Vasco da Gama

Reviewed by Herb Levy

(What’s Your Game?/Rio Grande Games, 2 to 4 players, ages 12 and up, 60-120 minutes; $59.95)


If you remember your world history, you will recall the name of Vasco da Gama. Da Gama was one of the early European explorers who, flying under the flag of Portugal, sought to find a water route to the riches of the Far East. And he did it! By sailing around Africa, he established a trade route between Portugal and India that proved immensely valuable. With the boardgame Vasco da Gama, players follow in the explorer’s footsteps as they enlist sailors and captains, outfit ships and seek adventure, treasure and victory.

vascoboxVasco da Gama is a Paolo Maori design. The large box holds a gameboard divided into five major sections, lots of tiles (representing ships, “Characters” as well as a set of “Vasco da Gama” tiles), player discs, captains (28 pawns in four different player colors), sailors in four colors (and a bag to hold them), coins (in 1 and 5 Real denominations) and 22 “Sequence numbers” discs which play a crucial part in the play.

Each player begins with a scoring marker (placed at 0 on the board’s perimeter scoring track), 4 Acton Discs and 1 Captain in his chosen color and 10 Reals. Each player also receives one of four Character tiles. Character tiles bestow certain advantages upon their owners.

The Character tiles carry particular historical names to give a certain “flavor”. In game terms, the names are unimportant; what they do, however, is very important. The “First Player” tile marks the player who will go first that round and awards that player 2 Victory Points immediately. (The player who controls that tile at the end of each round will get another 2 VPs too!) The Missionary tile grants you a Missionary piece (very useful when outfitting your ships) while the Merchant will allow you to sail a ship for free (and reap a bonus when doing it). Players may take four actions in a round but the “King” Character tile gives the player holding it an extra action in the round.

There are several areas of contention on the board. The Character area allows players to claim money and/or Character tiles. The Projects area is where ships may be bought which may then launch once you have obtained, from the Recruiting area, sailors (to man them) and captains (to command them). The Recruiting area is subdivided into four sections. Each section starts with five sailors (randomly selected). Captains congregate below. The Navigation area is where launched ships sail, earning Victory Points and various bonuses to the players whose captains control them. How all these actions are resolved is determined in the Numbers Zone where the “Sequence numbers” can be found.

vascoboardTwenty numbered discs are placed, five to a line, in the Numbers Zone. The set of Vasco da Gama tiles are mixed, placed face down there, and the top one now revealed. That tile displays some important information. First, an “initial number” can be found on the tile and a white pawn is placed on that number. Two other numbers on the tile indicate how much money, available to be claimed, will be placed in the Character area this round. Now primed, the actual game turns consisting of three phases – place action discs, take actions and navigation – begin.

Starting with the first player, each player chooses one of the sequence disc numbers, sets it on top of one of his own discs and places it in any open area: Character, Projects, Recruiting or Navigation. (With the full complement of four players, five or six places are available in each area. With fewer players, fewer places.) Once all Action discs have been placed, actions are resolved in NUMBER order with lower numbers preceding the higher ones. But there is a catch.

Once all discs have been placed, the next Vasco da Gama tile is revealed. This tile can change the value of the white pawn, raising it or lowering it by as many as 3 places. This can be a boon or a bane. Actions with numbers equal to or greater than the new white pawn value may be taken without penalty. However, action numbers below the new white pawn value result in a surcharge. For example, if the white pawn was on 7 and is now at 10 (because of a +3 result on the newly revealed VdG tile), a player using an action that he placed a 7 upon will now have to pay 3 Reals to USE the action. Of course, if that particular action requires a payment, those additional funds must still be paid. Sometimes, this creates a financial squeeze but all is not lost. Passing on an action will give a player some monetary compensation – 1 Real for actions numbered 1 through 5, 2 Reals for actions 6 through 10, 3 Reals for actions 11 through 20. Passing is sometimes a necessary option but it can be costly as each area offers things of value.

In the Character area, players may choose to take money or claim a character (and its accompanying bonus). Once the money or Character is claimed, no one else may claim it. When recruiting, players may buy sailors from one ship – any number of sailors in 1 color for 1 Real, any number of sailors of 2 colors for 3 Reals, 3 colors of sailors for 6, all 4 colors (if present) for 10. In addition, they may obtain a Captain, the cost dependent upon how many sailors recruited that turn. (Recruit 5 sailors of various colors, for example, and the captain will cost an additional 5 Reals; recruit no sailors this turn and the Captain is free!)

