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Ender Wiggins
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Introducing Mare Balticum

A game made out of modeling clay or plasticine? Well, yes! You may have heard about this innovative approach previously from a BGG News interview which featured this game. Now don't start worrying, because when you get your own copy of Mare Balticum, you'll be getting the kind of quality components that we've come to expect from modern games, and not just a bunch of kid's craft supplies. But Mare Balticum does hold the distinction of being in an elite category of games which have most unusual origins for their artwork. In this case, the artwork on the game's main board/map, player boards, tokens, and even the box cover, originated with large models made of modeling clay, which were then carefully photographed and transferred onto the game's cardboard components. It's truly spectacular, creative, and certainly is a big talking point for the game!


The published board along with the clay model used for the artwork

Fortunately Mare Balticum is more than just a pretty face, and the game-play commends itself on its own merits. Designed by Filip Miłuński, co-designer of Magnum Sal, it sees players captaining fleets of fishing boats in the Baltic Sea - and you're probably smart enough to figure out on your own that the game's title is simply the Latin name for this body of water. As fishermen in the Baltic, you'll be trying to catch different kinds of fish, which will be worth points when collected and brought to one of the five harbours in the region. The amount of points for each fish will be being determined by the value that the players themselves select as the game progresses. For the short time it takes to play - only half an hour - it offers smooth gameplay that will appeal to the hunting-and-gathering instincts of most of us, and more importantly it's a very solid and attractive family game. Let's go find out more about this relatively new release that only appeared for the first time a few months ago at Essen, and deserves some more time in the spotlight!


Part of the stunning clay model used for the game's artwork

COMPONENT OVERVIEW

Game box

Well here's the box cover. Take a careful look, and then look again! The creative artwork begins right here already - what you see here is a carefully photographed clay model of a ship with sailors. The detail is remarkable, right down to the pinpricks that make up the holes on the fishing net and scales of the fish, as well as the lines on our fishermen's beards!


Game box

The game is language independent but does come with a multi-lingual rulebook, and thus the back of the box features a short overview of the game in Polish, English, and German. Why Polish? Well, that's where Filip Miłuński - the game's designer - hails from, so it's only fair that his countrymen get the opportunity to play his game as well!


Box back

Component list

So what's all inside?

● 1 game board
● 5 player mats (in 5 colours)
● 25 company tokens (5 in each of the 5 player colours)
● 25 fishing boats (5 in each of the 5 player colours)
● 68 fish and amber tokens
● 1 cloth bag
● 8 demand tokens
● 6 time tokens
● 1 start player token
● 6 commercial contract cards
● 1 Rule Book


Everything inside the box

COMPONENTS

Game board

Let's begin with the feature item, namely the game board. It pictures the Baltic Sea, with five different harbours: Kopenhavn, Stockholm, Sankt-Peterburg, Riga, and Gdansk. I'm sure I can assume that my readers are intelligent enough to accent and pronounce these all correctly in Polish, right?! These harbours are where demand tokens will be placed, representing a demand for certain fish which can only be delivered to those particular ports. Notice how the sea itself is divided into different spaces, light blue spaces representing shallow water (1 fish to be placed on each) and dark blue spaces representing deep water (2 fish to be placed on each each). It's on these spaces that players will place and move their fleet of fishing boats, trying to collect the fish that they'll be bringing to harbour. On the right of the board you'll see a track on which time tokens will be placed, and this is used to determine when the game ends.


The game board

Of course we have to pause for a moment to admire the artwork on the board. As explained in the aforementioned interview, using modeling clay was the idea of the game's illustrator, Piotr Słaby. The designer was skeptical at first, but the remarkable results speak for themselves! Here's a closeup from one of the original clay models used for the artwork - isn't this absolutely fantastic?!


Part of the clay model used for the game's artwork

Fishing boats

Here are the player fishing boats, and each player will get a fleet of five ships in their chosen colour. The colours are somewhat unusual in that they are different from the primary colours we've come to expect from most euros, but they look great on the board, and prevent the game from looking overly childish. Players will be moving these ships into sea spaces with fish, in order to take them into their cargo holds, en route to transferring them to their personal warehouses at the appropriate harbours demanding these fish.


