Review: Navegador

Review: Navegador

Publisher: Rio Grande Games, November 2010
Designer: Mac Gerdts
Artists: Marina Fahrenbach and Mac Gerdts
Players: 2-5
Ages: 12+
Playing Time: 60-90 minutes
Languages: English
MSRP $59.95

Navegador Title

Reviewed by: Mary Dimercurio Prasad
Game Played: Friend’s copy
Number of Plays: 1 (with 5 players)

The designer, Mac Gerdts, a.k.a. Walther Gerdts, is famous for his rondel series of games, including, Antike, Imperial and Hamburgum. Navegador is his latest rondel game. The goal of the game is to earn the most victory points through some combination of exploration, colonization, selling/processing goods, and building. Note: for complete rules, visit Navegador on Rio Grande’s website.

The game takes place during Portugal’s Age of Discovery, primarily through the 15th and 16th centuries. Prince Henry “the Navigator” was responsible for the early development of exploration, colonization, and trade with continents outside Europe. It is quite amazing how far they were able to explore. Players represent wealthy trade dynasties taking part in the building of this colonial Portuguese empire.

Players start the game with some money, two ships in their color in the Portugal space on the board, three workers, a generic factory, a shipyard, a church, and a King’s privilege for bonus scoring at the end of the game. Each player also puts a wooden marker in her color in the center of the rondel. The rondel is basically a wheel of spaces listing the actions a player may take on any given turn. On their first turns players choose where their markers will start. From then on, markers may only be moved clockwise one to three spaces, plus one more for each ship sacrificed (a rather expensive move).

The board depicts 13 regions, each containing a wooden disk, called an explorer token, as well as one to four colony tokens representing the three types of goods in the game: sugar, gold, or spices. Spices are the most valuable but are not available until later in the game; these are further away on the board. Players will generally move their ships from left to right across the board, exploring new territories and/or founding colonies along the way.

There are three phases in the game. When a player explores a designated region of the board (Cabo da Boa Esperança for phase two and Malaca for phase three), the game moves to the next phase at the start of the next player’s turn. Each time this happens, ships increase in movement by one and the costs of workers and ships go up by 100 (ouch!).

Actions on the rondel include: Sailing, Workers, Colony, Market (2 spaces), Buildings, Ships, and Privilege.

This allows players to move their ships one to three spaces on the board, depending on the phase of the game. A player must move at least two ships into an unexplored region. The player takes the explorer token, flips over the colony tokens, and receives money as a reward in the amount of the least expensive colony revealed. One of the ships will be lost due to the dangers of exploration (it wasn’t exactly a cruise ship voyage). This loss is increased to two ships for the final one or two spaces of the board (depending on the number of players), thus players will need to move at least three ships into those areas.

Players may recruit one worker at the lowest price (50) for each church they possess, after which they must pay the (fairly extravagant) amount shown on the board per worker, depending on the game phase. I’m not exactly sure what the message is here… people who go to church work for peanuts? Or maybe these are missionaries.

Players may found colonies where they have ships. To found a colony, a player must pay the price listed on one of the colony tokens where his ship is located (of course this will be the least expensive choice, unless the player has money to throw around). For each colony founded, the player must have two workers and one ship in the location (these are not paid, but the player must have them in his possession). The player takes the colony token(s); it will produce goods of the type depicted whenever the player takes the Market action.

For each colony token a player possesses, she may sell one good of its type according to the current market price. The prices are tracked and listed in the market chart on the board. After the player collects money for her goods, the markers are moved down one space for each one sold, i.e. the prices decrease. The player may also process goods in her factories. For each good processed, the player receives money according to the red column on the market chart corresponding to where the good is currently located in the market. After the player collects money for processing, the market markers of each good are moved up according to how many were processed, i.e. the prices increase. Note: a player may not both sell and produce the same good on the same turn.

Players may purchase one ship at the lowest price (50) for each shipyard they possess, after which they must pay the amount shown on the board per ship, depending on the game phase. All ships start at Portugal (i.e. the first space).

