Thursday, May 26, 2016

What I Did at Sea (Or How I Learned To Love the Frigates)…A Review of Empires at Sea

Disclaimer: This review was made playing from a demo copy of the deluxe edition provided by the publisher/designer of Empires At Sea; Zach Silverzweig.

I was recently contacted by designer Zach Silverzweig in regards to his game Empires at Sea.  He and his wife Amy recently funded and completed their Kickstarter of the game and got it out into the hands of nearly 450 backers.  They were able to raise a respectable $37,199 during the campaign and hit multiple stretch goals to the betterment of the game.  They funded the game successfully and now that they have their copies Zach wanted to get the word out about the game by getting it into the hands of reviewers and the like.  

He ran across one of my posts and decided to send me word about the game.  To be honest I had never actually heard of this game during its run on Kickstarter.  I took a look at the website ( to get a good idea of the rulebook before I agreed to take the demo copy.  My wife Em and I looked at the rulebook and it was interesting enough to her (my main gaming partner!) to try therefore we went for it.  I gave Zach the go-ahead and a couple of days later we had a copy of Empires at Sea all laid out on the table for photos and ready to play.

Unboxing Empires at Sea:

The Box

We received the package in the mail and I proceeded to grab my Winchester blade and cut into the packaging tape.  The first thing I noticed was the size of the box.  This is a very large box (for those worries about shelf space) that reminds me of the Z-Man Games box for games like Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island and Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 but just slightly deeper.  Along with the size (which I will note is probably a larger size than it needed to be) it is a very sturdy and well made box.  It has a great cover of a ship captain on the front and a naval battle in the background.  Also, just as a side note, bravo on the choice of putting a female captain on the cover!  It is perhaps a small thing in the minds of many but I think it goes a long way into the inclusion of women in our wonderful hobby!  You’ll notice on the box front that this is “An epic boardgame of war, treasure, exploration, industry and piracy” for 2-5 players aged 14+ and that it plays in a 1-3 hour timeframe.

Flipping the box over I was able to see more about the game.  There is a nice little blurb on the game that really does capture what is encapsulated in the box.  Along with the write up there are some sample pictures of the cards and a picture of some of the components that are included in the game.  These are all graphically placed over a picture of the game board and a piece of the art in the lower left corner.  Again, to note the art, this is a great picture and the graphics are well done with no clutter or odd symbols/fonts.

Opening The Box

In typical fashion, lying on top of the opened box was the game rulebook, entitled Captain’s Guide.  Underneath this short, 8-page booklet was the large, trifold game board.  When pulling out the game board we found the components and cards placed in a 3-well game insert that was made to look like the boards of a ship or treasure chest.  I did like the look of this insert and it held the components in place very well.  The insert was easy to remove if you had an inclination to do so.

The Rulebook

The rulebook (also known as the Captain’s Guide) started off with a nicely illustrated cover of the female captain who is also found on the cover of the game box.  As a cool aside, I found out from Zach that the captain is a painting done of his wife and co-designer, Amy.  I thought that was a fun little tidbit!  Now back to the book.  

The first thing I noticed about the rulebook was how few pages there were to it.  It starts with the front cover, then has one page of component pieces and game objectives, one page of game setup, five pages of how to play the game, and a back cover that has scoring information.  That is all!  While the manual is small I will say that we really didn’t have any trouble in deciphering the rules.  I would have liked a few more examples and pictures of said examples for those who aren’t used to reading rulebooks, but for my wife and I this was no problem.

The rulebook is quite well done.  I always worry about a game that is this large and either has a manual that is either too large or too small.  This could have fallen into the second category but they did a great job in getting everything into the small area.  While being a fairly large and possibly epic game it really has a very simple, streamlined rule set, about which I am a big fan!  While I enjoy a good, heavy-weight game I found I didn’t want that with this game and it delivered on that hope.  If you want an easy-to-pick-up ship-to-ship combat, civilization-light game then this may be the rule set for you!

