Alright, I’ll admit it; I’m a sucker for good art. Even moreso when the game is relatively inexpensive, which led me to buy The Shipwreck Arcana practically sight unseen off of Kickstarter. This isn’t how I normally do things, but, hey, always a good time to get another game in for a review. Let’s take a look.
In The Shipwreck Arcana, you play cooperatively as fortune tellers set adrift in a drowned world. While you may not be able to see your own future, you can try to divine someone else’s, and by doing so you insulate each other and keep your collective safe as you move forward. Will you succeed in avoiding your dark destiny? Or does your fate lie beneath the waves?
Setup is pretty simple. Have each player take a set of number line tokens:
Set them 1 – 7, facing the other players. This will make everyone’s life easier. Next, take the Fates:
And add them to the bag:
That’s most of the hard part of setup. Now, in the center of the play area, you’ll need five cards:
One such card must always be The Hours, going on the left side:
Take the score tracker (green) and the doom tracker (red):
Place them on the “0” on The Hours, unless you want to play at a higher difficulty:
- Easy: 0
- Medium: 2
- Hard: 4
- Doomed!: 6
Once you’ve done all that, place the deck face-up above the cards and you’re ready to start:
A game of The Shipwreck Arcana is pretty simple. This is a pure cooperative deduction game, and your team plays until either the score tracker or the doom tracker hit 7. If your score is 7, you win! If your doom is 7, you lose.
But how do you score points or gain doom?
On a player’s turn, generally, they should try to avoid talking, if possible. Once they’ve come to grips with that, they should draw tiles until they have two tiles in hand. These are their Fates for the turn. Now, they must place one of their fates below one of the five cards on the table, following the rules on the cards. You may only place below The Hours if you cannot place anywhere else. If you can place below more than one card, you may choose which card to place below.
As an example, let’s say you drew the 5 and the 7 and you had the five following cards out:
- The Hours
- The Mirror: If both of your fates are the same, play one of them here.
- The Shore: If the difference between your fates is 4 or more, play one of them here.
- The Beast: If one of your fates is exactly 1 more or 1 less than the other, play one of them here.
- Leviathan: If the sum of your fates is 11 or more, play one of them here.
Say you place the 5 below Leviathan. That’s legal, since 5 + 7 = 12, which is more than 11. That’s a legal play. If you accidentally play illegally, leave the fate there and skip the guessing phase of the turn.
Now, players have a choice — do they attempt to guess the remaining Fate in the player’s hand? You may want to start by asking the active player to flip over numbers in their number line if you know those numbers can’t be the number in their hand, like so:
If players choose to guess, the active player only indicates “correct” or “incorrect”. You may not tell them what tile it was unless you are correct.
- If you guess and are correct, gain one point. The player discards the tile in their hand back into the bag.
- If you guess and are incorrect, gain one doom. The player discards the tile in their hand back into the bag, so you also lose that information. Tough break!
- If you refuse to guess, nothing happens. The player keeps the tile in their hand for another turn (meaning they’ll only draw one tile next turn).
That’s all well and good, but the game might be too easy if this alone were the case. So, after the guessing phase comes the fading phase.
You saw how all the cards had a certain number of moons on them, right? And how the tiles all had a certain number of pips? Well, once a card has tiles with pips under it that match or exceed the number of moons it has, it fades. Flip it upside down, move it to a row below the main row, and put all the fates below it back into the bag.
When a card fades, if you did not make a correct guess this turn, you gain two doom. This means if you guessed incorrectly or chose to not guess, you get severely penalized. That’s not great. That said, faded cards are good!
On your turn, you may use up to one Faded card for an extra ability! If you use it, it goes back into the draw deck (face-up, like the other cards). They can be pretty helpful.
Anyways, play until you win or you lose! You win at 7 points and you lose at 7 doom. One last thing. If you keep a tile in your hand between turns, you’ll only draw one tile instead of two, yes, but you are not allowed to indicate if you’re playing the old tile or the new tile on your next turn.
If you find that the game is getting too easy for you, feel free to try out the promo cards that come with the Kickstarter:
Those will be plenty difficult.
Player Count Differences
I don’t notice many differences at higher player counts other than it adds additional room for misinterpretation, I suppose, as you’re adding in more people who might be on different wavelengths than you. That said, it’s super short and super light, so I wouldn’t say that that is a huge deal or a negative.
Higher player counts do allow for one thing, which is kind of interesting. You cannot talk about what’s in your hand, even if it’s not your turn. So what do you do if you have a 4 in your hand, there’s two 4s below cards on the table, and your group is trying to decide if a different player has a 3 or a 4? Obviously you know it can’t be the 4, since you have it, but you also can’t say that to your group. To remedy this, you are allowed to discard your 4 face-up so that the group may see it, then return it to the bag. Sure, it means you have to get two new tiles next round, but you might be able to get a point on this play, which is always good.
I’d happily play this at any player count.
- Go for confirmation. If you have a 2 and a 1, play the 1 on the “If you have a tile that’s one more or one less than another tile” card. It makes it absolutely confirmed that you must have the 2 in your hand. Those slam dunks are just free points and you should absolutely take them. No sense in making the game harder; it’s a cooperative game.
- Try to figure out what someone played by looking at what they chose not to play on. Did they avoid playing on a “the sum of your fates is even” card because the sum of their fates isn’t even? Well, you can knock out a bunch of tiles from that. Similarly, you should try to place tiles to minimize the possible number of alternate interpretations so that your team doesn’t have to do guesswork to come up with the right answer. That may not always be possible, yes, but it’s worth trying to do, if you can.