Fishing boats in five player colours

Fish and Amber tokens

The game features four different types of fish: salmon, flounder, herring, and cod, with 12 tokens corresponding to each. In addition there are also 20 tokens featuring amber, which can also be obtained from the Baltic Sea, and functions as an alternative way of getting points when the fish aren't biting.


Four types of fish (salmon, flounder, herring, cod) plus amber

A black cloth bag is provided for all 68 tokens, so that they can be drawn randomly for board placement at the game set-up and to replenish `fished out' spaces.


Storage bag for tokens

Demand tokens

These 8 `demand' tokens will be placed randomly on the available spaces in the five harbours, and represent the kinds of fish that the folks living in those cities would like your fishing boats to bring to their dinner tables and markets. This also helps keep the game slightly different each time.


Demand tokens corresponding to the four types of fish

Player mats

Each player will get a player mat in their colour. Once again, the artwork highlights some of the mad skills of our modeling clay artist. Each mat features three rows, corresponding to the following, from top to bottom:
Fleet cargo: These five spaces are where fish will be placed when caught at sea, and before being brought to harbour. Your ship can only have a cargo of five fish before needing to be emptied (or toss some fish overboard).
Warehouse: This is where fish will go after they've been brought to harbour. Fish need to be in your warehouse to earn points at the end of the game, and fortunately for you your warehouse has unlimited space.
Market: This is where players will secretly put their company tokens, as the game progresses (each time a time token is drawn), to indicate the value of the fish they catch at the end of the game.


Player mats in five colours

Company tokens

So tell us more about the company tokens, you ask? Well each player gets five in their colour, and they look like what you see in the image below. Each time a time token is drawn from the bag during the game, you must assign one of these to one of the four types of fish on the market part of your player mat. This will determine how many points that fish is worth at the end of the game, which can be anything from 0, 1, 2 or 3. Obviously you'll look at what other players are catching and what you're catching, and try to assign these so that you get highest points for the fish you have most of. The fifth company token pictures a money safe, and represents the need to pay a tax, which we'll explain later.

The purple player's five company tokens

Time tokens

These 6 tokens will be placed in the bag along with the fish tokens, and placed on the board whenever they are drawn during the game. Drawing them will trigger the need for players to assign one of their company tokens, as well as the game end in the case of the sixth and final time token being placed on the board.

Six time tokens which will trigger the game end

Start player token

Appropriately, the starting player gets a token featuring a wheel or helm.

The starting player gets the wheel of the ship

Commercial contract cards

These six titles are only used with one of the more advanced variants, and give an alternative way of scoring points for your fish.


All the commercial contracts, only used in an advanced variant

Rules

The multi-lingual rulebook consists of 32 pages, and is in Polish, English and German, with about 9 pages of rules for each language. You can download the English rules on BGG here.


Instructions front cover

There's ample illustrations accompanying the text, and the rule-set is actually quite straight forward and easy to learn.


Sample spread from the rulebook

GAME-PLAY

Set-up

So, get the family or gaming friends around the table, and let's play!

The board

All 68 fish and amber tokens go into the cloth bag, and an initial seeding of fish is placed on the board through random draw, with 1 token going on the light blue spaces and 2 tokens going on the dark blue spaces. Then add in the 6 time tokens to the remaining fish and amber tokens in the bag. Shuffle the 8 demand tokens and assign them randomly to the five ports (making sure that no port has two of the same type).


Stockholm demands flounder and herring

The players

Each player picks a colour and takes a player mat, company tokens, and fishing boats in their colour. With a three player game you'll use all 5 fishing boats, but only 4 in a 4 player game and only 3 in a 5 player game (otherwise the board quickly gets overcrowded, and you won't stand much chance of catching any fish! Forgetting this rules is a common set-up mistake, so be careful to get this right!).


