The Tao of Gaming

Boardgames and lesser pursuits

4,500 words about Indonesia

Introduction

This document discusses Indonesia strategy. I use “strategy” as shorthand for tactics, evaluation issues, and long-term planning. Anything you use to win. I personally believe that tactics and evaluation dominate over long-term planning, but I may be wrong. This applies mainly to the 3, 4 and 5 player games.

Indonesia, like other low-luck games, is susceptible to ‘group think.’ My ideas are the product of my games played (8). Your group may have different ideas.

Advice for first time players

  • If you don’t know what to research, pick slots. But you’ll probably need Merger-2 at some point.
  • If you have two similar companies (usually shipping, rice or spices) then getting Merger-2 gives you a slot (since you can merge your two companies together with little risk) and the option to merge other companies.
  • Don’t be afraid to create a siap faji company.
  • Games typically last 7 turns, give or take one. But this depends on your actions.
  • Don’t agonize over where to put your first city. But be aware of your potential Era B & C cities, as they influence your choice of companies (particularly on the turn before an era change).
  • Remember that income is doubled on the final turn!

General Thoughts

While short term tactics play a large part, the key to winning Indonesia is to cheaply acquire “safe” companies. Companies are safe if they cannot be merged away from you for several turns. One way to trip up your opponents is to force a merger on a company whose value depends on future actions that you can take (such as other mergers, game length, and the like).

Operations

Crop Companies

Operations drive the game. They are the only source of money (mergers transfer money between players, and bids for turn order put it in the bank). Winning requires judging the income a company can earn. Short term potential is easy — calculate how much a company could earn and then grow a company. Each additional (marginal) crop will have to pay the highest shipping price of any crop. So if you have a 3 plantation spice company that paid 5 + 10 + 10 for shipping, expect the 4th plantation to pay 10 or 15 in shipping. This assumes plentiful hull capacity and city space, which isn’t always true. But it’s a reasonable start

A (merged) company with multiple locations can place the next plantation(s) in cheaper location. A Siap Faji that paid 5 + 10 + 10 in shipping can often pay 5 (by placing next to the cheapest plantation).

While you must ship if possible, you can ship sub-optimally. Do this to avoid shipping the last few plantations that generate profits for the shippers. Such maneuvers are rare, but can deny someone value.

If you don’t ship everything, you have to decide whether to pay for expansion. In general, I expand if a) I won’t need the money next turn, b) I’ll be able to expand next turn (even counting my expansion this turn). Also, if you plan on merging the company next turn (but not bidding after opening), then expand (if you can still make the minimum bid). At worst you’ll break even.

If you have an Expansion rating greater than one, paying to expand is often a good idea.

If you do expand, picking a location is the next step. Choose a location adjacent to a new sea space. Even if it’s a sea that you already use, you may save money by shortening routes, or gain a few extra points of effective hull capacity (by splitting cargoes between two seas). Often you can do both. Beyond that, you can constrain other companies, or even remove tiles from the board. The two rubber companies on the west side start practically on top of each other. One can remove the other with a few plantations. This can trigger an Era change.

Shipping Companies

For shipping companies, the only decision is where to expand. In general, you want to help your own plantations, but don’t overlook distant cities (particularly if you have a large hull capacity). This often forces other players to ship an extra good several spaces.

If you are clearly losing, duplicate the leader(s) shipping lines. Players should choose your ships. This is a critical weakness of a shipping strategy – players can avoid you.

If you don’t have a good space, you must still expand. Look at your future city cards, or place in such a way that a merger would connect two companies. Sometimes placing an additional ship in a critical space will let you keep a lower hull capacity for now, allowing you to research another area.

Owning both types

Owning shipping and crops lets you practice predatory shipping – ship your goods to the cities near a competitor, forcing him to ship across the board. On your ships, hopefully. Using your own ships lets you pick cities to force or prevent them from growing.

Apart from that power, you should be indifferent between running a shipping company for yourself or another player. Shipping your crops saves money. Shipping other people’s crops earns money. Money saved and money earned count the same. Enable your ships to serve as many companies as possible.

City Growth

Grow cities near your companies to decrease shipping costs. Shippers want some cities to grow, but prefer distant ones.

Usually cities grow in the first few turns. After that there are too many crops. Cities grow more in a three player game, just because there are fewer destinations.

Mergers

Another way of thinking about mergers

Think about bids as “per plantation.” Consider a rice merger where one company has four plantations, and the other has three. By the rules, that’s an opening bid of $140, and raises of $7. But it’s also “I’ll bid $20 per plantation.” “I’ll raise to $21 per plantation” [This is also a good way to explain the rules.] Just make sure you have your bid.

