Fleet is a Kickstarter game that I would not have had the opportunity to play if Allen hadn't bought it, because I usually don't follow Kickstarter games. It turned out to be a pleasant surprise for me.
Fleet is a card game and a development game. Like Race for the Galaxy and San Juan, cards are multi-purpose. A card can be used as money, to bid for licenses and to launch ships. A card can become a ship, if you pay the cost of the ship. You play the card in front of you. You can do this once per round. A card can become a captain. You are allowed to do this also once per round. You just put a card in your hand face-down, and slide it under a ship already launched. Manned ships can start fishing. Licenses that you own, ships that you launch, and fish that you catch all score points at game end.
Top left corner is the cost of launching this card as a ship. Top right corner is the victory point worth if launched as a ship. Bottom left corner is the monetary value if the card is used as money. The ship type depicted is only important for determining whether you can launch this ship. You must have a matching license for the ship type. Once you launch a ship, the ship type doesn't matter anymore. All launched ships behave the same way. They catch the same type of fish token (there is only one type), their maximum capacities are the same - four.
The core of the game is the licenses. These are large cards that form the license deck. Every round a number of licenses are available to be auctioned to players. You can buy at most one per round. A license has two purposes. First, it gives you the right to launch a specific type of fishing boat, e.g. a tuna fishing boat. You must have a license before you can do any fishing. Second, it also gives a special ability. This special ability is what makes the game. One license lets you launch two ships instead of one, and you get to draw extra cards when you launch ships. Another license gives you discounts whenever you buy another license or launch a ship. License abilities are enhanced when you own more than one license of the same type. So there is incentive to bid for a license even if you already own one of the same type. You do it not just to deny your opponent. You can benefit from it.
The tuna fishing license lets you launch tuna fishing ships. Its special ability is you can draw two cards at the end of a round, as opposed to one. If you have two tuna fishing licenses, you draw three cards and discard one. The more licenses you have, the stronger their effect becomes.
One particularly interesting license is the processing vessel license. It lets you move fish from your ships to the license card. Fish that have been moved to the license card can be spent to draw cards, and also can be used as money. This license is interesting because of the 4 fish per ship limit. When you ship fills up, you don't gain any more benefit from it. But if you have a processing vessel license to clear off some fish, you can continue to fish.
The game ends either when the fish run out, or when the licenses deck runs out.
I have only played with two-players so far, and I suspect the game will be better with more. The game is tight. There are not many rounds, and it feels like the game end approaches before you are ready for it. So every auction is important. Decisions are not just during the auction itself. You also need to think about how much money you will have going into the auction, and what licenses may be remaining in the deck. It is arguable that outside of the auctions, the game is multiplayer solitaire. In fact, outside of the auctions, the decisions are mostly straight-forward. However since the game feels so succinct, and the auctions are so critical, I feel that there is still a good decision-to-work ratio.
The need for cards is a constant pressure. Every round by default you only get to draw one card, right at the end of the round. You need to use your cards wisely, and you need to get an engine going to draw more cards into your hand. The licenses are mostly about drawing more cards, or saving money, which is basically saving cards. You constantly struggle to gain cards, and then you need to use them efficiently to score points. There aren't that many rounds in a game, and when you are short on cards, you may waste one or more rounds doing nothing other than drawing that one card per round. That is painful.
I wonder whether games tend to be shorter with two players, because there is a higher likelihood of rounds where neither player can afford to buy a license. In such situations the licenses on offer are discarded and new licenses are drawn for the next round. This speeds up the depletion of the licenses deck.
Ships launched in the early game will likely hit the four fish limit, so processing vessel licenses tend to be more desperately fought over. I am not sure yet whether they really are that crucial. I need to explore further whether there are strategies which would make them less important. I think if a game ends quickly, the processing vessel licenses would see less use.
Four ships launched, but only three have captains, so only those three can fish. Five licenses, two of which are processing vessel licenses.
I quite enjoyed Fleet. It's crisp, condensed and tight. It's a tableau game, like Race for the Galaxy and 51st State. It's not as varied or rich as these games. There is less combo-making. However there is a certain succinctness that I like. It's no prolonged engine building. It's a quick knife fight where every moment and every decision is crucial, and you can't afford to make many mistakes.