Until launched, ships are referred to as “Projects”. Each ship displays a value (from 4 to 11) as well as a number (from 1 to 5) indicating the different colors of sailors needed to man the ship. (Each white missionary figure counts as a different color of sailor making manning ships easier.) Players taking actions here, may purchase 1 ship for 1 Real or two ships for 4. In addition, one ship is placed on a special space. This space is a strict cash purchase, valued at a rate of 1 Real per sailor needed to man it. (So a ship requiring 3 colors of sailors would have a price tag of 3 Reals.) The advantage to making this purchase is simple. The ship comes already manned – no sailors needed. All you need is a captain to launch that particular vessel. Which brings us to the Navigation area of the board.

Navigation is very stylized. There are six “landings”. The first landing offers 1 available slot (valued at 4) and each subsequent landing adds one more slot and gradually increases values (until the final landing has six slots with two of then valued at 11). A ship may be placed in any open slot equal to or less than the value of the ship. (For example, a ship valued at 6 may be placed in any open slot of 6 or less.). Placing a ship gives you Victory Points equal to the number on the slot. In addition, there is an immediate bonus specified on every landing (except the top one) giving that player a choice of an available unmanned ship, a sailor, a captain or money. (The player with the merchant card may place a merchant ship onto a landing too – for free. That player will not get the VPs but WILL get the landing’s bonus. A merchant ship can be pivotal in completing a landing which triggers more VP scoring.)

With all actions resolved, the Navigation area is scored. Some ships in the area will give their owners extra money or VPs which can be useful. In addition, completed landings score again.

Each completed landing (except for the initial landing of 1 slot) will give a Victory Point bonus to players whose captains command ships in the line. Bonuses run from 1 to 5 VPs per ship. Then, ships navigate upward, from left to right, occupying an available space on the next landing in a slot with a value equal to (or less than) the ship’s value. If there is no available slot for a ship, that ship is removed from the game and its captain returned to the owning player. This ends the round. Now, all sequence number discs are returned to their positions on the board, unchosen projects (ships) removed from play with new ships revealed, player action discs returned, sailors reseeded into the recruiting area (up to 3 sailors drawn from the bag for each ship with no more than five available in each), a new Vasco da Gama card drawn to set a new starting place for the white pawn and set money amounts for the Character area and the next round begins.

After five rounds of play (and after the fifth Navigation scoring), players get a final chance to earn VPs. Each fully manned ship with a captain that has not been placed in the Navigation area earns three VPs. Money also translates into VPs at the rate of 3 Reals equals 1 VP. The player with the highest total of VPS wins the game! (Tie? Then the player with the most ships in the Navigation wins. Still tied? Then the player with the most sailors in his possession wins.)

Vasco da Gama is notable for two of its game mechanisms: the sequence numbers and the stylized navigation scoring. Choosing numbers to determine the action order is a brilliant risk/reward dynamic. In many instances, it is important to act first in an area (to get the more attractive ships, to ensure that you get the needed color of sailors, funds or Characters before others claim them). Money is also important as it allows players to buy needed ships (which generate the lion’s share of VPs) as well as the sailors/captains needed to man them. So players need to judge how much they can risk financially (as actions can potentially cost a significant amount of money to perform) for perceived benefits.

Ship navigation is a bit abstract (a bit? A lot!) but works. As mentioned, ships ascend to the next landing, from left to right, to the first available slot equal (or less) than their value. Although it’s generally a no-brainer to place a ship on the highest value allowed, it sometimes works to your advantage to place a ship at a lower value or place two ships in a single landing to close out a landing to initiate bonus VP scoring, a bit of “double dipping”. The fact that captains of ships forced out of higher landings when no slot is available get returned to their owners is recycling at its best, helpful to players in launching their next ship. Graphically, the artwork by Mariano Iannelli is clean, attractive and functional. But did the captain pieces have to be so small? These pieces are ergonomically unkind and far too easy to lose.

Vasco da Gama gives a stylized treatment to exploration adventure and succeeds in capturing the feeling of world exploration to create a completely engaging gaming experience.


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