gold armada cover

Gold Armada is Not a Monet

Gold Armada has all the signs of a classic Reiner Knizia game: simple rules, fast play, nice production values. The 2017 release has also faded into obscurity, which makes me wonder: why isn’t there any room for games like Gold Armada in today’s board game market?

I’m an unabashed Reiner Knizia fan. He has ten games on my Top 100 Board Games list. And while I’m quick to agree that he is no longer on the cutting edge of game design, recent work like Blue Lagoon show that he’s still got it as a creative force.

Setting Sail with Gold Armada

Gold Armada is… nice. It’s a typical Yahtzee / poker dice variant where you score points by rolling different combinations of die faces. Knizia’s twist is that each point is represented by coin, which when taken makes the next combination more difficult.

There aren’t that many coins, which keeps the game moving quickly. And the game is a natural choice for a pirate theme. Who wouldn’t love rolling parrots and bottles of rum to collect doubloons?

So far, so good, so tried and true. Pirate games are nothing new, dice-rolling games are nothing new. This game is a known quantity and should be an easy sell in the store and at the game table.

The components are simple — you could do this game with five plastic dice, some chits, and a score track. Knizia has done plenty of games like this (see Loco!) in little boxes with minimal production.

This is what happened instead:

gold armada board
Little game, big table presence.

No question, this looks pretty great. Big board, big shiny doubloons. Big chunky wooden dice. Putting this game out feels like an event, especially the first time when you have to look in the rulebook to see where to put all those different doubloons.

The trouble is that the production builds up expectations that the game does not delivery. Gold Armada looks great, but it is still a quick little thirty-minute dice rolling game. My family had fun setting it up, and fun playing it, but when we were done we had a distinct feeling of “That’s it?” If we had not borrowed it from our always-helpful local library, I would have wondered what I just spent my money on.

The Price of Beauty

This post is not a rant against production values. I love beautiful games and happily pay more for them. In theory, I could collect them just like Monet paintings — and board games are a lot cheaper than Monet.

But board games have something paintings do not: a function that is an intrinsic part of their value. Paintings exist to be viewed; board games exist to be played. If you have a choice between two equally beautiful board games, the one you want to play more is the better buy.

This is the dilemma that faces Gold Armada. It’s a fun dice-rolling game from a well-known designer. But there’s nothing outstanding about its theme or gameplay. And raising the production value both raises costs, and signals that the game has more complexity and strategy than it actually has.

In another era, Gold Armada might have done just fine as a $10 to $15 game with simple components. But today’s market puts it in a position where it and many other “little” games just can’t compete.