Dale Yu: First Impressions of Coffee Traders

Coffee Traders

  • Designer: Rolf Sagel, Andre Spil
  • Publisher: Capstone Games
  • Players: 2-5
  • Age: 14+
  • Time: 2-3 hours
  • Played with review copy provided by Capstone Games.

coffee traders

From the publisher- “In Coffee Traders, set in 1970s Central and South America, Africa, and Asia, the delicious Arabica coffee beans farmers harvest are sold in Antwerp — and all over the world — to coffee roasters large and small. Work with your competitors to develop the regions you see fit for the best coffee beans while keeping a watchful eye on the market. Construct buildings to help your Fair Trade coffee plantations thrive while enhancing your network for trading coffee. Will your plantations fall to ruin, or will you rise to the top and become the world’s greatest coffee trader?”

I’ll admit that this sort of game is a bit more complex than I normally go for, but we were planning a little OG get-together this summer and one of our writers (Luke) made a specific request for it.  Lucky for us, we live about 10 minutes away from Capstone Central, and Capstone Games was generous enough to provide us with a basket of games to play.  They also threw in a couple of bags of their custom blend of coffee that they had included in the first shipments of the game.

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The main board is placed in the center of the table, it is dominated by 5 large coffee producing cooperatives (Guatemala, Brazil, Ethiopia, Columbia and Indonesia) as well as a smaller area for Sumatra.  The right side has the Arabica Track (where you mark progress in the five main coffee areas) and there is a coffee bar track on the left.  Each player also gets a player board (that also serves as a sort of player aid) – there are areas here for each of the six main phases of each round.  The game is played over 3 rounds, each having the same 6 phases.

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Phase 1: Work Phase – In turn orders, players take turns doing one of the four possible Cooperative actions – they are summarized on the left side of the Phase 1 Column on the player board with reminders to the action and how many action cubes they cost. Note that you have a bonus area on your player board where you are allowed to take 2 of the 3  available bonuses each round (1 action cube, 1trader, 3 coins)

  • Add a plantation to a Cooperative – you generally start in each cooperative in the lowest row and then have to use Donkeys or Trucks to connect to higher rows in each cooperative
  • Send workers to Harvest – the player chooses a cooperative, and then one worker of EACH player present in that cooperative is moved from the town center to one of their plantations. If you place at least one opponent’s worker, you advance one space on the Arabica track for that cooperative
  • Breed a Donkey – for two action cubes, get a donkey token
  • Income – gain 2 coins and place a Civet cat marker into Sumatra 

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Phase 2: Workers – First all players simultaneously place a worker on each of their plantations which do not already have a worker. Then, in turn order, players with workers remaining can choose to place workers on an opponent’s empty plantations (and gaining a step on the appropriate Arabica track).  Any unoccupied plantations are assessed a penalty, and if the player can’t play the penalty, the plantation is removed from the board 

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Phase 3: Trader & Contractor – Players take one of three possible actions or pass out of the phase.  The options are outlined in the area on the player board

  • Place a Trader – pay 2 coins and place a trader on the 1st space of any of the Traders houses, taking a stock counter and placing at the bottom of the Warehouse track. Then, in player order, the other players can choose to follow and also place a Trader into that trading house.  If all but one player choose to place a Trader, the player who does not get a trader will gain a coin.
  • Hire a Contractor – Pay 2 coins and then choose an available building from your player board to build (the topmost available building in each of the three columns), and depending on the building, it is built on the player board or on the main board. Once built, all other players can also piggyback on the action, but their build must be done in the same location as the original player’s build. Each piggybacking player here pays one coffee of their choice to the active player. 
  • Remove a Trader – Remove a trader from the game permanently to gain 2 steps on an Arabica track (or 1 step on each of 2 different Arabica tracks).

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Phase 4: Harvest – all workers on Plantations will harvest coffee. Calculate the amount of coffee made in the cooperative – 2 coffees per each plantation with a worker. Then, this total sum is distributed. First, each player who owns a Fair Trade post in this cooperative gets a coffee.  Then, the player who is in the 1st Trader spot in the Trading House gets a coffee.  Finally, starting with the 1st trader spot and going down, each player in order gets a coffee, when you get to the last trader in the Trading House, go back to the 1st and continue.  Do this until all the coffee runs out or each player in the Trading House gets 5 coffees from this distribution.  Now, each player with at least 4 coffees in each of the 5 cooperatives gets a Civet cat in Sumatra and then each player gets 1 Kopi Luwak coffee per Civet cat (and then the Civet cats are returned to the supply).

