Michael Rieneck's Game for 2-4 Buccaneers aged 10+ and published by Eggertspiele & Pegasus Spiele is a vast (pun intended - took a long time to think up that did) look at what Pirates, Buccaneers and Seafarers invest their hard earned doubloons on once they decide to retire from YoHoHo'ing. GROG ISLAND is made up of five peninsulars on which their are various buildings (retirement homes) available. Because Pirates aren't renown for their brain power and so it is lucky that each of the five peninsulars consist of colourful and different terrain. - Green (Grasslands), Blue (Water), Brown (Earth), Yellow (Sand) and Grey (Stone) - which even more luckily coincide with the colours of the five dice found in the Captain's pocket.
On the left hand side of the board is the money trail - this is where the players track their gold. On the other side is the score track - where the pirates count up the prestige points (skull & crossbones) as they earn them and at the end of the game. Of course the pirate who travels furthest round the score track is the winner. On the top of the board there are five Clouds, each giving a special ability to the peninsular below it, and at the bottom of the board are the Trading posts where the Merchant ships sail into and trade in, Coconuts, Fish, Grog, Lemons and Treasure Maps. The trading posts are also conveniently coloured for the pirates in the same colours as the dice and the islands. The pirates (players) who gain Goods can trade them at these positions for either what the Trading Post requires (fixed sales - rather than fixed sails) or at what the visiting Merchant ship is offering.
On each peninsular there are seven houses and if you look carefully you will notice that the peninsulars are on a grid of light and shadow and that the buildings fall into line. If you follow along one of the grid lines you will notice that, with only one exception (the lowest line) the buildings on that row all have the same Pub Sign icon. This is significant to your decisions when placing your pirates in the buildings. All of the Pub Signs have a symbol that has a nautical theme - cannonballs, pirate hats, hooks, peglegs, ship's wheels etc.
The game revolves around a very clever bidding mechanic using the dice. On their turn each player rolls all 5 dice and places them as they landed on the colour coded spaces specifically marked for them. Above these positions on the board are five rings in descending order of size, largest to smallest. Each of these rings is pertinent to the peninsular immediately above it, so the largest ring is in line with the Green peninsular and the smallest ring with the Grey one. Once the player rolls the dice they have to put them on the coloured spaces. Then they select as many of them as they want, and place them in descending order onto the rings. This is the bidding phase with the players bidding to take the building action. The value of the dice chosen is how much gold they are bidding. Gold is shown on the gold track so all players can see the amount everyone else has, except that players can be holding Treasure cards which add 1, 2 or 3 coins to the bid when used, thus keeping player's knowledge of the actual amount of gold each player has guessable but not definite. Thus if the player whose turn it is selects say the 6 Blue and 5 Green (with there being left a Brown 5, Yellow 3 and Grey 1 from the dice roll) they are bidding 11 (they must be able to show they have this amount, bluffing isn't allowed).
The other players, in turn order can now decide if they want to bid higher, by adding another one or more of the dice, keeping its rolled result, or they can take one piece of each of the Trade Goods associated with the dice chosen for the bid - currently Blue & Green in the above example. If a player decides to take the Goods then they must also trade with ONE of the ships in harbour or the Warehouse below it. Although, using the earlier example, a player would gain one Blue and one Green Goods, they may Trade at any Ship or Warehouse they own Goods for - trading is mandatory. The furthest Right ship is out at sea so cannot be traded with, neither can they trade with any ship that already has a trade marker on it (ie one of the previous players in the turn has traded there). Each turn the ships move one space to the right and the furthest right ship (the one at sea) sails around and comes back to the first space, left side. Once a player passes, ie decides not to bid, they cannot return to the bidding during this round, they must take the Goods and Trade. If a player adds a die or dice to the bid they must ensure that teh run of dice remains in highest to lowest formation.
For example: If, using the same dice roll as before, the first player had chosen to make a bid of 8 (the Green 5 and the Yellow 3) the next player could add the Grey 1 to make the Run 5, 3, 1 bringing the bid to 9. Continuing to the next player they may decide to Bid again, perhaps raising it to15 by adding the Blue 6 to the Run, which would alter the position of the dice to 6, 5, 3, 1. There position of the dice is very important as it is only the first two dice in the Run that allow the player who eventually wins the bid to build in the peninsulars that are the same colour as the first two dice. Then by order the remaining dice are spent (in numerical order and by colour) on their peninsulars according to what is shown on the board. The Run goes, Build, Build, Gain VPs, Lock a House, Gain VPs.
