Based on my limited solo experience, the course of any single play of this game is bound to be unlike any other play that came before it - random events, card order and deck building preference see to that.
However, we are provided with what is essentially the same initial situation. Even how this constant sequence of events is to be managed still evades me to a degree: Should Carthage rush in to gain the upper hand in victory points, forgoing more early drafts and "optimal" play of its cards? Should Rome dive into Syracuse right away, or is it healthier to assume it will be out of reach before the first round of scoring is due?
What follows is my take on Carthage. First what I take for granted, then possibly rewarding deviances from that.
-I think settling Agrigentum and at least one other town in Sicily or Sardinia are the desired Carthaginian goals for the first round, together with at least one draft. Agrigentum is almost always best settled through the play of Clupea, and preferably not Lilybaeum. I think a solid first draft for Carthage is a unit of cavalry or the magistrate. The suffete is better later on, once you are richer and you hold more cards, and fortification is most desirable once under clear threat or once you have settled your westernmost outposts. Is what I have written so far sound? This game still baffles me,...
-The most obvious paths , to my understanding, to initial Carthaginian settling are Clupea for Agrigentum and a cart (maybe Thapsus or Caralis) to Thermae or Oristano. However, I have spotted two main variants that underplay the economic boost of Lilybaeum or Utica. The purpose is to preempt the Roman player and set your boundaries as far out as possible to restrain Rome from the get-go. Those are:
* Ship symbol to Olbia
* Ship symbol to Tyndaris
Say, for example, Rome has attacked Syracuse early and commited the Messana sword symbol. You then play Panormus and a ship to settle Tyndaris as a first action, and emergency levy cavalry as your second. Now Rome has to emergency levy equites or face a successful raid against Messana. If Rome has commited to buying a strategy card or ships, she may not even be able to get the equites. Either way, they pay 8 silver and you pay 6, so it's still a good trade. Plus, they won't be settling Tyndaris any time soon (so no Roman VP will likely be scored in Sicily). A similar principle applies to Olbia vs Roman Aleria.
The price you pay to be aggressive in this way is the money from Lilybaeum or Utica, but Roman play and the order your cards come up in often encourage me to settle in this way. To those expert players out there I ask: is it a good, even better then the more conservative, strategy?
Now I will move on to Rome. Rome has two, to my eyes, very clear objectives. Those are launching an attack against Syracuse and settling Aleria. Rome also wants to draft in one or two cards, probably the mercator and some equites (if only to keep the Carthaginian horsies in check). I'm not so sure about fortification instead of the equites. Would like some feedback about my opinion on Rome's start too.
-If Aleria is not settled due to unforseen circumstances (order of the cards combined with interesting strategy card and/or Punic meddling), it isn't the end of the world, but I think you want to set yourself up for a turn 2 grab at the very latest.
-As for Syracuse, I have come to believe you don't have to be in *that* much of a hurry to take it. Throw in your legion and a sword, but Carthage will probably beat you to the clock if they are really bent upon it. Attacking Syracuse early is good though, because I think it might hasten Punic play, even if Rome then fails to capitalize as quickly as it could. I prefer to use available ship symbols to settle Aleria or perform trader actions, and I am reluctant to commit Messana to the fight unless I am sure I can counter the Carthaginian opening I commented above,...
So anyway, those are my 2 cents on the issue of the opening moves in Hands in the Sea. As I mentioned, I am looking forward to exchanging opinions and experience from more knowledgeable players than myself. And, you know, there's also this tournament thing coming. Any would-be oponents are welcome to share, rather than withhold, their opinions too