiar mechanisms, with nothing present to lift it above other games in the genre. While there may not be anything significantly new here, I find the mixture to be intriguing. Whether the games’ drawbacks will eventually overshadow my interest remains to be seen. – – – – – – – – – – – Greg J. Schloesser
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