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Across the web of trade routes, the players try to trade goods as profitably as possible and to build trading offices. The ever-changing routes between the cities don't make life any easier for the players, vying for victory as best merchant on the Baltic sea.
Kogge is a game that almost passed our group by in the flurry of Essen publicity for the larger manufacturers' offerings. Thankfully Mik Svellov posted a review on Brett 'n' Board which brought it to our attention. His description made Kogge look interesting enough to try so I popped over to the MoD Games website and, after being met by the joyous sight of a saltire icon giving access to the English language pages (other manufacturers - please note!), bought the game. Although the purchasing options do include payment by malt whisky, Herr Steding strangely declined my offer and PayPal had to suffice.
So what is a Kogge? The English translation is Cog - these were wide, single masted ships which replaced Viking ships in Northern Europe in the middle of the 10th century and were used mainly for transportation of trade goods, remaining in use until around the end of the 14th century. It therefore comes as no surprise that Kogge is a trading game set in the medieval Baltic.
The game board shows nine cities named, colour-coded and numbered 0-8. The colours represent the goods produced by that city: grey (ore, cities 0-2), orange (fur, cities 3-4), purple (amber, cities 5-6) and white (salt, cities 7-8). Why orange wasn't amber beats me! Each city contains two office spaces - more on these later - and two spaces for displaying numbered route markers, also colour-coded and matching their numbered city, which show the next city locations on the trade route. These route markers are pivotal to gameplay. As well as determining the current trade routes for each city they are also used in bidding for turn position, setting up offices and for trading.
It is well worth noting that the number of available goods and route markers are not distributed evenly. There are more goods and route markers for the lower value cities than for higher valued ones. This has an impact on players' strategies during the game.
During the setup stage each player receives a Kogge, four offices and a raid marker in their colour, a complete set of markers numbered 0-8 as well as starting goods of two ore and one fur. Each city starts with three trade goods of its own colour and with two face up route markers.
At the start of each round four pairs of route markers are drawn from the supply and placed beside the board. These will be available to players later in the round. Players now bid for turn order using their remaining route markers. For each marker bid, two trade goods of that colour are placed on the city. If there are any offices in the city they receive a marker before any remainder are placed on the city space.
The first player moves the Guild Master either one or two cities around the board, skipping any cities which contain a raid marker, and two goods of that city's colour are placed on to the city space. This can be fairly crucial as a player who ends their move on the same space as the Guild Master gains potentially high scoring trading options. However, the Guild Master is a hard target to hit.
Each player now gets the opportunity to take their turn. The game is a race to be the first to score five Development Points (DPs), thereby immediately winning the game, or to have the most Victory Points (VPs) when the Guild Master completes his second circuit of the board. So the aim is to accumulate DPs as quickly as possible while keeping an eye on how fast the Guild Master is moving.
A player's turn consists of movement then a number of actions. A Kogge moves from its current location to one of the cities whose number is displayed on the location's route markers. Due to a previous player action one or both of these markers could be face down and unknown to the player - keeping things pretty interesting.
On reaching its destination, for payment of a route marker from their own supply, a Kogge may move to yet another city as displayed on its new location's route markers, and may keep on moving as often as the player chooses. Players may collect trade goods from any of their offices they encounter on the way. Although movement is not compulsory a player must move to be able to trade during their turn.
After movement a player has a number of actions they can carry out:
1. Trade for goods present in the city. For each traded good from your Kogge you receive two (of a different type) from the city. This is the main method of building up a supply of goods.
2. Buy one of the pairs of route markers drawn at the beginning of the round for any one trade good. This is the only way to keep a supply of route markers topped up.
3. Build an office in their current city by paying one of each trade good the city does not produce plus a route marker of that city (two for the second office in a city). Each office is worth 1 DP or 10 VPs.
4. Change trade routes by taking one face up route marker from the city and exchanging it for one of their own, placing this face down - great for foiling other players' plans or getting hold of a useful route marker.
5. Carry out a raid by either:
taking all the goods from the city and offices into their Kogge, or
taking half of the goods of another player whose Kogge is in the same city
A player then places a raid counter on that city and may never return there. They are also moved on to the next location as decided by the remaining players. Raiding immediately ends a player's turn. Raids are a great way of obtaining a large pile of goods for a minimum of effort. A nicely timed raid can also speed up the Guild Master's Baltic circumnavigation to a player's advantage.
6. If the current location contains the Guild Master a player may carry out one trade with him:
trade 3 identical route markers for a second raid counter, worth 10 VPs, always handy to have in reserve.
trade 6 identical goods for a bonus chit, worth 1 DP or 20 VPs; with the right timing these can prove to be fairly powerful.
exchange one good for a route marker of the same colour or vice versa, useful for obtaining the means for that game wining move.
There are eight bonus chits available, two each of - 1:3 trading, free additional movement, movement to the Guild Master's city and draw an additional route marker.
In addition, players can trade goods and trade markers with each other at any time when their Kogges are in the same city.
The game is over immediately when the one of the end conditions has been reached. If a player has 5 DPs they win the game. Otherwise the number of VPs determines the winner - the value of bonus chits, offices and raid markers are totted up along with goods in Kogges and offices which are worth varying amounts depending on their colour.
So that's the game, but how does it play? There's no doubt that Kogge has a bit of a learning curve. Rookie mistakes can either set you so far back you'll never catch up or leave the door open for another player to swoop and fly into an unassailable lead. But, as the level of experience grows, Kogge becomes a very enjoyable game.
Admittedly it does all seems a bit bewildering at first and, during our first game, there was a feeling that it was a tad multi-player solitaire. But once you twig that you need to obtain a steady stream of trade goods, retain a decent supply of route markers and keep on planning a couple of moves ahead, it all starts to come together.
There are many decisions to be made each turn all of which effect your next move. Some bonus chits are more useful than others at certain stages of the game, so which one do you choose, or do you keep the goods to help build offices in the your next couple of turns? Towards the end of the game control of the Guild Master can be vital - especially if there are raid counters splattered all over the board - and bidding for first player can be very aggressive.
Having more than one plan of action always helps. It's great to see your plans come together for that raid on someone's overloaded Kogge and frustrating when that route marker you were depending upon in your next destination is replaced by another player. Ach well, time for plan B to kick in - just as well you picked up that second raid counter; revenge can be so sweet .....
The game's systems are very clever (that good old phrase 'interlocking mechanisms' springs to mind), particularly the way in which the route markers have multiple uses and the manner in which trade routes are constantly changing. I understand the latter mirrors historical fact as medieval Baltic ports were liable to a fair degree of silting.
The box states Kogge plays with 2-4 players. We have played with 3 and 4 players and really enjoyed the game, although I would imagine the amount of player interaction with 2 players would be fairly minimal and gameplay may become just an interesting puzzle.
The only slight downside to Kogge is the quality of its components and much has been said on this topic on various web sites. The box is fairly thin, the markers and chits are inkjet printed paper stuck to cardboard (raising questions about their longevity) and the board is mounted inkjet printed paper. That said, the quality is no worse than, say, Winsome's Pampas Railroads and, at the end of the day, what you get for your money is a very good game. Remember, Herr Steding runs a small, solo operation so please don't let this put you off.
Kogge is a game that rewards investment in multiple playings as awareness of the many tactical options grows with experience, as does the level of competition. If you enjoy trading games, or games where a combination of both planning and reacting is involved, then I would suggest that Kogge is for you.