Colonial is a troubled project. The First Edition had a fair amount of shortcomings. The Second Edition made things better, especially by making loans work as they should. However, the main issues that I and many others had with it had not been resolved. Luckily though, I have recently made a final breakthrough, which, in my opinion, turns Colonial into what it should have been from the beginning.
Colonial: Europe’s Empires Overseas is an atypical 4x strategy game that aims to recreate some four hundred years of history, beginning from the Renaissance period and culminating around the industrial revolution, when colonialism had reached its peak, and the European Empires started to compete on very different playing fields.
As I see it, Colonial’s main selling point is the way in which it treats this complex subject with a minimum of game components and rules. Players use colored wooden disks for virtually everything they do. The individual nation boards have spaces for Treasury, Merchant Fleets, and Naval Forces. On the game board, the discs determine control and army size, they mark technological advancements and diplomatic relations, as well as represent goods and individual credit loans in a clear and elegant manner.
The game begins humbly, with nations having their meager navies, modest treasuries and a couple of (((merchant fleets))) each, ready to make a profit. During every round, players select, in secret, five of the twelve available actions. Then, one by one, they reveal these actions and resolve them, to the surprise of some, sometimes including their own.
The Explorer is probably the most essential action you can do in Colonial. When players explore, they roll ten custom dice (with two success sides and four blank sides). Depending on the result, they may succeed at exploring a chosen territory and gain a Prestige Point in the process. Then they may gain control of one of the available resources there. Gaining ten Prestige points is how you win in Colonial. However, exploration is usually not enough.
To mitigate the luck of the roll, and to protect what you’ve earned, you will have to establish a strong navy, which, in turn, you can only afford if you create an economic engine. There are five avenues in which you can fill your treasury in Colonial, the basis of which being the resources that players take hold in the explored world, the most important aspect being that you can exchange treasury freely around the table.
The stem of wealth are the Merchant Fleets, which help players ship resources to the market area, creating stocks ready to be sold. A staple of gameplay in Colonial is player-negotiation. Most of the twelve actions, allow the players to interact at various levels. In this case, several players can rely on a single player’s merchant fleet, to transport their goods to the market, and make an immediate profit.
In turn, nations that have strong economic influence in Europe, or who posess strong colonies, can sell these goods from the market, again making a profit for every player involved.
Speaking of which, establishing a colony is the best way of ensuring your control over resources, as having strict colonial rule over the territory shuts down foreign interference. However, the more natively populous a region is, the longer it takes to establish dominion. Once you’ve achieved it though, you are awarded a Prestige point and also get to pillage the natives for a quick boost to your coffers, gaining their eternal “sympathy.”
Another way to keep up with your expenses is to extort nations that have ignored the military aspect. Wars in Colonial are risky and often very crippling, but generally speaking, a bigger navy will destroy a weaker one, and also blow some merchants vessels in the process. As the wars end with the loser transferring a Prestige point to the winner, you can guess why having a strong military integrates perfectly into Colonial’s economic system.
Finally, for those who are struggling, there’s always the credit option. Nations can survive and even thrive on bank loans alone. If no other nation is willing to invest in your exploits, rest assured that your court financier is more than happy to provide you with the amount you need.
However, you can’t achieve greatness in Colonial through financial slavery. A player cannot win the game until he pays off all of his nation’s debt. The longer you delay this, the harder it becomes, as interest rates start piling up and can eventually suffocate your chance of winning.
You can see why I adore the theme of Colonial. Yeah, sure, there are some unsavory aspects to deal with, such as the slavery theme, complete with rules for triangular trade, the suppression of native populations, the use of Jesuit missions to brainwash locals, and the subversive manipulation of local leaders for political and economic gains. However, we need to give some credit to our favorite tribe of internationalists. If it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t have had the chance to bring this rough gem to the table.
The reasons for why Colonial did not rise in ratings, is in my opinion, the misfortune of not having been tested enough. By the time the Second Edition came about, the judgment had been cast, and the “Cult of the New” followers were already focusing on something else. Quite sad, as the game has some notable merits. The programmable action selection system requires some forward thinking, but not so much as to turn the game into a crawl, as I’ve experienced with Shogun/Wallenstein. The use of multi-purpose player disks is also very elegant. I suspect that the author, Christophe Pont, drew some inspiration from Endeavor, which was released just two years prior.
However, the problem with the Second Ed. is that it still didn’t dealt with the wild randomness. The main avenue for getting Prestige is simply to explore. But the dice rolls used in exploration are too few to even out which gets frustrating really quick. This mechanism is in stark contrast to the deterministic, multi-layered economic system, which works well, but is ultimately too slow against a rush of successful exploration rolls. In a game that is set to recreate the challenges of Exploration, throwing a bunch of dice to determine whether you get a Prestige point or not is beyond ludicrous! Comparing that to the effort required for colonization, which virtually yields the same reward, it makes vanilla Colonial as balanced as an overweight walrus trying to ride a mono-bike.
This contrast makes Colonial half devoid of meaningful choices, despite the high diversity of actions, and the potential for being a highbrow diplomatic game. It makes for a bittersweet experience, and not something to bring out to the table very often.
As far as the Second Edition goes, I would only play it with theme geeks, and even then I would make sure to explain the shortcomings, as to avoid frustration and eventual disappointment.
However, the game’s premise has intrigued me ever since I discovered it, some six years ago. Already being a fan of Endeavor, I wanted something less abstracted, and Colonial seemed to be the perfect fit. I was well aware of the shortcomings of both, the first and second editions, but I always felt that the whole package had the potential to resemble an above than average title.
The aspect that bothered me most was not the first edition’s Privateers, nor the specific options for colony establishment, but, as you might expect, the frigging dice-based exploration system versus everything else! This is also the reason why for a long time I resorted to staring at the beautiful board, but not daring to play it.
All of this changed after checking out a variant that I found on BoardGameGeek. This rule modification turns exploration on its head. The creator (username: Gubban) proposes that instead of rolling ten dice to meet a threshold, you should pay Treasury to match it. Then, instead of getting a Prestige, you would gain an Exploration Token, which is but a stepping stone to Prestige.
Now, Gubban’s original concept resembles a race on each continent to gain the lead in tokens, but that idea includes gaining temporary Prestige points, which, unfortunately, doesn’t gel with how wars work in Colonial.
So I decided to simplify it by removing the majority aspect and making all exploration tokens count as one-fifth of a Prestige Point. Then, after some testing with friends, we concluded that we should also lower the victory condition to six points (instead of ten), to maintain a decent game length, while still experiencing a balanced play of exploration and colonization.
I’m telling you, with six players, we saw early incursions in Africa, early colonies established in India and China, and a proper delayed discovery of America. In a sentence, this modified variant makes Colonial (2nd Ed.) worthy of being one of the best games about the colonial era out there. I now have the confidence to bring it out at any medium-heavy game night.
As I’m writing this, Colonial 2nd Edition is on clearance on GMT’s website. If you’re up for an elegant historical game of diplomacy and economics during the halcyon of discovery, then give Colonial a try. And don’t forget to look for this variant!