A complete 4-player set-up

I love the rule about who gets to be the starting player - the person who last saw a fish! This player gets the start player maker, and has first opportunity to put one of their boats in any port. In clockwise order the other players do the same - it's allowable to place your initial boat in the same port as another player. Now, let's start fishing!

Flow of Play

The game consists of a series of rounds, in which each player (beginning with the starting player) may perform three consecutive actions which can be either of the following:
● Sailing
● Fishing
● Unloading
You can do more than one of the same action on your turn if you wish.

Sailing action

Move any of your boats on the board, as long as it is to a space that's adjacent to another fishing boat in your fleet. In effect, you want to make sure your entire fleet of boats is linked together as a chain. Note that at the start of the game, you'll place ships using this action, instead of moving them. Sailing to a space occupied by another player's boat is quite acceptable - after all, isn't it quite standard practice in fishing to compete for the best fishing spots?!


The purple fleet is on the move

Fishing action

As one action, you can collect one fish or amber token from a space occupied by one of your fishing boats. Fish go into one of your five cargo slots (top row of your player mat), while amber goes directly into your point-scoring warehouse (middle row of your player mat). If all five of your cargo slots are full and you haven't unloaded yet, you'll have to toss over one of the existing fish to make room for the one you've just caught! The fish in your five cargo slots need not be of the same type.


A fleet loaded with four cod, leaving just one empty cargo slot

Unloading action

If one of your boats is at a harbour, you can unload fish matching the demand tokens in that harbour, by moving them from your cargo to your warehouse. For a single unload action, you can unload all of the fish that a harbour demands. Now they're safely in your warehouse until point scoring at game end!


Both the Green and Purple players can unload salmon and cod at Gdansk

Other elements of game-play

Replenishing tokens

After a player has performed their three chosen actions, any space on the board that has no fish, amber, or boats, needs to be replenished - draw the required number of tokens (1 for light blue spaces, 2 for dark blue spaces) from the bag and place them on the board.

Time tokens

Whenever a time token is drawn while replenishing tokens on the board, it is placed on the time track, and the game temporarily stops. At this point all players must secretly choose one of their company tokens and put it face down on a market space on their mat. Once assigned, they can not be changed, and these will determine how many points each fish of that type is worth at the end of the game. Obviously you'll want to assign the 0 to fish that you're not catching, and the 3 to fish you think you'll catch the most of! Part of the game is to not narrow down your fishing options too quickly, because there is an element of risk here! It also adds a further element of hidden information, because you never know for sure what fish other players are going for as their highest point-scoring fish, and this injects further aspects of fun and excitement to the game.

The fifth token with the money bag represents a tax and must also be played at some point after a time token is drawn - when chosen, it means that you must discard any two tokens (fish or amber) of their choice from their cargo or warehouse. So at some point you'll have to give up something to pay your tax, so try to make sure you have something cheap or worthless on hand (a fish valued 0?) to give the tax man when he shows up!


Time is nearly up

Game End and Scoring

All good things must come to an end, including a fun fishing trip, and in the case of Mare Balticum the fishing season ends when winter approaches and the water is about to freeze over. When the sixth and final token is drawn from the bag, the current round is concluded and is followed by one final round, after which scores are calculated.


End of a four player game

At this point fish that have not been unloaded and placed in player warehouses are discarded and lost. So plan your final actions carefully so that you're not stuck with valuable fish on your boat - timing your end run carefully is important! For scoring, players now reveal their company tokens to indicate the value of the fish they have caught, and the fish and amber tokens in their warehouses are turned face up and scored, with amber tokens being worth 1 point each. In the example below, the player had assigned the 3x value to cod, and as you can see that proved quite lucrative with 7 cod! His three amber and single salmon were only worth a point each, however, for a mediocre final score of 25 points.


A final score of 25 points

Optional rules

The game comes with two optional rules for more experienced players, or for gamers looking for a slightly more challenging game than the family game.

