Yes, that’s correct, GoCaine. This indie design from Richard Nguyen-Marshall and Kharitago Games combines cocaine trafficking with the ancient Japanese game of Go. Peanut butter and jelly. GoCaine.
Sure, it’s a little nutty. That’s what drew me to it.
The systems employed are simple. Up to six players take turns performing a single action followed by placing one of their discs on the board. That second part is the Go aspect of the game. The idea is you slowly spread across the map, originating somewhere in the South – likely Bolivia or Peru – and stretching towards North America.
In doing so you’re building a trafficking network. Each disc you place represents a cell of dealers, thugs, and hitmen. Your people.
There’s a thoughtfulness to it. You’re seeking a piece in each colored region forming a bridge from South to North. They don’t have to be in adjacent spaces, just adjacent regions. This opens the game up and provides for an odd dimension influencing placement.
One of the main actions you will take is buying coke. Each metric ton is represented by a little cube. Early in the game you’re buying three or four cubes. Later on, you’re gathering huge swathes and making it snow in sheets.
Each region has a cost for cocaine. Bolivia is the cheapest at $2.5 million a metric ton. Central North America is the most expensive at $30 million. Thus, if you buy one cube in Bolivia and spend several actions to smuggle that contraband to the far North, you’re making a cool $27.5 million profit. Now imagine doing that with many cubes.
Yes, there are some more details. When you spend an action to buy drugs, you can also increase your infrastructure allowing more distance with the movement action. You can also purchase political influence which offers protection against interdiction. Let’s talk about interdiction.
At its best, GoCaine is mean and bristling with conflict.
You can throw down an interdiction token on specific regions in the middle of a players turn, forcing anyone with coke in the region to roll dice and risk losing their shipment to the Feds. This gets under people’s skin. You’re playing a game that’s part Go, with measured placement and the potential for deep strategy, and part logistics, turning money into drugs then back into money again. But then there’s this dice rolling oddity.
If you keep your shipments small such as four tons per space, you only need to roll above a six on two dice. That will swing your way more often than not.
If you buy political influence in the region, it increases your die roll by one for each point you possess. This allows odds mitigation.
I actually really dig this mechanism. Interdiction functions as a significant deterrent to amassing cocaine in single spaces. Players must strategically balance efficiency of movement with spreading thin to reduce the odds of seizure. The die roll itself is a moment of excitement and drama. People groan as millions of dollars’ worth of product are tossed into the great blue.
As badly as this stings, and as humorous as it is when someone flubs an easy roll, interdiction rarely succeeds. It’s one of the primary nods to theme in that the war on drugs isn’t much of a war at all. Law enforcement is wielded as a tool and threat, manipulated by the very drug-lords at the top of it all. The faceless authorities come and go intermittently and without agency.
GoCaine is mean in other ways, too.
Not only can you capture opponents’ pieces on the board by surrounding them – that’s how Go works, fool – but you can also capture them with the aid of other players. That is, this is multi-player Go. When someone’s pieces are surrounded by any combination of opposing cells, they’re eliminated and removed from the board. This is brutal as hell. You can see your infrastructure set afire and crippled.
What’s worse is that it’s rarely immediate. Aggressive maneuvering usually requires a series of clever placements. It feels as though your connections and influence are being strangled, your people cut off like Ajax, Swan, and Cochise stranded in the Bronx. Unfortunately, they’re unable to make it back home in this fictional narrative.
I’m sure it’s been done before, but by opening the dynamics of Go to as many as six players, this is the system at its most creative and chaotic. It’s wild.
Combine this sense of anarchy with the economic aspect and it opens the experience up to those who may not love the abstract game at the core. This is what it did for me, offering a setting and theme and social dynamics to a design I otherwise have little interest in.
The notion of an abstract with negotiation is kooky. You can negotiate and form temporarily alliances to break the backs of your foes. It’s pretty simple, in a five-player game there are four pieces placed before you get to place a second. Try to defend all of your exposed connections with those odds.
The aggression at the heart of the design is not strongly enforced. Particularly at lower player counts, it’s easy to just establish a route and focus on shipping coke for profit. If players are feeling particularly peaceful, you may see little to no aggression. GoCaine is much less interesting when played this way. Repetition sets in as you dedicate efforts to a forthright strategy, the winner emerging after many rounds of exercise.
Unfortunately, this quality also highlights the other weakness of the game. It’s entirely too long. The default is to play until someone has collected one billion in cash. Since you’re often reinvesting your money into larger and more costly shipments, this takes quite awhile. It takes incredibly longer when players are dismantling each other’s networks.
This thing really needs to wrap up in about 90 minutes, but it will often stretch to nearly three hours when playing under ideal circumstances – at least four players with aggressive maneuvering. If you play more passive and with inward focus, the game will come to a conclusion more swiftly. But it’s also then a relatively boring modification of Go that loses a great deal of strategic intellect.
To band-aid this gnarly wound we’ve typically played to 500 million. This can still stretch too long. Worse yet, it forces you to immediately build a network across the map, as you’re not afforded the length of play needed for early aggression in disc placement. With the full playtime you can be more creative in your strategic pursuits, opting for smaller early gains in money but pressuring player’s networks with the Go portion of the game. In this shortened variant, you simply won’t have the time to pivot and you will be outpaced. Board conflict then emerges in the back half of the arc once you’ve built up your economic engine.
I’m intrigued by GoCaine. I can’t say that it’s worked its way into my bloodstream, mostly due to the prohibitive length and potential temperance, but its sense of weirdness and utterly unique concept has kept it at the surface of my thoughts, pricking my gray matter with bemusement.
It is important to realize the game’s treatment of drug trafficking lies somewhere between flippancy and thoughtful scrutiny. It doesn’t trivialize its subject matter, spending effort in the rules booklet to address this concern, but it also doesn’t feature the deep exploration An Infamous Traffic espouses. Some may find this lack of examination disappointing, so it’s important to understand the context of the setting and themes before engaging.
There is something here though. This design strikes me in a similar fashion as Jim Felli’s debut, Shadows of Malice. It’s conspicuously indie, absent the now common Kickstarter aggrandization. I can’t quite decide if the awkward board is charming or unseemly. There are also certain usability issues, such as the failure to print the drug cost in the region graphic itself, or the difficulty in connecting cocaine blocks together as intended. We’ve also had a play stymied by the lack of clarity in timing windows concerning interruption with interdiction. Most likely won’t dive into the intricacies of whether actions must be declared openly before they’re performed, but we nearly had a play derailed but such petty debate.
But just like Felli’s work, there’s an alluring sense that this whole thing is a foreign entity. It doesn’t conform to the mold of modern board games. Beyond the quaint production and oblique design, the back of the rulebook even has a “player covenant” you can have all of the participants sign, vowing not to hold any grudges or overreact emotionally to in-game actions. This is a peculiar artifact from another world.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.