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Review: Hands in the Sea

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The First Punic War wasn’t so puny.  In fact it was the largest military conflict up to its day, fought on land and sea over a span of more than twenty years with near catastrophic losses by both sides.  Of course Punic is not a belittling epithet.  Rather it identifies Rome’s antagonists.  So the greatest imperial clash of the age was named for Phoenicians, who settled Carthage five centuries earlier, over Rome’s advances into an island just off the coast of Italy.  That’s right.  Always mess around with the Sicilians when the Mediterranean is on the line.

How To Play

In this two-player war game you will command Rome or Carthage as the city-states battle for supremacy of the central Mediterranean.  It’s also a deck-builder.  If visions of a Few Acres of Snow are dancing in your head, all you need to know is this is the ancient version and you may want to skip to the critique below.

If all you know of A Few Acres of Snow is the name, Hands in the Sea employs the popular deck-building mechanism to an area control – and then some – war game.  As either Rome or Carthage your starting deck consists of cards representing the locations you rule to begin the game, plus a couple of Empire cards.  You can gain more powerful Empire cards by drafting or buying them from your unique supply or the stack of neutral cards.  You can also add more Location cards to your deck by settling those regions or conquering them from your enemy, in which case you take the corresponding card away from him, right out of his hand if necessary!

To war!

Cards have varying number and types of symbols which allow you to perform actions.  Acquiring cards through drafting, settling and attacking are themselves actions.  You can do two things each round.  If those were the only actions, the game would be very easy – and very boring.  Thankfully there is a lot more you can do.  Indeed there are twenty-four actions you can choose from!  Did I mention you can only do two of them on your round?

Now a couple of those options do not actually expend one of your action points.  And some are very straight-forward and usually simple to resolve.  For example you can stash away a card from your hand to your Reserve as an action.  Later, for a free action you can retrieve all the cards from there at the cost of one silver per card.  Another simple matter is moving your fleet, represented by a disc, to an adjacent sea zone.  It uses one action, but nothing else is required.

Most strategic moves, however, require having the right cards.  For example, if you want to settle Tyndaris you’ll need an adjacent location’s card (either by sea or land) – say Messana.  Then you’ll need a card with the appropriate logistics symbol to reach your desired spot (a wagon or boat – the location card Messana specifies you need a wagon).  You cannot use the same origin location card to also meet the travel condition.  Each card you play to undertake an action may only provide one icon for that move’s requirements.  If the region you are settling has a colonist icon, you must play a third card that has that symbol, as well (in this case, Tyndaris does not, so the adjacent Messana card and another with a wagon will suffice).  Then as the famous Phoenician pop star Beyoncé said, “put a cube on it.”  Tyndaris is now yours.  Make sure to take its card from the neutral Location deck.

Location is everything, they say…

If a province you want is inconveniently occupied by another, you’ll need to begin a battle.  Or if it’s fortified, a siege.  To pick a fight, you’ll need to play cards in a similar manner as settling, but include another with a crossed swords symbol – or a ship if attacking by sea.  Each player can only initiate one battle at a time.  There are two tracks (to record the attacker’s strength relative to the defender’s) and two battle boxes on each player’s board (where cards are committed to the fights).  This way, everything is kept separate just in case both sides have offensives ongoing simultaneously.  Which will often happen.  There are also two markers which are placed next to the contested sites to keep track of that battle’s duration.  Battles last only four rounds, unless ended sooner.  Sieges can go on for six.  While it rages, you can commit a card for one action to a specific battle, adding to your strength there.  Some units’ strength depends on a die roll.  If you have enough strength at the beginning of your round (+2 as attacker and +1 as defender) you win.  If neither achieves that after four rounds, it’s a draw.  The victor earns a prestige point.  The vanquished loses an Empire card committed to that battle.  If you’re the attacker, you capture the cube or disc (worth points, also) and might be able to immediately settle it.

