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This review continues my series of detailed reviews that attempt to be part review, part resource for anyone not totally familiar with the game. For this reason I expect readers to skip to the sections that are of most interest.
If you liked the review please thumb the top of the article so others have a better chance of seeing it and I know you stopped by. Thanks for reading.
Game Type - Card Game
Play Time: 15-30 minutes
Number of Players: 2-4 (Best with 3-4)
Mechanics - Card Drafting, Set Collection, Push Your Luck
Difficulty - Pick-up & Play (Can be learned in 10 minutes)
Components - Very Good to Excellent
Release - 2016
Artist - Miguel Coimbra
Designer - Theo Riviere - (Shinobi WAT-AAH!)
Overview and Theme
Welcome to a world where ships fly and the clouds are the new sea of riches. But some things don't change and pirates will always be pirates, living by the code of 'finders keepers' and if you think you be keepin' that 'shiny' then you better think again because I wants it!
Sea of Clouds is one of those light gaming affairs that is easy to learn and even easier to play if you are after a nice 30 minute experience. It's set collection with a touch of this and a pinch of that thrown in for good measure.
Thematically the game mixes up the classic pirate troupe by taking us skywards and that allows room for a little more artistic license by the excellent Miguel Coimbra (7 Wonders, The Adventurers, Cyclades, Hyperborea, Imhotep, and Small World just to name a few) but in reality a large amount of the artwork and theme of the game still falls into classic pirate territory.
Iello as a publisher have several box sizes for their many releases and this is one of their white box collection in the mid-sized range, with Shinobi WAT-AAH! being the other at this point (there are several newer white box releases such as the re-release of Schotten Totten but they are classed under the Iello Mini-Game label).
But I digress with this industry news (just give me a job already Eric!)
It's certainly inoffensive but that doesn't necessarily make it any good. Hoist the mainsail and man the wheel ladee...we be searchin' for plunder in the clouds...
Sea of Clouds looks fantastic from an artistic point of view, from the presentation of the box and cover through to the artwork on the cards and boards.
Main Board - The main board is a small affair that serves to represent the islands that will be travelled to over the course of the game. It makes use of that classic coffee-coloured treasure map effect to support the theme and throws in skulls and crossbones for good measure.
Functionally the islands are used to keep track of where the game is up to (by moving the Ship Token). But those islands also feature 3 special locations that are marked with crossed cutlasses and these represent conflict hot spots.
The board also has room for a card silhouette and the numbers 1-3, which serve as the locations to place the loot piles against (more on that in the review proper).
The board is also double-sided and this is to allow for a difference in the number of islands for the 2-player game and 3+ player games.
Image Courtesy of Alice87
Cards - The cards are the central aspect of the game and this come with some great artwork to bring the theme to life and spark the imagination of the players.
Cards come in 4 different types; pirates, rum, relics and objects and each type has its own simple iconography and text if required.
Each card type comes in its own colour and this is important because the cards in the game will only be seen from the back-side until taken by someone. So it is very important that the icon and card colour are visible from the back of the card so players know what type of loot is on offer.
The game presents the cards very well and it aids the play nicely.
The only thing I would have asked for with the cards would have been a matte/linen finish, especially given that it isn't uncommon to play a couple of times in a sitting. The lower quality gloss finish is still quite good but it is prone to picking up crude off of gaming surfaces.
Image Courtesy of Alice87
Player Boards - Each player also receives a player board to represent the pirate captain that they are, although in truth there are no unique player powers here.
These boards are beautifully adorned with artwork to represent a certain type of pirate but as gorgeous as it is this is really theme building and nothing more.
What is important from a game play point of view is the 4/5 icons on each edge of the boards. This informs the players of which cards are placed along which edge of their boards to help with quick identification around the table and organisation as well.
Image Courtesy of Alice87
Doubloons - Doubloons are of course the currency used in the game and Sea of Clouds uses nice thick cardboard money that comes in 1, 3 and 5 value denominations. These are nice to collect and feel good in the hand.
Image Courtesy of Alice87
Parrot, Ship and Hat - The game makes use of 3 special tokens. The Parrot standee is used to track who has the edge in draws, the Pirate Hat denotes the start player for each round and the Pirate Ship is of course used to track which island the players are currently on (it’s a communal thing).
Image Courtesy of Alice87
Scoring Pad - The game also makes use of a scoring pad akin to that used in 7 Wonders and Unfair to help record the scores for each type of scoring option and then calculate the player totals. It's a nice touch in a game of this size.
Image Courtesy of Alice87
Rules - The rules are very good, using nice colour and examples for elements of the play. There are a couple of card combinations that could have been spelled out a little better but on the whole they get the job done.
