Full disclosure: A review copy of Ahoy was provided by Leder Games.
So, my all-time favorite joke is “What’s a pirate’s favorite letter of the alphabet?”. Usually, people will answer “R”, to which you respond “Ay, ye think it’d be R, but ’tis the C he loves.” Deeply funny. It also works with programming languages, but you didn’t come here for that kind of humor. Anyways, pirates. I Some of my favorite games are pirate-themed (Rob Daviau’s ShipShape, for instance), and I always find them kind of entertaining. I’m sure they were whatever, in real life, but our societal romanticization of pirates has ensnared me, even more so after watching Our Flag Means Death. Now, in my mind, pirates are just weirdos. It’s with that in mind that I opened up my box for Leder Games’s Ahoy, their newest asymmetrical game. They’re kind of getting a reputation for asymmetry (other than, I suppose, Fort), so it makes sense that a lighter title would emerge. Let’s try it out!
In Ahoy, players take on the role of a crew sailing the high seas in search of fortune and whatever folks usually look for on the high seas. Adventure? The ghost of their father? A disturbingly photorealistic Goofy and Donald Duck? Doubloons? I literally have no idea; I’ve been on an actual ship like, one time. That doesn’t feel relevant. As one of three factions, you’ll take on the ebb and flow of control of the seas by recruiting Crew, battling it out, and some special secrets that only the Bluefish Squadron, the Mollusk Union, and the Smugglers know. Will you be able to earn both fame and infamy on the waters? Or will you just end up sunk?
Setup depends a bit on how many players you have, since you use different factions at each player count. I’ll detail the faction-specific setups, which will make things a bit easier. To start, however, you’re going to put the gold nearby:
Each player starts with one. Next, set out the damage tokens and the battle dice:
Then, set out two region tiles such that the islands are on opposite sides and the tiles are staggered by one space:
Place a Wealth Die in each inset spot, with a value of 1 on the die:
Remove one region tile from the game without looking at it. If you’re playing with 2 or 3 players, remove one card of each suit from the Market Cards deck:
It doesn’t matter if you see them, so just shuffle the deck and draw a card off the top of the deck until you have one card from each suit, then reshuffle the remainder. Deal three cards face-up below the scoreboard to form the market. Once you’ve done that, you should be ready to do faction-specific setup! You’ll set up factions based on your player count:
- 2 players: Bluefin Squadron / Mollusk Union
- 3 players: Bluefin Squadron / The Smuggler / Mollusk Union
- 4 players: Bluefin Squadron / The Smuggler / Mollusk Union / The Smuggler
The two Smugglers are identical, so they can go where they need to. Give each player their player board:
Each player then rolls their action dice, setting them aside.
Bluefin Squadron Setup
The Bluefins have a fair bit of stuff:
The small fins are their Patrols and the larger tokens are their Strongholds. The biggest one is the Flagship! Place that on either island along with a Patrol token.
Mollusk Union Setup
The Mollusks have their various tokens:
They also have their Plan Cards:
The round tokens are Comrades; place two on the unoccupied island, and place 6 on the Mollusk player’s player board. Set the two ships (the Cutter and the Gunship) aside until later. Shuffle the Plan Cards, drawing two into your hand.
The Smugglers technically set up between the Bluefins and the Mollusks, but in two-player games there aren’t any, so, compromises. They have various stuff:
First, place your Flagship on any space that isn’t an island. Then, take your player aid. The Pledge Tokens both go “PLEDGE”-side up, but you can look at the images on the other side at any time. It’s important that other players don’t know which is which. Finally, stack the black and clear reward marker cubes in the center of the Smuggler reward grid.
You should be ready to start!
A game of Ahoy is played over a series of rounds, as players seek to collect fame through various means to become the most notable crew on the waters. However, the path each player takes to fame is a little different.