Again, there are two dozen actions – all done in the name of controlling the Mediterranean and exerting your influence.  You can play cards to earn money, develop a town into a city, attempt a raid to capture a settlement sans prolonged engagement, bribe mercenaries to desert, build up your navy to pillage or cut off enemy supply routes and more.  There are also Strategy cards you can draft for a cost, but you may only own one at a time, and some of them may only be acquired by a specific side.  These are all powerful – YMMV on many – and you must spend an action to discard one before acquiring a new.

Can you pull off a decided strategic advantage?

One significant difference from its predecessor designs is the campaign sequence.  When the Carthaginian player exhausts his deck, his round ends and the game pauses.  A random event occurs which can be good or bad for one or both players.  Then each side collects income and victory points based on cities and occupying enemy territory – if those areas are in supply.  Yes, you must take care to keep lines of direct communication between your settlements and one of four supply centers.  If any of your holdings get cut off, those location cards are dead in your hand along with other restrictions.  After collecting silver and points a new turn begins.

If you manage to capture the enemy’s capital you score an immediate and resounding victory replete with a spectacular triumph, at least in your own mind.  Be creative.  However, the First Punic War was more about controlling Sicily, not total domination.  That came later in the conflict’s third installment when one side wiped the other’s capital off the map (that’s not a spoiler because I didn’t say which side).  Therefore you’ll likely win by accumulating more victory points, because the former is nigh impossible, and rightly so.  You can still earn an early instant victory by accruing 25 more points than your opponent.  Otherwise, several different scenarios can trigger the endgame, up to and included a maximum of twelve game turns.  When one of those conditions occur, play continues if any battles are currently underway.  As soon as they are resolved, each combatant counts up points from conquests, colonization of original enemy territory and control of Sicily and Corsica/Sardinia.  Add those to your running tally and the winner may wear his laurel wreath proudly.  If you do not have a laurel wreath, feel free to make one from whatever material you have about the villa.

The affairs of the empire neatly contained.

Et Tu, Berger?

Daniel Berger treads familiar ground with his sophomore title – or would that be, sails chartered waters?  Standing on broad shoulders, Berger takes a hold of the “deck-building to wargaming” idea as experimented by the prolific Martin Wallace in A Few Acres of Snow and Mythotopia (our review).  He doesn’t hide that fact.  And to my knowledge the only author besides Wallace to do this.  An interesting design, the result is not dissimilar from Berger’s first published work. Caesar’s Gallic Wars borrows heavily from the structure of Tom Dalgleish’s popular block wargame, Hammer of the Scots, tweaking some elements and adding a handful to create something with its own personality, even if the experience is analogous.  Indeed it’s so familiar that veterans of A Few Acres of Snow will largely be able to dive into this doppelgänger after reading only a smattering of new rules, simply transporting most every action from French, British and Indians to Romans, Carthaginians and Mercenaries.

For those alien to its blueprint, the first thing that strikes you about Hands in the Sea is that you have a lot to do.  So much, in fact, that the design looks quite complex and overwhelming.  For light and casual gamers it certainly will be intimidating, if not insurmountable.  However, after wading in you discover that the basic structure of play is surprisingly straight-forward and smooth.  Maybe you can teach this to just about any halfway-committed gamer, after all?  So you happily swim on out.  Then a little more.  As you get farther and farther from shore, it’s then that you see the strategic depth as you struggle with the undercurrents, treading furiously to keep your head just above your mere two actions per round as issues everywhere require your attention simultaneously.  And wish you’d wore a life jacket.  Or gotten in a boat.

On the high seas.

