We’ve all done it: closed our eyes and dreamed of an idyllic beach paradise – azure surf laps nearby as you dig your toes into soft, golden sands. You sigh, content, knowing that you’re far, far away from the hustle and bustle of the nearest over-populated metropolis. Perhaps you’ll go scuba diving later, and search for sunken treasure. Or, maybe you’ll just relax on the beach as you watch the fishing boats bob along the horizon.
This vision of bliss could be Vanuatu, a nation in the South Pacific Ocean (which consists of an 80-island archipelago). Life here for you – the tourist – is one of heavenly joy. For the industry itself, however, life hurtles along at a much faster pace. There is more than one business trying to profit, and in the tourist game, there is no room at the table for the slow and the nice.
Gameplay and Rules
In Vanuatu, up to five players compete as rival islanders looking to prosper from various business opportunities throughout the chain of islands – fishing, wreck-diving, exporting cargo and of course, tourism. There are a variety of ways to score points across the eight rounds. No surprises here: most points at the end wins.
At set-up, three hexagonal ocean tiles are placed randomly around a solitary (also hexagonal) island. Each of the player's boats start next to this island. Ocean tiles have depicted quantities of fish and/or treasure on them, while islands have allocations for a limited number of tourist huts and sand drawings. Islands also provide a combination of three resources for exporting – kava, copra and beef. The rest of the board is vacant for now, but will fill up two tiles at a time at the start of each round. This guarantees each game is modular, making for great replay-ability.
The top of the board consists of nine different actions available to you: buying and exporting goods from an island (providing your boat is adjacent to that island) for points; diving for treasure on an ocean tile (treasure, if kept, is worth double its value in points at the end); paying to build a tourist hut on an island (again, providing your boat is adjacent to that island); paying to move your boat up to three tiles; ‘resting’ (which means you get to pick a mini-bonus – either money and/or victory points, or taking the first player token); transporting tourists to an island (again, if your boat is adjacent to it and providing a hut has already been built there) to earn money; going fishing in an ocean tile; selling fish; and placing a sand drawing on an island for points.
Each player has five markers. In turn order, players start by placing two of their markers on any action(s) they wish to do this round. Then the first player will place two more of their markers, followed by everyone else. Finally, everyone will take turns placing their last marker. Then the first player will remove their marker(s) from any one action of their choice and perform it.
There is no blocking in a first-come-first-served manner, like in, say, Lords of Waterdeep. A different kind of blocking occurs, via a clever twist: in order to perform an action, you must have placed more markers there than any other players. If you hold no majorities on any of the action spaces on your turn, you still have to remove markers from a location without performing it. Ouch.
Ties are determined in favour of turn order, and of course, once the majority player has performed that action and removed their marker(s) from a location, there might now be a new player that holds the majority there.
The question is: should you be greedy, and try to spread yourself thin (one marker in five different locations for five actions), but risk not being able to do them all – or in the right order? Or should you play safe and place your markers in just two locations (such as in stacks of a two and a three) to have a better chance of guaranteeing short and steady steps?
A tasty smorgasbord of interactivity transpires throughout Vanuatu. The heartbeat of the game is the placing (and then removal) of your five markers. Because they are placed out in three phases – and then removed gradually – there is a lot of psychology involved and trying to second-guess where your opponents might go.
The first player has an advantage because they will break ties versus any opponents. Second player wins ties against the third/fourth/fifth player, and so on. However, the brilliant factor at play in Vanuatu is that the latter players, in turn order, have an advantage of their own… They’ll be the last people to place their final marker, meaning they have ultimate power over who will have majority in particular areas with the result of their placement.
You see, the first player has already revealed their plan for the turn; their markers are in plain sight for all to see. They’re now at the mercy of the other players, who can counteract them. The balancing of this mechanic is a wondrous thing to be part of – the fluctuation of player power is a constant pendulum.
Wily players will look to hold out as long as possible from removing markers from actions that they don’t need to activate straight away. This forces other players to wait until they are the majority in that area – which might never happen, because they always have to remove markers on their turn from somewhere. Oh, the waste! Oh, the agony!
Alternatively, there may be locations in which they are the majority player, it might be an action that’s useless to them right now. It’s no good being in prime position to sell fish if you haven’t been able to activate the ‘Go Fishing’ action first! It’s like a public programming battle, involving everyone.
It feels like a race, with limited spaces for tourist huts and sand drawings. There is always an incentive to try to be the majority in any of the nine actions posts, so you can strike while the iron’s hot. Limited resources on the islands can be purchased and then converted into points by placing them on boats, with bonus points up for grabs if you place the final item on board a boat. (Resources do refill however, if an island is plucked clean come the end of a round). Fish and treasure on ocean tiles do not refill.
