Kim & I are big fans of Roads & Boats as a 2-player game, enough that I upgraded our set from the nice but do-it-yourself-feeling 1st edition to the new, higher-production-value 3rd edition. Prior to this, I had only played with more than 2 once, the very first time I played, when we had 5 – too many I thought. When Matt had expressed interest in playing, though, and we had been enjoying the game again recently, so we decided to give it a try with 4 again.
There was even a great scenario in the book, The Handicap Principle, for 2 experienced and two inexperienced players. The two experienced players each get their own tiny island, while the inexperienced players share a huge landmass with plenty of everything. Boat transportation is a real pain in the neck to make work efficiently in the absence of rivers, so since the new players don’t have to deal with it, this helps both make reduce the number of things the new players have to deal with and just makes things overall easier.
The big lesson I took away from this is that you really have to be cognizant of the board layout. It sounds obvious, but playing such an extreme case really hammered this home. Kim & I went about this the way you usually would, building up a base of infrastructure and targeting maybe 3 stock certificates in the end. This is not the way to go in this scenario. The advantaged positions have such an overwhelming resource superiority, any kind of a long game will spell doom. So I think that to counter this, you need to gun for one stock certificate and purchasing as many wonder bricks as possible. Go for the Specialized Mine research and nothing else, build a Raft factory right away, build one mine (all gold), and get a couple clay pits. Usually clay pits pretty much suck, but in this case you want them simply to generate a lot of bricks so that you can trade those in for wonder bricks and shorten the game.
I think this scenario actually works out to be pretty balanced. The new players are of course going to have no idea what to do, and are probably going to over-invest in all kinds of things as the usual trap for new players. The experienced players are up against the wall resource-wise and will find it impossible to get an efficient transport network going, but with focus they can both a) have a chance to win, and b) keep the scenario reasonably short, which is in itself a worthwhile goal for a teaching game.
So you want some advice for the new players too? For your first game of roads & boats, you’ll be struggling just to get a feel for the production tree. My advice is, it’s really easy to over-invest in cool stuff you don’t need. Pick one of wagons or trucks and go with it. Don’t spend too much time on geese, since the amount of research you are likely to need to do is not that great – one transport type, maybe, plus renewable mines and maybe off-shore drilling rigs or specialized mines (big mines never seem worth it, since a winning score is rarely more than 4 stock and your iron needs are unlikely to exceed 3-4 units plus whatever you need to buy new shafts). Fuel is a bit of a pain, you’ll likely need 10 units or so, so the choice between the offshore drilling rig and the coal burner is a tough one; I usually go with the drilling rig if possible, but if you have plenty of real estate the coal burner is much cheaper and gives you something to do with your boards after the early game. Otherwise, the key bottleneck is the Mint and, to a significantly lesser degree, the Papermill. You’ll need a Papermill fairly early, but don’t build anything really before you’re ready to capitalize on it – get the production (mines, sawmill) going full swing before you worry about it. However, the Mint really is the key – the sooner you can get that going, the better off you’ll be.