Planning is critical.  Both Rome and Carthage begin with their own resource deficiencies.  They need to expand in areas to address those shortfalls.  Rome could use more ship icons, while Carthage is lacking colonists.  This asymmetry impacts play from war’s declaration.  It’s a bit of a scripted start, but easily overlooked given the design’s attention to the conflict’s historical roots.  Rome can expand more quickly, is short on funds and starts the game with a powerful Legion card.  Overall, their Empire deck is slightly stronger militarily, but more expensive.  Carthage can gear up their trading engine quickly due to more coin and ship icons.  Plus they begin things with the Merchant card, great for generating money.  They lack any offensive punch early and overall their military is lighter and cheaper, but relies heavily on mercenaries susceptible to bribery.  Oh, and those finicky war elephants.  In fact, each combatant’s available Empire deck is a mixture of identical and unique cards.  But mostly identical, so the asymmetry is not clumsily imbalanced.

Rome will start to beef up their deck by settling new locations.  Carthage in buying Empire cards to bolster their colonial efforts.  After that, strategies open up in myriad ways and threaten to drown you.  At least sessions are certain to change from game to game.  While strategically rich and decision-laden, these expansions and acquisitions turn out to be a slow build up for both sides.  Even after bolstering your deck, cobbling together the appropriate combination of cards to enact particular actions can drag the pace even more.  Downtime isn’t an issue, as you only perform the two actions per round.  Which makes its methodicalness all the more ironic, if not glaring.  Thankfully Hands in the Sea includes actions which do not require card play – or just the use of one – in order to support your ongoing interests while waiting for the ranks to fill your hand.

Meet the Romans and the Carthaginians.

The mechanism to offset this clunky pace is the Reserve.  It’s still a brilliant idea, probably the best concept in Wallace’s tinkering with deck-building.  Yet there’s still something just a little off about it. In Hands in the Sea it’s likely the cost.  If you save too many cards, the expense to retrieve them can prove counterproductive.  You must balance the advantages of squirreling away resources versus the price to get them back at just the moment you need them.  While it helps mitigate unlucky draws, in reality it does little to speed up the game. The fact that you need to use it means that you’re setting up a run to achieve in more than one round what you’d rather do now.

Eventually you will get into the action.  Or put more accurately, the exciting action.  Yes, you get points by colonizing the disputed islands and building cities.  But this is a strategic war game.  And while not bent on total destruction and occupation, you will need to check your foe’s incursions into Sicily, which is rightfully yours!  If successful, well then maybe an invasion of their homeland is in the cards!

Lots of tracks to keep track of lots of things!

Ironically there are several scenarios at that point that can still hijack the game.  Battles are the biggest and can stall the action longer.  When you’re finally able to muster the resources and troops to begin a clash, you naturally want to take advantage of it.  Alas, these affairs heavily favor the defender, who begins with at least a +1 modifier without committing anything at all.  He only needs that force strength to win.  Plus he has further advantage via the ability to commit troops last, thus countering the attacker’s deployments.  Commit enough strength to offset that inauspicious opening, and then some, the aggressor cannot claim victory at the start of his next round unless he manages +2 strength over the defender.  Carthage experiences an even rougher go, especially early on, until they can bulk up with military icons.  So when a battle begins, players invariably spend their next few rounds funneling troops into the fray, as long as they can, at the expense of moving the game forward in other areas.  From the attacker’s perspective, it’s rough to sacrifice a fight after you’ve collected the cards you needed to start it.  From the defender’s, losing a town or city is a pretty big swing.  The points you lose go to your conqueror…and then some.

Other militant actions you can unleash upon the enemy include raiding, bribing and pillaging.  To varying degrees of success.  Raids are particularly enticing because it might mean capturing a town without having to resort to battle.  For those you need cavalry.  Those same units, and a few other types of cards, can block raids.  So an early part of the game is a sort of arms race to acquire those.  Raiding itself can be a mixed bag.  If you catch your opponent without the means to prevent your incursions, it’s a fantastic boon.  If they can intercept it, you’ve just wasted half your round’s efforts.  And that can be frustrating.  Fortresses defend against raids, but are expensive.

A siege. Settling in for the long haul.

