Spanish Main is a game by Francis Tresham and has two releases, with some mechanical differences between them. The two main ones being how players sail their ships around the high seas and how the combat is performed.
In both editions of the game each of players are a well known character from history, they buy ships and arm them with cannons. Players set sail on the high seas in search of the Main. When they find the Spanish Main it is explored, and exploited. Carrying as much treasure as can be crammed onto your ship you sail home back across the high seas to cash in on your treasure grab. Along the way you try to avoid pirates and getting sunk. Gradually, over a few trips, the Main becomes fully explored or the bank runs dry, and the winner is declared.
Francis Tresham is known for producing some very innovative games. Does Spanish Main fit in with his tradition?
James: There is some amazingly different thinking in this game. In particular for me is the high seas movement in the 1st edition. It uses an abstract 'map' where players don't move relative to each but instead relative to actions, events and locations. It makes for some interesting tactical moves, especially in battle. For instance, if a ship reaches the Ship Ahoy! square on the 'map' they can attack any other ship that is currently on the high seas, no matter where on the 'map' it is. It's great fun as you jostle about try to escape to land or port, or try and board your opponent before you are completely sunk.
Mike: Yeah, this takes some getting used to at first. My copy of the game is 2nd edition, but the former owner included the 1st edition movement chart. It is unique, and does add a cat-and-mouse element, and much more hand management as you try to sneak your way through the Spanish blockade and zip to the Main and back. Battles are run on the same chart in a very abstract but interesting way. I would not want to many games to go this route but very glad to play this one.
Abstract Map of the High Seas
James: Then there is the tile 'revealing' mechanic for the exploration of the Spanish Main. The game contains tiles that are randomly placed face down at the start of the game. As a ship reaches an unexplored part of the Main a tile is flipped. Gradually a randomly generated archipelago is revealed. Somehow, and it is a sign of just of good the design is, so very often the tile fits perfectly, lining up with the coast and sea part of the neighbouring previous explored tile. It's just amazing.
Mike: The exploration is cool. In a Carcassonne-like manner, you have to match up sea-to-sea and land-to-land, and it often comes out looking pretty sharp. There are funky rules like trying a landfall next to an explored tile: if the tile does not fit, your ship is SUNK. Nasty. There are two types of find: a treasure chest in which you can grab all the goodies right away, or a mine which means slow extraction (and makes you a sitting duck when the other players come prowling). This adds a real ‘push your luck’ element. Also, there are hidden shoal that if you draw and are in too large a ship, you sink as well!
James: It's great, you enter unexplored areas with a sense of trepidation, but also excitement at what you might find. As the tiles are revealed and placed then treasure or mines maybe there for the taking (erm, I mean for trading with the locals). Extract this money and get it back to land and then your money is doubled and ready to invest (in the 1st edition) or to buy a bigger boat with, and you're gonna need a bigger boat.
An Example of the Explored Spanish Main
In both editions movement is by cards played from a hand. New cards are drawn from the top of a face-up deck, and played cards are placed face-up on said deck.
James: When I first read the rules for this I had to re-read them in disbelief. It goes against everything every other game does. The deck is face up, and played cards, rather than discarded are put face-up on top of the deck. Absolutely mental.
One thing I've learnt over the years though is to always believe in Sir Francis of Tresham. The mechanism is fantastic. The reason is that every player has two or three very strong sailing cards that are specific to their character. If another player draws these cards from the deck they are returned to the owning player. Therefore if you play a super strong character card and other players play lots of normal cards without drawing from the deck then your card is going deeper and deeper down the deck and you may not see it again for a while. Genius.
Mike: I simply could not understand how this was going to work my first read. The first play, though, demonstrated what a great idea this is, adding a hand management aspect to the game, trying to seed the deck in your favour for future turns, forcing the other player to spend turns drawing when he didn’t want to. Clever stuff, indeed.
The 1st and 2nd Edition Combat mechanics differ quite a lot.
James: The whole way the battle works in the 1st edition is extremely elegant. The opponents reveal their ship sizes to each other, this just gives at hint at their potential power. Their real strength (number of cannons) remains hidden. While they remain in battle the players will do 3 damage to each other, if they have that many cannons. So it becomes a game of guesswork and nerve. Can you hold out long enough to make that decisive move (to either escape or win).
The 2nd edition is different. It's a more traditional mechanic where a number of canons are committed to battle, some modifiers are applied, and a dice is rolled. With the lack of tactical display, the battle continues until there is only one winner.
Mike: All my wargaming instincts tell me I should prefer the 2nd edition combat. I think I do, but the chart used in the 1st edition is so damn nifty I’ve no hesitation playing that version as well.
James: It's difficult to pick which method I prefer, it's like comparing pineapples and coconuts. I particularly like the way in the 1st edition the attacker gets to see what size ship he is up against first and can decide to runaway like a coward if you don't like what you see.
It even has a rule for cheating.
Mike: Say what?
James: Well in the 1st edition anyway. There is nothing more thematic than being swindled out of your ill-gotten gains. When explored tiles from the main are revealed and placed they must fit (no land suddenly turning into sea etc.). However, should a whole round be played where no one notices then the game ends immediately and the lowest scoring player wins. How frick'n amazing is that!!!!!
Mike: And let me tell you: you know the rule, you are watching the other players carefully so as not to be surprised, but it just takes that one moment of inattention and the guy is smugly declaring victory as you curse yourself for missing how that tile was rotated 60 degrees off.
The game isn't just great mechanics. It's dripping with a great theme that naturally draws out the explorational treasure hunting and pirating.
Mike: I know of no other game like this one. It even comes with a foam mat for building your map on, making it easier to pick up the tiles. I think it might even get a good reception among today’s Euro-gamers, were it released now. There seem to be a lot of different approaches to winning, although admittedly there is quite the room for lucky breaks, especially in exploring the map. But isn’t that thematic anyway? Ask old Francisco Vasquez de Coronado what he thought about the fortunes of exploration.
James: There is a definite sandbox feel to this game. It gives you a world to play in. Explore and make money the peaceful way, opportunistically pirate, or make people walk the plank just for the fun of it. It all feels natural, none of it is seems forced (unless you are walking the plank, in which case the sharp pointy thing is pretty good encouragement). I've played Merchants and Marauders and for my money Spanish Main is a more fluid and fun game that implements the theme much better. It doesn't need plot cards and NPCs to keep it interesting, the game just encourages you to explore, exploit, and send your opponents to a watery grave.
And The Final Word...
Mike: Tresham is a master. I’ve not played a dud from him. The rules are a bit obtuse as written, but once you get the hang of it, this game is unique in feel and play. It does fly along, and there is not time to be bored. There are opportunities for bravery and cowardice, combat and exploration, navigation and prayer. There is hand management, bluffing, and important decisions on ship size and the level of greed you should present. This is a very nice effort, and you won’t be going wrong either version you get.
James: The game makes from some great cinematic events (both Cap'n Sparrow comical and Errol Flynn swashbuckling). The short player turns, interaction, and plenty of reasons to get in each others way means that this is fun game to play and the 2 or 3 hours it takes to play can fly by.
The different sailing and combat mechanics between the 1st and 2nd edition make for two slightly different games, but both are so much fun. Both also seem to have a thematic fit too, unless you're paying attention and have a good memory you never quite sure what you're getting yourself into.