Players may purchase new factories, shipyards, or churches at the prices listed in the building chart. The player must also have the number of workers shown in order to build a particular building but does not relinquish them; each worker may only contribute to one building per turn. For example, if a player has 7 workers, he may build either two factories (3 each) or one factory and one shipyard (3 and 4 resp.).

A player may purchase one privilege by relinquishing a worker; this is the only time workers are ever diminished. The player selects one of the available privilege tokens. The number and types of privileges available will vary during the game. The player will get an immediate monetary benefit, as well as victory points at the end of the game. There are five types of privileges, corresponding to the five types of possessions in the game: colonies, factories, explorers, shipyards, and churches. The player will get the amount of money listed on the chart times the number possessions of that type the player owns.

The game end is triggered when either the last building has been purchased or the last area has been explored. One more round is played then the game is scored. Players earn one point per 200 money, one point per ship on the board, one point per worker, and points for privileges. Privileges act as multipliers with possessions. In addition, each player determines how she wants to use her King’s privilege bonus – depending on what possession will earn her the most points.

The production and artwork are high quality: nice wooden bits, an old world map look that fits the theme, and a good board design – mostly very functional; the only thing I would have changed is to have spaces for the colony tokens to be placed whether face down or flipped. Currently there is only one space provided, for the pile of face down tokens. Once they are flipped, they are just placed nearest the region of exploration, which can get kind of messy. The charts on the board provide a lot of information in an organized manner. The rules are straightforward and include a lot of examples.

The game works pretty well within the theme. As ships explore further and further away from Portugal, expenses increase and so does the danger, but the rewards are usually greater. The markets are really nothing new: when a good is sold, the price of the good drops but the price to produce goes up. When more are produced, the price of the good goes up but the price to produce goes down. Thus players have to determine when it’s best to sell or when it’s best to produce a particular good.

I really like the game. The rondel works well and there are several ways to score points, giving players a lot of choices during the game. The luck factor is low – mainly in how the colony values come up. There wasn’t much new in the game per se but this combination of mechanisms made for a fun game.

For games with 4 or 5 players, the biggest issue is probably going to be in planning – because of how other player choices will impact your play. For example a player may beat you to an unexplored region, take the last colony in a particular region, or take the last available type of privilege you wanted. At least in games with a lot of players, remaining flexible is going to be key; luckily there are several paths to victory. I suspect the game will be quite different with fewer players. I am looking forward to playing the game again, maybe with two or three players next time.

Regarding replayability, there is a lot to explore as far as victory conditions go, even though game play is essentially the same. Based on my one play I would say replayability is looking good.

Opinions from other Opinionated Gamers:

Jonathan  Franklin (Like It):
I have only played twice.  Navegador has the smoothness of a fine wine and the slight luck in the tokens to make each game a bit different.  There are several strategies to try, and amusingly, several people thought there was an optimal path in their first play, only to disagree with which path it was.  The game is extremely well playtested, but just because it is an exploration game, do not assume you need to explore.    The downside that I observed in my second play is that you might need to have a strategy that no one else has chosen in order to win.  That leads to brinksmanship about which way each player is planning on going.  I think it might be too costly to change strategies mid-game, but would love to be proven wrong.

Matt Carlson (Like It+):
My parents gave me Navegador for Christmas, but I had to wait until I got back home to find a crowd of folks who would appreciate this fine game.  I love that there are many ways to score points.  Even better, while you need to dabble a bit in most things, you need to specialize in a few things to win.  It reminds me of Goa where you need to improve all categories a little bit but get the best score by emphasizing just one or two.  Contrast this with Agricola where there are many ways to score points, but the winner typically scores well in all of them.  The rondel serves to limit player choices to prevent analysis paralysis, while the floating “free movement” token (not mentioned above) serves both as a way to balance play order (it is given to the last player at the start of the game and then moves counter-clockwise) and as one of the best ways for players to make a “surprise” move to scoop up an unexpected colony or unexplored area.  I prefer Navegador over other Gerdts’ rondel games since it is much less confrontational – nothing a player builds or acquires in Navegador can be taken away.

