EMPIRES at SEA
A somewhat Historical boardgame by Zach & Amy Silverzweig; for 2-5 players Aged 14+ that has a Playing Time of between 1-3 hours.
Phone shots of game in progress:
If you have one of the Limited Edition copies of the game (the first 1000) then your Rules Booklet will have some wrong information in it concerning the Components. You can go online and download the revised rules book – if you do this you only need print pages 2-7 (saves toner/ink) – but all you need know is that the differences in components are: 15 large steel and 15 large wood instead of 25 of each; 40 small gold (not 30) and that (in our opinion) you should read “Gold” as “Treasure” because the pieces are multi-colour plastic gems which is more representative of treasure than it is gold. Also there are 37 (not 38) Port cards, 76 (not 80) Captain’s cards; 5 Table of War/Scoring cards and 2 dice.
The game is played in Rounds and each Round begins with the turning of the top Weather card which generally determines if there are any restrictions on sailing, the effect counts for all players throughout the entire Round. Then a History card is revealed and the instructions on it are followed: for example “Congress of Vienna”. This tells us that there is an Alliance across Europe and only the US may initiate combat this turn. At the end of each full Round there is a (clockwise) change in starting player.
Once the Weather and History cards have been activated for the Round then the players take their turns, having up to 5 Actions each – Sailing: in a straight line (no diagonals) as far in one direction as you wish. Trading: Ships adjacent to a Port may swap one resource they own for one resource available at the Port. Buy a Port: 1 Gold 1 Steel 1 Wood enables you to buy (basically capture) an uncontrolled Port (place one of your Port ID pieces on it – at the collect resource phase you will collect one resource for each Port you control). Attack: Ships adjacent to enemy ships or enemy controlled Ports may fight. If you begin your turn with a ship next to an adjacent unoccupied Port you can trade with it before buying it, thus it is possible to exchange up to 4 times, possibly obtaining the necessary resources at the same time, and then conquer the Port. Players can trade with an occupied Port, in which case the resource comes from the Bank (not the owning player) but the resource paid goes to the owning player. Naturally, you can also attack occupied Ports. It is possible to gang up on an opponent’s ship by moving several of your ships adjacent to it; this is then a Fleet attack and introduces an additional die per extra ship in the Fleet.
Once each player has had a Turn all players make a blind, closed fist bid (of gold) to take control of the Pirate ship. We have played several times and apart from once or twice we haven’t brought the Pirates into it – we all bid zero – until about halfway or more through the game. This is probably because we prefer passive game play but there comes a point when combat becomes a necessity. A neat idea with the bidding for the pirates is that all money bid, not just the winning bid (called a bribe) is placed onto the Pirates stronghold Port. Players can attack this Port and if they win they get all the gold there.
EMPIRES at SEA uses some game mechanics you may be familiar with. At the start of your Turn you must play a Captain’s card from your hand. This may be discarded, which gives you 3 gold from the bank, or played in front of you – generally costing you a number of resources (like in most CCGs). Some cards give you more ships – you only begin with one Transport ship – and the larger the ship the tougher it is to defeat in combat, otherwise each ship has the same possibilities. The main types of card are Advancements: determined by a sextant in the bottom right corner. These give bonuses in attacks, defences etc. Events: One off effects that may be free or have a cost in resources. Industry: these are like Land cards in Magic the Gathering; they are held permanently in front of you and give one or more resource per turn. Captain’s Orders: These have a Clock in the top right corner and are Instants.
The board shows a partial map of the world (one side of the board shows less land and is for 2 players only) and it has a grid overlay of small movement squares. Movement is always orthogonal, never diagonal, but to prevent ships from sailing straight across the board from one side to the other in one move there are sea lanes, gaps in the grid over which the ships cannot sail but have to manoeuvre round.
You can upgrade Ports to either a Fort or a Naval Base but you need the necessary Event card and costs in resources to do so. Upgrading Ports gives them better defences. Combat against opponents happens only when you have a ship adjacent to them and then it is decided by the result of a modified die roll, nothing fancy as it’s not that type of game. A single player may only ever own 2 Naval Bases. If they capture a third one then it is demoted.
Each player has a double-sided reference card that explains Scoring on one side and the combat bonuses and values on the other side. It would have been appreciated if the Actions for a Player’s Turn were also on one side as although they aren’t many it would have helped with planning during other player’s turns.
EMPIRES at SEA comes in a large box and is very component heavy. No expense has been spared in making this a visually interesting game. The game ends when the History card deck is exhausted, you use a different number of History cards depending on the number of players. 15 Weather cards are taken randomly from the 18 so that there is always a slight difference in each game; it is possible that the Weather discards will need reshuffling before the game ends as there may be more History cards (20 in a 5 player game) in play than there are Weather cards.
The rules are concise, short, just six pages, and clear, making this an easy game to begin playing.The only thing that has caused us any concern is the Advanced Barter card which we find to be too powerful the way it is written. It costs only six resources (2 of each) to bring into play, so it is inexpensive, yet it allows the player "Gains from Trade increased by 1 Resource" which we take to mean Trade 1 gain 2. As long as you have ships next to Ports for the necessary Resources you can make 5 Trades in one Turn, thus doubling your Resources. Do this for a few of Rounds and you will virtually control the game as there is only one of these cards in the Deck giving the owning player an unfair advantage. Even if you only use the card once or twice per Round you will still gain more Resources than any other player. Used well it can be the King Maker.
Overall this is a very well produced game with a gameplay that involves thought, strategy and a degree of "going through the motions". You should be able to play it through to a satisfying conclusion in 60-75 minutes, but any longer and it begins to lose rather than gain velocity.
Camera shots of the components:
All Player's Ships. Large and Small Steel (grey) and Wood (beige) resources
Skull dice. Player's Forts and Port pieces. Pirate Ship
All Gold (we call it Treasure) Large and small Gold pieces
Possibly the most powerful card in the Deck
The box is full of components