1. Demand management: In this variant, the demand tokens aren't placed during set-up, but are determined by the first fish unloaded by players at each port as the game proceeds. With this variant, one of these demand spaces will also have a -1 value, which means that 1 fish of that type is lost whenever that particular fish is unloaded in that port. This variant gives players more control over deciding the initial placement of demand tokens in the harbours, but also makes the game more difficult by requiring giving up certain types of fish.

2. Commercial contracts: This makes a fourth type of action available to the players, allowing players to choose one of the six commercial contract cards as an action. At the end of the game, that player can choose to get 7 points for each set of four fish/amber tokens that match the ones on the selected contract card, instead of getting the points that would be earned from those tokens as normally determined by the market value of that player's company tokens.

Both of these variants introduce new elements of decision making and strategy, making the choices in the game slightly more challenging for those who find the game too simple, without adding to its playing time.


A sample contract card

CONCLUSIONS

What do I think?

Here are some of my impressions about Mare Balticum:

Beautiful artwork: "But it's modeling clay!" It goes without saying that this positive aspect of the game has to be near the top of the list. While there may be games with more attractive artwork from the perspective of aesthetics, the aesthetic appeal here is high, and the novelty factor is even higher. Really, what other game in your collection has artwork that originated in detailed sculptures made from modeling clay? This fact alone makes the game stand out from the average, and bravo to the folks who made this game for being prepared to go out on a limb and try something different. If ever you are waiting for your turn, you can enjoy admiring the artwork and pondering on the enormous effort it took to accomplish. Of course, even the best artwork will fall in a heap if it's not backed up by good quality components, and the good news is that the production quality of the game bits is pleasantly satisfying as well. Moving ships on the board and collecting fish tokens offers a toy factor that will be enjoyed by children and adults alike.

Family friendly: "Hey let's go fishing!" Mare Balticum works really well on the level of a family game. The designer's expressed intent is this: "The idea of Mare Balticum was to be a very simple family game, which would be fun even for six-year-olds, so from the very beginning, I tried to avoid unnecessary rules complications. The rules are very simple and can be explained in five minutes, and a whole game takes only a half hour, even with five players." I'm happy to say that he succeeded admirably. My 11 year old son learned the game on his own and taught it to the rest of the family all by himself, so that means that the rules are quite accessible. It's been enjoyed a great deal across a range of ages, and the children have been quite happy to play multiple times with the regular rules without wanting to try changing things by adding in some of the advanced variations. The game is very easy to learn and the flow of play is quick and streamlined. Thumbs up all round as a family game suitable for children as young as 6, and yet satisfying for dad and mum as well!

Compelling theme: "Fish and ships!" The fishing theme contributes immensely to the strength of the game. In the case of my family, I concede that's in no small part due to the fact that I have two sons who are fishing crazy, and their passion for catching fish has helped to get this game to the table many times! While the game isn't bursting with theme, there's enough of it there to ensure that it doesn't feel pasted on, and the simple pick-up-and-deliver mechanic fits the theme well, and really helps add to the game and enhance its appeal in a family setting.

Plays quickly: "Got half an hour free?" One of the best things about Mare Balticum is how quickly it plays. We have a big pile of family games to choose from, and while many of them are outstanding in their own right, many also take at least an hour to play. In comparison, Mare Balticum can be polished off easily in half an hour. When playing games with children, that kind of time frame is a real plus, particularly given the level of decision making and fun it offers in that time, and all this makes kids more readily want to bring it to the table, knowing that it requires a shorter investment of time.

Right mix of strategy, luck, and interaction: "It's skill, not luck!" The basic game is correctly billed as a light family game, and even bright six year olds should have little difficulty in catching on to the gameplay - although adults will likely beat them more often than not. As a light-medium game there is an element of luck in terms of how fish/amber tokens are drawn, and that's not a bad thing. But it won't determine the game, because the interaction with other players and competition for the different kinds of fish will more than likely play a bigger role in deciding the winner than any luck of the draw. In addition to making good tactical decisions about moving your ships and catching fish, your decisions in secretly assigning your company tokens and in deciding which fish to focus on - while trying to figure out the ambitions of your opponents at the same time - will often prove to be the key to winning the game. These things prevent the game from being the kind of pure luck fest that most gamers try to avoid, and offer room for interesting decisions without making it too complex or too easy. For families, Mare Balticum gets the mix of these ingredients just right.

