Year Published: 2014
Publisher: Garphill Games
Playtime: 60 minutes
One Sentence synopsis: Construction-oriented prelude to the inevitable death and dismemberment.
The small seaside Hamlet never saw it coming. Four large longships materialized out of the morning fog, the waves gently lapping the sides of the boat as the currents pushed over 100 heavily armed warriors towards the shore. Unseating their shields and leaping silently over the side as the hulls began scraping the sandy bottom, the group made their way out of the water and started at a brisk pace towards the columns of grey smoke emanating from the village’s huts just over the beach’s ridge. The skinny chimneys of smoke soon turned to large plumes of black, and screams could be heard back at the boats as the warriors took what they may. The terror of the Southern shores had begun.
Or at least, that’s what I imagine happened after the hard-labored raiding fleet I built playing Shipwrights of the North Sea was stocked and launched. Recently released after successfully funding on Kickstarter, Shem Phillips’s Shipwrights of the North Sea foregoes focusing on all the stereotypical looting and bloodshed people normally associate with vikings, and instead puts you in charge of a Norse village attempting to build its first small fleet. Players use resource management and card drafting to build their towns and fleet, and to recruit necessary craftsmen and helpful citizens along the way to assist their own projects or hinder other players. In this review we’ll go over the game’s basic rules and flow, discuss the components and quality of the game, and finish up with our COG Takeaway to let you know whether this game might make a good addition to your collection.
Shipwrights of the North Sea is extremely easy to learn. The rules are tight and concise, well laid-out, and well-written, and the inclusion of a pronunciation guide for the ships is a nice touch. Our game group was up-and-running in about 10 minutes, and the game itself was over in about 60 minutes with 4 people. Adding a 5th player extended the game-time by another 45 minutes or so, but we had multiple people in that game who were on the verge of finishing their fleets which extended things beyond what you’d normally see. I’d say the advertised playtime of an hour is pretty accurate, though if your group is especially cutthroat you might want to add some padding. Although you can play with less than 3, I’d hesitate to stray under 4 for maximum enjoyment.
The ultimate goal of Shipwrights of the North Sea is to end the game with the highest number of victory points. Players start the game with their village, 5 gold(tracked at the top of the playboard), 2 resources of their choice chosen from wood, wool, and iron, and some villagers. Hands of 3 cards are used in their entirety each turn, and refreshed at the beginning of the next round using card-drafting. The starting player takes a number of cards equal to the total players, plus one, chooses which card he/she would like to keep, and passes the rest to the next player. This continues until each person has 3 cards, at which point play proceeds one at a time around the table with each person either using or discarding the cards they drew, finishing construction of a ship, or trading for goods.
There are multiple card-types players will encounter while playing the game. There are, of course, ships, of which there are 10 unique types players will come across and choose from in order to build the four they need to finish the game. The total victory point value of each ship is displayed in the top right corner of the card along with its military value, which can net additional victory points at the end of the game for the person with the strongest military fleet. The ship’s name and any special attributes it has(i.e. gaining/losing an additional villager each round, lowering/upping amount of resources you can store, etc.) is displayed in the upper left corner, and the resource cost of each ship along with the craftsmen the player must possess to build the ship are listed at the bottom.
Players are allowed to have two ships under construction at any given point; one for each Workshop on their village card. In order to finish building a vessel, the player must sacrifice the number of gold, villagers, and resources listed at the bottom of the ship card. Additionally, they must have in-play all of the craftsmen listed at the bottom of that ship, who are then also sacrificed to finish construction. Easy enough, right? Eh, not so fast. Simple, yes, but this whole endeavor takes a lot more planning than you’d initially think. For starters you need to carefully plan which ships you’re going to start constructing, because once they’re placed the only way you can remove them is by using the Barbarian citizen card to smash one of your own ships, or hope someone does it for you. Secondly, you’re limited to carrying over 4 craftsmen in front of you each turn, and they can only be replaced if an Assassin citizen card takes one of them out. In other words, if you’re not careful you could end up card-blocking yourself from doing much of anything until some calamities befall what you have in play. Plan accordingly.
Furthermore, getting the craftsmen required to build each ship takes longer than you’d think in many cases. There are numerous craftsmen in the game, and whether the ones you need come up during card drafting is totally random. That said, the Conspirator citizen card helps a bit in that regard, letting you bribe one of your opponent’s craftsmen over to your village.
