November 21, 2014 by brennon
I saw Shipwrights of the North Sea on Kickstarter earlier this year and was immediately drawn to it. Not only was it about Vikings (big plus) but it had a great eurogame theme to it. In case you don’t know what a eurogame is it’s essentially a term for the use of mechanics and general playstyle of a game, usually without luck and focused on sound strategy over randomness. It’s a bit hard to define a eurogame actually but think Carcassone, El Grande, 7 Wonders, Agricola and you’re on the right track.
Back to the matter at hand. I contacted Garphill Games and asked if I could receive a copy for review and they very nicely sent me one after they’d fulfilled all the various Kickstarter rewards. I’ve now had a chance to play it and I think that those of you who want a great eurogame with plenty of planning and strategy and even a bit of backstabbing are going to enjoy this one.
The Rules Of The Sea!
Shipwrights of the North Sea sees you take on the role of a Viking tribe wanting to be the first to assemble a great fleet and conquer the North Sea and beyond through military means, trading and of course good old fashioned hard graft through assembling wealth and resources. At the beginning of the game you’ll be given a player board, some resources, a small pool of gold, some workers to get you started and a little cheat sheet showing the rewards for constructing certain ships. This begins your journey to fame and fortune.
Each turn the first player (represented by the Pioneer Marker) will pick up the amount of players +1 cards from the stack in the middle of the table and draft one into his hand before passing the rest on. He or she will do this two more times until they have a hand of three cards they want to play during their turn. Each other player will have the same. Then, starting with the first player again, the player will choose to do actions and play their cards (they MUST play or discard all of their cards) before moving onto the next player.
I’ll now go into some of the actions you can do on your turn. Players can…
- Buy Goods – This is a great little mechanic in the game where you can buy goods based on the value on the back of the cards left in the stack. This means that the number of resources is always changing between each turn. At one point there might be three wool on offer and other times just one.
- Buy A Tool – Tools help you negate a particular resource from ship building allowing you to fast track some parts of ship building. These will cost you gold and you can only have one.
- Hire a Craftsman – A Craftsman may be a Weaver, a Carpenter, a Mason, A Woodcutter or something in between. You can have four of these at one time by your board and they are needed for making certain ships.
- Call on Townsfolk – Townsfolk are immediate action cards. Some screw over your opponents by killing their Craftsmen, some steal gold from everyone, some give you a bonus in gold right there and then, others protect you from all of the above!
- Begin Construction of a Ship – This marks you beginning to build a ship and placing it in one of the two spaces on your board.
- Finish Construction of a Ship – This is where you collect all your needed resources together and finish a ship placing it above your board in the ocean!
- Construct a Building – Add a Building to your town giving you various bonuses.
…to an extent that is true as there are certain cards you can play to really gain an advantage. Picking up a Watchmen as first player and then playing it means you’re protected for all of that round and the next since you don’t discard him until it comes to your turn again. The converse to this is that you ARE last next turn and you will be getting the scraps that no-one else wanted. Added to that how things change throughout a round and the fact the Watchman isn’t always there and while it does have it’s advantages you have to play it well.
Here is where the meat of the game comes into play. After the drafting (which I love as it’s an amazing mechanic) you’ll be trying to time things just right and gather up the right resources as you go along for that massive play where you build a ship. It becomes a precarious business doing this as you’ll be constantly worried someone might steal your wool, or the amount of wood on sale will go down drastically. You can always mitigate this kind of thing with cards and such along the way but it becomes a great resource management game where you’re planning ahead turns in advance.
One of the other neat mechanics of the game is the Evening Phase. During this point of the game the limits on your Mill and Village will come into play. You can only ever have 8 resources in your Mill at one time so if you don’t time things right you might have to discard some at the end of the turn! The same goes for your Village which can only hold 8 residents. Get too many and you have to tell them to sling their hook out of there. You can boost the amount of resources you can hold in your Mill through building certain ships but it’s always a testing time when you’re looking at your Mill and realising something has to go!
Once all the players have done their thing and played cards, built ships, and everything else in between the Pioneer token passes to the player on your left and a new phase begins. Once someone has built their fourth ship the last round begins and everyone takes one more turn to catch up with them before resolving and finding out who wins on victory points made up by ships built, buildings in play, biggest military and any other bonuses.
The Sea Is A Beautiful Place!
There is one thing you can say about this game more than anything else and that is that the artwork is utterly superb. All of the work is done by an artist by the name of The Mico online and, as the art book will suggest, he has some great talent. Everyone of the characters has a fantastic cartoon feel to them and it gives the impression of How to Train your Dragon almost. The player boards are great looking too and there are little things going on in the scenes depicted.
Component wise the game stands up well too. The boards are of a nice thick cardstock and the tokens are wooden (a great plus for a eurogame) with cool shapes making them easily identifiable as their resources. Even the first player marker is a nice work of art and although it has the hated cardboard slot standee thing that never works it is a nice addition.
Last but not least are the cards. Each of them is packed with all the detail you could need so that you don’t have to do a lot of referring back to the manual each time you want a rule although there are clarifications in there if you need them. There really is no faulting the game when it comes to its looks.
The Downside & A Verdict?
If I had to come up with some negatives about the game it would be that if there are other games in your collection with a similar feel to them than Shipwrights does much the same thing. Like with 7 Wonders there is card drafting, resource management and the like. It also has the same feel of games like Carverna where you’re building up an empire. Shipwrights doesn’t do much ‘new’ as it were but what it does do is do it well. Mechanics you’ll be working with are ones you will know instantly and that can even be a strength but don’t expect to see anything utterly stand out in terms of the rules of the game.
One of the other complaints about the game is that the ending can drag on a little bit and it does suffer from the King Maker decision at the end of the game. While you can play just for yourself, and you should, there are times where every other player at the table will be saying “if you do this, he wins”. There’s usually no real answer for what to do in those situations and you can sometimes feel as if you’re playing for second rather than first.
As I mentioned the end of the game can feel like it drags on a little bit. You can be stuck with that final ship ready to go save for one component or person to make it work. If you don’t see it you can find yourself doing nothing on your turn. Now, this might end up being poor planning on our part as players. After the game we did see that if you knew what you were doing early on and planned ahead this might not be such a problem but as a first game negative it can have a few players getting exasperated very quickly.
The thing Shipwrights does nail is the feeling of being a Viking and that’s quite hard to get with a eurogame usually when it comes to theme. The way you go about making your village, building ships, sending our raiders to steal goods, berserkers to smash ships and everything in between has the feel just right. It becomes a lot more than just shuffling around resources on a board.
Overall though the game is really competent and well constructed eurogame. It does everything you could want mechanically right and apart from a few niggles and the fact that it’s nothing ‘new’ it’s a really solid addition to a gaming collection. If you’ve never played a eurogame before then this is a really great first step towards the genre and I had a lot of fun playing it.
A big viking thumbs up from me!