At the start of a round, each player rolls their available action dice, which fuel the actions that they can do over the course of the game. These actions let them move, prepare cannons, and some special effects that are player-specific. You can also spend gold to increase or decrease die values by 1, as well. Generally speaking, the Bluefins want to place Patrols, upgrade them to Strongholds, and have a lot of Patrols and Strongholds on tiles at the end of each round. The Mollusks want to ready and deploy Comrades, build their extra boats, and have Comrades on various islands at the end of each round. The Smugglers pick up Cargo at various Islands and deliver it to other islands, and by doing so, they raise the Wealth Die value of those region tiles, making them more valuable to the Bluefins and the Mollusks.
When a player moves off the edge of the board, they explore! This means that they reveal a new region tile, placing it so no two islands are adjacent to each other. Whenever you finish exploring, you stop.
If you enter a space with another player and they (or you) have loaded cannons, you have to fight! You fight every enemy on the space with loaded cannons, and to fight, the attacker first decides how much of their cannon die they want to use (if they have one). Then the defender does the same. For each number you drop on your die, your battle strength increases by one. Then, both players roll a battle die! That number is added to your battle strength. The player with the higher value wins the battle! If there’s a tie, the victory goes to the attacker. Certain things that aren’t the flagship can be attacked, and if they take damage, they’re removed from play! Use that to turn the tides of the region to your advantage.
If you stop on an island, you can also hire Crew! They have to match the suit of the island, and you have to pay for them, but they can give you a variety of fun bonus effects. Worth noting.
At the end of the round, each region tile scores its Wealth Die for the player controlling it, earning them the corresponding amount of Fame. If there’s a tie, neither player gets anything. The Smugglers earn fame from dropping off cargo, so they don’t participate in end-of-round shenanigans.
If, at any point, a player has more than 30 Fame, the game ends! Total player Fame, and check the Smuggler pledges! They earn one Fame for each cargo pledged to a faction that controls at least one island of that type. The player with the most fame wins!
Player Count Differences
This is largely coming from a place of game genre preference, but I prefer playing the Smugglers to the Squadron or the Union. As a result, I really can’t play Ahoy at two. At two, you just have the area control elements, and the game gradually increases the stakes each round. That’s fine for a tight game of asymmetric control, but, eh. I’m not the biggest fan of area control as a genre, so I end up leaning more towards the pick-up-and-deliver elements with a bit of betting that comprises the Smugglers. This means that there’s really no place for me in a two-player game. At three or four, I can be either a single Smuggler trying to keep balance between the two other players, or I can try to fight it out with another Smuggler at four players. Both are tough, though, in their own way. I think the advantage of a four-player game is that it’s easier for both Smugglers to collectively balance the other two players, though it comes at the cost of making it a bit more challenging to score points on your own. I’d say that overall, my major preference is just, not two players.
- The Bluefin Squadron really is about dividing and conquering, to some degree. You have a lot of Patrol tokens and it’s fairly easy to make them into Strongholds, which make Islands essentially worthless for other players. You should be splitting those Patrols off and just letting them do their own thing, taking Islands, and converting them into Strongholds. The more you can get, the more control you have. You don’t have any unpredictability, to that end, so just do what you do best.
- The Bluefins should also look to their Patrols and use them to encroach on Mollusk territory. You can often use multiple Patrols to start trying to hit the Mollusks, especially since the Mollusk Flagship is only worth +1 to control. If you’ve already placed a Stronghold, you can usually count that area as fairly controlled, so you can start pushing out. Just keep in mind that you don’t always want to have a bunch of Patrols in the same location; someone can attack a bunch of them, if you’re not careful.
- The Mollusks should keep a few plans in their back pocket. Your Plan Cards are your bread and butter. They can eliminate Patrols, spawn new ships, and help you win battles that the other person wasn’t expecting. Sometimes you can even avoid battles, if you know what you’re doing, which is pretty excellent. Plus, being able to flip a situation to your advantage with a well-executed plan is pretty much the whole point of having plans in the first place, no?
- Additionally, try not to run out of Ready Comrades; they’re going to get sent back to you fairly regularly, so try to make sure that you can drop more as you need. They’re beautiful folks, your Comrades, but they’re not very strong. The Bluefins (and occasionally, the Smugglers) will be sending them back to you regularly, so you need to make sure you’re always ready to drop more. This is why the Bluefins will generally try to damage your Rally action on your player board if they can attack you. If you can Rally four Comrades to yourself each round (in addition to other actions), you can usually push back on their control.