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Phase 5: Contract – in reverse turn order, players now get a chance to fulfill a contract or supply a coffee bar.  Whenever a player passes, they are out of this phase, and they place their turn order marker at the space closest to first on the turn order chart

  • Fulfill a contract – select one of the contracts on your board and reduce your inventory based on what is on the contract. Remove the contract from the board and then receive the bonus printed on the space underneath it.  If you clear a pair of horizontally paired contracts, get the bonus which is seen to the right of those contracts. 
  • Deliver to Coffee bars – choose an empty space in one of the coffee bars and deliver the stated coffee; place a scoring marker in that space and gain coins as printed above the space.  If you fill in the last space in the coffee bar, take the corresponding bonus counter.  The player may then make a second delivery, if a second isn’t made, the player must pass and move their turn order marker. 

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Phase 6: Refresh – remove all the traders, contractors, and action cubes from the player board. Refer to your warehouses and keep coffee as dictated by your warehouses. Then, receive one coffee for each stock counter you have.  

Play for a total of three rounds. Then the game moves into scoring.

For each cooperative – players calculate their Quality Value (QV) for the cooperative – highest gets 16 VP, then 8VP then 4VP.   QV = points for plantations based on level (1-3), and each building is worth 1QV except the hospital which is worth 2QV.

Then score for your Company Supply.  1VP per worker, donkey and Civet cat; 3VP per truck.  Finally, look at the counter track at the right of the player board and score based on the topmost covered space.

Next, look at the Arabica track and score based on advancement on the track as printed on it.  Also score for completed milestones and contracts.

Then on the coffee bar, score per the counters where your markers are, and then calculate the majorities for each bar and take 4VP for most, 2VP for second. 

Finally, score VP per Plantations and Buildings as printed on them.

My thoughts on the game

Well, hopefully you can get a feel for how the game plays from the above description.  I’ll admit that after reading the rules the first few times, I was a bit mystified (in a bad way) as to how I would do things and score points.  Now that I have a few games under my belt, I remained mystified how to do well (but now in a good way) – because I haven’t quite figured out what the best strategy is.  In short, if you’re a fan of complex multi-layered games (the typical Italian or Portuguese fare), this will be up your alley.  This game is definitely not straightforward, and it will take a few runthroughs to see how all the different pieces interact.

Like most games, your goal is to score the most points. In Coffee Roasters, it is not clear what is the best way to gain those points.  There are short term points to be had in fulfilling contracts and supplying the coffee bars.  In order to do this, you’ll end up devoting a lot of your resources to generating coffee,  The long term rewards for the area majorities can be huge though – with a possible of 40VP if you are first in all five regions.   The payoff is high, but this is definitely riskier as the scoring drops off steeply if you don’t have the largest presence.  The bonuses from the milestones are nice, but some of them have felt nearly impossible to achieve – without devoting your entire game towards them, that is…  And by doing that, you wouldn’t get much else done!

The whole coffee generation thing can be opaque at first.  It’s hard to get used to the idea that you don’t necessarily have to own any plantations in an area in order to harvest a certain type of bean.  The plantations and buildings help you towards the area majority, but only the Trading House will get you coffee.  If you are interested in the coffee – you’ll likely need to place traders into the area – but again, you have a limited number of traders to use each turn, and you are definitely reliant upon your opponents at times due the timing of placing the traders into the areas.  When teaching the game, I think this is the one thing that I will stress and repeat – because it just isn’t a very intuitive thing.

A lot of the game (at least for me) is about dealing with limited opportunities.  First off, there are only three rounds in the game.  And while the game takes more than two hours, this is one of those rare games where I wish that maybe there was another round in the game because I just don’t feel like I have enough time to accomplish all the things that I want to do.  But – of course, this is the crux of the game.  You have to realize that you simply won’t have a chance to do everything that you want, and instead, you must prioritize your action and worker choices accordingly.  This lack of decision points accentuates the effect that each decision has.  For instance, you will need donkeys in order to build higher level plantations, but knowing that it costs 2 action cubes just to make the donkey makes this decision very difficult.

