Tuesday, 14 July 2020

Endeavor: Age of Sails

The Game

Endeavor was first published in 2009. I quite liked it and bought a copy. The new version, Endeavor: Age of Sails, was published in 2018. Allen has a copy, and it comes with quite a number of expansions. In this new version, the game has been tweaked, but it is 95% the same as the first version. Allen, Han and I tried the new version, using one of the expansions - Exploits.

Endeavor: Age of Sails is based on the age of exploration and colonisation, when European nations explored and conquered the world. You play one such European nation, and you compete with other nations in discovering and colonising new lands, developing your economy and technology, and building your globe-spanning empire.

This is your player board. In the top half you see four tracks representing four aspects of your nation. Throughout the game, you will be constantly advancing in these four tracks, increasing the abilities of your nation. In the middle, you see eight slots for buildings. You start with one building, and in each of the 7 rounds in the game, you'll construct a new one. Which kind of building you get to construct depends on your Industry level, which is one of the four aspects of your nation.

Most actions you get to perform in the game are dependent on your buildings. Most buildings have one slot for a disc. When you place a disc there, you get to perform the action as specified by the building. Some actions let you place a disc onto the main game board, earning you some benefit. The second and third aspects of your nation are related to managing your discs. Your Culture level determines how many new discs you get every round. Your Wealth level determines how many buildings you get to reset every round. When a building has a disc on it, it can no longer be used. You need to do a reset, taking the disc back into hand, before the building can be used again.

The fourth aspect of your nation is Influence. It gives you slots for Asset cards. The slots are in the bottom row of your player board. Asset cards have various icons which boost the four aspects of your nation. Some of them have point values too.

This is the main game board. At the centre you have Europe. Surrounding that you have six regions to be discovered and occupied - North America, Central America, South America, Africa, India and the Far East. When a game starts, the six regions are not yet accessible. You need to do enough exploration to discover a region before you can start occupying cities in it.

You can see many natural and light blue discs on the game board. The board is seeded with them randomly at the start of every game. When you place your own player disc on a space with a natural or light blue disc, you claim it for yourself. The icons on the natural discs improves the four aspects of your nation. The icons on light blue discs allow you to perform specific actions.

This is the Far East region. In our game, many of the seeded discs happened to be shields, which improve the Influence aspect of a nation. At this moment Allen (blue) and Han (yellow) had started exploring the Far East. They had placed discs on the shipping track along the right. When the shipping track fills up, the region opens for occupation. The player with the most discs when the region opens becomes the governor of the region, which means claiming the governor card of the region. The governor card is similar to an Asset card. It has icons which increase one or more aspects of your nation.

There is warfare in the game, but warfare is costly, to both aggressor and victim. Yet, sometimes it is worthwhile for the aggressor. You need specific buildings or action discs to attack an opponent. Both aggressor and victim lose a disc, and the aggressor takes over one city or fleet previously controlled by the victim. There is no defense. Well, other than pleading, which doesn't always work. 

When using the Exploits expansion, at part of game setup you will randomly pick three Exploit cards like this one above. Exploits allow you to perform special actions in lieu of the normal actions. They also allow you to score points based on additional criteria at game end. An Exploit is linked to two specific regions on the board. It comes into effect only when both the regions are open. Only players who have presence in both regions may use its abilities. In case you lose presence later (e.g. you are attacked), you will lose access to the Exploit too. Exploits are all based on historical events, so they add flavour to the game.

In the game we played, Africa was linked to two of the Exploits we drew, so we set Africa up with two keys. When Africa opened up, we would move the keys to the relevant Exploit cards as reminders. Note that these pretty keys only come with the Kickstarter version of the game.

In this photo above, you can see discs on the cities, as well as on the lines linking the cities. If you occupy a city, you get the disc on it. If you occupy two linked cities, you get the disc on the link between them too. This mechanism influences how you plan your conquest, and how you compete with others.