Once you think about mergers this way, you realize:

  • Paying to expand breaks even (or better) when your company gets bought out. (You may need that cash before the sale, though.) If you have Expansion-2 (or higher), you show a profit. [Oops, had a rule wrong!]
  • Growing a company increases your net worth. It also boosts future profits, if you aren’t taking a loss on shipping.
  • If you have most of the plantations in the merger (say, five out of seven), then your “per plantation” bid is only a small part. [You must still be able to cover the full bid].

There is one issue with thinking about “per plantation” bids. It confuses the issue between a current merger, and a merger on a future turn (when the company may have expanded). Keep that in mind.

Evaluating a merger (on it’s own)

Determining a company’s potential is easy – mentally run it. Especially on the last turn, when you can determine earnings exactly (don’t forget to double the final number)!

Except for the endgame, remember future earnings. But that’s easy to overdo. Buying this company leaves you vulnerable to losing it later. (This has its own section … See Cash Reserves, Original Ownership, & Slots).

The same company may have different values for different players. If a company ships to distant cities, the local shipper doesn’t mind. But don’t assume you can bid that owner up. He could let you win and take your cash, instead of savings. To see how this plays out, suppose a company has to pay $50/turn shipping (on $80 income). The shipper can bid $80, breaking even on turn one (and showing the profit on later turns or when the company sells again), but if you raise, he passes and earns $50/turn. He’s always getting that $50/turn, either in payments, or extra earnings.

Updated Note This example assumes only one way to ship. With multiple shipping lines, the other player will likely bid, to lock in earnings. The savings vs. earnings discussion assumes a single player controls local shipping, which isn’t often true in the midgame, but is early and (sometimes) late.

A merged company may have problems the parents didn’t. They still compete for cities, but the new company competes for hull space. (Hull space replenishes each operation, but the two companies now operate at the same time). This occurs when the companies are close. However, the merged company can now build in spaces between the parents.

Merged shipping companies usually outperform the parent companies (assuming they link up), because they keep the same routes and enable plantations to reach distant cities. As shipping companies merge, players lose their ability to split their shipping costs.

Exactly how much of a premium (discount) you should pay to get one turn’s earnings will be subject to group think. The goal is to get your earnings a bit cheaper (by judicious ordering of takeovers).

Cash Reserves, Original Ownership, & Slots

If everyone had thousands of dollars, auctions would just be an evaluation problem. Just bid a company’s worth, including future income. If someone re-merged it, defensively bid the (adjusted) worth. If someone bids more, you cash out. If they bid less, you keep your bid (paying for the new parts).

But you don’t have thousands of dollars. Consider a new rice company with two plantations. It will pay out $30 this turn, then grow and pay out $40. Then grow again and pay out $50. Over the next three turns, it’s worth $120. (Or ~$60/plantation right now). Suppose it merged with an identical rice company. You may win and collect this turns earnings only to have another merger next turn. [Or earlier!]. If you paid $60/plantation, you’d be unable to bid the company up. Then you only earn $30 per plantation next turn (or whatever the winning bid). You can’t always count out future earnings.

But sometimes you can. In particular, if nobody has Merger-3, you are safe for at least one turn. If nobody else has Merger-2, two turns. If all of the other potential merger targets are size-2 companies, you are safe until Merger-4. [Potential targets include those that could force a Siap Faji merger]. You are also safe if the resulting company is so large that nobody (with a high Merger rating) has the cash to start a merger. [This depends who you pay out to get it]. If you can see that a company is ‘safe’ (if you win), it’s worth more.

Still, be wary about projecting out earnings. If you pay a premium, your other companies could be bought cheaply. There’s another problem with my evaluation above. Did you see it? [Answer later on.]

There is also the issue of slots. Players without open slots can’t bid (unless their companies are up for auction). Letting a company go almost full value frees up a slot (and earns you money, if you are a prior owner). If there are plenty of mergers or good acquisitions, that slot could be valuable.

At some point, bids rise so high that you turn a better short-term profit by dropping out and taking a new acquisition. For example, you can keep your company that will earn $100 this turn, or you can take the bid open up a rubber and earn $25. Next turn the rubber will earn ~$40 while the company you left will still earn $100 (or more). These numbers, along with relative safety and cash position, determine what you bid. [If no companies would ever change hands again, and the game lasted two turns [three incomes], the new rubber company would be worth $105. The old company would be worth $300+, so you should bid up to $195(+). Of course, you can only calculate exactly in endgame positions.

Remember, plenty can happen before next turn’s operations, including more mergers. You have a lot to consider. This is the soul of Indonesia.

