Sail to India [Review]

Alderac Entertainment Group puts out some nice stuff in the $40 range but of late they’ve shown the same penchant for good design in little boxes under $20. For those seeking an evening of exploration, Sail to India is a tightly paced race to these new markets. To avoid the Turkish-controlled Mediterranean the Portuguese sail around Africa, flipping up new coastal towns from a facedown row of cards. At each stop players build churches and fortresses; secure markets; and invent new technologies to enhance their fleets and score points. It all depends on players’ colored cubes. These markers track everything for the participant but only if he gets them into play; even victory points and wealth are lost without a cube to measure them. They serve as ships, floating along the bottom edges of cards, and these in turn become claim markers on buildings and markets one occupies there. New ships must thus be dispatched to continue the cycle of exploration and claim. When players exhaust their cubes or arrive in India the game is over, and the highest VP total wins.

It’s stunning to see how much AEG put into this one package, and just how far those simple components take the game. Straightforward rules stack into layered possibilities; without a single clear path to the win players must work out a strategy each game and even then the plan must remain flexible. As cubes may determine when the game ends, one must balance how many pieces to commit and when. Use too many and the game ends without sufficient points to secure a win; employ too few and one cannot compete at the same level as more prosperous opponents. “Decommissioning” used tokens back to the starting point allows them to be repurposed but it becomes harder to get them back into the thick of the action. It’s a great bit of give-and-take that spreads attention across all the elements of the game, making Sail to India one of the more challenging and entertaining games small enough to carry in one’s pocket.

The object of the game is to have the most victory points by the time someone reaches India.

Three or four players play Portuguese nobles in Lisboa, their eyes turned to India. With reference sheets, a selection of colored wooden cubes, and some money, they seek out lucrative trade routes and the fastest path around Africa to India. Everyone has 13 cubes but most start in a supply from which they must be bought to get them into play. Purchased cubes go on the Lisboa card to await deployment. From here they can become whatever the player needs: ships, markers for points, control tokens, and so on.

It’s necessary to keep cubes on Lisboa for whatever need arises. Wealth (that’s actually what they call the currency) and VPs are particularly important; each player has tracks numbered one to five for money and victory points. A cube can only keep track of five points worth of a stat, so if, for example, a player had a “banker” cube maxed out at five wealth and he gained another two points, he would have to put a second cube on the 2 space to indicate he now has seven points of wealth. He doesn’t have another marker on Lisboa to employ when he comes into that money? Then he loses those new funds unless he’s willing to delete a cube elsewhere – say, by removing a ship at sea. Cubes also mark how far players increase their fleet’s speed and indicate purchased technological investments that improve fleets.

The thrust of the game is sending ships out to do one’s bidding. The coastal town cards sit in a row, facedown save for the first three; only by traveling to the next town can someone flip the card up. Each place shows two buildings – a mix of marketplace, church, and stronghold – and two goods. Whether he settles on a building or occupies one of the goods spaces, a player indicates it by turning ships into claim cubes . . . better deploy new ships soon to take their place. Churches are worth points, a marketplace offers a “permanent” good, and strongholds are distant outposts. New ships may sail from strongholds just as from Lisboa, thus extending one’s reach and ease of access along the trade route. Cubes on goods spaces are temporary but generate wealth; the game offers six types of good and by turning in more and different kinds at once a player gets a bigger return in money and even VPs. Cubes for “spent” goods are returned to Lisboa.

When two players have bought all the cubes from their supply and put them into play in one form or another, or when someone pulls into the last town card, India, the game is over and the highest victory-point total wins.

There aren’t many pieces in Sail to India but everything here serves its purpose (and in the case of cubes, about half a dozen purposes). The cards are wide and firm, the cubes made of wood (naturally), and the rules brief and to the point. The instructions fall short by getting the “example of setup” image wrong, but ignoring that, reading and absorbing them is cake.

In spite of that simplicity there are still plenty of possibilities for securing victory, which in turn lends itself to high replay value. Flexibility is key, since no one knows who’s going to snag which part of the route’s delicious treasures first. The technology all looks good but players cannot afford all of it at once (nor, indeed, buy more than three per game), so they have to streamline it into their strategy as best they can (and as soon). Managing cubes isn’t hard, but sometimes the tough choices have to be made . . . a windfall of cash is nice, but if you have to remove a ship from its waters to track it be sure it’s worth it. Then that money can be used to buy more cubes and the cycle continues.

Sail to India isn’t flashy, just functional, and here it excels. With scant mechanics it creates circles of commerce with many small, critical decisions to be made. It’s a rare game that can field so much value through such stark tools, all while keeping the interest level high and the action flowing. Players are even given greater control here than in most games over when the whole thing might end; by easing up on the purchase of additional cubes the length is extended, though this is at the expense of having those tokens available for making money and scoring points. Still, in an industry dominated by games where the endgame seems a foregone conclusion at a certain point, it’s pleasant to see here it takes a bit more effort to close up shop. The whole thing can be played in less than an hour, making Sail to India an excellent investment both in and out of game terms.

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