Full disclosure: A review copy of Sailblazer was provided by Nice Game Publishing.
It’s always exciting when you hit the end of a run. This run is the latest box of games sent via Nice Game Publishing on behalf of various publishers. We talked about The Bark Side, DIG IT UP, and Sheep Dog, so let’s finish up with Sailblazer! This is a larger game than the others, so this review might be a bit longer; please bear with me.
In Sailblazer, you’re seeking your fortune on the open seas! That said, it’s also the Golden Age of Piracy, so, you picked a kind of mediocre time to seek your fortune on said open seas. You were never much for timing. You’re motivated by your own personal journey, though, and you’ll hire sailors, buy some cannons, and drink a surprisingly reasonable amount of rum to get to where you want to be. The problem is, you’re not alone in your endeavor; your opponents will stop at nothing to live out their dreams on the high seas, as well. Will you be able to find your way on the ocean? Or will your opponents out-swashbuckle you?
Start by placing the Saffron Island tile in the center of the table / play area:
You’re going to want to organize the other tiles:
The log cards:
The pirate cards:
And the Reward cards:
Into their stages: 1, 2, and Final. Remove all the 3 / 4 labelled tiles if you’re only playing a two-player game. For the 1 and 2 Stage tiles, there are three end stage tiles (I -> II and II -> F); remove those and shuffle them up with two of the other tiles of that stage. Put that set of five tiles on the bottom of each stage’s shuffled stack. For the final stage, shuffle all 8 tiles normally.
Set the Final Achievements nearby:
You can place the Pirate King card next to his Achievement. Give every player a player board:
Have them place their ship on Saffron Island:
Take your player markers. Place one on each cannon space on your board, one on two of the three storeroom spaces, and one on the XP track (the 0) at the top of the board. Set the others aside:
Give each player two rum tokens to start:
Give each player one Saffron, setting the other resource tokens aside:
Give each player fish:
- First player: 2 fish
- Second player: 2 fish
- Third player: 3 fish
- Fourth player: 4 fish
Set aside the sailor tokens:
I kind of thought they were fish, at first. You can see it. Also set aside the Loot Tokens:
And the Prestige tokens:
Set the dice aside as well:
Give each player a Prologue card, setting aside the other Story Cards until needed:
You should be ready to start!
The game takes place over three stages, as players attempt to fulfill their destinies and become masters of the open ocean. Every stage comes with its own setup, so before a stage (including Stage 1), you’ll want to set out the tiles, pirate cards, and log cards next to each other, face-down. Reveal 5 Reward Cards for the current phase, as well.
Players will move, and then act, on their turns.
For movement, you may choose three options.
If you choose to explore, you forge ahead off of the edge of the tile you’re on, currently, into uncharted(ish) waters. Pay the cost in fish, draw the tile, gain 1 EXP, and move your ship onto the tile.
If the tile has a Prestige Token icon on it, you immediately gain that Prestige as well. Similarly, if a card as a Pirate symbol on it, you must immediately fight the Pirate. Draw the top card of the Pirate deck. If it’s an encounter, you must roll the Captain’s Die (along with any Cannon dice you’ve unlocked) to defeat it. Your sailors may give you extra strength, and you can discard rum for +1 strength per rum discarded. If your total strength meets or exceeds theirs, you win! If not, you may take penalties. If you gain loot, it must be stored in your storeroom (if you have room) and taken to a port. Any Prestige you gain from the card comes at the end of the game.
To sail, move to any adjacent ocean tile that’s already been revealed. Your default speed is 1 tile, but you may expend fish or assign sailors in order to move one extra space per thing used. Other players’ boats don’t affect you, in case you were wondering.
If you stay, you don’t move. Makes sense.
EXP and You
Over the course of these explorations, you may gain enough EXP to hit 5 or 10. When you hit those spots, you gain a reward:
- 5 EXP: You may take a free Sailor, 3 free Coins, or 3 free EXP.
- 10 EXP: Gain a level! You may take a Treasure Map (if it hasn’t been claimed), unlock a cannon die, or unlock a storeroom space.
Also, as you do things during either phase, you may fulfill requirements on Rewards Cards. You may take up to two per turn, but they do not replenish until the next player’s turn. Taking them is a free action.
Now, the Action Phase occurs! You may take one action.
Draw a Log Card
Some spaces have Log Card symbols on them. You may draw one and resolve it; that’s a useful way to gain EXP, especially if you don’t want to fight Pirates. That said, you can only draw a Log Card if you explored, this turn. So you may have to risk the Pirates anyways. These are mostly good. But not always!
