It's hard to escape the suspicion that this is one of those games where a designer came up with the punning title before developing the actual game. In this case, Richard Nguyen-Marshall's design is an economic game themed around rival drug cartels but which draws on the core mechanics of the classic Chinese strategy game Go. No matter. It may be an odd combination but it works, and it works remarkably well!
In GoCaine, each of the 2-6 players is a drug overlord building a network to buy cocaine in South America and transport it North to sell at a profit. You'll be using the profits of your ill-gotten gains to buy more product to sell but you can also spend your money to extend your infrastructure, increase the distance you can move on a transport action and buy political influence in any of the geographical regions indicated on the board.
On your turn, you can buy, move or sell product. The price for buying and selling depends on the region; so you'll turn the biggest profit if you can buy cocaine in Bolivia at $2.5 million per ton and ship it all the way to North Central USA where you'll be able to sell it for £30 million per ton. That's a very tidy profit, but you can only take one buy, move or sell action per turn, so it'll take you several turns to pull off this transaction.
The Go aspect of the game comes with the cells you place out in a region to represent your operatives and infrastructure. You can only buy, sell or move through a region in which you have a cell, and you get to place a cell on your turn in addition to any buy/move/sell action which you take. The cells are subject to the rules of conventional Go, in that a cell that is completely surrounded is captured - in this case, removed from the board. There's the added dimension in GoCaine that this is multi-player Go, in that the surrounding of a cell can be achieved by two or more players working together. In practice, you'll find that initially, players busy themselves building their own networks with little overt regard for the competition but in the mid-game, players are more likely to gang together to elbow out another player, especially if that player is in the lead... And with multiple players, your cell can easily be surrounded by opponents working in consort before your next turn comes around to give you a chance to take any defensive action. That means you either need to plan several moves ahead or engage in Diplomacy-style negotiation with rival players; probably both.
And it's not just the multi-player Go that offers scope for player interaction: players will also be attempting to sabotage rival operations by tipping off the federal authorities. Players each start off with one interdiction token which can be played to a zone at any time to threaten shipments through that zone. Interdiction forces the player attempting shipment to make a saving roll using 2d6, the size of which is dependent on the size of the shipment: the larger the shipment the greater the chance of failing the interdiction roll. For example, a 4-ton shipment would only be caught and confiscated by the Feds on a roll of 6 or less whereas a shipment of 12 tons or more would only be safe if you roll 12! Having political influence in a region adds 1 to your dice roll. If a consignment is lost, there's no benefit to the player who played the interdiction token, other than the schadenfreude of seeing an opponent suffer.
The theme has proved to be controversial with some folk. Tho' players take on the role of drug barons, this isn't a game that encourages drug misuse nor does it glorify the narcotics trade. It's hard to see why GoCaine should be thought any more controversial than any of the myriad of Mafia or Godfather-themed titles; many of which are more graphic and less abstract than this one. Ultimately, GoCaine is a cleverly designed economic network-building game. There's a push-your-luck element over the extent to which you grow your shipments and risk confiscation, and there are some meaty decisions to take over when to plough your profits into upscaling your network, and that's before the Go game comes into play.
Publishers Kharitago Games have done a good job in the production of GoCaine. We liked the interlocking cubes, each of which represents a ton of product, tho' ours required a bit of force to make a solid connection. We also appreciated the fact that all the information needed to play the game was there upfront on the board. The only thing we really didn't like was the paper money.
GoCaine is a great game. We've especially enjoyed it with four or more players as we found it notably less interactive at lower player counts. It's a game that shifts gear as players build and strengthen their networks, so there's a noticeable opening, mid-game and end-game dynamic. Just be warned tho' that playing to be the first to amass $1 billion makes this a long (3 hour+) game. You might try house-ruling a lower win condition; after all, $750 million should give you enough to live on. More is just greedy!