Welcome, my friends, to the most player count-dependent review I have penned since my critique of Crescent Moon last year.
That’s because I’m going to talk about two games here: Ahoy (2022, Leder Games) with two players, and Ahoy with three or four players.
As I mentioned in my first take of Ahoy a few months ago, I can’t recommend Ahoy at its full player count. But I can recommend Ahoy as a fun two-player experience, particularly if you’ve got a roommate, partner, or game buddy willing to take the plunge to explore the strategic tête-à-tête available to those willing to duel with the asymmetric factions that are playing the area control portion of Ahoy.
Ahoy at Two Players: Yes
Ahoy, at two players, is an area control contest between the Mollusk Union and the Bluefin Squadron only. (You can’t use the additional factions, the smugglers, at this lower player count.) The Union and the Squadron—the latter was referred to as “The Sharks” in my experiences with other players—don’t appear to like each other. Both of these factions have unique traits that they bring to the game’s world.
Regardless of player count, the goal of Ahoy is to have the most Fame points by the end of play, which is triggered when one player scores 30 points. I’m so grateful to the design team for going old-school. There are no public milestones, or hidden objective cards, or no funny stuff at the end of play. You just end the game, and whoever has the most Fame wins.
And the gameplay during a two-player experience is pretty interesting, at least at first and maybe throughout if both players have an equal amount of plays with Ahoy. That’s because each round is a tense affair. How do I spend my actions—dictated by dice rolled at the beginning of the round, and limited action spaces on player boards—to take control of the best region tiles?
If you’re the Bluefin Squadron, you’ll take areas with brute force, popping up all over the map to attack Union ships or bombard Union comrades off of various islands. In Ahoy, brute force means loading cannons, which can be spent to increase your chances of victory by adding strength to a combat dice roll.
If you’re the Union, you get that Woodland Alliance feel from Root by popping up anywhere in the game to snatch area control strength from the Squadron. The Union is also armed with a sweet deck of cards—two of which are added to that player’s hand every round—that break many of the game’s core rules. Sneak attacks, you say? Extra ships that just pop up out of nowhere? Cards that cancel potential fights?
All of it is cool, and all of these Union powers are the perfect foil to the Squadron. And if both players know what their opposing faction is capable of, it leads to fun skirmishes and knowledgeable back-and-forths when planning on how to take control of the region tiles. One of these tiles becomes more valuable each round.
My sense—somewhat unfounded, because I haven’t played this game 20 or 30 times—is that the Squadron wins games of Ahoy a little more often than the Union. The Union definitely feels like the harder of the two asymmetric factions to master, thanks to the hand of cards Union players have to maximize during play. The Union is also a slow starter, building up their forces then spreading out to win majorities; it takes a really patient player to win as the Union.
Two-player Ahoy is interesting, and something worth investing in. It also feels like the version designer Greg Loring-Albright had in mind when thinking about the core Ahoy experience. And, like other Leder classics (Vast: The Mysterious Manor, Oath, Fort), the magic is in the asymmetry. Ahoy with two players gives each participant something they can count on as being unique.
Ahoy with Three or Four Players: No
Something happens when you play Ahoy with more than two players: those extra players have to play as the smugglers.
I would tell you the names of those smugglers, but they literally don’t have a name. As best I can tell, those extra factions are just called “red” and “white.” They do have pictures attached to their player boards, but they are otherwise unnamed pirates whose purpose in Ahoy is to give players who don’t have cool powers something to do.
Generally, here’s what the smugglers do: get in the way.
Smugglers spend most of their time racing from location to location, trying to score points with cargo cards before the card market runs out. With a measly two slots to hold cargo (this is their profession, but it feels like their ships aren’t well suited for the act of holding cargo), smugglers have to sail to various islands to pick up multi-use cards from a market that match the symbol of their location, then take them to another location. This scores Fame for the smugglers, but there’s a catch:
What if there are no cards in the market that match their needs?
Another thing about cards: the warring factions (Union and Squadron) can also buy those cards as crew members who provide cool actions and/or ongoing powers for their owner. Oh, wait, I guess the smugglers can also hire those cards as crew, using the same rules as the warring factions. But all players share this limited deck of 30 cards, so smugglers will usually look to take cards as cargo instead of crew.
Should the Ahoy deck have more cards, then, for a game with 3-4 players? Probably.
I will grant the smugglers this much: with these factions, Ahoy has built in a way to include new players if, say, two veteran players who want to play as the warring factions need to accommodate one or two extra players at the table. Sure, the new players have less interesting roles to play, but they can play without knowing much about the game’s best strategies and still have something to do.
I found playing as a smuggler to be quite a monotonous experience. I love pick-up-and-deliver games—one of my favorites is Wasteland Express Delivery Service—but I need to feel like I have more to do. I certainly need more places to pick up, and more places to deliver. I’d like to have powers that no one else has. I would appreciate not getting picked off by the better-prepared Bluefin Squadron from time to time, since I’m basically moving a paddle boat around the map while proper pirate ships are whacking my ship’s hold whenever they want. (Smugglers can battle, but aren’t as strong as the Union’s Gunner ship nor the Flagship of the Squadron.)
The worst offender to the smuggler experience is the scoring. Smugglers score based on two things: Fame for delivering cargo, but also Fame for guessing—GUESSING!!!—which of the two warring factions will own the region (based on that region’s suit) where they just delivered goods at the end of the game.
Yes. A portion of a smuggler’s score is based on, in many ways, pure luck. So, not only are the warring factions playing a more interesting strategy game, smugglers are essentially playing the lottery. In this way, smugglers have a way to score points after the game rounds have ended, when flipping tokens to see where they correctly guessed which warring faction would own each cargo card’s matching island suit.
I…I just can’t recommend this. Again, the main reason to play with smugglers is to balance new players with veteran players. I also think my kids could play as smugglers in a four-player game, especially if my wife and I promised to never attack their ships. Just let them move around to gather cargo, hire crew, occasionally pick up some gold on certain spaces of the map. This also makes each region tile more valuable to the two warring factions when cargo is delivered.
One other thing that my plays have yielded: I think the Union has a better shot of winning when smugglers are included. Why? The value of each region goes up a point each time a smuggler delivers cargo there. Also, the Squadron has more distractions when smugglers are running around. Distractions are good for the Union, because fighting is not their specialty.
Yea or Nay?
Ahoy is a very difficult game to critique. If you are playing as the Union or the Squadron, Ahoy is better. The area control game is fun, and that part of the game is interesting with smugglers in the way. The Union and Bluefin Squadron factions are just more interesting, and they are well matched in many areas.
Overall, Ahoy is a looker. Kyle Ferrin’s artwork and another fantastic Leder Games production don’t hurt. If you can find Ahoy for a very fair price online, it’s worth a try.
For Leder fans who will play mostly at two players, I recommend this game and I think it will provide the best long-term rewards.
The smuggler factions just feel a bit tacked on. I still can’t believe that smugglers aren’t even named. It’s like they were late to a meeting, and we only have blank name tags left over, so someone just wrote “Guest” on each name tag and asked the smugglers to sit in the back corner. This extends to their winning condition. The idea that a smuggler could win by simply gambling on which faction might end up with the orange pocket watch suit regions is plain wacky.
Tread lightly in these waters, but if you know that you will regularly play Ahoy, it’s easier to push you in a certain direction. No matter what, I’m thankful to have played Ahoy because every Leder Games production is worth a look.