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Nauticus

Reviewed by: Joe Huber

(Kosmos, 2 to 4 players, ages 12 and up, 90+ minutes, $69.99)

nauticusboxWolfgang Kramer is one of the most notable game designers around, nearly four decades after his first published design and three decades after his first Spiel des Jahres award. It’s interesting to note how his career shifted, over time, from designing almost exclusively on his own to designing most of his games in cooperation with others, from Richard Ulrich to Markus Lübke to his most frequent collaborator, Michael Kiesling.

For some reason, however, most of their older works didn’t strike home with me. Their more recent designs, such as That’s Life (Fall 2005 GA Report) and Artus (Fall 2011 GA Report), have been closer to my taste though so I was curious to try Nauticus. The theme – merchant shipping – was of reasonable interest but given my past luck with Kramer & Kiesling designs I was reluctant to pick it up. That is, however, until I was able to acquire it in a “math trade”.

(For those not familiar with math trades, the idea is simple – a bunch of folks offer up a bunch of games for trade. Then, for each item offered, the person offering it decides which of the other games – if any – they are willing to trade it for. A computer program then tries to find the most trades possible. The result, ideally, is far more trades than I could ever have been found in 1-for-1 trading.)

So, having picked up a brand new, in-shrink copy of Nauticus (in exchange for a copy of Throneworld, in case you’re curious), I was anxious to try it.

The game is played over 5 rounds (4 with two players), each round consisting of 7 actions (out of 8 possible). The flow of the game is very similar to Puerto Rico (Spring 2002 GA Report); the first player chooses an action receiving a bonus specific to that choice and then each player in turn has the opportunity to take the action or pass. The next player must choose one of the remaining actions and so on until all but one of the actions has been chosen.

nauticus2The eight actions can be divided into two categories: purchasing actions, and other actions. There are four purchasing actions: boat hulls, masts, sails, and goods. Boats must be built in order – hull before mast before sail – but the hull need not be complete before a mast is added. Each item purchased (or received for free) requires a worker; at most locations there are 1 to 3 workers (available to every player) though at one location every round, there are no available workers so players must supply their own if they wish to take the action. Items cost 0-3 coins each or 4 for the second of a type; however, if buying a full set of four a player receives an extra one for free. This is a mixed blessing for two reasons; first, and most importantly, all items received for free go into the player’s warehouse. And second, while different boat components are useful, all masts and sails on a particular boat must be of the same type and goods of the same type offer the greatest bonus. To help with this, more than one item of a type may be purchased – but at a cost of 4 for each after the first. Whenever a ship is completed, a player receives one bonus action per mast in the ship, receiving cash, workers, victory points – or “crown” masts or sails, which can be added to any ship.

The other four actions don’t cost money but still take workers to complete. There is a money action where each player can receive two coins per worker. There is a warehouse action, the only way to take items out of the warehouse. There is a shipping action, to unload (and thus score) the goods from completed ships. Finally, there is a victory point action, scoring points for workers times crowns – either from completed ships or from previous passing of actions in the round. At the end of a round, players are penalized for not having passed at least three times during the round and the actions and bonus actions are mixed for the next round. Once during the game – at any time, effectively – each player can take, by themselves, any action, receiving two free workers but having to use only their own workers to execute the action. After the final round, players score points for completed ships and delivered goods – and a small number of points for unused coins, workers, ship parts, and goods.

As much as I’ve enjoyed many of Wolfgang Kramer’s designs, they’ve missed more often than not for me of late. That’s the reason the game wasn’t an automatic purchase for me, in fact – much as I liked the description of the game. But through five plays, Nauticus is working very well for me.

The shipbuilding is rather enjoyable, on the whole, though I’m not convinced that the severe shortage of middle sections actually benefits the game. It does push players to start big ships early, which is a good thing since it’s difficult to complete a ship started in later rounds. The need to collect masts and sails of a single type adds tension to the game as does the advantage offered for collecting goods of one type.

The action bonus mechanism is very clever; it’s a little different from Puerto Rico in that it’s independent of the action chosen. It also melds nicely with the passing mechanism though this can lead to one minor issue I have with the game. The action with no workers provided starts aligned to arguably the best bonus (three workers). Because of the way the bonus actions are mixed, if that action is chosen first – even if the person choosing it passes his action – the bonus actions don’t change. I’ve not seen this happen regularly but it has occurred and is a minor annoyance.

My very first play of Nauticus – the one which gave me such a good first impression – was with three players, which I believe to be a better number for the game than four. The game isn’t a “fixed-fun” game, where with fewer players you get to do more but with only three, each player has more control over the timing. It is worth noting that in a three or four player game the last player will get to choose the action one less time; that player is compensated with additional resources but it’s still not an ideal position. I’ve not played the game with two but I would have no hesitation to do so.

There is a bit of sameness to the game/ While it’s enjoyable to play, there’s not a large amount of variation from one play to the next. There is enough, due to the randomization of the actions as compared to the bonuses, but I don’t see this as a game that most players will be playing regularly ten times a year. The theme is something of a plus; it’s not an overused setting but, while the mechanisms fit the theme reasonably well, they don’t enhance it. The artwork is nice and very functional as one would expect from a major German publisher, and the game is nicely produced though it is unusual to see Kosmos not include an insert in the box but, instead, just opt for lots of bags. Perhaps this is the first signal of the death of the insert.

The game plays consistently in about an hour. As one would expect from a veteran designer like Kramer, the rules are clear and there are no unnecessary, extraneous rules to trip up players. After playing lots of games lately with rule sets which needed trimming or where rules needed to be made more logical, playing such a professional design was a treat.

Nauticus is a solid, enjoyable game, which I’m very happy to own. I don’t think it’s going to be very big hit, even with those like myself who enjoy the game. For most players, it’s much more likely to fall into the camp of being played a time or two, enjoyed, and moved past, or (as for me) being a game to play ten times or so, and then see where it goes. Personally, I think it will make it through and stick in my collection for many years but I’m sure that won’t be the case for everyone and I doubt many will count this as one of their very favorite games.

Unfortunately, the game isn’t currently distributed in the US, or in English. And, unless the shipbuilding theme really appeals, it’s not necessarily the best game to spend extra to import. So my recommendation, for most gamers, is to seek out an opportunity to play the game; if you really enjoy your first play, you can likely get good enough value from the game to justify adding it to your collection.


 

Have feedback? We’d love to hear from you.


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