Reviewed by Pevans
SHIPS (Treefrog Games, 2 to 4 players, ages 13 and up, 120 minutes or more; $39.99)
Ships is Martin Wallace’s third transport-themed game (after Automobile and Aeroplanes) and was launched by his imprint, Treefrog Games, at Spiel ‘15. As with Automobile, a feature of the game is the broad track around the edge of the board showing different vehicles across time: in this case, from an Ancient Greek galley to a modern day aircraft carrier. That’s pretty much where the similarity with Automobile ends as well.
The track is divided into eleven ages, each comprised of two ship boxes: a merchant and a warship of the same historical period. Within the track is a map of Europe, divided into three regions, plus an inner track of a further three regions (abstracted from their geography). Within the regions are locations with square spaces, marked with trade goods, and round spaces, marked with bonuses. Each region has a points value and shows the cost of moving into the next region. Similarly, the ship track shows the cost of starting a new age.
Apart from the main board, players have their own boards with sections for managing their resources and showing the actions available to them. As well as their ship counters, players have a set of wooden pieces in their chosen colour: discs and cubes. Their discs will be placed in the round spaces on the map, as cities. However, they start in the top two tracks on players’ boards – almost filling their bank and warehouse. Thus players must put cities on the map to make more room for storing coins and goods.
Initially, only a few of players’ cubes are available to them, starting on the third section of their board. From here they are moved to the bottom section (two at a time at the beginning of the player’s turn, to be used as action cubes) or placed on the map in the square spaces (as merchants). Placing a merchant provides the player with goods, which go onto their warehouse track. You can immediately see that having more cubes available is a good thing and there are several ways of doing this. For example, the bonus for placing some cities is moving a cube into the player’s available stock.
Between the two cube sections on players’ boards is a row of action spaces. Icons at the top of each space show what the action is, while at the bottom is the cost of taking the action – in cubes and coins. To take an action, players move a cube (from their action cube section) to the action and pay any coins required to the bank. An important point is that the cubes stay where they’ve been placed at the end of the turn. Players start with enough cubes for a few turns but, sooner or later, these will run out. This underlines the importance of getting more cubes – and recycling what they’ve got.
To make their cubes available again, players have to take the “recover cubes” action. This allows them to move all their cubes from the action spaces (or from a region on the map – a point I missed the first time I played) to the “available” section. You will need to do this several times during a game, ideally only when you absolutely have to. However, you definitely can’t afford to run out of cubes, so using this action with your last cube is probably most efficient.
As well as the limited supply of cubes in their colour, players may also have black “free action” cubes available. These are only used to take actions and may be saved from turn to turn (but are thrown away once used). It can be very useful to save these and take half a dozen actions in one turn. However, taking actions with black cubes is usually more expensive (in terms of coins) than doing so with players’ own cubes. Players start with a couple of black cubes and can acquire more by, for example, placing a city on an appropriate bonus space. As the game progresses, players also get to pick up one or two black cubes at the start of their turns. Hence, players get to take more actions each turn as the game goes on. The side effect of this is that the game gets slower.
I think I’ve established that cube management is an important part of the game, so I’d better cover the rest of the actions players can take. The most significant action is placing a ship on the board. This can be quite simple or very complicated. To place a ship, you take one of your ship counters and put it on the ship track in the current age. If you put it in the merchant ship box, you then place one of your available cubes in a location in the current region on the map and take a counter for the good shown there. For a warship, you take one of your discs from either your bank or warehouse, place it in a location in the current region and take the appropriate reward.
This gets more complicated if you decide to move into the next age on the ship track and/or the next region on the map. To start with, there is a cost to this, paid in “navigation” tokens (which can be a reward for placing a city or from the “take navigation tokens” action). However, the cost printed on the board is likely to be reduced. On the ship track, the cost is discounted by the number of ships in the current age. This means that, as more ships are played, it will eventually become free to move into the next age. On the map, the cost is discounted by the number of cities in the current region. Depending on the region, the cost may become zero again.
