Ted Alspach: Review of Nieuw Amsterdam

I clearly wasn’t paying attention in history class (no big surprise there), because when I heard the title of Jeff Aller’s new game, I had absolutely no idea that it was about Manhattan. But it appears that was the name of the settlement before it was changed to New York City (“Nieuw” is the Dutch spelling of New, which serves to make the title very distinctive but also makes it very very hard to type into BGG when looking for the game until you’ve done it a few times).  This game, therefore, is all about the settlement of this island. In the game, you play a group of settlers (known as a “patroon”—yet another term I was unfamiliar with previously) who are striving to make a life for themselves in this new territory.

Nieuw Amsterdam is an economic snowball game with a board that makes you think it’s about worker placement (it’s not) and area control (it is, a little bit). The board is divided into four main sections:

  1. Nieuw Amsterdam, the building area of the island, where you place nice chunky wooden buildings as you fight for majority of six different locations (each with an associated special action).
  2. The Cash Box, where you’ll bid for a set of actions each turn.
  3. The Fur Spaces, where you’ll trade goods for sets of furs.
  4. The Indian Camps/River Boats, which determines if you have to pay extra for trading up the river.

There’s also a score track, a section in the middle that provides a quick reference to actions, and a section in the lower left that shows the 11 steps that take place each turn.
Next to the board, you’ll be placing cards for ships, land, and all the resources available throughout the game.

Each of the pieces/steps to the game is fairly straightforward, but they each have a few twists that combine to make this game have a very different feel. Jeff Allers has made a name for himself by designing slightly quirky games (such as the excellent Piece ‘o Cake and Heartland), and Nieuw Amsterdam falls into that category. Aside from one piece that feels underdeveloped (the river, which I’ll get to in a bit), everything in this game feels tight, balanced, and gives you a sense of progress as the game moves along.

The eleven steps on the board are really less than that, as setup takes three steps and cleanup takes four steps. In setup, you’re simply placing new cards, filling in any missing furs, and putting out the action tokens into the Cash Box. The next four steps are the heart of the game: Bidding and actions.

Each of the six rounds really starts with bidding for action tokens. There are three types of actions available: City, Land and Trade. The action tokens are distributed randomly within the cash box, and then the player with the “1” player order token chooses a column of the box to bid on. Each piece of money, goods, corn, wood and even furs are worth “1” and can be used to pay off a successful bid in any combination. This is a harsh, once-around bid where the initial player has the tough task of determining what amount is high enough to get what he wants without being overbid, since he only has one chance to get it right. In this way Nieuw Amsterdam has a bit of a Goa feel, but in this case the bidding goes in turn order, not clockwise in seating order. Whoever wins the bid takes not just the action tokens (and any money that might be on that spot) but also the turn order marker (so the first auction winner gets to be first in turn order, etc.). That play gives their turn marker to the player who initially determined the location of the auction. Then the player with the “2” player order token goes. This continues until all but one player has won an auction; the last player gets their pick of remaining sets (if less than 5 players) or the remaining (5 players) action token set for free, and keeps their turn order token.

Sometime during the first game you’ll realize how important the auction is, and by the end of the game you’ll be totally captivated as the action tokens are laid out, and you’ll be scheming to figure out how to get the set you need (it’s much less straightforward than you’d think). For me, this auctioning system made the game a clear winner, not just for the auctioning mechanics, but for the action token placement; occasionally there will be a nice spread of action tokens that allows everyone to be somewhat content. But more often you’ll find that only one set really works for your strategic goals, and determining its value (especially if you’re first to bid) is really really hard. Of course, there’s always the potential for putting up a set you don’t want at a low low price in the hopes that others will outbid you, and you’ll be later in the turn order for the set you really want, but that’s a very risky strategy.

After the bidding, it’s time to take the actions. Actions are taken by doing all the city actions first, then the land actions, and then the trading actions. As there are only 4 of each action available, each player will not have each action type.

In turn order, all players take any city actions they have, as well as one “special” action (even if they don’t have any city actions). City actions are either building 1-3 buildings in the areas on the island, or an “election:” scoring those buildings with a simple “clear majority=3 points, tied majority=2 points” system.

Then players take land actions as well as another Special action. Land actions are either taking a land card (which causes one of the native american huts to move up the river) or to clear a land card you own that has houses on it (thus getting the wood supply from that land and allowing it to produce corn).

Finally, players take trading actions as well as another Special action. Trading actions are either purchasing a set of furs for goods (paying one corn for every “boat” step they’re behind on the river), or selling furs for a ship.

The Special actions that are available are located in each of the areas on the island where players have buildings. There are six different special actions that allow the player to do things like add a house to a land area and build on a dock (to allow more goods to come in). If the player doesn’t want to do a special action (or one of the standard actions), they can always just take $1 instead.

After actions are finished, it’s time for the cleanup steps: Players with cleared-off land cards receive corn as indicated on those cards, then all players pay 1 corn per building they have in the city. Next, players receive goods as indicated on any ship cards they have, and one coin per area they have buildings in (and a bonus for any areas they have a clear majority in).