I’ve only played four or so games with three and four players but I’m still coming back for more.  No one strategy seems to dominate (yet) but it has become very clear that this is a game (like Puerto Rico) where you need to take into account what the other players are doing.  In particular, avoid doing whatever your immediate predecessor is doing.  In my games, the winning strategy has nearly always been whatever everyone else is NOT doing.  Thankfully, in our first few games players have been able to adjust their strategies in the early mid-game in response to other player strategies and then go on for a win.  So even if your neighbor starts edging into your specialties there is often time to make adjustments.  I’d expect the two player game to have a very different feel, since all competition is fairly direct.  With more players, vying for the privileges becomes more important because one can’t wait around until the last round and expect to pick up privileges in any large quantity.

I came into the game hoping to enjoy the different scoring options and have been very pleased with every game.  A few of the point-gathering mechanisms seem to have a natural synergy, but there remains plenty of room to explore (get it? – heh) different strategies.  While I currently rate the game at “I like it”, with a few more plays under my belt it may get elevated to “I love it.”

Fraser McHarg (Like It):
I have only played this once so far and enjoyed it.  I specialised in colonies, but felt that I should have invested a little in cathedrals to give me more flexibility in workers.  I certainly felt that lack of flexibility in the last few turns, but it was the first game for most of us.  There certainly seem to be multiple paths to follow and I don’t think you need to be flying solo in a path to win, but this is said from a total of one game, so take that with a grain of salt.  Daughter the Elder (twelve) also liked it.  I’d be happy to play it again to try some of these theories out.

Larry Levy (Love it):
I’ve played Navegador about 5 times so far and at this point in time, it’s my favorite game from 2010.  I was starting to wonder if the Rondel games had jumped the shark, but Gerdts really did a good job with this one and proved there’s life in the ol’ Circle of Actions yet.  Gameplay is extremely smooth and turns come very fast, since each action is very basic.  The game is quite thematic and all the actions tie in nicely to the theme (to answer Mary’s objection, churches are used to convert the masses, thus providing new workers relatively cheaply).  The game seems to be well balanced and I’ve seen different approaches work.  All in all, a very enjoyable game, thanks to its speed of play and interesting choices.

I actually think the market is quite innovative.  Gerdts gives us two kinds of money-making elements (colonies and factories) which work in opposition to each other.  Colonies are most profitable when the market is high, while factories work best when the market is low.  The interplay between these two types of structures shapes the flow of the game and emphasizes the importance of your opponents’ actions to you.  To accomplish all this in a simple, elegant market mechanism is an admirable achievement and is typical of the game’s smooth playing mechanics.

The key to winning really does seem to be to do what others aren’t.  This will not only allow you to acquire the things you need more cheaply, but means there will probably be more privileges of the kind you want for you to acquire.  The privileges are the heart of the game and are the best way of boosting your Victory Points.  I’m convinced that defensive play is essential, since if a player is allowed to dominate in a category, they’ll probably win easily.  I’m really looking forward to games where the entire table is experienced with the design, to see how the interplay of defensive actions plays out.

All the elements in Navegador are carefully thought out and fit together like clockwork.  Of Gerdts’ other games, Imperial, when it works, will still give you a more involving and exciting game.  But I’ve also had a few games of Imperial that fell flat.  Navegador may not quite hit the high notes of its older brother, but it’s proven to be the more consistent source of enjoyment.  Regardless of the relative ranking, I can safely say that Mac Gerdts now has two great rondel games on his resume.

Tom Rosen (Neutral):
Navegador ranks relatively highly in the hierarchy of Rondel games and yet it still pales in comparison to Imperial and Imperial 2030.  I found the game less rough around the edges than Antike and far less boring than Hamburgum, but while this gives it a lofty relative position in the Gerdts pantheon, Navegador still leaves much to be desired.