The Board

Right below the Captain’s Guide was the massive tri-fold, double-sided game board.  As I opened up the board I noticed how it is double-sided.  The main side of the board is the Americas, Europe, and Africa.  This is the side that is played with 3-5 players.  The off side of the board (which was unlocked as a stretch goal during the Kickstarter campaign) is just the Americas and is used for a 2-player game which does a good job of tightening up the game.  

 I quite like the graphic design of the board.  As you first look at the board (either side) you will see that it is gridded with boxes and has occasional orange, green, and silver boxes that are specific ports with their subsequent resource.  It is a simple art style that isn’t cluttered which I very much appreciate.  I also wondered why their weren’t boxes on the whole board (it is broken up, see attached pictures) but when we started playing the game we realized that when you move you can use an action to move as many spots in one direction as you would like.  The broken paths make it impossible for you to traverse the entire board in one move and I very much enjoy that design/graphic decision.  This also helps with keeping the board uncluttered.

The only thing I think I would change on the board is the color/size of the port name font.  It was a bit difficult to read unless you get fairly close but this is a minor quibble at best.  The board is good quality and thickness and we didn’t have any trouble with warping during our plays.

The Components

After pulling out the game board we finally made it to the part that everyone seems most curious about, the components.  There were four different baggies included with the different components of the game and four sealed packs of cards.  In one bag were the acrylic gems (which are a proxy for gold/treasure), in another were the wooden cubes (which are a proxy for ports, wood, and steel), in another was the dice, and in the last was the ship models.  I always appreciate when the publisher includes enough baggies in the game to actually store the components if you choose not to store them in a container or created insert. 

The gems are classic acrylic gems that you can find in any craft store.  I will say that I find the gems an odd addition and would have rather had either gold metal cubes or just some other painted wooden cube to proxy for the treasure/gold.  This is a personal thing however, so if you like the gems they are good quality.  The wooden cubes are just that, wooden cubes.  I like that they included the smaller and larger cube size of the steel and wood resources to count as either one or five resources.  This is a simple thing but I feel like publishers sometime forget about these things.  I like cubes so these are always good components for me.  

The dice are pretty good quality and have a decent heft to them.  I do like how they put the skulls on to give them a more personalized feeling for the game.  Also, the dice are etched and I always appreciate the feeling they give.  The only thing I think I would have asked is for at least a few more so we didn’t have to keep passing them around, but we have plenty of dice on hand so this wasn’t really a problem.

Lastly, we take a look at the “star” of the show, the ship models.  Zack has stated that they did research to get the models as close to their real-world counterparts as they were able to.  What they got are some pretty nice little models that do a pretty good job as the main component focus of the board.  You start with a transport (which has no masts) and then later on will be able to build frigates (two masts) or even ships of the line (three masts) if you collect enough resources and the cards needed.  These models are very small (as they need to fit on the small grids on the game board) but still have enough detail to look pretty cool. 

The ships come in the five colors that are included in the game box, orange, white, red, blue, and yellow.  You will need to be careful with these miniatures as their masts are somewhat flimsy.  Even though they aren’t super sturdy, we only had one ship mast that was broken.  It was fixed with a small dab of super glue with no other problems.  The only ship we had a problem with standing up was the pirate ship of the line.  The base was just slightly slanted which caused it to list to the right but as long as we didn’t hit the table it would stand.  I think just a small amount of filing would have fixed this.  All in all, these ships aren’t the quality you are going to see from Fantasy Flight Games, but they are solid and an obvious labor of love!

The Cards

The last thing included in the box was the cards.  There are four different types of cards separated into a couple of different sections within those four types.  The first type of card is the history card.  These are separated into three different eras (I, II, and III) and are used as a general setting for each round.  The second type of card is the weather card.  These cards are flipped and show a general rule of ship movement for a round.  The third type of card is the port card.  There is a card included for each of the different ports on the board and show an icon for the resource that port gives.  The last type of card (and most prevalent) is the captain card.  These are the cards that are given to players and they use to do actions and such in the game.  The captain cards are separated into event cards (give a onetime effect), advancement cards (give a permanent effect), captain’s orders (can be played at any time and provide an immediate effect), and the industry cards (grant their resources permanently).