Image Courtesy of Alice87
There isn't too much to say except that the components on offer here are very good indeed and given the asking price I think they represent good value for money.
Image Courtesy of Alice87
Befitting a game that is family friendly and fluffy as a cloud, the set-up is a quick affair.
Shuffle the cards (quite well actually as they will be clumped by type from the previous play) and make sure when you shuffle that you aren't looking at the top card type. Ok I'm a little anal about such things but it isn't hard to do.
Deal 3 cards to the edge of the Island Board face-down so only the card backs can be seen and place the Pirate Ship on the first island on the central board.
Each player takes 3 Doubloons from the bank and a Pirate Board of their choice. A start player is chosen and they receive the Parrot Token and the Pirate Hat.
The game is ready to begin.
If playing with 2-players a series of additional cards must be removed from the deck. The cards removed include one of the sets of Relic Cards and 5 random Objects, Rum and Pirate cards. This last part is a little painful because it requires sorting out the cards by type before selecting 5 at random and then these cards need to be shuffled back in thoroughly. If you are going to play with 2-players regularly then this is fine, but if you are switching between 3+ and 2-player games it would get annoying quick I think.
Sea of Clouds is one of those great light games where the rules and the play flow are easy and the game comes naturally after very little time.
The game is played over a series of rounds (depending on the number of players [12 for the 3+ player format, 15 if playing with 2]), in which each player gets one turn per round.
On a player's turn they must do the following :-
Assess Loot Pile #1 –
Image Courtesy of Alice87 The first action taken by a player is to assess the first pile of loot. This allows them to look at the face-down card(s) in the first loot slot. This will of course comprise of a single card at the start of the game, but it may contain 2 or 3 cards at other points in time.
Having seen what the card(s) have to offer the player must decide if they will take the loot or leave it.
Taking Loot – Taking loot allows a player to add the card(s) they took to their stash. This means adding the cards to your play area. If any cards have a trash can icon they must be played immediately for their once-off bonus before being discarded.
Other cards are added to one of the 4 locations around a player's Pirate Board, as outlined by the icons on each side. Any Rum Cards or those marked with a '?' icon are placed face-down and kept secret. All others though are placed face up.
The order in which cards are put into play in this way is up to the active player, as sometimes the order can matter based on various powers.
Leaving a Loot Pile Behind – If a player decides to pass on a loot pile, they can move onto the next one to assess it in the same fashion as has already been outlined.
But before doing so they need to sweeten the pile for those coming later. This requires adding a card to the loot pile just left behind (from the draw deck) and this card too is placed face down.
A Loot Pile cannot have any more than 3 cards however. If a player passes on a Loot Pile which already contains 3 cards, a single coin is added to the loot to sweeten it further. Doubloons can keep being added to a Loot Pile that is passed on until someone finally can't resist and takes it!
Passing on all Loot Piles - It is possible for a player to pass on all 3 available Loot Piles. This may be because the offerings all offer something negative (there are some cards that are bad) or it may be that they are after a specific card type desperately.
In this case they add a card or coin to the final Loot Pile as normal and they can then take a single card from the top of the draw deck. Unless the 3rd Loot Pile already has 3 cards when they look at it, the player is really gambling on what kind of card they will draw as it will be under the card that has to be added to the final Loot Pile!
The Flow – Once everyone has had a turn at assessing the loot piles and taking something, the current round is up. To signify this the Pirate Ship is moved onto the next island. In most cases this will simply return the play to the start player and the game rolls on as outlined above.
But some islands on the main board feature a pair of crossed Cutlasses. When the Pirate Ship is about to leave these islands in the sky, a Boarding Action takes place.
This is where the various pirate captains decide enough is enough and board their neighbours to take what they couldn't find themselves.
Boarding allows the players to attack their neighbours, the players to their left and right (ala 7 Wonders). In order starting with the player holding the Parrot Token, the players compare their strength (sum of their Pirate Card values plus any additional boosts from Object Cards) to see who is the stronger.
The player with the highest strength wins the battle and gets to activate the benefits as outlined on each of their Pirate Cards. Most often this will be Doubloons but sometimes it can result in taking or exchanging cards or taking control of the Parrot Token.
A player can win 0, 1 or 2 battles in a single Boarding Action. Some pirates allow you to 'Gain' Doubloons, which are taken from the bank. The word 'Steal' though means you get to take it from any rival pirate captains that you defeated.
If two rival pirates should tie in strength, the Parrot Token is the tie-breaker. If neither player controls the Parrot, the player that is first in clockwise order from the Parrot's location wins the tie. This is important to note in the lead-up to Boarding Islands as you go about collecting possible Pirate Cards and assessing how you stack up versus the competition.