First, contrary to popular opinion, there is only one path to victory and that is the path of least resistance.  Of course there are five different scoring areas you can focus on (i.e., colonies, factories, exploration, churches, and shipyards), but if you dare focus on an area that an opponent or two is also pursuing then you’re both conceding a huge advantage to whoever is a solitary explorer.  True, interaction with your fellow players is a good thing – a great thing I dare say – but the interaction in this game feels mechanical and off-putting.  The game urges you more than just about any other to conform to a strategic path of your fellow player’s choosing, that being the path that they choose not to go down.  In this way, it’s vaguely reminiscent of the problem that rears its head in Antike of the person who happens to least avoid conflict emerging victorious.  It’s not the same sort of obvious turtling as in Antike or Twilight Imperium, but a slightly subtler force at work here.  The syndrome of let’s you and him fight is still a problem in my mind even when in disguise.

Second, the fantastic, excellent, wonderful… incredibly overused Rondel is back.  Five years after its debut and after constant use and re-use, the Rondel is beginning to look a little haggard.  Given the designer’s obvious talents, I’d love to see something a bit more off the beaten path, and boy is this path beaten.  I know Gerdts stated in a thread on BoardGameGeek that he experimented with alternative action selection mechanisms, but in the end turned back to the Rondel because of its clear advantages, which he goes on to list.  Perhaps if the Rondel wasn’t your starting point that you considered diverging from then you wouldn’t always find yourself ending up back there.  Yes, it’s an efficient way to organize the choice of actions and to plan them ahead.  Yes, each action is easy and fast, with opportunity costs to consider, and you can see what other players could be doing next.  But despite all that, it’s time to give the Rondel a break, at least for a bit, before it completely wears out its welcome.

Those two things being the case, Navegador is still an interesting exercise.  It provides a well-crafted optimization puzzle that rewards both planning and flexibility.  However, Navegador pales in comparison to the engaging experience of Imperial, which may be a more fragile system, but nonetheless rewards players with a far more memorable time.  My memories from a couple games of Navegador are not bad, but they’re not exciting enough to make me particularly eager to go back for another trip around the Cape.

Ratings Summary from the Opinionated Gamers:
I love it! (1)  Larry Levy
I like it. (4) Mary Prasad, Jonathan Franklin, Matt Carlson, Fraser McHarg
Neutral. (1) Tom Rosen
Not for me…

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5 Responses to Review: Navegador

  1. Matt J Carlson says:

    Since Imperial keeps coming up in the discussion, I thought I’d amend a bit of my comments to include it. I rank Navegador significantly above Imperial simply because I think the game is far more robust. My first game of Imperial I had my initial “country” taken over by another player while yet another “turtled” without majority in any country for nearly the whole game while simultaneously buying up a little bit of everything (he eventually won) – leaving me in a position where I had nothing to do and nothing to do about it. Sure, it was my own initial mistake, but I wasn’t expecting to come into a game that is as unforgiving as Age of Steam or something similar. In Navegador, I don’t see either issue arising (you can’t “lose” anything, and “turtling” isn’t going to help you very much) and is thus far less likely to break down. Since I typically play games with a wide range of experience, I prefer Navegador over Imperial. (Since I tend to avoid Imperial, I suppose the Rondel hasn’t outstayed its welcome for me.)

  2. Doug Adams says:

    This is a nice summary of the game. I’ve played it four times and am thoroughly enjoying it. For me this is the most polished of the rondel games. You certainly have to stay on your toes and try to blend your strategy into what your opponents are doing, with an emphasis on those to your immediate right. I’ve done well in two games by going into factories/workers, to compliment a lot of goods going to market from the colonies. Barely touched the ship/exploration game yet – having too much fun working the market. Great game.

  3. Surya says:

    I have really enjoyed my plays of Navegador as the rules are straight forward, there are lots of different strategies to follow, turns are relatively short and the game doesn’t take too long.

    It is also clear to me that there is no such thing as a rondel game, like there are area majority games. Rondel games aren’t about the rondel, the rondel is just one aspect of the game.

  4. Drizzt says:

    What do you guys about Concordia? Better or worse than Navegador?

  5. Larry Levy says:

    I think Concordia is an excellent, and consistently enjoyable, game. I think Navegador is a little better, but that’s because it’s one of my all-time favorites. I’m always very happy to play Concordia, as a base game or with one of its very good expansions. The two games don’t feel very similar to me at all. The best solution, clearly, is to buy both!

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