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Blockade Runner

[Numbskull Games is a relative newcomer to the gaming scene. Their first appearance in these pages came with Last of the Independents in the Fall 2010 issue. This is the second appearance for the company here – and my 692nd review for GA Report. – Herb Levy]

(Numbskull Games, 2-6 players, ages 12 and up, 90-180 minutes; $49.99)

 

Reviewed by Herb Levy

2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War. Over the last century and a half, that conflict has been one of the most written about episodes of American history and, as a result, one of the most simulated events in the world of games. But rather than focusing on a particular battle (such as Gettysburg), this new release from Numbskull Games turns its attention to a critical but often ignored aspect of the conflict: the goal of the Confederacy to get military, economic and political aid from Great Britain in exchange for the South’s “king” crop: cotton. But the North was well aware of the South’s goal and set up blockades around the southern ports to prevent cotton from reaching England (and other goods from coming in). It is this tug of war that is the subject of the new game by Patrick and Alex Stevens: Blockade Runner.

blockadeboxAll players start with some money (anywhere from $5000 to $15,000 depending on the number of players), some ships to control (the type and number also determined by the number of players) and action cards (from 3 to 6 of those). The large mapboard depicts the Confederacy with particular emphasis on its coastline and ports as well as potential trading partners (Cuba, Haiti, the Bahamas and Matamoros) bordering the Caribbean. Four types of goods appear in the game: cotton (represented by white cubes), tobacco (brown), war goods (red) and black market goods (black). The board has several different chart displays. Cotton, tobacco and black market goods have a starting value noted on their respective charts (10 for cotton, 16 for tobacco and black market at 20). In clockwise order, players prepare for action as they place their ships on the board in either a Confederate or offshore port.

Five years make a full game and each year follows the same procedure: Union Action, Commodity Management, Determining Player Order and Player Turns.

The Union Action consists of four phases: Blockade, Port Assault, Inland City Capture and High Seas Squadron (the latter two not done during the first year). During Blockade, the number of war goods delivered on the previous turn (for the first turn of the game, it is assumed 10 war goods have been delivered) is referenced on the War Effort Chart. This gives a modifier for the number of Blockade cards to be drawn and how many to be held for a Port Assault. (For example, the standard number of Blockade Cards to be drawn is 12. With 10 goods delivered, this amount is modified by 5 so only 7 Blockade Cards will be drawn for the upcoming year with the last card set aside for the Port Assault action.) Each Blockade Card drawn (except those for the Port Assault) increases the Union blockade value of city it names by one to a maximum of 6. (If already at 6, the Confederate defensive rating is reduced by one.) Port Assault cards increase the Union blockade value by TWO. If the new value is higher than the Confederate defense value, that port is closed. All ships caught in that closed port must make a die roll to see if they can escape. All ships have a speed value. To this, add the value of the Confederate port defense, any Action cards a player might have to modify the outcome and, if without cargo, add one to the total. Subtract the Union’s blockade strength from that total and roll two dice. A roll higher than the final value results in that ship (and any cargo it might hold) lost!

Inland City Capture is another dice roll/cross-reference a chart deal. With High Seas Squadron, a die is rolled, referenced on the High Seas Squadron chart and this moves a -1 blockade token to the designated sea zone.

blockadeboardEach turn, commodity values rise: a one space increase if any of them were delivered, a two space increase if a particular commodity was not and all empty board spaces able to hold commodities are refilled. But the core of the game centers on the player actions.

Turn order is determined by a player’s ability to transport cargo. In other words, the player commanding the fleet that can ferry the LEAST cargo will go first and turns are given in order of increasing cargo capacity. (If a tie, the play with less money gets the nod.) On a turn, a player may do FOUR (and possibly five, if they have delivered the most war goods the previous turn) actions and actions may be repeated if a player wishes. Possible actions are:

Load – A player may pay the cost of a commodity located where a ship is docked to load it onto his ship. Cotton costs $1000, tobacco $4000 and $5000 for each black market good. War goods are free. (Commodities may be transported over rail lines into ports at an additional cost provided that the railroad doesn’t pass through cities controlled by the Union.)

