On its face, VOC! Founding the Dutch East Indies Company by Jerouen Doumen for Splotter Spellen Games, is not a game I’d have chosen to play on my own. In fact, when we got to our friends’ place last night, and they started pulling it out and reading the rules (helpfully translated from Dutch to Dutch-lish), I pulled out my knitting and prepared myself for an evening of desultorily pushing cardboard chits around the board and making a pathetic attempt at “game face.”
Then we got to the part about HOW turns work, and suddenly this sounded like a whole lot more fun.
Let me start at the beginning.
VOC! is a game for 3-5 players, but we played with four, which felt pretty optimal, even though the game totally kicked our ass. We played the basic game, as none of us had ever played it before. Each player is a merchant. There are four ships, each staffed with a row of sailors and a row of merchants, that are a combination of two players’ guys (with four players). The player who has the left-most sailor is captain of the ship, and gets to plot the course. Your goal is to reach ports that have certain commodities, and make it back to your home port, in order to fulfill the conditions of contract cards. Every contract card you can’t fill goes to Amsterdam, and if, in the end, Amsterdam has more money from contracts than any of the players, you all lose.
First round, you already have three contract cards out, you flip over a fourth, and then decide which ports you’re going to make for. Each ship has a corresponding dry-erase map with the ports they’re allowed to make for, and here is where the fun comes in.
In order to approximate 16th century navigation, you study your map, put your dry erase marker on your home port, close your eyes, and try to draw from memory to the ports, while not running aground (this is the best part). The other player who has sailors on your ship, can give you “calls.” They may either say “East,” “West,” “North,” “South,” “Stop,” or “Land Ho!” if you run aground, and that’s it. And you may only make as many calls as you currently have sailors on the ship. If you make more than the allowed number of calls, or say any other words, then you are fined five Daalders (the unit of currency in the game).
If you run aground, you lose the leftmost sailor on the ship, which usually means the other player has to take over drawing, while you navigate for them. Also, every third round is the scurvy round, and if you are not in your home port, you lose a sailor. If you lose all your sailors, your ship sinks.
After you make it to ports to pick up stuff, you still have to make it back to your home port without sinking before that stuff does you any good.
Like I said above, I fully expected to at the very least not like this game, if not actively despise it. But the navigation mechanics make this so much fun, even if you suck at drawing, you’ll have a good time. There were a few tense moments when we discovered that the Geek Husband What Rules is no better at remembering which direction East and West are, than he is with Left and Right, and with the other couple having a few, “I said ‘West!'” “I did go west.” “Yeah, about a third of a degree, then you steered right into the island!” moments. But it was really, really fun.
Some folks do have some advantages. If you’ve done a lot of sketching or drafting, and know how to draw controlled arcs, or if you have really good muscle memory, you’re going to be better at navigating than a lot of people. There are a few other things you can do to increase your odds, but I’ll let you figure those out yourselves. Although, when heading across the bottom of the map for your home port, I will let you in on the “Go until you think you’ve hit open ocean, then wiggle” strategy.
I think the GHWR and I will be picking up a copy of this fairly soon. It’s a blast, fairly easy to learn quickly, and after we get better at it, I can totally see turning this into a drinking game. If for no other reason than to handicap some of the better navigators.