The Play

Endeavor is a game of balanced development. Of the four aspects of your nation, if some advance too quickly and some too slowly, the slow ones will cripple you and waste the quick ones. In this it is a little like Through the Ages. Endeavor does this in a simpler and more abstract way. This sounds limiting, as if you are constrained to one way of playing, but you do have flexibility in choosing how to develop the four aspects. You get to decide which ones to prioritise over others. There are still tactical decisions to be made throughout the course of the game. You have to grab opportunities, compete smartly, and optimise your moves. In some ways it's an efficiency game. Players are doing similar things, and you sometimes win through better efficiencies gained here and there throughout the game.

In our game, I had to learn the strategies all over again because it had been quite some time since my previous play, so I did not spend much time thinking about the Exploits. I focused on only the basic gameplay. I did not get a good grasp of the Exploits. Han made good use of the Exploits, in particular the Letters of Marque. Right before the game ended, he attacked Allen's lone disc in the South American shipping track. This resulted in Han being the only player with discs on the shipping track, and he scored a bonus for that. Because of this bonus, Han eventually tied Allen for the win. The game has no tiebreaker, so they were both winners, and I was the sole loser. My problem was my Industry level. I was too slow in advancing it, and didn't get many decent buildings which were more efficient.

This was my player board in the final round (all building slots were filled). My Industry level (first track) was good now, but I only got to this level quite late in the game. You can see my three mid-game buildings were the same. My Industry level was low then and that was the best I could do.

There is an interesting tension between competition and collaboration in opening up new regions. If only one player does exploration to open up a region, it takes much time and effort. Things can speed up significantly if more players chime in. However that also means they are competing for discs, for cities to occupy, for the governorship and for the Asset cards. Deciding which regions to go for and how hard to compete / collaborate is something you constantly do.

Endeavor: Age of Sail is a game of contesting in details, as opposed to grand strategy. Everyone needs to develop in a somewhat balanced manner, so there are no wildly different strategic directions. The main difference in pursuit among players is which regions to invest in. The rest of the competition is more tactical in nature. It is still interesting and challenging, just don't expect extremes. Extremes won't work here.

The game board is double-sided, to cater for the different number of players. This is one improvement over the original. We had only 3 players, but we almost filled the board. We did not battle much, since there were enough items to grab to keep us busy. It was more efficient to grab unclaimed cities than to fight others for theirs. With more players, I expect more battles. I (white) did not do much exploration or colonisation. I only went to 2 regions outside of Europe. Allen (blue) was most aggressive, and had presence in 5 regions. He was the only power in North America (top right corner). Han (yellow) had presence in 4 regions.

This is India. I (white) captured a few linked cities so that I could claim the discs on the links. At game end, the cross icons on the links also gave me 1VP each.

The Thoughts

Endeavor: Age of Sails is a development game. You start with humble beginnings and you steadily build your empire throughout the game. It gives you that kind of satisfaction, seeing your power grow. You gain access to more and more actions and options. The game accelerates towards game end. There is much player interaction, even though not necessarily through warfare. Ultimately warfare is just a means to an end. It is costly and you will weigh the ROI before you commit. You will need to watch out for threats. Not that you can do much to defend yourself (by pleading), but sometimes a deterrent in the form of counter-attack ability works.

The journey of developing your nation, balancing the four aspects, is challenging an interesting. Eventually all successful nations may look similar on the four tracks, but they may have reached there via different paths. It is an intricate balancing act as you strive to progress and stay efficient.

One word that I associate with the game is "comfortable", as in it is smooth, polished and streamlined. Some may think negatively about this, because some over-polished or over-developed games lose character and become bland. Indeed it may feel a little abstract, but I think it has enough to chew on. I adore the art work and graphic design, and they contribute to how at ease I feel with the game. It is a pleasure to experience the game. If you are looking for a conflict-heavy game, then this is not it. Endeavor: Age of Sails is a VP-scoring Eurogame.

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