The game cards have open source art on them that are often of historical battles and/or scenery and I honestly find them to be beautiful!  I love the use of the open source art to give a good thematic boost to the look of the game.  The graphic design of the cards is pretty good.  The only real problem I have with the cards is on the cards where you need to pay resources.  These have very small (and not dark enough) icons up in the upper right hand corner that are very difficult to read.  We needed to get very close just to see what we needed to pay to build whatever we were trying to build.  Other than this, the cards are one of my favorite parts of the game!


I’m not going to go into a super detailed rundown of the gameplay as you can download the Captain’s Guide on and get a better feeling of the game.  While I’m not going into great detail I will give a short idea of how the game is played.

You will start by selecting your nation (they suggest a certain color for a certain nation but we just chose the colors we wanted to chose!) and then shuffle the weather cards, the history (first separate by each of the three eras) cards, and the captain cards.   

You will deal (face down) five third era cards into a stack, then five middle era cards on top of the third era cards, and then finish off with five first era cards on top.  Then take the weather deck and deal out (again, face down) fifteen weather cards onto a different stack.  These two stacks of cards are the game timer and make up the fifteen rounds of the game.   

Each player will choose a port card at random (more on this later), get one of their transport ships, six captain cards,  and two of each resource (gold, wood, steel).  Then, the pirate ship of the line (only black ship of the line) goes on the red “x”, the starting player is chosen, and the game begins.

Each round starts with a weather and history card flipped over.  The weather card shows how the ships can (or can’t) move during the round while the history card gives a general setting for the turn which can either help or hinder each nation.  The players take the resources that are on their port cards at a rate of one per icon.  After these “phases” the players each take turns making their moves for the round.  

The first player will play a captain card (this is a requirement) and complete that card.  Some of these are gaining resources, captain’s orders, and building cards.  On the building cards the player spends the resources and gets what they paid for.  Some of these are the transports, frigates, ships of the line, forts, and naval bases.  If it doesn’t cost any resources they will just do the action or gain the resources on the card.  If the player doesn’t want to use a card for its action they can discard it for three gold. 

During their turn, each player gets five actions.  These include sailing (moving ship in one direction as many spaces as they want), trading (if adjacent to a port they can pay one of any resource for one of the resource they are adjacent to), buying a port (adjacent to an unclaimed port and pay one gold, one steel, and one wood), and attacking another player/pirate’s ship or port/fort/naval base.   

One direction of movement counts as one action, each single resource traded costs one action, buying a port costs one action (can only be done once and ends the player’s turn immediately), and attacking costs one action (can only be done once and ends the player’s turn immediately).  After the player completes their actions, the next player plays a captain card and takes their actions.  Turns continue in this manner until each player has finished the round.

After each player is finished with their actions, there is a pirate phase.  Each player will do a blind bidding where they take an amount of gold into their hand (they can do zero if they’d like) and each player shows their hands at the same time.  The player who bribed the most gets to use the pirate ship to do five actions which are basically used for movement and attacking other player’s ports/ships.  If players are tied then the pirate ship does nothing.  After this phase the starting player moves clockwise and they will flip the next weather and history card and the game moves on for fifteen rounds.

At the end of the game each player scores points for how many ships/ports they have, how many resources they have in their collection, and how many ships they destroyed.  The player with the most points at the end wins.