After six rounds and a final “election” where building majorities are scored, the game is over, with bonuses given to the players who’ve settled land cards that have not yet been cleared.

I mentioned how important the auctioning phase is…but of course the importance of it is really related to what you plan to do with the actions you obtain.

The balance of the game is such that specializing in trading vs. clearing off land vs. building up majorities can produce a winner, but an even handed approach can also win. The game seems to award consistency, but at the same time you’ll need to be flexible when it’s time to get action tokens. In one of the games we played, there were two of us who ran the bidding up well over 20 for a much-sought-after set of action tokens on the last round, and as a result (because I spent too much and my opponent didn’t get the actions she needed) ended up way behind the leader who had been laser-focused on trading for most of the game.

The game really works well and meshes together well, with a single exception: the river at the top of the board is this really cool mechanism where the native american houses move up river after the players obtain land cards. A special action allows players to move up the river with them. If you fall behind, you’ll have to pay an extra corn for every “step” (shown on the board as boats) the houses are from you. It’s a whole lot of moving around and jockeying for position just to save a few bushels of corn. Corn is important because without it you won’t be able to place buildings (or they’ll get removed if you come up short at the end of any round), but the cost of the corn seems minor for such a “big” mechanism of the river. It leads me to wonder if there was something else that could be done with this part of the game that would have a greater impact than corn. That said, no one else seemed to have an issue with this aspect other than me…I just wanted it to have more of an impact on the game than corn.

This was one of the few games that was due at Essen but didn’t make it. White Goblin had a single copy available at their booth for play, and it’s still not due to be available for another week or so for general purchase.

Nieuw Amsterdam is a solid, medium-heavy Euro that has enough twists and engagement for pretty much anyone. There’s a good chunk of theme here too, which helps to make it even more engaging. Once it is available, I’ll be sure to pick up a copy!

Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers:

Greg Schloesser:  Only one playing so far, but I am certainly intrigued.  While I am normally not a big fan of auction games, I find this auction quick and not overbearing.  It is very important to maintain flexibility, as you won’t always get the action tokens you desire.  It is also important not to overbuild in the early rounds, a lesson I learned the hard way.  This left me cash-strapped and unable to feed all of my people.  As Ted says, corn is essential, so getting farms into production early is very important — another lesson I learned the hard way!

New Amsterdam seems to be a very good game, but it is VERY unforgiving.  Make a few missteps and you can easily be out of contention.  It certainly rewards careful planning and strategy.

Ben McJunkin: I am one of the few lucky souls who actually owns a copy of this game, thanks to my penchant for overseas purchases this time of year. That I bought the game should provide a good indication of my affinity for it. I have now played the game three times, though I am still undecided about whether Nieuw Amsterdam has what it takes to move beyond “solid” and into the realm of “spectacular.”

For the most part, the mechanics are familiar (I would not expect them to wow a seasoned gamer), but they do come together quite nicely. On the whole, I would compare the complexity and cohesion of the design to something like Puerto Rico (though they have little in common mechanically, I get a similar feel from both). Here, the auction mechanism is clearly the heart of the game, and I found it to be quite engaging. However (as Greg mentioned), it is also potentially unforgiving. I have seen players ruthlessly pursue a one-dimensional strategy and run away with the game because the rest of us were hesitant to bid up lots that did not fit in with our own plans. Moreover, on repeat plays the game does appear to reward repeated, efficient point-grabs more than I had anticipated (it is not the balanced engine-building game I envisioned during my first play). If you miss out too often on a much-needed lots because your bids were too low, or you get stuck with bad lots while trying to force others to overpay, I think you can find yourself in a hole quickly.

I have played with three player counts (3, 4, and 5), and I think 4 is likely my preferred number. The auction worked best with 5 and worst with 3, in my opinion, but when you combine the changing player turn order with the array of choices — two per regular action, plus six or so special actions — the potential for downtime seems to increase exponentially with each added player. I am interested in giving the 2-player rules a try sometime soon, as well.

For those who appreciate the more material aspects of a game’s design, I want to emphasize that the production quality of Nieuw Amsterdam is largely extraordinary. The board is beautifully illustrated and contains numerous helpful player aids worked seamlessly into the artwork. The cardboard tiles are thick and sturdy, the wooden bits are massive and attractively shaped, and it even comes with an entirely unnecessary cloth drawstring bag. The only downsides were that the iconography could be clearer in a few places, and the box’s linen finish turned out to be far less durable than I had initially anticipated. Overall, White Goblin has done a terrific job with this title, and I hope it gets the wide recognition it deserves.

Lorna: Only played most of one game as I had to catch a flight, but I liked what I saw. Nothing new in the way of mechanisms and multiple ways to score but the game meshes together surprisingly well.  I’m intrigued enough to pick up my own copy when available and look forward to another go. Seems like a full compliment of players is better.