Bribery can be equally mixed.  If you play a card with the ability – for an action – you can send a mercenary from the other player’s hand back to it’s original Empire deck.  He will have to buy it again if he wants it later!  This is a better tactic for Rome since the majority of Carthage’s army comprises hired soldiers.  Still, if your adversary can prevent your sly tongue with a similar card, your efforts go the way of the Pharaohs.  Bribing was almost non-existent in my plays.

As was pillaging, and indeed almost any naval action.  Through pillaging you can expend an action to steal an amount of silver from your foe equal to half your fleet’s warships.  Building up that armada to make it worth it is laborious and expensive.  Not only that, but the other player can counter your action with the right card, again wasting your efforts as in raiding or bribing.  You don’t want to completely neglect your navy, however, or you’re at the mercy of the enemy who can sail at will, disrupting your supply lines.  That’s essentially their value – securing your communications.  Naval battles, unlike the mostly mathematical affairs on land, are resolved via dice.  If your fleet is large enough to sustain some losses, engaging the enemy might be worth the risk.  Otherwise you tempt the fates.  Perhaps it’s simply the style my boys and I like to play?  But we found the naval sphere lacking activity and influence.  It’s no more abstracted than the rest of the historical elements, but it’s difficult to commit resources to when other actions provide more direct benefits.

Now to be fair, Hands in the Seas is not a pure carbon copy of Wallace.  The design includes a few innovations and handful of tweaks that actually raises the complexity bar.  There’s the naval aspect, battles are shorter affairs, pillaging (piracy) is broadened, scoring is fleshed out and there is in-game scoring.  Plus if neither side meets any endgame condition, it ends anyway after twelve turns.

Sicily divided.

The biggest additions, however, are the strategy cards and the campaign phase.  The strategy cards really allow each player to hone in on a particular tactic.  I mentioned the persevering task of building up your navy.  Well, there’s a strategy card to boost construction.  Some buff your military, while others make you richer, and still others aid in more efficient hand management.  Most are very powerful.  That’s why you can only own one at a time.  It can inform your planning and gives each session a new purpose and identity.

The second design element which helps stifle scripted play is the campaign phase.  One, it generates regular income that’s directly based on the development of your empire.  It awards victory points at known intervals which can be helpful to judge your progress.  And it’s a clock.  Knowing the game will only last twelve turns creates tension as you near that horizon, especially as you fret over your measly two actions per round, soon discovering it’s not nearly enough to pull off every surprise you have in store.  More than all those, however, this phase begins with the revealing of an event.  And not only is the circumstance random – either good or bad – but the party it affects or benefits is also determined by a random die roll, though rarely it may affect both.  An unfortunate event can easily derail or frustrate your plans.  Then there is my favorite Event card which forces peace, ending the game immediately!

Those days were eventful times.

Hands in the Sea is a connoisseur’s game.  Building on a sophisticated design from one of the most sophisticated designers in the hobby, Berger offers a markedly improved iteration of the deck-building and war game marriage.  It’s still deeply layered, fine-tuned and extremely Chess-like in strategic scope while offering even more variety to combat scripted play.  Of course it can be sluggish, restrictive and stubborn for all but maybe stalwart gamers.  It can get hijacked at times by particular actions which dominate multiple rounds.  That said, the use of a favored mechanic and applying everything to a familiar historical setting just might nudge the title into the hands of more mainstream gamers.  If so, they’ll find a rewarding experience as long as they don’t succumb to the waves of possibilities, navigate the deck-building twists and can wait for the winds to pick up and catch their playing sails.

 

Knight Works provided a review copy of Hands in the Sea for this review.

VII out of X

  • Rating 7.5
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Summary

Pros

Lots of depth within accessible framework
Extremely decision-laden
Reserve is still a clever addition to deck-building
Strategy and Event cards keep play fresh from game to game
Turn limit caps session length
Supply adds strategic and historical element

Cons

Slow ramp up
Deck management limited
Despite Reserve, gathering necessary cards can take time
Battles often command play while they last
Takes patience to wade through
Some actions seem lesser in light of immediate gains elsewhere

7.5 Good

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity...relatively speaking.

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