When we have a game night I always “overpack,” and by that I mean I always bring more games than I know we’re going to be able to play. Last time we gamed at Julie’s I took over Oltre Mare, as well as Hansa and some of the others. I’ve also lately been in a bad habit of playing show-and-tell with new games (sorry, Julie), and at that time I was so excited about Oltre Mare that I had to pull it out. I am not familiar with the original edition, but the Amigo version, with its cool ships, attractive board, and carefully-illustrated cards, is an eye-catcher for sure, so I was elated when Julie recalled it and we pulled it out to set it up.
We read through the rules and struggled through a round or so. Julie and I have played Bohnanza before, and I remembered that Oltre Mare shares something of the same mechanic, but on our first go-round through the rules everything jumbled together and all the useful comparisons I had been able to cook up in my head previously were instantly gone. There is certainly a LOT that goes on with each card (more on that later), and until we got the flow of the game (which, admittedly, took only a couple turns) we very tentatively felt our way around the game.
The First Half: Observations
I ended up with enough Rubies to settle into those quite early, while Julie focused much of her early game on Olives. We traded briskly and bought cards at a regular pace, and Julie proved to be much more of a navigator in the early part of the game: she made her way around quite a bit of the Levant area, snatching up Navigation harbor tokens. When she shifted away from Olives to Salt we noticed that she started getting seriously hammered by pirates, and we began to pay closer attention to the pirate symbols. Julie was astute with her moves, though, and with careful manipulation of harbor tokens was able to keep the pirates off her back throughout the whole of the game before interim scoring. I think I caught on to the harbor tokens a bit slower than did Julie, and while I was not ineffective with them I also sailed around quite a bit less.
Just a couple turns before interim scoring I ran into a serious cashflow problem. I was loaded with cards in my hand, and then had to liquidate them because I hit a serious hand limit. Then, with practically no cards in my hand I managed to place on top of the freight stack a card that demanded I play four cards out of my hand (oops). I struggled to make up the difference, and charitable trading by Julie kept me just out of the hole, but I was quite glad when interim scoring came along to save me from plunging into debt.
When the Venice card showed up we did our interim scoring, and we discovered something of a mistake—we had not been closely watching how many cards we had been playing into the freight stack. Each of us had freight groups which included goods cards of zero value, because we had placed more successive cards into the stack than we could get money for. Case in point—recall Julie’s Olives, for which she had been aggressively trading in the very first part of the game. She had several more cards than she earned ducats for, as she had been concentrating on collecting the set for the first few turns. My Rubies, as well as a few other cards, suffered a similar fate. Even so, we came out about even—both in the mid-40s, though if the truth be told Julie would have likely added a few more points if we had been playing into our freight stacks more correctly. After fiddling with the rules to find out how to pick up the game from interim scoring—Julie’s turn had been interrupted at its very end—we put down our freight group and kept moving.
The Second Half
We moved into the second half of the game more aware of what we were doing with the freight stack, and more cognizant of the relationship the game establishes between a high hand limit but low number of plays, and vice versa (a high number of plays but stringent hand limit). Second half of the game proceeded much as the first, though we had each developed new trading focuses and traded with each other somewhat less eagerly than in the first half of the game, I think. We also found ourselves on completely opposite ends of the map: Julie had stayed in the Levant after breaking away to the Black Sea for a bit, and I puttered around in the western Mediterranean. We found ourselves more carefully manipulating our ships to guide them to the harbor tokens we found more useful, and with the tokens dwindling in number the card/board interaction played a much more important role.
The second half was much shorter than the first, not only because we knew more what we were doing but also because I had several trades which demanded that I drew three or six cards into both my hand and the pirate stack. For this reason I found myself mired in pirates, and I tried to keep up with them by sailing to some of the ports in western Italy where I was able to utilize my harbor token to buy cards off the stack at a reduced cost. Pirates became the source of the tension for me in the second half of the game, and Julie kept trading away. I had perhaps spent too much in buying off the pirate stack, however, and once we realized the –1 ducat penalty per pirate card was MUCH less than the 3 ducats we were paying to buy them Julie seemed much less concerned to clear out her own stack.
Soon we were done, and when we tallied the score Julie had come away with the victory—but not by much. Julie: 80, Justin: 75.
If I had to pick the weakest element of the game as we played it with two players, I’d have to say it was the trading. Unlike Bohnanza, though, which requires special rules just so you can play the game with two, Oltre Mare scaled down well to that number; I was just curious what it would have been like with a couple more people to mix up the cards. I think the reason this game works with two without the rules changes Bohnanza requires is because this game is not JUST about trading and hand management, but about hand management, trading, pirate management, freight management, and spatial manipulation (on the board). Of course, all of these elements are related to your hand management and your trading, but with fewer players the trading interaction is significantly lower, as you have only one place to take your bargaining chips, so if Julie ain’t buying my scrolls I’m stuck with ‘em.
Even so, I think the game was quite fun, and we both talked about how different it would have been with more players to gobble up the harbor tokens. We both loved the harbor tokens, and it’s obvious that with more players they would disappear quite rapidly, and quite possibly disappear altogether (or become prohibitively scarce) by the time one has reached interim scoring.
Given the structure imposed on the game by interim scoring, however, I can see the justification in this. In the first half of the game players have nearly no funds to work with—it’s quite hard to buy cards and stay in the black when you start with 11 ducats and cards cost 3. Harbor tokens help soften the blow, making it quite possible that you can get by with making less each turn (because you’re not getting nailed by pirates, or because it costs less for you to buy a card) or ensuring that you get more each turn (by adding one to your total trade value, or providing money for sailing elsewhere). Careful resource management is really essential in this first stage of the game.
After interim scoring, though, I felt rich, and I felt like I could afford some of the expenses that would have been very damaging in the first half of the game. The focus shifts from trying to maintain your operational expenses to maximizing your profit. This makes sense if one imagines that with interim scoring one sells off all the cargo in the hold of one’s ship—as a result, the merchant would have a lot more money to fund further trading ventures. So I very much enjoyed the flow of the game and the different stages of tension this mechanic created.
As I think about the card management aspect of the game I am astounded by how much each card does: sets hand limit; determines profit, movement, pirate penalties, and cards drawn; sets the number of cards one can trade; AND counts toward final scoring. The admirable thing is that these mechanics do not fit together clumsily but instead make a system that flows easily and logically—once one gets what’s going on. Having heard the comparisons to Bohnanza I thought that Bohnanza might be a game to play with people first before introducing them to Oltre Mare, in the same way that one might teach San Juan to people before busting out Puerto Rico. But because there are so many things actually happening simultaneously on each card, and things that happen affect you immediately (like during the trading phase), during the next turn (like the hand/play limits) and several turns down the road (during the scoring phases), I can see not being able to pull out Oltre Mare with everyone who “gets” Bohnanza. Very fun, and I’ll certainly look forward to playing it again to see once more how all those pieces interact—though next time I’d like to try to pull it out with at least another person sitting at the table.
I bought this right when it came out but amazingly (and sadly) never tried it until last week when I played the new Rio Grande version. It's a fabulous game and when I play games like this I'm reminded how special some of these game creators are. The system in Oltremare really is amazing in that it does so much with just a deck of cards. I'm looking forward to playing this again soon.