If you couldn’t tell already from the few I’ve mentioned, citizen cards are another card type players will come across. These cards are one-time-use plays, which are discarded to receive whatever effect is listed on the card. These range from things that can hurt other players, to giving you more gold, resources, or workers. A final card-type, buildings, allow you to construct various buildings that give bonus victory points, or help the player in some other way.
Now you might be wondering, how do you get all these resources each ship requires? Well, for the low-low price of 2 villagers and 2 gold, the number of wood, wool, or iron showing on the back of the top card on the draw pile can be YOURS! Players can do this as many times as they want on their turn, though the values may change depending on whether the top card of the draw pile changes during the turn. At the very least each round will have a different exchange rate for each resource, and since players can only keep eight resources in their mill to carry over each turn it forces everyone to strategize when they’re actually going to acquire. Each player also gets 1 villager or more at the end of the round depending on the buildings/ships they have finished, and 1 gold per villager plus any additional gold from bonuses.
Whenever one player builds their fourth ship, everyone finishes the round and the game is then scored. The person with the highest victory point total wins. That’s important; it’s not the person who finishes first, the person with the most ships, or even the person with the most victory points at face-value on their constructed ships who is going to win. Buildings can make a big difference, and we actually had one game where the player who trailed in last place the entire game ended up in 3rd place just 1 point shy of 2nd because his buildings were good. The 2nd place finisher in that game also almost came 1st because he had opted to construct a building that made his non-military ships worth additional points at the end.
Player interaction hit a sweet-spot with my group, giving us enough chances to be cutthroat and disrupt someone else’s plan through either denying them cards in the draft or using one of the citizens on them, without becoming so overbearing that it’s all anyone ever did or set someone back so far they had no chance of winning. The many viable paths to victory also kept the game from becoming stale after multiple sittings, and each playthrough hit a nice time that was neither so short that people felt rushed, nor so long to lose engagement by the end. Although the occasional turn boiled down to luck in the draft, there are enough strategic and planning elements involved to offset the frequency of lucky/unlucky drafts, enough so that the group actually just had a good time laughing at those instances and giving each other a hard time. Still, your group may get put off by the limited ways to defend yourself against some of the take-that elements, so keep that in mind.
If you’d like the final verdict on Shipwrights of the North Sea having just read the rules, scroll down to the bottom. Now though, I’m going to discuss the game’s components. One word sums up everything about this game’s components: outstanding. The box is a very good thickness with a linen finish, and feels very sturdy. Upon opening the box, you’ll immediately notice everything fits very snugly within the insert; there is enough room where you’re not trying to re-puzzle how in the hell the manufacturer was able to fit it all in there in the first place, but everything is sized small enough where you don’t feel there’s a ton of wasted space, and components don’t fly everywhere when you put the box away. The game comes with some extra baggies as well, but they ultimately prove unnecessary.
The card components of the game are also of excellent quality. I was really expecting some very thin boards when I first opened my copy, but I was pleasantly surprised to find the boards actually have some weight to them, and a linen finish to boot. This goes for both the player boards, as well as the ship-reference boards which are very useful inclusions for the game. The cards are the same way- they have a linen finish and snap well, and I don’t foresee many issues with peeling or anything like that like you do with lesser quality card-stock or other finishes.
Another nice touch is the inclusion of shaped wooden resource tokens rather than colored blocks. The wood looks like a log, the wool token looks like a sheep, iron looks like an ingot, and the little ships used for gold tracking the top of each player board look like a small Viking longship. The villagers are also shaped, meant to look like warriors with what people traditionally consider the quintessential viking helmet. As you can see, one of our warriors is apparently a veteran because he’s missing a leg. We’ve affectionately named him Torvald.
Finally, I have to comment on the art. It’s the whole reason I looked at this game in the first place, and it definitely does not disappointment in person. The folksy, pseudo-exaggerated art style Mihajlo Dimitrievski used for the game is absolutely gorgeous, and it really completes the experience.
COG Takeaway: If you enjoy resource-management games that involve planning and have a smidge of confrontational player interaction, and want something lighter that’s only going to take an hour to get through, Shipwrights of the North Sea is a great choice. I really can’t speak highly enough of the tightness of the mechanics and the outstanding production and art value, though I will caution that there are some elements that can make you “stuck” for numerous rounds if you don’t plan your strategy carefully. If you can find it(visit Garphill’s Official Site), buy it.
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