Full disclosure: A review copy of ShipShape was provided by Calliope Games.
Another batch of games! This time we’ve got a bunch from Calliope, publishers of the Tsuro series that I’ve covered previously. I’m not talking about Tsuro, today, though (I am talking about it in a few weeks); I’m talking about ShipShape, another one of their 2019 releases. It’s 2020 now, so, that’s pretty much all I have to talk about other than Renegade titles, anyways, so let’s get to it and see what’s up.
In ShipShape, players work as “smugglers” (pirates) trying to claim coins, battle each other, and sneak contraband past the navy. You do this by loading up your holds with valuable cargo. But you’ll have to send your best crew to take the goods before someone else gets to them. Be careful, though; a tie can really mess things up. Will you be able to get your ship together?
Not a ton of setup. Set out the coins within view of all players:
Give each player a set of Crew Cards (there are six colors):
Set out three Hold Tiles per player:
Give each player a Voyage 1 Card; you can do that randomly:
Once you’ve done all that, you should be ready to start! If you’re playing with 2 players or want a fun, random player, set out one more Voyage Card and set of Crew Cards for Cap’n Happen Stance:
ShipShape is played over three rounds, as players attempt to unload goods, use their cannons, and transport secret contraband to earn money. At the end of the game, the player with the most money wins!
Generally speaking, you play all simultaneously. In a six-player game, though, you’ll play the rounds in groups of three players. Number players 1 – 6, and then play:
- Round 1: 1 2 3 + 4 5 6
- Round 2: 2 3 4 + 5 6 1
- Round 3: 3 4 5 + 6 1 2
Anyways. Set out Hold Tiles equal to the number of players times 3. All players play a card from their hand simultaneously; that’s a bid. The player with the highest bid takes the top Hold Tile from the stack and adds it to their Voyage Card immediately. Then, the player with the second-highest bid goes, and so on until all players have taken a tile. Then, repeat this step two more times.
In the event of a tie, the tied players have an effective bid of 0, so they go last. Once all other players have taken a tile, they play a new card from their hands and go again. If they tie a second time, they go in order of the numbers on their Voyage Cards.
Once every player has taken their third Hold Tile, the round ends. Score in the following order:
- Gold + Rats: Score your gold minus your rats. The game states you can’t go negative, but I like to be mean, so, we let you go negative. Live your best life.
- Cannons: Find the player with the lowest overall cannon value. All players gain coins equal to their total cannon value minus the lowest overall cannon value (this means the player with the lowest overall cannon value scores 0).
- Contraband: The player with the highest overall contraband value scores 0. All other players score their contraband value. In the event of a tie, all tied players score 0 on contraband.
Take all the players’ Voyage Cards and Hold Tiles and set them aside; they won’t be used again. Now, reveal Voyage 2 Cards equal to the number of players; give the highest-numbered one to the player with the highest score, and so on. Play two more Voyages, and the player with the highest score wins!
Cap’n Happen Stance
Captain Happen Stance is an odd character. He’s been doomed to only play randomly, bidding for whatever he can take. And when he does take, he takes and places the Hold Tile immediately; no rotations!
Add Cap’n Happen Stance to games to add a bit of entropy, or add him to a five-player game to bump it to six!
Player Count Differences
Well, the nice thing is that at pretty much any player count, you can use Cap’n Happen Stance to add one silly slightly-random player to the game, if you want a more chaotic game. I appreciate, though, that the two player game adds them in as a dummy player that can really mess you up. Normally, I’m not a fan of arbitrarily high player counts, but, honestly, I still enjoy this game at even six players. I think there’s a smart bit of game design at work. Since you can’t see six deep in the stack, having the players set into groups of three means that you can generally predict what the three possible holds you’re going to grab are. Then, you need to keep an eye on the other players to make sure you don’t get clowned on contraband or cannons. The cool thing, in my opinion, is that the groups change up between voyages, which keeps things interesting. It’s extremely smart, an that earns a rare comment. It’s not that I have no player preference; it’s that I genuinely think it’s super fun at low and high player counts! I would recommend adding in Happen Stance at five players, though, so you can get to that six-player configuration; I’m a huge fan of it.
- Remember all holds add up to 8. I think this is pretty critical to doing well. Even if you can’t quite see what the hold options are, you can surmise what the values might be even if you can only see one of them. Using that as a way to plan is very long-term helpful if you’re trying to go for things like most Cannons, second-most Contraband, or even a Full Ship.
- Keep an eye on what your opponents are taking. You absolutely need to know who has the most Contraband and fewest Cannons. Make sure, in both cases, that it’s not you. Plus, you want to make sure that you’re not too close to the bottom on Cannons. Getting 0 points is bad; getting 1 point isn’t much better. You need that to be a distinguishing factor.