Sell and Buy Resources
This one’s interesting. If you’re on a space that produces a resource (pictured), you may buy it for 1 coin, regardless of what it is.
Selling, however, is more complicated. You cannot sell a resource on a space that generates one. If you explored, you may always sell at maximum price:
- Saffron / Bananas / Coconuts / Pottery / Fabric: 3 coins
- Tea / Coffee: 4 coins
- Ginseng: 5 coins
If not, you have to sell it for a number of coins equal to your distance (orthogonally) from the closest place that sells it. If there is no tile that sells this resource (which can happen), you may sell it for maximum price. Note that you can never sell a good for more than its maximum price; that’s why it’s the maximum.
Resupply the Ship at a Port
If you’re on a port space (has an anchor), you may resupply. This lets you do several things:
- Reassign sailors. You can move them to any open spot(s), if you have any.
- Make Purchases. This is different than resource trading. You may buy other things:
- Fish: 2 fish for 1 coin
- Rum: 1 rum for 1 coin
- Sailors: You may hire a sailor for 3 coins
- Exchange Loot. You can trade any and all loot tokens for Prestige tokens. More useful!
You can do any and all of these things with one action as many times as you want / are able to.
Work at a Port
If you’re on a port space (has an anchor), you may gain 1 coin. I never said working at a port paid well.
Take the number of fish pictured on the tile. That’s all.
End of Stage
If a player reveals a tile with an End Stage icon, the stage immediately ends. Reset it according to the instructions I gave earlier.
End of Game
If a player reveals one of the Final Tiles (Bonanza Island / Treasure Island / Pirate Island), the game ends after every other player takes one more turn. Those three tiles will give you special bonuses if you fulfill their requirements, though, so they’re worth visiting. Either way, once you’ve ended the game, calculate your score:
- Prestige Token points
- Pirate Card points
- 1 point per EXP level reached
The player with the most points wins!
Player Count Differences
Not really major ones. There’s a lot more exploring happening at higher player counts just by virtue of there being more players, which just means you’ll get fewer turns per phase, generally. You’ll probably see higher scores at 2 or 3 players as a result, but there’s nothing that really makes it that big of a change at higher player counts (other than just having more players in your way).
No particular player count recommendation for this one, either.
- Explore pretty much constantly. Sure, you might take some knocks from Pirates, but you’ll get a lot more EXP this way, even if you lose. Just be careful that you don’t take too many hits from Pirates; you need to win some of those battles if you want to gain any points.
- Spend your first few bonuses on Sailors. You can spend them on EXP, too, but I wouldn’t really recommend spending them on coins. It’s good to have a few on you at all times, but you shouldn’t need more than 3, period, at any juncture during the game, I think.
- You really want the sailors that reduce your exploration cost. They make it really easy to explore, which makes it really easy to gain EXP, which makes it really easy to gain additional sailors. You can probably see where this cycle ends up going, eventually.
- Keep stocked on Rum. You might need the extra-precise strength to fight off a major baddie or the Pirate King. It’s dirt cheap to keep on you, anyways, and you may end up wanting a sailor at some point, so you can definitely pick up some rum while you’re there.
- Cannons are helpful. They give you extra power to fight off pirates or cephalopods or whatever lurks in the ocean. Generally speaking, that’s pretty useful to have on your ship.
- If you get cards that let you buy or sell, always buy or sell resources. They usually let you sell at max price, which is a great way to earn money, and buying resources is so cheap.
- Keep stocked on fish, too. They’re useful to have, especially at the end of the game if you need to make a quick break to get to one of the special tiles that someone else revealed.
- During the final stage, I tend to stay close to other players. Again, just in case they reveal a tile that I really want. Then I can swoop in on my turn and get it, which is usually to my advantage.
- Similarly, try to keep ginseng on board during the final stage. Hedge your bets and assume that you’ll reveal Bonanza Island. If you do, you’ll be handsomely rewarded for having it on you.
- Look for easy Rewards Cards. They’re usually free EXP at best, free coins at worst. It’s worth seeing if you can get some while doing whatever you were going to do anyways, but I wouldn’t necessarily go super out of my way to pick one up unless the reward was good.
- Don’t go for the sailor that gives you 3 additional fish. You just … pretty much never need that many fish. Especially if you went with the sailors that reduced your exploration cost early in the game; you should still have a bunch left over because you’ll likely inevitably hit the tile that forces you to only fish on your turn, which is a bummer.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- I actually really like pirate-themed games? What? They’re fun. And you can fight a Kraken in this one! Or the Pirate King!
