April 20, 2018

Lobotomy Lab: Shipwrights of the North Sea

Someone Call a Doctor!

So I have a problem, and the name of the problem is The North Sea Trilogy, a series of viking-themed games by Shem Phillips. I'm not usually one to be suckered into being a completion-ist. But alas I have a weakness for viking-stuff. And when that "stuff" happens to be a boardgame coupled with amazing artwork, it is hard for me to resist (apparently).

After acquiring and enjoying Raiders of the North Sea quite immensely, I soon found myself looking into Explorers of the North Sea, a Tikal-like tile placement and action point game in the same North Sea series. Shortly thereafter, when I was in the store succumbing to that temptation, sitting on the shelf right next to Explorers was of course The North Sea Runesaga, which allows you to combine Raiders, Explorers, and Shipwrights of the North Sea into one multi-game campaign. Of course that also meant that I needed to buy Shipwrights, and so oh my god, what have I done.

My wallet considerably lighter, and with smiles on the store clerks' faces, I ambled home in a state of post-purchase bliss.

It was inevitable that Shipwrights wouldn't really click with me. It was an impulse purchase and had I done my usual due diligence its shortcomings would've dissuaded me from ever purchasing it in the first place. After playing through a few partial games by myself, these flaws were immediately apparent: it is a game with fairly dull decisions coupled with far too much downtime, excessive randomness, and a playtime that overstays its welcome. If it were a 30-45 minute filler game, these faults would be more forgivable, but this is a game that can drag on for hours.

And yet I really didn't want to give up on Shipwrights. Raiders is an absolutely amazing game and one of the few worker placement games that has won me over (primarily due to the more interactive nature of the shared workers and fierce competition for raiding spots). Explorers is a solid game on its own, and seeing as I didn't have a "go to" pick-up-and-deliver game, Explorers fit the bill.

But shipwrights! What would we do with you? The prospect of playing the whole Runesaga is considerably less attractive if the opening act is destined to be a tedious slog.

Something had to be done.

Shipwrights needed a lobotomy.

Fortunately, Shipwrights feels like "almost" a solid game, but the pacing and structure of the turn sequence is all off. The ingredients are all there (components, theme, basic ideas, etc.), but the recipe is has everything put together in the wrong order.

Getting specific, here are the issues I was hoping to resolve by lobotomizing the rule set:

(1) Game lasts too long, and getting it under an hour would be great. This is partly due to the victory trigger (once a player builds their 4th ship), partly due to how slowly resources are accumulated for building the ships, and partly due to a high dose of randomness (which can drag the game out if no one gets the cards they need to build things quickly).

(2) The turn structure is dull and non-engaging for the non-active players. Normally, Shipwrights has players drafting 3 cards during each day (full game turn). Except the drafting structure is based on drafting from a single hand of cards three times - and then going around the table a fourth time with each player resolving all of their actions. Ugh. Very slow and not exciting.

The Procedure

Changes to the End Game & Victory Triggers

First, in order to shorten the game length, I made the end game trigger occur when a player has accumulated 10 victory points (instead of 4 ships). Once triggered, the current day is finished and then one final day/round is played (as normal).

Overall, this change greatly speeds up the game. It also creates a more opportunity to create more cheaper ships, which normally aren't worth much in terms of VPs, but help advance the engine building aspect of the game (constructed ships provide various bonuses and/or penalties to your engine). The game also features a bunch of buildings that are worth VP's too, but these were always very difficult to justify playing in comparison to ships. Now there are a hotter commodity.

Changes to the Turn Structure

The next big change has to do with the turn structure itself. Something I thought was brilliant about Raiders' take on worker placement was that the "place a worker, take a worker" system created a very quick rhythm in the game and minimized downtime. It also made the core action mechanic interactive and engaging for all players at the table, since you can be thinking about how your own opportunities are taking shape the entire time. Nothing like this existed in Shipwrights, despite the game feeling like there should be that feeling.

So, what I did was have every player start with a hand of 3 cards. Then, rather than drafting cards one at a time from a single hand of cards that gets passed around, I had players draft from a pool of cards in the middle of the table (pool size is one more card than the number of players in the game). AND most importantly, rather than drafting three cards across three sounds, and then going around again to play cards, each player drafts one card from the pool and then immediately does the following: play one card from your hand, take one worker action, and take one trade action (you can do these in any order).

This change to turn structure accomplished a few crucial things:

In the original rules, each player's turn could be a bit of a convoluted puzzle of deciding which order to play cards, what worker action to take, the timing of when to trade, etc. By constraining the amount you can do at any one time, player turns take less time (less giant puzzle to solve), which keeps the game moving at a brisker pace.

Secondly, having a hand of cards to play from immensely reduces the amount of randomness in the game - or at least lets players mitigate it better. In the original rules, you had to play (or else discard) every card in your hand each day. Very often you'd get stuck with cards that were useless in the present situation and did nothing to help advance your position. This would lead to a lot of turns feeling like dead turns where you could only utilize a fraction of cards (or even none of them). This also contributed to drawing out the game. But now, with having a hand of cards and only drafting and playing one at a time, the decision around what to play is much more interesting and multifaceted. Key cards can be held and played at more opportune times and dead turns are nearly eliminated.

Changes to Resource Abundance

The final bucket of changes have to do with the supply of resources and workers in the game. The biggest immediate change has to do with trading. In the original rules, trading for goods cost 2 gold and 2 workers. The awful part of this is that each worker you have at the end of day generates a gold to use next turn. Players have an incentive to just sit around and do nothing other than build up a large pool of workers so their gold engine doesn't get wrecked when you start spending workers during trade actions or for making ships. This again stalled the pace of the game.

So I merely eliminated the worker requirement for trading entirely. However, trading was also limited to only being taken once per turn, instead of an unlimited number of times as before. As each day now has three player turns (coupled to their drafting action), you can still do up to 3 trades per day, however you need to think a bit more about the timing of them. But it also avoids potential analysis paralysis stemming from having multiple trade actions all occurring at once. Again, it speeds up the game while making the decisions a little more interesting at the same time. Constraints breed depth.

I also changed the way the "Townsfolk Expansion" works. Each player turn, you can now spend one worker to take a townsfolk board action. However, instead of workers being "spent" permanently to the townsfolk board (to be swooped up by an opponent), they are now placed in a "tired" worker pool next to your player board and won't be available for other actions until the next day. Overall, this adds a bit more flexibility to how you use workers, when you spend them, and how you build up your economy.

Recovery Room

If you're curious to get the full details on the rule changes, check out this post over in the game's BGG forums. It should spell things out pretty clearly.

I've had a chance to play the game with these rule changes in effect, and I was immediately far more engaged and excited about the gameplay. As with any major surgery, there are likely to be unanticipated complications. There might be situations where certain card effects aren't less clear and/or where the balance might be off. I'm not going to lie, there might even be glaring loopholes or exploits that are enabled due to these changes. If so, we can always make another visit to the cutting room.

Your turn: Have you played Shipwrights? What are your thoughts on the original gameplay and what these changes might mean? What about the broader topic of "lobotomizing games" through a fundamental shift in their mechanics? Any candidates in need of a lobotomy?

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