Room for more strategy: "Let's make it harder!" If you really do want to ramp up the level of difficulty, you can always add in the advanced variations. I agree with the assessment of the designer (see here) that these variants turn the basic game into a more complex game for families and into a big filler game for gamers. In his words "My own gamer spirit and the valuable testers of the "Monsoon Group" inevitably made Mare Balticum work well not only as a family game, but also as a filler for experienced players. In the game we have two simple optional rules that enrich the game with more interaction and more diverse strategies. In fact, any group that knows even a few modern games should start playing immediately with the optional rules. The basic version is definitely meant to be played with kids." So if you want a little more thinking or calculating, try the variants. Even so the game will still only last half an hour, and still can't be considered a medium weight game as such. A fair assessment of Mare Balticum does require recognizing that it falls squarely in the camp of light-medium games, and it's only fair to judge it as such, rather than place it alongside medium weight euros like Notre Dame.

What's not to like? "I still don't like taxes!" If I had a complaint about the game - and it's only a small one - it's with the taxes. The game already punishes you by forcing you to assign company tokens that value certain fish types as 0 and 1 points respectively. While I can live with this aspect of the game just fine (see the designer's rationale for this here, which I agree with), do I really need to discard two fish to the tax man each game as well? This additional penalty seems to go against the spirit of collecting things, especially in a light family game for children, and seems to be a bit of an unnecessary downer that the game can well do without, unless there's a design-related reason as to why this had to be included. Perhaps it's intended to mitigate the pain of potentially ending up with fish that are worth no points anyway, but in reality we've found that we usually avoid those kinds of fish anyway, so the tax rule just seems unnecessarily harsh. Please don't steal my fish Mr Tax Man!

Recommendation

So is Mare Balticum for you? If you're looking for a straight forward and reasonably light family game that has the advantage of playing quickly, is highly accessible to a range of ages, has a good and fresh fishing theme that fits the pick-up-and-deliver mechanic well, and has high quality components with conversation-starting artwork, Mare Balticum might just be the game for you. It's not a meaty game designed to satisfy the appetites of hungry gamers looking for meat and potatoes. But as a family game playable in a half an hour, it offers just the right amount of decision making and fun to be enjoyed by children and adults alike. Well done Filip Miłuński!


End of a three player game

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mb The complete list of Ender's pictorial reviews: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/37596

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Rob Arcangeli
England
Manchester
Greater Manchester
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I have been waiting for this review since I saw your pictures being approved!
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Allen Doum
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Beautiful game, great photographs. Not sure it is my plate of fish.

And Bob: Love your Avatar.
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Andy Andersen
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Yet another fantastic review. Thank you
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Eric Dodd
New Zealand
Martinborough
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July 5th Miramar -Be There!
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Great review!

In your scoring example, isn't that 28 points (7x3 plus 3x2 plus 1x1)?

Edit: I see, those 3 are 1 point ambers, not the 2 value fish...
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redOne El Big Daddy
Belgium
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Thanks for the great review and the corresponding pictures to the explanation.

Picked this one up at Essen 2012 directly from the designer himself. Very friendly guy.

As for the components i'm quit satisfied but i ve had better cardboard pieces with other games. In my opinion it could have been just a little thicker than it actualy is.

Wish there where some clay mold captains included to boost up the theme a little. Maybe something for an expansion

Keep up the good work!
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Kevin Garnica
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Wonderful review as always, Ender.

I was lucky enough to pick this one up quite unexpectedly while perusing one of my FLGS. I distinctly remembered your opinion about the artwork, and saw on the back of the box how quickly it plays...!

Looks very promising.
 
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