A fluctuating market value for fish adds some zest into the mix, but not in the way you might think. You can only ever have a maximum of nine Vatus (the local currency), before you have to ‘deposit’ your money into the bank. You get five victory points for doing this – a decent return – but your cash flow loops round back to zero… In a bizarre manner, you almost don’t want to make too much money at certain parts of the game. You’ll feel compelled to spend Vatus over depositing them, so sometimes you might wait for the fish market value to fall a bit before you sell.
There are huge end-game points to be earned by building huts on islands sending tourists to them. Each hut on an island earns two points per tourist there at the end of the eighth round. But remember, if your opponents have huts on the same island as you, you’re helping them too, every time you send a tourist to that island…
At the start of each round, the first player gets to reveal and decide the location for two hexagonal tiles (a combo of island or ocean). There are some limitations, for example islands cannot sit adjacent to other islands where possible, but the point is that the first player will likely place said tiles closer to their boat.
Each round also begins by players picking (in turn order) a Character tile (special ability) for that round. Examples include The Navigator – sail up to three spaces for free; The Artist – earn extra points for placing a sand drawing this round; and The Preacher is an interesting one: it allows you to perform an action where you don’t hold majority (but only if you don’t hold any majorities anywhere else).
Turn order again plays a role. The first player picks one of the remaining Character tiles, and then returns their own from the previous round. Then second player picks one (possibly the Character the first player just returned). Ultimately, it means that players cannot pick the same ability two rounds in a row. Plus, you stand a greater chance of acquiring a Character if you sit clockwise of the person returning it.
However, odds are you’re going to use that ability to your advantage in the next round, right? Meaning players can now assume/predict where you are going to place your markers…
Artwork and Components
Vanuatu is as bright and colourful as an Oceania sunset. The teal ocean and soft yellow sand transports you directly into the theme of island life. Of course, you’re playing the game from a local’s point of view, not a mellowed-out tourist! Perhaps the soothing colour palette works subtle wonders to calm players down during the calculating involved, throughout!
It’s worth noting at this point that this is the second edition of Vanuatu, released in 2016 by Quined Games. The original came out in 2011, and it’s a pale imitation – literally. The artwork and colours by Konstantin Vohwinkel in this second edition really pop, while the original looks a lot more washed out. The cartoon depictions on the action tiles are simplistic, but translate well. There is some iconography to grasp, with this being language-independent.
The hexagonal tiles aren’t just straight-edge tiles (like in Takenoko or Catan), but instead they have soft curves – the crest of a wave, perhaps? – to them, similar to the tiles in Century: Eastern Wonders. The cardboard for the tiles is lovely, thick and durable and the same goes for the 11 character tiles. You’ll appreciate this, because both will be handled a fair amount.
Purple fish and brown treasure chest pieces are pleasing silhouettes of the items themselves, which add further 3D presence to the board. It’s a shame that the islands’ resources are plain coloured cubes in comparison, representing the, erm… (Kava, copra and beef, it turns out; yes, I had to remind myself of them in the rulebook. They’re green, white and red, respectively, but could easily be anything).
The tourists are quite literally white pawns – I’m not sure if this is a racial statement or a coincidence. It certainly won’t cause quite as much of a furore as other games with components of particular colours (such as Puerto Rico).
Final Thoughts on Vanuatu
I love the turn order mechanisms in Vanuatu. The weight of being first player (first choice of action/tile placement/tie breaks) is counteracted entirely by the last player having ultimate control over who might be a majority holder and where. In some games, being first player can be over-powered, with no consequences for their actions. Here, there is a price to pay!
As a result, opportunities arise to stab your opponents in the back in Vanuatu. You might have the perfect move planned out, but the last player could place one marker down that ruins everything.
I mentioned programming, earlier. This isn’t directly similar to the likes of Colt Express or Robo Rally, where you play cards to create a ‘path’ you wish to take. Some people dislike Robo Rally due to the unpredictable, random blind nature of it, leaving some gamers feeling helpless. That’s not the case in Vanuatu. Here you’re revealing your (programming) plan publicly, via markers on shareable actions. Sometimes it’s your own greed that screws you over.
Ultimately, Vanuatu is not a difficult game to grasp, per se. Needing to do actions in a vague kind of order is hugely familiar to anyone that’s played medium-weight Euro-style board games. The real fun comes with trying to delve inside your opponents’ minds during that placement-of-markers phase, particularly since you place out your pieces gradually.
I don’t think Vanuatu shines too brightly at just a two-player count, however. You’ll either spread out and avoid any confrontation or player interactivity (which ignores the best thing about the game), or the polar opposite occurs and it becomes a extreme case of both players fighting over the same thing (whether it’s one tourist, or the last space to build a hut, or exporting the last piece of beef). Four players is a sweet spot: you’ll find a definite range to the turn order, and having various people battling it out for all the great items available feels a whole lot more satisfying.