Siap Faji

Starting in Era B, you can merge rice and spice to make Siap Faji (TV Dinners). In this case, rice is bumped up to $25/plantation (for minimum bid). Half the plantations are lost. Assuming an even number, the winner pays $50+ per Siap Faji, which earn $35/turn.

It’s a better deal than it looks. The individual plantations earn $45/turn ($20+$25), but must ship twice, for a maximum profit of $35/pair. Siap Faji has a maximum profit of $30/turn ($35-$5). Less plantations, less expensive transport. The new company will have two bases of operation, as well.

So a Siap Faji merger conserves most of the original value. [If there is an odd tile, that value will be lost].

It also affects other companies. Other rice/spice will have less competition. Other Siap Faji will have more and a potential merger target, should anyone get Merger-4 or 5. Shipping profits will decrease.

Shippers may merge rice with rice (and spice with spice) just to keep the number of plantation tiles high. In that case, just starting the merger adds value.

When not to merge

Players often merge two of their companies to free up a slot. Assuming your cash on hand covers the value, its risk free. (If someone outbids that value, cash out and free two slots). One downside – the new company expands slower. If you operate separately, each company gets your expansion rating. But if one company is blocked (which often happens on Maluku or Halmahera), that’s not important.

Remember my example from the prior section? I assumed that each company would still grow 1/tile a turn as before. That was wrong … the resulting company only gets 1 tile/turn. Remember that when evaluating.

Another time not to merge your company is when you will grow, and the other company won’t. For early shipping companies, some are limited to two ships, others can grow to three. If you have one of the three ship companies, wait a turn before starting the merger. (If you have one of the smaller companies, consider merging before that can happen). Expansions made between buying and selling are profit. If you can’t expand, merge with someone who can! [The ‘per plantation’ thinking doesn’t consider expansions, as I mentioned above].

There are 24 company tiles; most must be owned to end the game. This is Indonesia’s “timer.” Every merger opens up one more slot (two companies now take a single space). Sometimes the last turn can be delayed by not freeing a slot. (Other times this means the difference between going to the next era or not). If another player starts the merger, you can’t do anything about it.

Defensive Mergers

It’s often useful to merge two companies you don’t want (assuming you don’t mind getting them for the minimum bid). If you have a rice or spice, you may want to merge other companies to create a Siap Faji (especially a second, if you don’t own the first).

Merge companies to slow their growth (and cause them problems with shipping). As long as you value them more than the minimum bid, it’s safe. You are freeing up a slot for another player.

A company you own can be merged with a company with a much higher value. You will get “bought out” at close to the higher value (particularly if yours is the smaller company). This frees up a slot. This assumes someone has enough cash to pay.

If nobody has Merger-3, merge other companies of the same type to keep yours safe. This particularly applies in the second turn of Era B, when there are three rubber plants.

Turn order is important in many of these cases.

Merge shipping companies in an effort to change the company’s hull rating. Merging your company to a player with a better hull rating may save you money (particularly if there are several large cities nearby). Or you can steal a shipping company. If you lower its hull rating in the process, you may reduce plantation profits for several players. [You may hurt them enough that they raise your hull rating for you!] Players with higher hull ratings will often outbid you, since they earn more with them.

Proposing a merger

Like any other game, buy low and sell high. If you can swipe companies cheaply, do it. If you can merge one or yours and cause a bidding frenzy, do it (especially if you are the larger company).

Imagine how the rest of the turn (and next turn) is going to play out for mergers.

The critical mergers are those for companies with good incomes that will be safe for several turns. Because cash is so limited, often the winning bid will be almost all a player’s cash. Whoever has the most money ‘wins.’ If that player’s other companies are safe, this can be a game winner. [If not, the player will wind up with one great company, and lose companies cheaply, which will balance.]

So, start mergers to jettison your mediocre companies for the cash to win a great company, and ensure they go for a premium. If nobody outbids you you’ve acquired a larger, safe company.

Propose mergers that would be safe if you won, but unsafe for anyone else. For example, you have Merger-3, and nobody else does. There are three rubber companies. Merge the best two. If you win, you don’t continue. If the bidding gets too high, you drop out, and then propose to add in the final company.

It doesn’t particularly matter if you own one to start, but if you do it’s even better. If you win cheaply you stop, if you lose you have more money to win the final company.

Acquisitions

In addition to obvious issues (will the company have shipping and destination cities?) consider how it will affect mergers. A safe company may be better. Also, if you currently earn more (per turn) than other players consider not acquiring. (Or if you have a larger expansion rating) This leaves you a slot for any mergers, and may slow the game down, which allows your income/growth more time.

Sometimes you have to acquire a company that can’t ship, just to speed the game along.

