Anniversary editions of games seem to be popular and I’m not surprised. Sometimes a game is critically acclaimed, but for some reason or another won’t be in print. With an anniversary edition, it’s easier to find a copy and sometimes includes an expansion (In the Year of the Dragon, Container, Say Anything). When the game is based on historical events, an anniversary edition comes out in celebration of the theme (Here I Stand, Battle Cry). And then there’s Ticket to Ride that comes out with an anniversary edition every five years.
Roads & Boats 20th Anniversary falls into the first category. This technically is the fifth printing of their biggest game (in terms of sheer size of the box alone). The last printing was in 2013, and I swore it would never see another printing due to the box size and number of components. I am glad I didn’t place my bets on that statement because it’s back in print and I now can easy purchase a copy. Which I did.
The easiest way to describe Roads & Boats is calling it a euro-style civilization game. Each player begins with two geese, three donkeys, some logs, some stone. By the end of the game, players will have built different buildings and transporters, all in hopes of producing gold nuggets, coins, and stock certificates (worth the least to most points respectively).
This is a resource conversion game with pick up and deliver as a backbone for getting resources around. The donkeys carry resources to hexes where new buildings or roads can be built. Buildings are separated into primary and secondary producers. Primary producers will produce one of the resources shown on the chit each round. Secondary producers only produce a good if the correct input of goods is on the hex when the production phase begins.
One key thing about Roads & Boats is that resources and buildings are not owned the players. A primary producer may spit out enough resources for another player to make a pit stop across the map to pick them up. A secondary producer could be built a little too close to an opponent, and they might sneak to that hex and to either steal what is produced or use it for themselves.
Roads are important because donkeys move an extra hex, and better transporters like wagons or trucks need roads to roll about the board. What’s interesting about the roads is that they are drawn with dry erase marks over a sheet of plastic or acrylic as opposed to using game components. Those transporters are made from secondary producers and sometimes a bit of research (when two geese and a paper are ever on the same hex, they disappear forever, and research is discovered… don’t ask).
Play happens simultaneously over four phases: Production is where good are produced. Movement is when players use their transporters to carry goods around, dropping them off in hexes that could use them. Building is when players use the correct resources for buildings or roads (or sometimes walls if players are mean, but more on that later). The final phase is the Wonder phase. If a player has a transporter and goods in their home hex (mark with a chit of their color) then they may make on offering to the Wonder by building brick, which gives players points the end of the game as well as acts as the game’s timer. A neutral brick is added to the Wonder, whether players offered to it or not.
There are plenty of rules I didn’t cover, but it would take much more for me to go in depth. Play continues in these four phases until a set number of bricks on the Wonder have been built. Players score for gold, coins, and stock exchanges they have produced. Each row on the Wonder is worth 10 points and is divided among the players based on who built the most per row.
To be honest, I barely scratched the surface with what’s possible in Roads & Boats. In the base game alone, there are 16 producers to build. Primary producers require a specific terrain to be built upon. There are rules for mines because they produce a limited number of gold and ore but can be different based on research. There are rules for the reproduction of donkeys and geese. There are even water transporters, and rules for transporters carrying other transporters. So, when it comes to the routes for strategies, I like to think of it as an elaborate tech tree that all leads back to making stock certificates.
One of the wildest things about Roads & Boats is that the feeling of a game can be 100% multiplayer solitaire or in-your-face from turn one based on the players and the map. Some maps are designed to where players cannot interact with one another. Some maps are small enough where stealing could happen every round. There are some maps that feel different for each player due to the surrounding terrain required for primary producers and blocked off space from a river.
While players begin the game with the same resources and transporters, the game really opens up for near-countless decisions. Let’s just look at one: what producer should be on your home hex? The obvious one should be to put the primary producer that matches the terrain, so the hex will produce a resource each round that can be used for more things or to build on the wonder. A well-chosen secondary producer (like a sawmill) could turn that hex into a hub for all future buildings. I’ve even had a game where I built a raft factory because my home hex was divided by a river, meaning I could carry one extra resource and move one extra hex.
While I’ve only spoke of the positives for Roads & Boats, there are some elephants to mention. Just looking at pictures of the game, you notice all the cardboard chits. There are over 1,000 small pieces that come in the box, some as small as a fingernail. Hexes can be overrun with a primary producer churning out a resource round after round. It can be a bit cumbersome but has a rewarding feeling once your resources make it to a producer.
And storing this is its own mess. Prior to receiving my own copy, I purchased two Plano boxes, six crayon boxes, six dry-erase markers, a yard of clear plastic vinyl, and laminated six color player boards from BoardGameGeek. To be honest, I consider most of things necessary, even if it seems extra.
The box is divisive, due to the size of it and the cover. Splotter Spellen opted to keep the original art from 1999, which was hand-drawn from Tamara Jannick. Many think it looks amateur (which I understand, art is subjective), but I see it as a reminder of the labor of love this game was to Jeroen and Jorris back when they first released the game 20 years ago.
I don’t really know of flaws in the gameplay itself, other than experienced players will win nearly every play. With this being a game of zero luck, a lot of Roads & Boats is optimizing each round and reading the map to plan a good number of moves ahead. A new player can make a mistake and must make three or four detours to get back on the correct path. I continue to tell those I teach to experience Roads & Boats and feel less concerned of winning.
Roads & Boats is a Eurogame at heart but stands out for good and bad reasons. The gameplay, number of possible decisions, and player tendencies make each game feel different. Decisions are made all at once, so the game scales quite well, as well as building a map that fits the restraints and desires of the players. The storage required and number of components is a hurdle for sure. The components can pile up on a hex like in Twilight Imperium, but it’s a bunch of cardboard squares instead of ships cruising to war. It’s ambitious for a Eurogame but stands tall 20 years after its release. Don’t be afraid to try it, even if the box is big enough to eat you.
Final Score: 4.5 Stars – Roads & Boats stands tall as one of the best logistical puzzles in board gaming, overcoming its number of components and requirements for additional storage.
• Countless strategic routes to explore
• Adaptable to player’s interaction preferences
• Play happens simultaneously, so no down-time
• Scales well due to simultaneous play
• Producing stock certificate is rewarding
• The less experienced player will lose 96% of the time
• One of the fiddliest games of all time
• Storage necessary to game is not included
• Art is divisive
• Box is bigger than some cars