Ships is the third game in Martin Wallace's transportation series, the first two being Automobile (which I love) and Aeroplanes: Aviation Ascendant (which I still have not played). This was the only game from Essen 2015 which I pre-ordered. So I had expectations of it.
The game board is divided into the ship technology track along the edges, and the map in the centre. When the players build ships or upgrade ships along the tech track, they get to place political control markers (disks) or merchants (cubes) in the cities in the map area. There are two types of ships. The merchant ships are, of course, for placing merchants, and the warships for placing control markers.
This is a player board. The first two rows are the warehouse and the bank, which determine how much space you have for goods and gold. As the disks get placed onto the gameboard, you will expand the capacities of your warehouse and your bank. The third row is your available pool of action cubes. The cubes in your colour also double as merchants. The fourth row lists the actions available to you. You spend cubes and gold to take actions. When you take an action, the cubes spent are placed in the corresponding action space. They are stuck here until you take the retrieve action to bring them back to the available pool. The fifth row is just a reminder for how many action cubes you get every turn, depending on which era you are in.
The cities on the map are divided into 6 regions, each region having its own colour. When you place a merchant (cube) or a control marker (disk), you gain an immediate benefit, e.g. goods, gold, victory points. When a region scores, you also earn victory points for each of your merchants and control markers.
The tech track is divided into 11 ages, and every age has two types of ships - merchant ships and warships. To be first to build a new ship, i.e. to place a ship marker in the next new age, you need to pay navigation points, which is one of the currencies in the game. Each time a new age is reached, the player who placed the first ship of that age gains points, and obsolete ships cause their owners to lose points. Players are constantly under pressure to upgrade their ships, or to dismantle the old ones before they cause too much harm.
As the cities in a region are gradually filled up, it becomes cheaper and cheaper to open up the next region. You also need to spend navigation points to open up a new region, but the cost, similar to how the tech track works, is discounted depending on how full the cities in the current region are. When a new region opens, i.e. when a player places the first merchant or control marker in it, the old region immediately closes and is scored. In this photo, the active region is the brown region. The greenish blue region is an old region and has been scored. At the moment you can see most of our merchants kept to the cities where we had control markers. This is because the control marker scores bonus points if there are merchants of the same player in the same city. However often players will end up mixing and matching because of the different benefits that can be gained from the different spots in cities.
The 11 ages on the tech track are grouped into three eras. These sail ships are from the second era.
At the start of each era, 12 cards are drawn and displayed this way. One of the actions the players can take is to claim one such card. Each of the three era decks have more than 12 cards, so the cards in play will differ from game to game.
Three different ship types representing the three eras - galleys, sail ships and steamships.
As the game progresses, spaces in the first two rows will be freed up due to the disks being placed onto the main gameboard.
The goods you collect can be sold for gold. Each of them has a special use too if you don't sell them. This adds a nice flavour to the game.
When there are five or more ships in the 11th and final age, the game will end. Players have some control over how soon the game ends. You need to analyse the board situation to determine whether it is beneficial to you for the game to drag on. In this photo there are no Age 11 ships yet. There is only one Age 10 ship, the red merchant ship on the left.
I played with Jeff, Heng and Ivan. We were all new to the game. In Ships the main thing you keep doing over and over is building and upgrading ships. Whenever you do this, you also place a merchant or a control marker on the map, which in turn means gaining resources or other benefits. Most of your actions are quite short-term tactical in nature. There is a cyclical nature in placing and upgrading ships, and also in populating cities and progressing to the next regions. There is a tempo in ships moving to the next age, and players starting to claim spots. You can score points for being first to build ships of a new age, but you need to have enough navigation points to do this. You also need to watch out for old ships which may cost you points. Every round you need to watch the tempo and try to position yourself to do the lucrative actions. You want to avoid setting up good moves for your opponents. You need to think ahead a few steps. You need to calculate and estimate the positions for the next few turns. The game flow is fluid because the actions are straight-forward. In fact they even feel simplistic and repetitive. However there is an underlying beat to all this that you must grasp and use to your advantage. You need to gauge when the next region will likely open up. You need to guess which spots your opponents will likely go for. You need to decide whether to block them or to do your own thing.
As you approach the 6th and last region, you will find that it is a boss fight. The victory points here are very lucrative, and there is no restriction on how many times you can score. You realise that 80% of the game is positioning yourself for this final showdown. If you are not prepared for this, you might be left standing in the dust.
I played rather instinctively and casually, and didn't really plan far or evaluate my options very carefully. In short, I was a little sloppy. My game was off-tempo and I soon found myself trailing the others. I missed quite many opportunities, or to be more accurate, I think I failed to set up good opportunities for myself. Instead I was hit by the old ship penalty quite a few times. This was the price I paid for not managing my pacing well. As we approached the final region, I noticed that Heng's warehouse was packed to the brim with grain. I realised then he had been stocking up for that final push. I was already behind and I knew my prospects were poor. I had to end the game as early as possible to prevent others from pulling even further away from me. That was the best thing I could do to keep my final score as close as possible to the rest. My desperation to end the game quickly benefited Ivan, who eventually won the game. He too wanted to end the game early because Heng was a major threat. Unfortunately for Heng, the two of us pushing hard to expedite the game end meant he couldn't fully unleash his fleet of warships.
Look at all that grain in Heng's warehouse! You know he's up to no good!
I (green) did rather poorly. Everyone had steamships and I was still sailing. Well, at least it was more romantic.
I consider Ships a heavy Eurogame. It is a strategy game, the type gamers like. It is rather different from Automobile, which is a good thing. The four rounds in Automobile are very structured, procedural and clearly defined. In contrast, the rounds in Ships feel like endless overlapping waves, with no clear-cut termination points. Yet there is a cyclical nature and a tempo. You need to feel the pulse, and ride the wave, and manoeuvre it to your advantage. In both games you need to watch your opponents, and you need to carefully calculate and plan.
When playing Ships you need to constantly remind yourself to prepare for the final region and for the end game. Failing to do that will likely mean defeat. I've read one review which proposes that if every player is competent enough to be well-prepared for the final region, then their scores from that region will be quite close. In that case what determines victory will be how well they have been doing in the previous 80% of the game, i.e. the clever tactical moves and the little additional efficiencies achieved. That sounds logical, but I have only played one game so far, so I am not qualified to say whether it's true. So far I can only say that the end game is indeed crucial and it is something you need to position yourself for. It's not unlike the farmer scoring in Carcassonne.
I like the game, so the short summary is: no regrets in pre-ordering the game!