After a Boarding Action is completed for all players, all Pirate Cards used in the battle are discarded, meaning they will need to be recruited again with future Loot actions before the next battle takes place.
The Ship Token is then moved to the next island and the game can resume.
A Quick look at the Card Types – Not surprisingly there are four types of cards to match the four locations around the Pirate Boards.
Pirates represent the muscle that is needed to do well during the Boarding actions. Relic Cards are one of the key set collection elements of the game. These are represented by various treasures of the sea and the more of each type that are collected in a given set, the more points can be earned (and sometimes negative points will be incurred if not enough are collected).
Rum Cards offer a combination of set collection and end of game bonuses (get the most xxx cards to score y points). Rum Cards can also offer small locked-in points with no further requirements.
Finally we have Object Cards which can offer up points and powers, some of which are permanent and others being once-off. These feature a treasure chest icon and I would have thought that Treasures would have been a more apt title...but what do I know.
There is another type of card but it falls under the Object Card category. These are Secret Cards adorned with a '?' icon. Like Rum Cards, these are placed face-down when collected and they offer end of game bonus points for collected certain types of cards.
End Game and Scoring - The game comes to an end when the final Boarding Action is resolved at the final island in the sky.
The players then make use of a 7 Wonders-styled scoring pad to calculate the various ways to score points and determine an overall winner.
The Parrot Token again splits a tie in the final scoring, followed by the most Rum Cards and then the most Doubloons. The victor unleashes a thunderous Aargh! before flashing a salty grin!
The 2-Player Game and Scaling in General
Image Courtesy of MeeplePeat
I love finding games that play well with 2-players...sadly this isn't one of them and that's not surprising really. The neighbour mechanism of Boarding is rather bland with only two and the core element of set collection and seeding the loot piles is diminished greatly with only one opponent. There are plenty of great two-player games out there...go seek them out if that is what you're after.
How does Sea of Clouds scale with 3 and 4? Well for me the game is best at these player counts. I probably prefer the game with 4-players because it makes the most of the neighbour Boarding mechanism and set collection is at its most challenging. But with 4 the luck factor is a little higher too and the scoring is a little lower as the players fight to gain decent numbers of like cards.
At this point it is worth noting that if a card has its maximum score when 5 cards are collected, then that set of cards will only feature 5 cards in the whole deck. So with 4-players it can be a real challenge to get to the upper reaches.
With 3 players the neighbour Boarding mechanism still works and the players have a little less competition to try and reach those upper set collection scoring maximums. On the downside though, less cards will be accessed from the deck and therefore some critical cards to your strategy may still be in the deck when the game is at an end.
Such is Life and all that...
The Final Word
So what do I think of Sea of Clouds? I was pleasantly surprised actually and I really enjoy the game (I've played it 5 times in a week and a bit). It's really easy to get to the table and there is just enough here to keep me interested without it feeling too simple or dull.
The main fun is in that push-your-luck mechanism of investigating the Loot Piles. Sometimes you just know that the first pile is probably your best option...but those other 2 piles have had additional cards added...and you're just dying to see what they are! It's the mystery that drives the interest and of course being able to see the card type (thanks to the coloured backs and their iconography) gives you just enough information to know that those mystery cards could be just what you need!
From a game play perspective the game needs something to balance out the human need to explore the unknown. This is effectively done by forcing a player to add a card or coin to a pile of loot should you pass it by. Suddenly a player has to consider what they are leaving behind, what the other players are looking to collect and what is about to be added (the top card of the draw deck). Sometimes you just might feel the need to take something that may not be great for yourself in order to stop another player from gaining access to something really valuable!
This is really what drives the play of Sea of Clouds and as simple as it is, it's pretty compelling stuff and fun to see play-out over what is a pretty short timeframe.
That other added element of player interaction is of course the ability to 'Board' other players and gain access to valuable Doubloons (at a ratio of 1 coin to 1 VP they can't be underestimated). This makes the collection of Pirate Cards very important, but of course they are only a temporary commodity and beyond the Doubloons they can earn you, they offer few other benefits over the other set-collection cards. So Pirate Cards and Boarding is also something that needs to be balanced in relation to your overall card collection strategy.
So what does all this mean? Well for me at least Sea of Clouds is a pretty damned good time. There really isn't anything new here but the sum of its parts is fun and that's all I need in a game. Its simple flow and recognisable elements make it great for family gamers and those new to the hobby as the game feels like a filler, with just a little more thrown in.
That means it can appeal to seasoned gamers too as it is a perfect opener or closer to a games night for that segment of hobbyists. I'd get this if some good friends hadn't discovered it before me.
Till next we meet, scrub that poop deck, man the crows nest and bury that treasure in a candy-floss cloud!
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