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Shipwrights of the North Sea review header

The day began as any other; the sun barely peeking over the horizon line. The air was still and had a cold crispness to it. The waves slapped lazily at the shoreline and there were already people working the nets to bring in the day’s catch. A few scattered children ran about screaming and shouting; playing some game that had rules that only they understood while their mothers stood close by chattering in a group. The occasional seagull flitted about overhead squawking in search of a forgotten morsel or a freely offered snack. In fact, the only thing that stood out on this particular morning was the throng of people crowded outside of the chieftain’s lodge waiting in an expectant hush. Something important was happening – something life changing – and they were eager to discover what it was.

Suddenly, the doors flew open and out stepped Olaf Magnusson the chieftain. He was dressed in his very best – rich silks, fine furs, and bedecked with all manner of jewelry. The crowd grew quiet as he stepped up to the announcing block and cleared his throat to speak.

“My people,” he loudly proclaimed, “The council and I have been in talks since before the moon appeared in the sky last night. After much deliberation, it has been decided that we shall begin raiding in exactly five seasons’ time.”

A raucous cheer erupted from the onlookers. They had been sitting on their laurels for far too long and the excitement was palpable. The chieftain let the celebration go on for a few minutes before waving his hand for silence. He continued.

“When that time comes, I expect that we will be leaving these shores with a mighty fleet at our command. You have until then to complete your preparations. The one of you that impresses me the most shall be my second-in-command for the coming campaign and will ride beside me at the head of the fleet. Who knows, you might even replace me someday. So, impress me!” he commanded dismissively with a massive grin spread across his face.

His subjects stood there for a few moments in wonderment as the chieftain’s words took root. One person, a bit faster on the draw than the others, stealthily slunk away. Then another followed by another as the true meaning of the chieftain’s proclamation dawned on them. Then, as if by hidden signal, everyone began running off in different directions at once. The race was on! There was work to be done! Fame and riches awaited!

Thus begins Shipwrights of the North Sea – the first game in the North Sea trilogy by Shem Phillips. In Shipwrights, the players are drafting cards in order to collect resources, hire workers, and undermine each other in a race to become the greatest ship builder the world has ever seen!

I’m about to tell you how the game is played so if you’re just interested in what I think about the game, now’s the time to scroll down to the Thoughts section.

Components

One of the things that I respect about Garphill Games’s packaging is that it’s never any larger than it absolutely has to be. Shipwrights of the North Sea is no exception. The box measures a svelte 9” x 9”. The cover features an action packed image of a lone Viking standing vigil over a fleet of longboats that appear to be coming right at you. Opening the box reveals two compartments. One contains a deck of cards and the other contains a well deep enough to accommodate the various bits and pieces that comprise the rest of the game. There are wooden resource pieces – wood, iron, workers, and sheep along with 4 small golden ships, a Pioneer Token (the first player marker standee), and several 3 victory point (VP) markers. This well has a small shelf built into it that has just enough lip to comfortably hold the player boards and the player aids as well as the extra board for the Townsfolk expansion (which I will discuss at the end of this review).

Inside the box

All of these pieces are of decently high quality. The cardboard is thick and sturdy. The rulebook is well-designed and laden with plenty of illustrations and examples. The cards hold up well to multiple plays but, even though they have a nice linen finish, they’re not as thick as I’d like them to be. I can easily see them getting worn or bent over time

Setup

The initial setup for Shipwrights is fairly simple. Each player receives a player board along with 3 workers (placed into the Village area), 2 non-worker resource tokens of their choice (placed into the Mill), and a golden ship which is placed onto the number 5 on the gold track. Then the deck of cards is shuffled and placed face down.  A starting player is chosen and receives the Pioneer Token and you’re ready to begin playing.

Shipwrights setup

Card Types and Costs

There are 5 distinct card types: Townsfolk, Craftsmen, Buildings, Tools, and Ships.

Townsfolk don’t have any cost associated with them and can be played from a player’s hand for free. They will provide some kind of immediate effect such as earning a player some free gold or a free resource.

Townsfolk cards

Craftsmen are needed to build specific kinds of boats which are listed at the bottom of each crafstman card.

Craftsmen cards

There are eight unique building types and a player can only ever possess 1 of each type. These cards will provide end game scoring bonuses and each has a cost shown on it that must be paid before the building can be built.

Building cards

Tools allow players to bypass certain costs when building or earn extra goods when going to the market. For instance, the Spindle Whorl will allow a player to construct ships without paying the wool cost associated with doing so. Only one tool can be used at any time and the cost on the Tool card must be paid before it can be added to a player’s tableau.

Tool cards

Ships are the primary way for the players to earn points and they also act as the game’s timer. Each ship has a cost associated with building it and only two ships can be under construction at any given time. In addition to the resource cost, each ship also requires the player to discard specific groupings of craftsmen in order for the ship to be successfully constructed.

Ship cards

Morning Phase

At the heart of Shipwrights is the card draft. Each Morning phase, the starting player will draw a number of cards equal to the number of players +1, select a card to keep, and pass the remainder to the left. Each player in turn chooses one card and passes the remainder to the person on their left with the last player setting the unchosen card face down close by. Then this process will be repeated 2 more times until each player has 3 cards in hand.

Afternoon Phase

In the Afternoon phase players perform their actions in turn order. Each player completes their entire turn, spending all 3 of their cards, before the next player has an opportunity to take theirs. The actions that are available are:

Buy Goods: pay 2 workers and 2 gold and consult the card back of the top card of the deck. This dictates what you’ll receive for your expenditure. You get to select one of the resource types and collect as many of that resource as is pictured. This can be performed multiple times as long as you can pay the cost.