There is another way that the players can manipulate the dice and this is by using the Parrot cards. There are two types of Parrot card, one that shows a "thumbs-up" and one that shows a die. The Thumbs-Up card means that you can make a new bid at the same value as the old bid. You can move dice around, changing their position, even swapping them out with dice not yet chosen, in fact as long as the dice remain in descending order and the same overall value you can do almost anything. When a player uses the Parrot cards with a die on they can change the value of the coloured die shown on the card to any number, higher or lower, as they wish. However they cannot change a die to make the value of the Run lower unless they can then add a die or dice from the dice pool to raise the total value.
The winner of the bid then places one of their figures on a house in each of the peninsulars associated to the first two dice (as long as there is an available space). If there are still empty houses in the row showing the same symbol as the house chosen then the player scores 1VP per unoccupied symbol (not for the one chosen). Above each of the peninsulars is a cloud, randomly placed at the beginning of the game. These clouds either give a bonus, prevent gold collection or do nothing at all - each of the five has a different symbol. Once placed these clouds do not move throughout the game. This didn't seem right to us because the ships would sail (from left to right) using wind and thus we figured that the wind would also move the clouds. The rules are clear that the clouds do not move, and online we found an FAQ where some other players felt the same as us and again it was stated that the rules are meant as written. So we played the game for review as per the rules and each time we mainly enjoyed the game, though the clouds not moving just meant that two of the peninsulars were constantly not giving a bonus, which sort of forced some of the decision making.
Trading is an important part of play because it is another way for players to gain buildings. The five peninsulars each have a Trading Post (or Warehouse) where players can trade four Goods of the same colour to build a house in the area of the colour associated to the Warehouse. If a player hasn't been able to collect 4 of a kind (colour) they can trade in 3 of any other Goods to get one Goods of the colour they require. There are 6 ships on the board at all times (in a 2-player game there is alsoa Ghost ship), one is at sea and cannot be traded with until it sails round to dock at the Green warehouse on the next turn. The ships offer different trade possibilities: 2 x (Treasure Card) for example means you can trade 1 Goods of the colour of the warehouse where the ship is docked to gain a Treasure card, and because it says 2x you may do this twice. So 4 x 2 (Gold) means you can gain 2 Gold per Goods four times. There are three Ships that give Gold and three that offer Pirate cards, Treasure chests and Goal cards - noting that if you take a new Goal card you have to return one of the four you are holding to the bottom of the deck.
Players are dealt 6 Goal cards at the beginning of the game of which they choose and keep four. At the end of the game these Goals are revealed and points scored according to the value on the cards multiplied by the number of houses which the player has Pirates on, with same symbol. These points together with points for Gold, Goods and Tiles all add up to make a winning number - the player with the most points wins.
GROG ISLAND is a very good gamer's game which makes me wonder why the choice of name. GROG Island. We all know that Grog is the preferred imbibement of Pirates, but it also a comic sounding name and that may just convey the wrong interpretation for the game shop peruser who sees it on the shelf while looking for a game to play with their group. My experience tells me that the name will appeal more to families, yet the game itself has options and mechanics more likely to be found in a gamer's game, but the name may possibly put gamers off. DON'T LET IT, it is far too good a game to let the name put you off. As I say, we played the game as per the rules for this review and it is a very enjoyable game. The rules are neither too complex or over complicated, with examples scattered throughout the highly colourful but extensively clear 8-page booklet - thanks to Viktor Kobilke for this.
Having played it several times to be able to write this review, we decided to give the game a go moving the clouds each round at the same time as the Ships sail from Port to Port. For us, this gave the game just a little bit more strategy and we enjoyed it just that little bit more. Therefore my suggestions are that; gamers do not let the comic aspects of the name and the box art fool them into thinking this isn't a game for them and that after playing it enough to know the rules without having to refer to the booklet, occasionally try playing the game moving the clouds.
We are not saying that the rules are wrong, they are not and they work well, or that there is anything wrong with the game, there isn't it is a superb game with many options and balances. For our games here at GGO the cloud movement is just a matter of preference and we are only suggsting that you try it sometime.