Unload – Cotton and tobacco can be unloaded at any offshore port (marked by anchors on the mapboard). Black market and war goods are unloaded at mainland Confederate ports. Delivered cotton, tobacco and black market goods cubes are placed in the “Commodities Sold” boxes. When this is completely filled, the price of these commodities drops one space. War Goods go into the “War Goods Delivered” box and pay $1000 each. The temptation to stock up on black market goods for quick cash is tempered by the fact that if a ship carries more black market goods than war goods, bribes must be paid to the Confederate authorities and those black market goods sell for $5000 less than the current market price.

Move – The board is divided into zones. A player may move all ships in a zone, one by one, at the ship’s stated speed. (As mentioned, should a port be blockaded, a ship must roll to avoid Union forces.)

Play Action Card – Action cards give special abilities. For example, a “Pilot” permanently adds to the speed of any one ship, a “Rail Pass” allows commodities to move without taking an action and for free, “Hidden Inlet” allows you to convoy a load of black market goods without paying a bribe etc. After an Action card is played, the bank adds $5000 to the “Port Defense Fund”. That player then has the option to use those monies (and any other monies in the fund or from his own holdings) to upgrade Confederate defenses at ports of his choice. And, of course, the player draws another Action card to replenish his hand.

Bid on Ship – The more ships you have in your fleet, the more goods you can potentially convoy. With this action, a player chooses a ship card to be auctioned. All ships display a speed, capacity and minimum bid value. If high bidder, the player must immediately deploy the ship at any available (and open) port. If the player who chose this action did NOT win the ship, he may (if he wishes) choose another ship to auction. A player who has won a ship during this action may not bid on a ship if a subsequent auction is held.

As the years go by, more and more Confederate ports and cities will fall into Union hands and be closed down. After five rounds (years), the game is over. The player who has the highest combined total of cash plus the printed value of the ships under his control is the victor.

The graphic quality of Blockade Runner is mixed. The board is large and attractive, the cards are of acceptable quality. The more serious problem is with the smokestacks. Smokestacks, inserted into the body of the ship counters, are used to identify which players control which ships. Be aware that they may not fit as snugly as they are supposed to. To the company’s credit, they have replaced (for free) smokestacks from the first print run and offer suggestions for “tightening” the fit on their website (www.numbskullgames.com).

Game play is solid. Rather than winning battles, the key to victory in Blockade Runner is trying to establish an economic engine bringing cotton and tobacco to the outlying ports while conveying valuable black market and war goods to the Confederacy. Not an easy task and certainly a challenging one. Players have a good assortment of decisions to make as to building their fleets, gathering up resources and when and where to unload valuable cargo. Because of this assortment of decisions and multiple actions (four or five per player per turn), playing time with four or more players can drag. The game works better with fewer players, a good example of less being more. But the game has a more dangerous pitfall to overcome.

Blockade Runner straddles the line between the two distinct Euro and American styles of gaming. While not necessarily a bad thing, it does put the game in a precarious position, leaving it in a sort of “no-man’s land”. It is not “Euro” enough for Euro strategy gamers as the game relies heavily on dice rolls and an assortment of tables to resolve actions. On the other hand, it is not “wargame” enough for grognards. Some wargamers will undoubtedly be uncomfortable with what may seem to be too many unknowable and potentially decisive card draws. None of those traditional cardboard counters with movement, defense and attack capabilities either. Combat is very abstract. Despite all the tables, no “Combat Results Tables”, a staple of classic wargaming fare, are to be found. As a result, the potential market for this kind of game is sharply limited. This is definitely a “try before you buy” game – but if the subject matter intrigues you and your gaming tastes run to Euro-American blends with a heavy emphasis on the economic, then Blockade Runner is well worth a look.

 


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