- If other players are focusing too much on Cannons and Contraband, it might be the right time to try and snake your way into getting some Gold. Often players will tend to err too much towards one resource to the detriment of others. If you see this starting to happen, use that opportunity to get the Gold that they might be ignoring. This is particularly relevant in rounds where Cannons and Contraband happen to be fairly low-scoring; if you can get an advantage by focusing on Gold, it may not matter if you lose the other two.
- Go for that Full Ship bonus. It’s so fulfilling if you can pull it off! Just keep an eye out and make sure that your opponents aren’t also going to get it. I wouldn’t say that it’s super worth trying to block them (as is the case with a lot of multiplayer games), but if you can’t get it, it might be worth making sure that nobody else can, either? Up to you.
- Barring that, at least cover the rats. They’re worth negative points! They’re also rats. That’s the worst of both worlds. Thankfully, they can’t drive you too deep into the red, but they can be pretty annoying if you’re trying to capitalize on
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- I appreciate the diversity of the crew. It’s a very nice touch! I still think of this as a pirate-themed game, so, makes sense that the pirate crew comes from all over the ocean, but it’s nice. Representation matters.
- The tiles could have been thin or, like, cardstock, but making them thick foam really adds a lot to the game. I really appreciate the tactile parts of games, and Calliope really got that for this one. It’s a bit odd, given another game I played of theirs has a number of component issues, but I’ll save my thoughts for that review. The whole end-to-end experience of the game is absolutely superb; even the coins have a nice weight to them! They’re not metal coins, so, you know, but they’re still a great texture and quality.
- Pretty easy to teach. You basically just bid on tiles to play and then can rotate them as needed. The tiles being cutouts is the crux of the game, in my opinion, and as far as schticks go, it’s a very good one!
- Plays relatively quickly. It’s surprisingly quick even at six, especially if everyone already knows how to play.
- The spatial element is really cool. I really like games with tile / spatial elements, and I think it’s pretty well known that I have a soft spot for verticality in my board games, as well. This has all of those things and it works really well. For a relatively simple concept, it’s got a lot of good scaffolding in place to ensure that the game’s the total package.
- I really like the tiebreaker rules as well? It knocking you out can throw off everyone’s game, which is awesome. A huge wrench in the gears. I generally abhor unnecessary entropy in games, unless it’s hilarious. And it’s absolutely hilarious. I think it also does a nice job of forcing you to think tactically and try to remember what other players have taken, though, being serious. It’s much more fun than other potential tiebreaker rules, and it can really change up the game if it happens at certain times!
- Cap’n Happen Stance is a solid addition. I just like the randomness of another player that only ever takes the tiles as-is. It’s elegant in its simplicity, but in-game it’s still very much a threat. It’s maybe a bit demoralizing to be losing to Happen Stance, but, not much to say about that.
- I kind of with there were solo rules for this one. I feel like you could make it work with some modifications to Happen Stance’s routine (and using two of them). I’m no designer, though, so I’ll just have to … make friends and play board games with them?
- Repacking this game is an experience. It’s very particular, trying to stack all the columns of tiles and fitting the cards and money in the gaps between the tiles. The insert is nice, but having space for those might be more helpful? I mean, it all fits, so it mostly works.
- It’s not great that the rulebook states that you can end a voyage with a negative score, but that appears to just be … false. I was reading about it on BGG to make sure I understood the rules correctly, and it seems that the lowest you can score on a voyage is zero. So even if you can’t get enough rats covered, they just count against your gold score. I kind of prefer the actual ability for rats to give you a negative score, but, what can you do.
- The actual Hold Tiles are … weirdly pixellated? It seems like they sent a low-resolution file to the printer or something; you can see the individual pixels on the tiles if you look closely enough. It’s not a particularly big problem, but, once you notice it you’ll always see it.
Overall: 9.25 / 10
Overall, I’m enamored with ShipShape. I just, I really like it. For me, I tend toward games with a physical component of some kind that I find appealing; the tactility of games is really important to me. ShipShape’s got that. The Hold Tiles are excellent, and they stack in a satisfying way. Plus, it’s fun to see how much information you can glean from the stack and how it’s positioned. Can you see a few rounds in advance? It’s mildly amusing to me. That’s all well and good, but I also appreciate that the game feels like it constantly moves at a good pace. 3 is a classically simple number, but, it really feels like it was the right choice for this game. 3 rounds, 3 tiles; it’s solid. No round feels like it goes on for too long, and the game also never overstays its welcome, even if you want to play it again after the first one. That alone would put the game up there for me, but I think it really starts to shine in the subtle areas. I particularly like how the tiebreakers can shake the game up; normally, a tie only messes with the tied players, but this tie can mess with everyone. It can completely change the landscape of the round. And the fact that that can happen forces you to be a bit tactical. Either way, though, I think that ShipShape is a solidly fun title that’s definitely sticking around in my collection for a while; I introduce it to new players when I can and I have a blast every time I play it. If you’re into spatial games, bidding games, or living your best life as a pirate, I’d highly recommend checking ShipShape out!