Shipping Choices

Pay the trailing player(s), if you can. Early on it’s best to split money evenly.

Watch for situations where one player is high/low on cash. In that case you may want to give the money to that player, instead of the moderate amount. For example, A and B are going to be your chief opponents in the next merger, pay the impoverished-A, so B can’t outbid you. If A is filthy rich and could always outbid you, then you may give him the cash to freeze B out (and hope that A lets you have it cheaply). [Here I’m assuming B has a good position, just cash poor right now].

Turn Order

Going early is good – you propose mergers earlier, pick better acquisitions, and ship first. As such, whatever the opening player bids, other players tend to raise by $1. So often the turn order reverses.

Going later is necessary if you need someone to expand their ships.

If you want to go earlier, you’ll have to jump the bidding. This means paying enough to cramp future merger bids. Make sure you don’t push yourself too much. Often you only want to beat out players with a high merger rating or free slots. If those players bid before you, outbid them by $1. If they go after you, jump the bidding.

Sometimes you don’t mind going last. In that case, don’t go first just because you can. Better to bid last next turn (especially if next turn is a new Era or merger order will matter) and get first choice when it’s important.

Research and Development

Turn Order

Take turn order when you are first. (You’ll probably need to have at least Mergers-2 or a free slot to really make this a threat). This is dangerous for your opponents when they don’t have a free slot. Then they have the unenviable choice of fighting for turn order or taking another slot.

If you are last, and everyone has equal turn order, you can always win next turns auction (for $1 more), so there is usually something better available.

If everyone ‘goes to war’ on Turn Order, the game may take an extra turn, because that’s one turn where nobody raises their slots (or merger rating).

Slots

A second slot is usually the first play (or second). A third slot is also nice. Additional slots may not be as worthwhile as upping your merger rating. A high slots rating can force the next era by snapping everything up, though. But one good company often beats two mediocre ones.

Lots of small companies do have the advantage that they can let you ‘pass’ one turn before deciding who to pay for shipping, or figure out which cities you could potentially expand. These are often fairly minor effects.

A player with a high slot rating often has the option of ending the game, or letting it go one more turn. This can make mergers impossible to judge (for the player with high mergers and low slots). If you bid too low, the “slots” player will win the company and get an extra turn of income. If you bid too high, he’ll sell and end it. This is the advantage of the player who has slots to spare, especially if nobody else does.

Mergers

It’s difficult to win without Mergers-2 (or more). Other players won’t make proposals to help you (in particular). Mergers-2 gives you options. Higher ratings are less valuable, but being the only person with a high rating gives you tremendous power. If you suspect everyone is going to raise mergers this turn and you go first, taking mergers may not pay off. After next turn’s bidding, you will go last, so all the important mergers will be proposed before your turn. In that case, consider taking something else.

Raising slots speeds the game up (by increasing the number of slots available). Raising mergers only speeds the game up if you are the first player to a new level (or nobody else is proposing a merger you want).

Mergers-3 allows the tricks above. Mergers-4 allows you to merge all two-tile companies from the early game. This assumes you are first, or there are mergers you like remaining.

If you ignore your merger rating early, there often won’t be anything to do later on.

Expansion

An expansion rating of 2 (or more) makes paying to expand profitable (assuming you don’t have to ship the resulting goods at a loss). Don’t cripple yourself on money. It also increases profits from when lose your companies to mergers.

However, raising your mergers rating to grow, then not growing next turn is a wash. Make sure that there will be ships and cities available.

A player with a rating of three (or more) can often start a company, expand it (preferably for free), aggressively merge and repeat.

The higher your expansion rating, the less you want to merge two of your tiles together.

Four companies at an expansion rating of one is less growth than three companies with an expansion rating of two (4 tiles vs. 6).

Players who bump up their expansion quickly are vulnerable to losing money by having to ship their last few goods at a loss. This assumes a large shipping fleet (with a high hull rating).

Owners of shipping companies will tend to take Hull instead of expansion.

Player Hull

Shippers need to raise their hull rating to generate big profits. However, sometimes a low hull rating can earn more by placing a second ship in a critical sea.

Remember you can raise another player’s hull rating. This is particularly useful on the final turn (when no other advances matter).

Number of Players

The chief difference with different players is:

  1. The number of cities
  2. The number of ‘natural’ slots

Assume “someone” will get Mergers-2 and most companies will have two tiles. That means there are about twelve slots worth of companies. Since you can’t merge companies acquired on the last turn, about fifteen slots are needed to end the game. With five players, that only takes two turns (everyone going to Slots-3). In a three player game, four turns (everyone going to Slots-5). Aggressive mergers change the calculation, but the idea remains. Fewer players, slower pace.