Larry:  I’ve played this once, with 3 players, which is probably not the optimal number.  Despite that, I quite enjoyed it and look forward to playing it again.  My favorite parts of the game are that you have to bid for the right to do different actions and the close interconnectivity of everything in the design.

I have two areas of mild concern, both of which may be alleviated in games with more players.  The first is the auction.  With 3 players, you still have 5 sets of action counters to choose from, so auctions were often less than hotly contested, since there was frequently a set that was almost as good that you could probably obtain much cheaper (maybe for free!).  If prices aren’t bid up on the auctions, the game becomes awash in items and is less interesting.  I strongly suspect that with 4 players, and particularly with 5, this becomes much less of a problem.

The other issue is the general tightness of the design.  I rarely felt like I had to scratch and claw for every coin or resource; instead, I could usually figure out a simple way of getting everything I needed.  Part of this was due to the mildly contested auctions in our game, but another reason was the special actions.  With three special actions a turn, each of which could be used to obtain corn, wood, and money in various exchanges, I found there was usually ample time and opportunity to get everything I needed without fighting the other players for it.  Not always, but most of the time.  I prefer tightly constrained games, so this was a little disappointing.  I also wonder if the fact that you can pay for your bid at the auction with just about anything also contributes to this.  Arranging things so that you wind up with a regular surplus of any income item (be it coins, corn, or goods) means that you have a ready supply of things to bid with without expending any additional effort.  It’s entirely possible more active auctions would tighten things up, but I am a little concerned that this looseness might be built into the design.  See, unlike Greg, my game didn’t feel unforgiving at all and I would have been happier if the players had to sweat a bit more.

Neither of these issues comes close to ruining the game.  My game was still enjoyable and thought-provoking even with these aspects.  But currently, they’re the things which mean I “like” the game instead of “love” it.  The good news is, I chatted with Jeff after my session and he indicated that the game does indeed play at its best with more players.  So I’m hopeful that once I restrict myself to those player numbers, I might indeed be able to raise my rating.

Based on my one session, this is a very nicely designed and quite accessible game.  The theme is strong and the gameplay is multifaceted.  I think this is a title that both families and gamers can enjoy, but for it to qualify as a true gamer’s game, it needs to be harder to get things done.  I look forward to trying it out with 4 or 5 players to see if the design can meet its considerable promise.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
4 (Love it!): Ted Alspach
3 (Like it): Greg Schloesser, Ben McJunkin, Lorna, Rick Thornquist, Tom Rosen, Larry
2 (Neutral):
1 (Not for me):

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10 Responses to Ted Alspach: Review of Nieuw Amsterdam

  1. benvogel says:

    Ted, what your opening paragraph reveals is not an ignorance of history, but an ignorance of They Might Be Giants. For many BGG’ers, a far worse offense. :)

  2. jeffinberlin says:

    Of course, there’s yet another point of ignorance that, admittedly, I had too: TMBG actually covered the song, “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” which was originally a hit for the Canadian group Four Lads back in the 50′s (and has been subsequently covered by a long list of bands over the years).

    I prefer the faster, “alternative” TMBG version, though!

  3. Jennifer Geske says:

    I added my comments too late (yesterday) so I am reposting here:

    I have played this game 5 times now, with 3, 4, and 5 players. I agree with Ben that 4 would be my preferred number. While with 5 the competition in auction is more interesting, but the player who is behind (and can not afford to bid for his/her preferred actions) has very little option to improve the situation, especially if the action tokens that player gets for the round are not anything that is helpful (ex. trade tokens when one has little money and no resources left to trade for fur). I quite enjoy the theme and the multiple paths available to players. We had long discussions after a couple of the sessions about whether or not there is an unbeatable strategy – someone proposed that starting in land and then go strong in the city is the best strategy. I am not sure I agree with that, although starting with land or trade does increase one’s income and therefore the ability to bid for better options. I like the thematic treatment of the river (once someone buys land from the Native American tribes, the tribe has to relocate upriver and the settlers have to pay additional food to go up river to trade with the tribes), but given that there are so few actions available and trade from resources to victory points take 2 actions, I often just buy all my furs from the black market and ignore the whole thing about moving my trading post to be near a village. As with others, I think the strongest part of the game is in the auction. It often feels like I am in a tense game of Power Grid, trying to figure out how much to bid to get what I want (you lose if you guess wrong in the once around bidding) and still have the right combination of stuff leftover to do what I need to do (including using all the special actions). It might take one play for new players to realize the value in bidding for turn order and action tokens, but that’s kind of expected with most games with auctions. Turn order and the sequence in which one chooses the special actions also need to be considered carefully. Even with all the hypothesis of a dominant strategy, all of our games were fairly close with the top 2 finishers separated by fewer than 5 points (winning scores tend to be around 85 or so).

  4. jeffinberlin says:

    Reblogged this on The Opinionated Gamers.

  5. woodnoggin says:

    I thought the game was going to be about New Amsterdam, Suriname, for which the Dutch apparently swapped New York. Now there’s a niche boardgame topic.

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