Tycoon: India 1981 is a fascinating game. It looks at the Indian post-war industrial revolution that took place from the 1960s to 1990s through the lens of corporations vying for ascendancy. It blends historical information, explained through the rulebook and many of the cards, with gameplay that reflects the challenges of the period in an engaging way.
Although this might at first glance look like an Indian version of Power Grid (2F-Spiele/Rio Grande) with its auctions and board control mechanics, there are far more differences than similarities. The victory condition is a notable example: rather than just trying to get rich and famous, the supreme Tycoon must get either rich or famous and then have the most 'Favor' with the government. Specifically, players gain Influence throughout the game, which looks a lot like victory points but isn't. They will also increase their asset value by building industries and acquiring shares in other companies (curiously, money and shares in one's own company are not counted). If the player with the most Influence also has the highest asset value, they win; otherwise they compare their Favor score with the player who had the highest asset value and the highest on that metric is the winner. Favor is earned through certain actions, plus some end-game scoring (including private objectives).
The game plays over seven rounds, featuring auctions of bonus cards and industries followed by action selection. The auctions are very tough: with only one policy card and two industries available each time, players will miss out a lot, especially in a four-player game, and the compensation for this feels fairly meagre. Still, there are a variety of paths to try, not all of which require large numbers of industries.
In the action phase, each player will have the chance to take two different actions (or three if they are the Tycoon for the round) out of six possible. Even with extra action tokens available, there will not be enough time in the game to use each action very much, which is a shame as they are all very interesting.
Although there is a lot going on in Sidhant Chand's design, the player aids and excellent board illustrations from Trisha Bose and Chandrasekhar Pudyal make the rules clear and intuitive in almost all cases. Nevertheless, with so many moving parts, it is easy to miss a trigger or a discount here and there, especially when playing with the 'AI' (automa), which is required for solo or two-player games. This is controlled by a deck of cards that can be customised to adjust the difficulty. However, the AI has infinite resources and therefore does not play like a human player no matter how the deck is configured. This can be frustrating as the AI can accrue unattainably high scores, but if, in the two-player game, players ignore the AI then they will still have a fascinating contest between themselves.
There is much to enjoy in Tycoon: India 1981, and plenty of replayability from the variety of cards providing objectives, and the very fact that the game can be won in different ways. Do you try to focus on Influence or asset value from the start while abandoning the other, all the while trying to accumulate Favor, or try a more balanced approach? In any case, try to ensure you have 3-4 human players and at least three hours for best results!
Publishers Zenwood Games are due to launch Tycoon: India 1981 on Kickstarter on 29 August. We'll add a link to the campaign when it goes live.
(Review by Matt Young)