- It feels like a pirate-themed game should. You’re sailing around, going on adventurers, hiring a crew! Except you’re not a pirate, so you don’t do any horrible crimes. Or attack other players. So that’s all good for me. I guess it’s more an Age of Exploration-themed game. Whatever.
- The ocean expansion is cool. I appreciate that players are incentivized by their prologue cards to all go in different directions, so that the ocean starts out getting larger and there’s a lot of branching-off points.
- The Rewards cards are interesting. They can help mitigate some problems, but it would be nice if they gave you extra-powerful bonuses for doing things that aren’t super helpful (like revealing a tile without a port or log symbol). They’re a good balancing tool.
- I appreciate that the Pirates aren’t all bad cards and the Logs aren’t all good cards. Keeps things interesting.
- The Story Cards are cute. There aren’t nearly enough in the game for me, personally, but they’re cute. Especially since they give you fun nicknames for that Stage.
- It’s slightly odd that the fish and the sailors are all a unique shape, but the rum isn’t. Not saying they should have shelled out for tiny barrels, but it’s just odd that they did 2 / 3 things.
- Only four sets of Story Cards means you kinda burn through them pretty quickly. I think for future iterations you’d almost want something more like Betrayal at House on the Hill’s haunt book or Near and Far’s storybook. A pirate-themed Betrayal would actually be pretty incredible, and I’m a bit disappointed that this isn’t quite that kind of game.
- There’s a lot of setup. Pieces have to be split into Stages and then shuffled within each Stage. That can (and honestly, does) get annoying really quickly. At the very least it would help if they were different colors so that they’re easier to quickly differentiate.
- Feels pretty random. Say, for instance, you spent a bit investing in the Treasure Map, but Treasure Island is at the bottom of the 8-tile Final stack. You ain’t getting to Treasure Island, so that was a whole level wasted. Let’s say you’re on one side of the board and the players on the other side find Pirate Island. You just can’t get there in time. Bad luck. Or you can get there and someone beats you to it! That’s a lot of points. A lot of things in this game come down to luck, which might be frustrating for some players. Personally, I see it as being akin to Betrayal at House on the Hill, but with less story, which is a bit of a bummer.
- The “only fish” spaces are pretty bad. We saw a player get crushed one game because he drew both of them early on exploring, so he got behind on EXP, which meant that when we charged into the next Stage, it was hard for him to explore and fight Pirates, so he didn’t. He really didn’t have a shot of winning, and he (somewhat rightfully) blamed those tiles. It was a bummer.
- Trading is kind of underutilized. Players don’t really put much effort into the resource trade, which is disappointing. Part of it is that I don’t think the Pirates scale in difficulty quickly enough to challenge many players, so they end up just fighting all the Pirates and constantly exploring. If the Pirates were all stronger, they could really mess up some players, so you’d see a lot more early Sailor hiring, which I think would make that end of the game more interesting. Either that or provide some Prestige for selling at max value so that players would be incentivized to move around and do that sort of thing. As it stands, it just seems like a part of the game that’s … there.
- The rich get richer in this one. If you have a lot of EXP, it’s easy to get more. You can fight any pirate, get sailors with your 5 EXP bonuses, and generally power through most obstacles. If you don’t have a lot of EXP, it’s hard to earn more without exploring, which might mean that you run afoul of some pirates and end up with nothing to show for it, which is a bummer, too.
Overall: 6.75 / 10
Overall, Sailblazer is interesting! I think my current complaint about it is that it’s not quite sure what kind of game it wants to be. On one hand, it’s definitely an Age of Exploration game. Build up your ship, explore around, discover new islands, fight pirates; you can do it all in this. On the other, it’s really got a bit of the humorous soul of a storytelling game, but it almost feels like it was afraid to commit fully to that. As a result, it occupies two pretty disjoint spaces, and the players can kinda feel that indecision in a lot of parts of the game. The game’s a bit heavy on luck, the rich get richer, and trading isn’t really fleshed out to the level I’d want it to be. The thing is, games like Betrayal have those problems, too, but they’ve fully committed to being An Experience, so die-hard fans are more willing to dismiss some of their holes in favor of their narratives. Sailblazer has the beginnings of that, but I would absolutely love to see more work developed on that side. The core gameplay is there and it’s fun; it just could use some tweaks to make it feel a bit less variable (or some additional weight on the Story Cards so that the variability feels like it’s in pursuit of a story). Either way, I thought it was a cute game, so I’m hoping to see an expansion or something for it so that I’d be able to get it back to the table. In the meantime, if you’re looking for some adventure on the high seas and don’t mind a bit of luck, Sailblazer might be worth checking out! It’s interesting.