- For the Smugglers, you should be keeping an eye on who controls what and using that to place your bets accordingly. Usually, if there’s a Stronghold on an island, I’ll give that cargo type to the Bluefins. If there are Comrades and they’re far away from the Bluefins, I usually end up calling that for the Mollusk Union. That said, I also expect to miss every few predictions, so it’s not that big of a deal. You do want to try to get them right, though. That might be how you win the game!
- Similarly, you do not want to increase the value of a non-disputed spot too much too quickly; you may end up giving one player an early edge that’s hard to come back from. This is a mistake I made in my first game. I upped the value of a Bluefin area pretty aggressively pretty early, and that meant that I had no way to really stop the Bluefin player from getting a bunch of unmatched points off of that area (and ultimately winning the game, though we were close!). Try to up uncontested areas or occasionally helping the Mollusks, if you can.
- It’s worth considering how you take cargo, as well; it might be worth making a detour to take a potential Crew Member as cargo, rather than letting a player take its ability. There’s definitely something to taking a useful Crew Member as cargo because their ability helps the Bluefins or the Mollusks too much. Plus, then you get to score points when you deliver the cargo, which is a double benefit. Even if this means throwing out a piece of cargo already in your hold, it might still be worth it.
- Overall, it’s useful to think about how Crew abilities synergize with your strategy, rather than just taking them to take them. There are a lot of useful Crew abilities. Some let you avoid damage or warp around the map or just … solve various problems that come up as a faction of swashbucklers. I got one that gave me a gold for every turn I finished with no damage, which, early-game, was huge. I afforded so many dice roll changes with that. It’s a useful feature, and you should try to get a few Crew over the course of the game to help out.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- I just really enjoy pirate-themed games. I don’t know; it’s a fun theme, and I like that in a game. Sometimes it’s just nice to have something simple and piratey. I think it’s because in a pirate-themed game, basically anything can happen, which I appreciate. It offers a lot of opportunity for designers to just do whatever, and I think I’ve had the fortune to see a lot of that.
- Kyle Ferrin’s art makes these pirates endearing and a bit silly at the same time, which is always appreciated. I guess they’re more technically swashbucklers than pirates, but I don’t know the precise terminology. I love Kyle’s art, though, and I think it pops, here. These are folks I want to know more about, specifically because they all look like weird little guys. They’re all very fun.
- I appreciate that Ahoy’s asymmetry is fairly approachable. We found you didn’t need to 100% understand all the roles to play, and the distinctions between how the roles play and interact are relatively easy to understand. The asymmetry is pronounced in how the players accomplish their goals, but I didn’t feel like I had to read everyone’s player board and rules to get a sense of how to play the game proper. I could see that they were doing something different and engaging with the game differently than I was, but it wasn’t too hard to get a grasp on things. I think we all did pretty well in our first game, and generally I found that the rulebook was simple to get through. I wouldn’t say this is the simplest asymmetric game I’ve played, but it certainly is an asymmetric game that’s a great introduction for folks who are already into strategy games.
- I like games where the map is emergent and gets built during the game. The act of exploration becomes fun and exciting. I always like building the map as you go; I just think it’s a neat way to make the game feel unique every time you play. It’s happening at a fairly small scale, here, but when it happens and what’s revealed become pretty critical to gameplay, which is pretty interesting. It’s a small way to make the game feel responsive to the players, and I like it.
- I really like how the Smugglers’ cargo deliveries are just kind of their own pick-up-and-deliver thing with a betting component; that’s easily my favorite group to play. It’s fun to just be bopping around for the entire game, picking up and dropping off cargo as you go. I like that you play as an effective balancing force in the game, keeping the (relative) peace as best as you can to try and make sure that no player gets farther ahead than the other. Naturally, you want to get ahead of the other players, but what they don’t know won’t hurt them.
- The Crew do a great job of letting players customize their ships for their preferred play style. There are definitely ones that I prefer and ones that are only useful to the Bluefins or the Mollusks, but there are some generally-useful ones that allow players to ignore some special tiles, move faster, move to spots of their choice, or even gain gold and such. It’s a nice way to allow some customization atop the asymmetry.
