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Subject: Sea Rovers -- First Impressions rss

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Greg Schloesser
United States
Jefferson City
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History in Action Games is the brainchild of Van Overbay, a history buff who desired to design games that not only incorporated historical facts and information, but were also fun to play. His first design was Moonshot, which was based on the space race of past decades. Overbay’s latest design is Sea Rovers, which recreates the wild and dangerous period of pirates. As in Moonshot, the game is filled with historical information, so players can learn about the topic while hopefully having fun with the game itself.

The game is still being tweaked, so some of the mechanisms I discuss here may ultimately be altered. At its heart, Sea Rovers is a card game wherein players use cards to acquire, outfit and move ships, as well as interfere with their opponents’ plans. Ships are moved across a map of the Caribbean and Atlantic, with the ultimate goal being various ports – or opponents’ ships – which are ripe to be plundered.

Each player begins with six “goal” cards, which are ports that may be visited and plundered. Some are solely targets for pirates, while others must be plundered by buccaneers. Players also receive 10 pieces of silver, and are dealt an initial hand of cards, which can include ships, pirates, buccaneers, guns, crew and event cards. Ships are of several varieties (sloops, men-of-war, etc.) and will have ratings for speed, gun and cargo capacity. Captains are historical, and are rated for ability. Ships, captains and crew are designated as either “pirate” or “buccaneer”, while guns can be placed with either group – provided the ship is sturdy enough to hold the gun’s poundage.

A player begins his turn by drawing a card from the draw pile, or taking the top card from the discard stack. He may then play as many cards as he desires, paying the cost listed on each card from his supply of silver. The purpose here is to build new ships and outfit them with a captain, crew and guns. Ships can sail without crew and guns, but a captain is a requirement. The goal is to outfit a strong ship so that it will be more formidable when plundering ports or in conflict with opposing ships. A player may have a maximum of three ships in his employment.

Players may also set sail with one or more of their ships, each sailing up to the maximum number of spaces as listed on the particular ship card. If a port is reached, the player may attempt to plunder it, which involves rolling a number of dice equal to the total strength of the ship (ship, captain, crew and guns). Each port has a defense value as listed on its card, and the corresponding number of dice is rolled. As in the game Risk, dice are compared to determine who has the highest single die roll. If it is the attacker, the port’s defenses are defeated, and the town is plundered. An amount of silver as listed on the port’s card is placed aboard the raiding ship. If the port is victorious, the ship loses an item (crew or gun … losing a pirate causes the ship to sink!) and the assault is rebuffed.

Conflicts between opposing ships are handled in a similar fashion, but the attack continues until one ship is defeated and sent to Davy Jones’ locker. Any loot aboard the defeated ship is confiscated by the victorious ship. Loot is only safe if it is transported back to a player’s pirate haven, whereupon it becomes part of his permanent treasury.

When a player completes his turn, he must discard a card, then refill his hand to ten cards. Further, his treasury is replenished to his current level of wealth, which is initially ten silver pieces, but increases each time loot is brought home. This is a rather bizarre economic system, as players who are successful in raids will have more money to spend each turn, meaning they can take more and more actions. Sadly, this causes a “rich getting richer” situation, making it very difficult to keep-up or catch the leader.

Players receive a gold coin marker for each five pieces of silver in their treasury, and the first player to acquire seven gold coins emerges as the terror of the seas and wins the game. This took us the better part of 3 ½ hours, which was about 1 – 1 ½ hours too long. So much is based upon the cards one is lucky enough to draw, and it can take quite some time to construct powerful ships and begin sailing. I went several turns without being able to acquire ships, then several more turns unable to acquire suitable guns. We discussed various solutions with the designer, and he has indicated that he will incorporate a card drafting mechanism, and distribute cards at the beginning of the game to insure players begin with at least one outfitted ship. These changes should greatly improve the game and speed play.

There is no denying that the game has a strong pirate flavor, and the historical information listed on the cards is excellent. The game is also easy to learn, and plays fairly cleanly. In his efforts to keep the game fairly simple and straight-forward, the game does suffer from being a bit too vanilla. I wanted a bit more decision-making in the game, and was hoping for a bit more strategy in terms of combat and port plundering. Often, I was handicapped by the cards I possessed, and was often forced to play event cards even when I had no good reason to do so. This was forced upon all players as money is automatically refreshed each turn, so to not use it was silly. Further, it was one of the only ways in which to wash unwanted cards from your hand. The designer has indicated that he may revise this, allowing players to discard unwanted cards each turn.

My final assessment will certainly have to wait until the designer has finished his tinkering and offers a finished product. With the changes mentioned, the game will certainly improve. I wish it would include a bit more decision-making and strategy, but the designer’s aim is to keep it relatively simple and thereby accessible for more folks. In that regards, he has performed admirably.

Comments from Mark Smith:

- Beautiful components
- Great historical flavor on the cards, I actually did learn a few things.
- Combat system is very random, which I don't really mind in light-ish games like that, but which will turn some gamers off
- Seemed a little long for what it was, but easily adjustable by lowering victory requirements. Part of the length of our game was attributable to the pleasant table talk with the developer, etc.
- Good pirate feel, promoted by the artwork
- Economic system felt a little curious to me: A raid yielding 2 POE actually becomes persistent spendable income of 2 POE per turn. I guess this is a little like the system in AoS, where a delivery of goods is actually considered to be the establishment of a recurring goods delivery, yielding the applicable income every turn thereafter. But that seems a little strange in the context of a pirate raid - am I considered to be successfully raiding that harbor every turn forever? It's OK if I am, it just seemed a little curious.
- Along the same lines, it's a little artificial that I'm omniscient regarding where everybody else's ships are, and know exactly where I can go to intercept and fight them...but incorporating a "search" element to this game would change its nature so much as to make it almost unrecognizable, maybe unplayable, and certainly less fun.
- The fact that the money is re-spendable every turn, coupled with the need to "burn" cards, can put a player in a situation where they're basically compelled by the system to throw "take that" cards on opponents (I did this several times when there was no clear strategic reason to do it, except that I needed different cards in my hand and would reap no benefit from NOT spending my money). The fact that this is sort of a "rich get richer" game (which I don't mind) makes this situation a little perverse, where the player in the lead has a strong incentive to "pile on," where the natural inclination might not be to do so. At a table of "gamers,' this isn't likely to engender any hard feelings, but I could see casual players getting upset at this.
- The luck of the draw in the cards has a very strong influence on the game, but the drafting mechanism should mitigate that to a great extent.
- I would be interested to see how it plays with less than the full complement of 4. I thought the level of player interaction was pretty good with 4 between the direct combat and the "take that" cards. Less interaction would not improve the experience.
- Altogether, I enjoyed the game for what it is: I light/mid-weight card-driven board game that nicely captures the flavor of the age of piracy with simple (unwritten, as yet) rules, playable in a couple of hours (with an experienced group or maybe some reduced victory conditions). Not necessarily something I would throw at the top of my wish-list, but something I wouldn't mind playing again. I think it's potentially a very good fit for his target market.
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