The second thing crossing a barrier does is prompt some scoring. On the ship track, there is a bonus for the player who’s first into the new age. Then there are penalties for older ships! Ships that are now two ages back score -1 for their owners. Ships three ages back score -2 and are then removed. This does limit the damage, but the negative points can really mount up across a whole game. Hence, the “remove ship” action can come in handy. Better yet, use “upgrade a ship” to move a ship from one age into the next. Upgrading a ship is more expensive, but very useful.
Starting a new region on the map means players score points for the previous region. Each cube and disc in the region is worth the points indicated (the regions start at 2). There is also a bonus point per city/disc for each of the same player’s cubes at the same location. This may not sound like a lot of points, but it mounts up. Particularly as the sixth region scores 7 points for each cube and disc plus 1 point for each cube for each disc. And discs placed here score 6 points when placed. Having said that, it’s entirely possible that the game will end before anyone’s got to the sixth region.
Conversely, players will definitely reach the final age on the Ship track as the game only ends when there are at least five ships in this age. The round is completed (to ensure everybody has had an equal number of turns) and the scores finalized. The current region on the map is scored, players sell any remaining goods and cash is converted to points at 2:1. The player with the most points wins, of course. There are no tie-breakers.
However, I haven’t yet described all the actions – and there’s another significant component to the game. So far we have: add a ship, remove a ship, upgrade a ship and retrieve cubes as actions. Take a coin is a fifth and take two navigation tokens (for starting new ages and regions) is sixth. Sell goods is seventh. This allows a player to sell any or all of their goods according to the table printed on the board. The cash generated can be converted to points at 2:1 and the player must have room in their bank for the coins they keep. Certain goods can also be used during a player’s turn to provide something. An oil token, for example, can be swapped for a black cube.
This leaves one action, which is to take (and immediately use) one of the cards on display. The 11 ages of ships are divided into eras (galleys, sailing ships, steam ships) and, at the start of each era, cards are dealt out from the appropriate deck. Most of the cards give players something (coins, cubes, navigation tokens) or let them carry out an action at a discount. Others provide bonus points, such as points for each ship you have in a specific box. It’s usually a no-brainer to take a card, if there’s one you can use, so they tend to disappear quickly.
I’ve left out a few details for simplicity’s sake. However, details are important in this game, so you should work through the rules carefully before you play. One example is checking which actions you can take with a black cube without paying a premium. If you have black cubes to spare, it will be more efficient to use these rather than your own cubes – assuming you’ve got other actions to do.
As I hope I’ve made clear, managing your cubes is at the heart of Ships. This means making more cubes available to use is important. So is retrieving cubes to use again. However, this takes up an action, so you want to minimize the number of times you do this. The big no-no is having no cubes available at the start of your turn. In this case, you do get a black cube from stock. However, the only useful thing to do with this is retrieve your cubes, of course. This wastes a whole turn rather than just one action.
The cards are useful and will be used sooner rather than later. Hence, look at using a card whenever you can. In particular, look to see who could benefit most from a card and consider taking it yourself (with the traditional warning against cutting off your nose…).
The game trots along at a decent pace because putting ships into the next age quickly becomes free and, once this is the case, why wouldn’t you do it? You get points that other players don’t. However, it’s also worth considering forcing the pace by moving into a new ship age – especially if you can catch other players with several -2 penalties. Conversely, there’s not the same pressure to move into new regions on the map – until locations fill up. Having said that, specific goods can be tactically useful (such as taking oil to be able to grab an extra black cube), which can be an incentive for moving to where they’re available.
While I appreciate Ships, I do have a few niggles with the game. My main one is that the ship ages are not differentiated clearly enough on the board. I’m constantly checking which boxes are in which age as I plan my actions. There is downtime between turns, which I know some people dislike, but I haven’t really found it a problem. And then there’s the silhouette used to mark the era of steam ships. It’s clearly meant to be a tramp steamer, but it looks much more like a U-boat to me!
My initial enthusiasm for Ships waned a bit when I started playing. However, I’ve found the game growing on me again as I’ve played it more. My last game was particularly entertaining (and that’s despite coming third – no, it was a four-player game). There is clearly more than one strategy for the game (though ignoring the penalty points for obsolete ships doesn’t seem to be one), lots of tactical wrinkles and some interesting decisions to make. All in all, I give it 8/10 on my highly subjective scale. – – – – – – Pevans
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Spring 2016 GA Report Articles