The Review

Okay, now for the hard part.  I will state up front that I’m not a reviewer by nature.  I am quite discerning about what games I buy as my wife and I have a very limited budget for extras.  As a matter of fact, I’ve never spent a dime of our “regular” income; only what I make on the side from music gigs and selling items I no longer want/need.  Because of this it is hard for me to do reviews.  I research things very closely and watch everything I can on a game before I purchase it.  Due to me taking so much time researching I really don’t have any games I don’t like.  This just means I don’t really do reviews because for the most part they would be very positive.  I have only traded off a couple of games that I’ve owned, those being Star Wars: Imperial Assault (we liked it a lot, just felt like we wouldn’t ever get it played again after we completed the campaign) and Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island (love this game, just want the Portal Games version when it comes out).  This should show that we like everything we own at least enough to keep it in the collection.

With these things being said, let’s move on to the review of Empires at Sea.  To begin with, I’m going to start by saying that this is not the type of game my wife and I tend to like.  We focus more on European-style games (i.e. Fields of Arle, Dungeon Petz, Above and Below), card/dice games (i.e. Seasons, Wizards of the Wild, Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn), multi-use card games (i.e. Imperial Settlers, Oh My Goods!, Mottainai, 51st State: Master Set), and deck builders (i.e. Paperback, The Big Book of Madness, Baseball Highlights: 2045).  We don’t have a ton of the more American-style games.  We do have some that we really love (i.e. Mice & Mystics, Super Dungeon Explore: Forgotten King, Zombicide: Prison Outbreak) but we find that we prefer them to be co-operative instead of competitive.  Because of these preferences I really wasn’t too sure we were going to like this game.

Pleasant surprise, we did actually enjoy our plays!  This game play quite a bit quicker than I would have originally suspected, especially at the smaller numbers.  While the game says 2-5 on the box I’m going to put out the caveat that I would never play this game with five players.  To make up for the extra player (the fifth one) the designers suggest in the rulebook to take out one card from each era in order to make a twelve round game instead of fifteen.  I think the twelve rounds wouldn’t feel as good (fifteen doesn’t outstay its welcome but still seems to be enough to do some cool stuff) and there is no way I’d want to deal with the downtime of four other players.  The other player counts are fun however.  Just know that the playtime can almost double going from two players to four players.

The gameplay is fun, streamlined and quite strategic.  I’ve read/seen some other reviews that say that luck plays a heavy factor.  While it does play a large factor there are many different things you can do as a player to mitigate these.  Make sure your ships are in a good place in case the weather turns up out of your favor, get a lot of ports to get resources, and use your captain order cards quickly to be able to draw up more helpful cards.  The die can roll in or out of your favor but honestly I don’t think it plays that big of a role in this game.  In fact, you could play this game pretty much live-and-let-live style where you barely attack the other player.  This isn’t as fun, but it is a viable option.

My biggest thing is the initial draw of the beginning port.  If you are lucky you could draw a gold port and your opponent draw a wood port.  This would put you at a significant advantage as gold is the rarest of the resources.  Again, you could mitigate this but it still puts you a leg up on your opponent.  I would suggest deciding what ports you want to start at.  Just take ports that have the same starting resource and that helps with the luck of the initial draw.

The pirate ship is a cool idea but seems to be completely unnecessary in the two player games.  It is fun to use, however, in the higher player counts as it can help be a bit of a catch-up mechanism to throw a wrench in the gears of the player who is ahead.  Just know, if that player has a lot of gold they could continue to use the pirate ship to their advantage and just get further ahead.  I preferred to destroy the pirate ship in our games which took its power off the board and netted me some points.

All-in-all my wife and I (and other players) enjoyed the game.  I don’t have a particular scale that I use for reviews (again, never having done them before) but I’d probably give it around a 7 on a 10 point scale.  I enjoyed it but in the end it’s not a game that my wife and I would play that often, ourselves.  I would not turn down a play of this if someone brought it to the table as we had a fun time with it.  If you are a fan of strategic/tactical skirmish style games and like some civilization building and resource conversion then you should definitely check this game out.  Congrats to the Silverweigs on a solid first published design!

Thanks so much for reading.  Please, feel free to comment as this is my first “official” review.  I’d be curious to see what people think.  I am running some ideas in my head about a review series but we’ll see what comes of it.  Until next time, game on!

No comments:

Post a Comment