Buy a Tool: pay the tool’s cost and place it to the left of your player board, replacing any tool that’s already there.

Hire a Craftsman: the craftsman is placed in a row beneath your player board. Players can only have a maximum of four craftsmen.

Game in progress

Call on Townsfolk: discard the townsfolk card from your hand and perform its associated action.

Begin Constructing a Ship: place the ship card from your hand into one of the two workshops on your player board. If they’re both full already, you can’t perform this action.

Finish Constructing a Ship: discard the resources and craftsmen required and place the constructed ship above your player board. Constructed ships will provide the player with permanent benefits, penalties, or some mixture of the two. They are also worth VP at the end of the game.

Construct a Building: discard the building’s cost and place it face up to the right side of the player board.

Do Nothing: sometimes you’re just going to be stuck with useless cards and will have no recourse other than discarding the cards for no benefit at all.

Once every player has performed all of their actions, the next phase begins.

Player aid

Evening Phase

Players will receive 1 gold for each of their workers and some may even earn extra gold from constructed ships. Then each player will earn at least 1 extra worker (plus any extras from their ships). Finally, the players must check their Mill and Village capacities. If they’ve got more resources then they can hold at their Mill, they discard resources until they are at their maximum (the same goes with the workers in the Village). Then the Pioneer Token is passed on to the next player and the cycle begins anew.

End Game and Scoring

The game comes to an end after the Evening phase of the day in which 1 or more players have constructed their fourth ship. If a player has the most military ships (the ships with red banners on them) they will receive one of the 3 VP markers. Then each player tallies up the VP they receive from their constructed ships, buildings, and VP markers. The player who has the most VP is the winner.

Thoughts

What initially drew me to this game (and the entire trilogy if I’m being honest) is the awesome artwork by Mihajlo Dimitrievski – affectionately known by his fans as The Mico. His illustration style is striking, undeniably unique, and highly polarizing. It’s like the Moxie Cola or Marmite of the board game world – you either love it or your hate it. I am one of the “love it” crowd. Whenever I see The Mico’s name attached to a game, it’s a game that I pay attention to.

As far as the game play goes, I have a real love/hate relationship with it. There’s no denying that this game is challenging in almost every respect. The card draft will often find you holding several cards that you really want to keep for yourself or would rather not pass on to your opponents. Which do you keep and which do you pass on? Or, sometimes you’ll get a card and you know that with just 2 more gold or one more sheep that you could build it and you’re forced to deliberate with yourself whether holding onto it in the hopes that the next handful of cards that get passed to you will provide what you need is worth the risk of being stuck with a useless card during your turn. Making these kinds of tough decisions can be agonizing.

Take that cards

Then there’s the screwage aspect. There are many times during the course of the game where your well laid plans will be foiled by a well-timed “take that” card. Overcoming these setbacks isn’t always easy and can sometimes be downright disheartening (especially when you’re the only valid target), but it’s never such a setback that you’re left in the dust and completely out of the game. Even though it can feel a bit mean-spirited at times, I really enjoy this game. Shipwrights of the North Sea is a very fine-tuned experience. Every single game that I have played has been extremely close and is often only won by 1 or 2 points. So far (knock on wood) there has never been a runaway leader problem. It is obvious that a great deal of development and testing went into it and I really appreciate that as a consumer. For the most part, I thoroughly enjoy myself every time that I play.

For the most part.

Sometimes, the game can feel a little too random. There are many times when all of the players are stuck with useless card draws and very little progression is being made. At times like these, the game tends to drag on for much longer than it should. This issue with randomness becomes particularly problematic when it seems to be only affecting you. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it makes for a lousy gaming experience. Aside from this, the only other negative that I have about Shipwrights is that the Player Aids don’t show the resource costs associated with building the ships and this would be useful knowledge to have at a glance. They give you information regarding every other aspect of the various ship types, so why not this?

Fortunately, every copy of Shipwrights of the North Sea includes the Townsfolk expansion and it resolves all of the game play issues with aplomb.

Townsfolk Expansion

Townsfolk expansion

The Townsfolk expansion consists of a single board with 5 different actions to choose from, a single page rulesheet,  and several shield tokens. While there’s not much to it components-wise, it makes up for it in how it affects the game play.

There are five unique actions printed on the board and each of these can only accommodate a single worker at a time. On a player’s turn, they may place one of their workers onto one of these action spaces and perform the associated action. These actions allow the players to substitute craftsmen for other craftsmen when constructing ships, discard cards for gold, reset the market and get a free resource, collect all of the workers that have been placed on the Townsfolk board so far, or acquire a shield.

There will always be as many shields in the game as there are players, but any player may possess any number of shields. These shields, when placed on top of an unconstructed ship or a craftsman, prevent these items from being targeted by other people’s malicious actions. Or, if the player chooses not to collect a shield, they can remove a craftsman or unconstructed ship from their board.

With just the addition of a few actions, the Townsfolk expansion guarantees that no turn will ever be a wasted one. It’s such a good expansion and so easy to incorporate that I never play without it. Without the Townsfolk expansion, Shipwrights of the North Sea is just a decent game. Add the expansion in, though, and it becomes a pretty great one.

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David McMillan

David McMillan

IT support specialist by day, Minecrafter by night; I always find time for board gaming. When it comes to games, I prefer the heavier euro-game fare. Uwe Rosenberg is my personal hero with Stefan Feld coming in as a close second.

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