- Always play your newest tile, if you can. You should never play your old tile unless it’s a slam dunk if you do or the Faded give you the ability to indicate that you’ve played your old tile. You’ve already spent a turn giving information to the other players; no sense in wasting that unless you absolutely have to. Even then, you should try to let them know.
- If you’re about to let a card fade, you might as well guess. Unless you’re at 4 doom, the difference between two and three doom is pretty trivial, especially weighed against the possibility of getting the number right. I’m not an expert on expectation, but often the math checks out on guessing too (since if you guess correctly, you gain 0 doom, which is very good).
- You should assume players are playing optimally, and the active player should endeavor to play optimally. I mentioned that sort of earlier, but once you have a guess, spend some time analyzing what the other possible combinations could be and figure out if they made the best play for those guesses. If they didn’t, then you gotta go with what you think the best guess for their play is. If they did, well, you have to take on some risk if you’d like to guess.
- There’s no need to guess unless a card is about to fade. And even then, that might not be the worst thing. If you have points to spare, fading isn’t terrible, even if you get it wrong. If you aren’t going to fade, well, then sometimes the best play is just to cool your heels until the next turn. Haste makes waste and all that.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Love the art. It’s definitely got the weird-tarot theme going, but also the like spooky ethereal submerged vibe. That plus all the blues and the brilliant colors are really jiving with my aesthetic and it works super well. I would love art prints or something for this game — it’s really quite striking. Also, the characters appear to be diverse, which I also super appreciate. Well done, Meromorph Games. It’s just a great-looking game.
- It plays like Hanabi, but is much more friendly to new players, in my opinion. I think the problem I have with Hanabi is that I don’t find it super friendly to new players in that experienced groups have their “patterns” and “well-defined strategies” and “heuristics” and “conventions”. I find those strategies aren’t super obvious to new players, so they end up frustrating new Hanabi groups. (I think Meeple Like Us conveyed a lot of this in their Hanabi review, so I’ll avoid rehashing that, here.) In The Shipwreck Arcana, it only takes a few rounds for players to get the swing of things because the cards are fairly explicit with their rules and there aren’t complex metaheuristics beyond “probably try not to get rid of tiles we already have information about” which … I sure hope that’s not a startling revelation. Even then, if someone does, that’s not a huge problem.
- Supports drop-in and dropping out with no real issue. That’s probably the coolest part, for me. You can have players leave the game or come into the game at any time without really impacting the game in any meaningful way. This means you can just kind of play it while waiting for friends to arrive at a party and they can just hop in instead of having to watch you play until you’re done. Even though it’s a short game, that’s a nice touch.
- Plays quickly. It’s really a 20-minute game. Plays fast, sets up fast, tears down fast. No problems, there.
- Super simple to learn. Draw up to two tiles. Play one such that you’re obeying the rules of the card you play it below. The other players can guess. Green up if they’re right, red up if they’re wrong. Those are most of the rules, right there. That’s not too bad.
- Super easy to transport. Sure, the box is a weird shape, but it’s pretty small. If the box isn’t to your liking you can probably fit all the components in the bag, sure, but the box is so pretty! Why not just use the box?
- Fairly luck-driven. It’s short enough that that’s not a huge issue for me, but still something worth noting. The difficulty of a game can swing wildly based on what tiles you draw and what cards you start with. I find that rolling with the punches makes it more interesting, but you might end up with a very easy game if you get too lucky.
- In most games it’s fairly uncommon to see more than, say, 8 cards total. It’s a bummer because the cards look super nice, so it would be nice to see more of them in games.
- Very weirdly shaped box. I’m going to have a hell of a time trying to figure out where to put this one on my shelves. Oh well; that’s a problem for Future Eric, I’d say. As of publishing time, I have figured it out.
- Very light. This is going to be too light for a fair number of people, just as a heads up. You can get 7 points pretty easily and never advance a doom if you get the right cards or if you’re on the same wavelength. That’s fine with me, but it’s worth noting for others. I think this is somewhat fixable by adding in the extra promo cards, as they seem to make the game more difficult, but then luck becomes a bigger factor as certain combinations of tiles / cards make the game kind of easy. In my opinion, that’s okay, but other players may look for more of an intense challenge from their … fairly lightweight games, I suppose. Always Mottainai for that.
- The math aspect may not appeal to everyone. Some people don’t enjoy the math-logic puzzle thing that the game’s got going on, so be mindful before you break it out with every group. It’s definitely mathier than the other deduction games I’ve played, like Fugitive or Herbalism. It might not be the best “time to wind down game night” game for your group if they don’t enjoy a healthy bit of math while playing games.
Overall: 8.75 / 10
Overall, The Shipwreck Arcana rocks. It checks all my boxes for a great new little game, in that it’s light, fast, and fun, and it’s got incredibly good art, to boot, which really works for me. My entire style is about contrast and emphasizing colors, and these look good already, my extra photo editing tweaks notwithstanding. Sure, it’s light, but I don’t think that’s necessarily bad. In my mind, it’s a great game to play with a few people while game night is warming up, especially because you can add players in or have other players drop out and play other games while the game’s in progress! That’s a particular highlight for me, and I appreciate that it’s been incorporated into the game. All in all, it’s a great little game, and I’d highly recommend checking it out, especially if you like deduction or logic puzzles as much as I do!