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The players take on the roles of coffee plantation owners. They try to grow different kinds of coffee and to reap the benefits as often as possible. If they manage to ship the coffee from the harbor, they can even multiply their well-earned profits. But not only is money in short supply, expanding the plantations is also becoming more and more difficult. The competition for crop-growing fields, workers and types of coffee escalates.
Even though I am not a coffee-drinker, I certainly appreciate the wonderful aroma of freshly-brewed coffee as it wafts through the air in our home each morning. I also enjoy walking down the coffee aisle at our local grocery store, delighting my olfactory glands with the rich odors of the various beans. I was quite surprised when I opened the box of Gautemala Café, one of the latest board games from Eggertspiele, and was confronted with the same pleasant aroma. I’ve always enjoyed the “new board game” smell, but it never did smell anything like coffee!
The reason for this smell is that the game – at least the German version – contains a bag of actual coffee beans. While they have absolutely no use in the game itself, they are in keeping with the theme of harvesting and shipping coffee beans. Set in the Central American country of Gautemala, the game challenges players to establish plantations, recruit workers, build road networks, and transport their coffee beans to the docks for sale. While this sounds quite involved, it is actually a fairly simple game, and everything is conducted in a very abstract manner.
Two large, double-sided boards are placed side-by-side. The sides used are determined by the number of players, as well as whether a random or a pre-determined set-up is desired. The “production” board depicts a swath of Central America, and an assortment of 81 workers, plantations, ships and sacks of coffee (scoring tokens) in five colors are placed on it. A path rings the board, upon which the “buyer” will move. The “plantation” board, which depicts a section of the Guatemalan countryside, will serve as the landscape upon which plantations will be erected, roads constructed, and workers and ships employed. It also has a scoring track ringing the edge. Players each receive a paltry sum of 15 centavos, 6 – 8 randomly distributed coffee sacks, and ownership tiles of their color, each depicting a symbol matching one of the five component colors.
On his turn, a player will first move the buyer clockwise 1 – 3 spaces, then purchase from 1 – 3 items from the row or column adjacent to where the buyer comes to rest. A player may opt to move the buyer one more space, but at a cost of two centavos. The idea is to maneuver the buyer to a row or column that contains items you wish to acquire.
When a player takes items from the production board, he MUST place them onto the plantation board and pay the associated cost. The cost depends upon what section of the plantation board they are placed. The plantation board is divided into three sections, and the cost is higher the closer the pieces are placed to the docks. Plantations will cost from 2 – 6 centavos, while workers will be half that cost. Boats can be placed into one of the four docks, at a cost of 2 – 4 centavos. Boats will increase the value of one’s harvest IF the corresponding plantation is connected to the dock by roadways.
There are designated plots on the plantation board that can only be occupied by plantations. A player marks ownership of a plantation by using the corresponding “ownership” tile. Each player may only establish one plantation of each color, but often a player will ignore one or more colors, concentrating his efforts on the other colors. Workers are placed adjacent to plantations of the same color and/or workers of the same color. The more workers a player have connected to his plantation, the greater the yield. This yield can be doubled, tripled, or even quadrupled if he is able to connect the plantation to a dock via roads, and the dock contains 1 – 3 ships of the matching color. This is a major goal of the game, but opponents will conspire to prevent you from obtaining numerous workers and ships of one color.
Whenever items are removed from the production board, they are replaced by neutral road tokens. Roads must be placed on the designated paths on the plantation board, but there is no cost for their placement. The supply of roads is limited, and there are not enough to connect all plantations to the docks. There is a bit of a race in obtaining roads and making connections to the docks.
Instead of taking and placing items, a player may instead opt to take a coffee sack, which triggers a scoring and earn the player 6 centavos. The colors of the sacks match the colors of the plantations, and the scoring will only affect the plantation of the matching color. Each player will score points for the number of workers attached to their plantation of the matching color, and this amount can be increased via dock connections as described above. If a score is increased due to the presence of a ship, one ship of that color is removed from that dock. This does prevent a player from enjoying the same lucrative scoring bonanza repeatedly throughout the game. Each opponent has the opportunity to block the scoring by playing a coffee sack of the same color. This doesn’t prevent the active player from earning his income, but it does block all points from being scored.
Once a coffee sack is taken and scoring conducted, the sack is placed on the first empty space at the end of the scoring track. This is a “timer” mechanism, as the game ends when a player’s score marker meets the row of coffee sacks on the track. The player then replaces the coffee sack taken from the production board with one of his choice from his supply. In this manner, a player can increase his opportunities to score colors of his choice by placing new sacks of the desired color to the board. Of course, this assumes the player actually possesses the sacks of the color he desires. When a player is out of coffee sacks, he draws one randomly from the general supply to replace it on the board. There are only five sacks in the generally supply, and they can deplete rapidly.
The game can also end suddenly, as coffee sacks accumulate quickly on the score track. One large score for a player can quickly jump his token perilously close to the expanding coffee sacks, threatening the end of the game. When the game ends, the player whose token has met or surpassed the row of coffee sacks on the track is victorious.
The game has quite a few elements to consider and balance. Choosing which plantations to concentrate on is important, and a wise player will attempt to accumulate as many workers of those colors as possible. It is wise consul to not allow an opponent to gather too many workers of one color, as the potential scoring benefits are enormous, especially if that player is able to connect those plantations to docks containing ships of the same color. As such, there is a bit of a race to acquire certain workers and docks, and this can be quite competitive if multiple players are concentrating on the same colors.
The plantation board also presents some interesting placement dilemmas. Space is limited, and it is often possible to block the growth of opponents’ plantations by careful placement of your own workers and plantations. I’ve seen some plantations be constructed, but rendered useless by having the surrounding fields quickly occupied by opponents’ workers. The limited supply of roadway tokens also can cause a potentially profitable plantation to be significantly reduced due to lack of a dock connection. In spite of its pleasant theme and abstract representation, there is ample room for aggressive actions.
The theme is certainly one that could have been used to develop a deep production, shipping and market game, filled with intricacies and nuances. However, the design team Inka and Markus Brand has opted for a much more abstract representation. The game is easy to learn and play, yet does present players with some interesting choices and strategies. A large part of a player’s strategy may well be determined by the color of the coffee sacks he draws during the game’s preparation, so players will be forced to adapt to this situation. The game plays well and is an entertaining affair.
That being said, the game really isn’t terribly deep, nor does it seem to vary much from game-to-game. There isn’t a lot to explore in these Central American lands. Guatemala Café isn’t likely a game you will pull out week-after-week, wanting to explore further facets that you have not yet discovered. Rather, it is a pleasant game that you will likely play a few times a year with different groups. Viewed in that light, it is perfectly acceptable and a fine first effort from the designers.