- I’m always a fan of using dice to choose player actions, and I like how that’s implemented, here. Things like players needing specific values to activate certain actions or using the die value for certain effects are always fun, and the player boards do both! Plus, they’re double-layered, which I really like. I appreciate that the “better” spots on the player board are also targets for sabotage from other players, so you need to watch out, to some degree.
- I understand it’s done for board size consistency and such, but the player score tracker tokens are very small. Like, they’re extremely easy to lose. You don’t need them, per se, to track player Fame, but I would prefer not to lose them if I can avoid it. They’re just … very small.
- There’s something humorously nonsensical in the area control players being forced to fight the Smugglers that would otherwise raise the value of the area that they currently control. A lot of times, players don’t want to fight the Smugglers; they want the Smugglers to come in, drop off cargo, and make the region they already control even more valuable. There’s no way to skip it, though, and if you win, you still deal damage to and potentially steal gold from the other player, which can be a bit annoyingly aggressive.
- I’m vaguely disappointed that while the two area control players are very different, the Smugglers are exactly the same. Strikes me as odd. I would have loved some unique character powers for each Smuggler, but they seem to only really differ in color, not abilities. It’s fine and all, but that would have been fun, given how different the Bluefins and the Mollusks are.
- Honestly, I’m not totally motivated by area control as a genre of games, especially when area control is motivated by combat. It means that the player interactivity ends up being mostly negative, which isn’t my preference. It’s just generally “I don’t really like area control”, and I don’t think Ahoy manages to particularly remotivate me on that point, especially since the primary lever by which control is determined is combat-based. I just don’t generally like combat in games, though; it’s something I struggle with the implementation around (even in video games). As a result, I just try to always play the Smugglers, which I enjoy.
- The challenge of navigating an asymmetric game like this is that if one player isn’t pulling their weight, the game can start to tilt towards whatever player they’re failing to appropriately block. This happens especially in a three-player game, since it’s a pretty tight alignment of the three very different player abilities. If any one player doesn’t pull their weight fully, the game starts to tilt (and it may be difficult to right that ship). This puts a lot of pressure on players, especially if there’s differing experience levels in the game, which can make things a bit hectic. Not much to be done, since the players are the lever by which the game balances itself, but it’s tough.
Overall: 7.25 / 10
Overall, I enjoyed Ahoy! I’ll be upfront; I generally don’t love area control games, so most of me enjoying Ahoy came from being the Smugglers. I like having a job in games that’s barely relevant to what everyone else is doing! I could just boat around, pick up cargo, drop it off, and occasionally get blown up by some jerk with a Stronghold on the island I was about to attempt to deliver to. I would love to spend more time with the pick-up-and-deliver elements of this game, to be honest, though I was a bit vexed that both Smugglers play exactly the same in an otherwise pretty asymmetric game. There was an opportunity to have a different type of Smuggler, I suppose, but it doesn’t seem to have happened, which is a bit disappointing. Otherwise, a lot of fun, though. For the Squadron and the Union, I think I prefer the Union; their Plan Cards and Comrade Recruitment are a little silly, but quite fun. The Bluefins feel strong from the start of the game, so they’re really a threat to work against, to some degree, and their divide-and-conquer strategy, while interesting, isn’t my preferred playstyle. I’m sure it’s someone’s, though, so Ahoy has a bit of something for everyone. I did also enjoy the exploration element of the game; getting to build a map with other players over the course of the game always satisfies me, and it creates new challenges and opportunities based on who is exploring where and when. What impresses me the most about Ahoy is that it feels like a Leder-esque title while being compact enough to be a good introduction to their specific flavor of asymmetry for folks who are already familiar with strategy games. It’s a nice area to exist in, and I think there will be a lot of appetite for this game from folks who find diving headfirst into Root or Vast to be intimidating or who want something a bit quicker than, well, Root for Vast. If that’s you, you have a secret passion for swashbuckling, or you just want to choose your favorite fish guy and become the ocean’s greatest scourge, Ahoy might just be what you’re looking for!
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