Also, you need to be flexible, because not only will you likely not have enough actions, your plans can easily be upset.  The most likely roadblock will be a turn where you are shut out of a particular type of coffee.  Especially if you are last in turn order, the first player could choose to place traders in the one type of coffee that you desperately need, and then you could possibly be shut out of that type before you ever had a chance to make a decision that round.  Sure, you can still trade for that type, but this is expensive, and there are often better ways to spend your coffees of other types.

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The components are nice. The game is a complete table hog – so be forewarned.  The board is huge, and then you still have to find places for the player boards and the other bits.  I like the way that the player boards serve as a player aid, listing most of the information that you need for each of the phases.  There are a couple of areas where the info may have been laid out a bit better – but after you’ve played the game a few times, you’ll realize where the contradictions are, and then you can point them out to newbies.  For instance, a bit of the Phase 5 info is in the Phase 4 area of the board – it’s all there for you, but you need to remember where to look to find the info.

The rules are OK.  I think everything is in the rulebook, but it didn’t read well, and I honestly had a pretty tough time learning the rules from just reading alone.  Lucky for us, in our first game, Luke had watched a video online and had a good feel – but that isn’t my preferred way of learning a game.  I want to be able to learn from material that comes in the box, and in that sense, this game could have done better.  We had a few rules questions – and they weren’t solvable by reading the rules – so hopefully there will be on online FAQ at some point.  (The question was about the tiebreakers on the coffee shop deliveries).  The box is filled with boards and about a thousand wooden bits – and I don’t think that the cover is lying when it says that the game weighs 70 ounces!

So, as you play the game, there is a constant push/pull between doing things for this turn and doing things to score in the end game.  At this point, I don’t have enough experience to know if I have a set strategy yet, but it currently feels like I need to figure out how to do both – as it’s impossible to score enough points by concentrating on only contracts or only on area majorities.  It’s an interesting puzzle, and while a bit outside the upper end of my time frame limits; it is a game that I still want to play again to further explore.

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers

Alan How: I’ve only played the game with three players, but I doubt I’d enjoy 5 players. The game has difficult enough choices with three: with five I think there’d be too much down time and a longer game, neither of which I fancy testing.

The game appealed to my group who like heavier games with difficult choices. I’d agree with Dale about the rules. We then found several areas which weren’t completely clear. I didn’t like the smaller font size nor the numbered system of linking text to a diagram. The games with better rules use a double page spread with a picture of rules and rules linked by arrows. The presentation in Coffee traders  made the game more difficult to learn the rules.

Apart from the rules, the presentation worked pretty well. The decision to put all the information on the player boards was an intriguing one. On the one hand there was no other player aid; on the other you had to learn the iconography used on the player boards, but there was only an explanation of icons in the rule book, which I think was a mistake.

As to gameplay all of my group were keen to replay the game as soon as possible in order to pursue other strategies. There appear to be plenty of routes to follow. With 120 points for first and second place in each coffee cooperative these are the big point scoring areas so planning how to get a good chunk of these is important. The designers’ previous game (Wildcatters) focused on area majorities so it was no surprise to see this system used here, but in my opinion to much better effect.

The piggybacking system works really well with cash at a premium; it’s not always obvious to follow someone else’s lead. Turn order is important and so planning is always good as you consider how to assess your moves. The use of traders and contractors is also extremely interesting as you only have a few of these and when you follow in trading or adding a building you need to use one of these people. I thought the limited number of resources of all types added to the intensity of the decisions and my enjoyment of the game.

Whether the game needed the quality of resources (with an increased price) is unclear to me, but there’s no doubt that the presence is good on the table. Overall the game is a good addition to the more complex end of the board gaming market.

Jonathan: I have only played once in a 3p game, but I enjoyed it as heavy games go. To me it felt more Lacerda/Portuguese than Italian. Ultimately, I was neutral on the game because so much of the scoring was area control in the final phases of the third round. If you stall and place your hospital after someone else, might secure the majority in an area for a swing of 16 points, but to do that, you need to sit there and figure out how to sell two goods to the coffee bars while managing your money to help buy some final beans to finish the contract that gets you the hospital. If this sounds fun, this game is for you. In other words, I think slower play is rewarded. I was taught the game and it seemed quite clear, so I cannot comment on the rules.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it! Alan How
  • I like it. Dale Y; James Nathan
  • Neutral. Jonathan
  • Not for me…

 

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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