Goa Review

A game that sat in my "to play" pile for far too long because of timing issues (and not play issues) is Goa.

In Goa, each player takes on the role of a spice merchant attempting to gain the most prestige by discovering plantations, selling spices, and upgrading their shipping infrastructure.  The game consists of two phases, each consisting of four rounds.  To start each round, the first player will place a flag (the first player marker) along with an auction indicator next to any of the tiles in the center of the board.  In turn order, each of the other players will place an auction indicator on one of the tiles adjacent to the previous one, followed by the first player placing a second auction indicator.  After this has occurred, each of the tiles will be auctioned in order - with tiles representing colonsits, ships, plantations, victory points, and more.  After the auction, players take turns performing actions until each player has performed three.  After the third action, players with extra action cards may perform bonus actions (or carry one bonus action into the next round).  Actions consist of gaining ships, replenishing spices on your plantations, collecting income, drawing expedition cards, and attempting to establish colonies.  Finally, a player may also take an action to spend spices and ships to upgrade any of the previous actions.  At the end of the game, players will get victory points for how much they have upgraded each of these sections of their board, how many colonies they have established, what cards are in their hand, and from tiles that they have purchased.  Whoever has the most points wins (yes, yes, this sentence is normally a given, and maybe I should stop bothering to type it)!

Auctions are ready to begin
The first pro that I have for Goa is that I think that the auction system is very interesting.  Specifically, I like that where you place your auction indicator affects where the next one can be placed.  So, as the first player, you want to start off by placing near the tiles that you need.  Yet, each other player is going to attempt to place their tile on the one that they need (or think they can make the most money from), so the tile the first player still might not be auctioned.  In addition to the creativity of this initial placement, the money changing within the auction is another important aspect of the game (and so should also fall in the "pro" category).  Specifically - when you buy a tile, you pay the person that has put the tile up for auction (or, they have the option of purchasing the tile for one less than the highest bid).  The only use for money in Goa is buying tiles (though the person with the most money at the end also gets victory points).  This means that a player that collects far more in taxes than the other players will have his pick of whichever tiles he wants to purchase - and will do so, since there's no other use for all that tax money.  Yet, since he has to pay that money to another player, if he is not careful, he may enable one of his opponents to have enough money to outbid him on the next tile!

The second thing that I like about Goa is that everything feels vitally important.  You always feel like you're doing poorly in the game, because one of the other players will inevitably be doing well in whatever area you need at any given moment.  Do you have all the ships and spices you need?  Well, then you probably had to neglect taxes in order to upgrade those things.  So, during the auction, you're going to feel like you're getting obliterated.  Have plenty of money?  You're going to feel like you can't colonize.  Do you feel like you have a little bit of everything?  Then you're not earning many points in any area!  (You score 0, 1, 3, 6 or 10 points depending on how many times you've upgraded each section.)  Yet, this feeling of doing poorly isn't depressing, but just makes each decision that you make feel very important.  And, you want to do everything now, dangit!  But, unfortunately you only have three actions per round.  Which then makes buying extra actions feel critically important!  A side effect of how many different difficult choices exist in Goa is that you are able to win with a large variety of strategies.  You can win by dominating the auction, upgrading better than other players, getting a lot of expedition cards, etc.  I appreciate games that allow for varied strategies to all be successful, and Goa definitely falls into that category while providing a very tense, satisfying game experience.

What is most important to you?
With all of the brilliance of my pros, there are a couple of nitpicky things that I should mention as cons.  First, I don't really like how expedition cards score points.  Each expedition card has a symbol in the bottom right-hand corner.  This symbol means absolutely nothing in gameplay terms.  However, at the end of the game, you get points based on how many symbols you were able to match (again using the 1, 3, 6, 10 scale).  This makes absolutely no sense to me, though I realize that if this weren't in place, then the expedition cards would quickly become unbalanced.  If you scored simply based on how many you had (with the escalating scale), then they would be far too valuable; and if you made them not worth any points, they wouldn't be valuable enough.  Yet, this forces you to make strange decisions about which cards to play, and allows the "luck of the draw" (drawing matching symbols) to swing the game by a few victory points in a game where less than ten points may separate first from last.

My other con is even more trivial.  It is simply that a player with a lot of money will probably maintain the first player flag for much of the game.  Now, this really depends on your play group and how much they allow this to happen.  However, if one player collects four more dollars in taxes than all other players, then an extra action is worth four more dollars to him than all other players - after all, he can easily just use the action to collect income.  (Yes, I realize that it doesn't break down quite this way if you think of it in terms of potential victory points, but if you look at it strictly from a "what I spend versus what I can receive" perspective, then my statement is true.)  The only way to prevent this from happening is to spend enough money that the cost of keeping the first player marker is not worth the value gained for this rich player.  Yet, the money that you spend to take it away goes to the former first player (the rich guy), and so you actually may be helping him more by buying it from him!  However, being the first player (and getting the extra action) in no way guarantees the win, so this ultimately isn't a huge deal.  As I said - it's a minor complaint.

Overall, I give Goa a 9.0/10.  I enjoy the game quite a bit, and I think that it is a perfect example of an incredibly well balanced game with many strategies that can be victorious.  And, since those are two things that I look for in games, it should come as no surprise that Goa scores very highly in my opinion.

If Goa sounds interesting to you, then you might also want to check out Alien Frontiers, Princes of Florence, and China.

I would like to thank Z-Man Games for providing me with a review copy of Goa.

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