As the number of players increase, the more cooperative you should become. In a five player game allow an opponent to make a larger gain.

In a three player game, several tiles may not be viable because they couldn’t possibly reach cities. The game may then pause in Era A (or B) for a turn since nobody wants to take a useless tile. A single turn will often be made up later on.

There are still reasons to take an unproductive tile:

  1. To grow, and then ship next turn. (Usually requires a high expansion rating).
  2. To merge it into an opponent’s company. The tile becomes a poison pill. That company will not get a free expansion until they deliver.
  3. To create a Siap Faji.
  4. To push the pace along.

The more reasons you have, the better it is to take a useless tile.

Two player games

A two player game is zero-sum, so you can afford to give up $N if your opponent loses more. [This assumes no important breakpoints in that money.] So if an opponent takes a plantation, consider taking that companies natural ship and then moving it away.

For that reason, neither player should make money on the first turn.

A two player game will take several extra turns. Probably both players will get to Merger-3 and higher. The game focuses on accurate bidding for companies that could quickly be taken over.

A two player game differs quite a bit from a three player game.

Stages of the game

Early Game

On the first turn, take a company that can expand for free. If you are going first, a plantation is dangerous unless you someone will take a ship that automatically connects you to a city. [Remember, you operate first!]. If you go behind a shipping company you can expect them to expand to help you (assuming it gets taken, and can’t help anyone else).

Money is nice, but focus on growth. You can afford to spend some cash to grow, but you’ll need that money in a few turns. Money matters when the inevitable mergers start.

Middle Game

The mid-game goal — snap up large safe companies cheaply. This requires having cash. A good company may be auctioned for less than two turn’s income. These auctions are critical.

Timing mergers to your advantage is the crucial middle game activity. A single player with a Mergers rating higher than everyone else’s has a distinct advantage.

Late Game

In the late game, people can often bid a company’s actual value, which can be determined accurately. The largest companies may still be bought cheaply, though. A company’s final value (as measured in plantations) doesn’t pay out, only income matters.

Safety doesn’t matter, unless it could be auctioned twice (or more) on the same turn or the game may go another turn.

The exact number of slots needed to end the game becomes important. If a single player determines game end, that player has significant power.

Remember, Income on the final turn is doubled.

Geography

Geography has significant influence on the game, but there isn’t much to say about it. Pay attention to where cities may show up.

From the FAQ — “The sea around Java Timur is split in two, a north half and a south half, and the two halves do not touch one another. Both the north and south halves touch the westernmost tip of Bali.” This means that if a city is in the western tip of Bali, it will almost certainly grow (and be fought over by the two early rice companies).

Conclusion

Indonesia shows the “butterfly effect.” Small changes can cascade into large differences as the game progresses. Most of these are hard to read.

I can’t calculate all of the effects I listed above. There are too many decision points. Still, a player aware of the traps the future holds will usually prevail. Try to arrange a situation where your opponent must make a bid on a company whose value depends on your next decision. Then, no matter the choice they make, you can ensure it’s the wrong one.

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Written by taogaming

August 20, 2006 at 12:01 pm

Posted in Strategy

Tagged with ,

3 Responses

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  1. I think you have one rule wrong. When you pay for expansion it is per area up to the expansion limit, not pay once for all expansion.

    The rules passage:

    If a company has not sold all of its goods, it may invest to expand. It can buy expansions (with the placement subject to the above rules) up to the number indicated on its R&D expansion track. The price per area is equal to that of the type of good the company is producing (e.g. 20 for each rice expansion, etc.).

    frunk

    August 22, 2006 at 12:45 am

  2. I really enjoyed the post, but it strick me similarly that based on some of the observations made, the Expansion rule may be being played incorrectly, and therefore some of the strategy seemed biased incorrectly.

    We’ve found that in our games that all early mergers will tend to go for all your cash – they’ll automatically be worth that much so we just bid that straight away. So early turn manoeuvering and acquisition tends to take that into account. And it makes turn order very important – first position for the first merger and acquisition selection, last position to ensure first position for the move into Era B and Era C when the juicy companies emerge.

    I also think acquisition choice may depend more on the expansion possibilities than it does security. If it can expand the best, it will attract a healthy premium in the bidding anyway … or you’ll get to enjoy it’s expansion for yourself.

    Cheers
    Patrick

    Patrick Brennan

    August 22, 2006 at 10:53 am

  3. Yes, I had the expansion rule wrong. I’ve fixed a few places above, but I did that at midnight after a long game. I’ll look over it more later.

    Brian

    August 22, 2006 at 5:22 pm


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