Waves, Weevils & Warfare: The Shores of Tripoli review

Hard to believe that it has been almost twenty years since Master and Commander (2003) debuted on the big screen, finally giving American audiences a look at Captain “Lucky” Jack Aubrey and his ready sailmate and ship’s doctor, Stephen Maturin. The pair’s adventures throughout the seven seas were chronicled ably in twenty-one nautically lyrical fiction books by Patrick O’Brien.

When the movie was announced, I had already been hooked on the first book, and that Christmas, my wife gave me the complete set. I’m very slowly savoring them, finishing book five a few years back before switching back to other fiction.

I’ve got a reason to dive into the Aubrey-Maturin series again.

The Shores of Tripoli, the new card driven war game by first time designer, Kevin Bertram, has juiced me up about the naval history of America, Britain and France like I have not been since the early 2000s. It is published by Fort Circle Games, and is meant for two players willing to geaux toe-to-toe (or is it mizzenmast to foresail? That would be one awkward boarding, I imagine) in a game that lasts about an hour. Sure, the Aubrey-Maturin novel series focused on a British captain’s exploits, and Tripoli is about an early war in American history, but the time period of both productions overlap perfectly to poke at my interest once again.

The game recreates, to varying degrees of accuracy, America’s war with the Barbary States between 1800-1806. Most of the historical places, figures, and events are depicted in the game through the card play of separate decks of twenty-seven cards.

The game is divided into two decks, one for the American side which also has almost limitless frigate power to patrol the harbors and shiplanes of the southern Mediterranean Sea, and one for the Tripolitan government, which focuses more on securing tribute from countries and pirating treasure from merchant ships that dare sail into their waters without permission.

Our thanks to Fort Circle Games for sending us this review copy.

GAMEPLAY:

The Shores of Tripoli is played in six years, with each player taking one turn in Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter. In total, each player has 24 turns, so there is little margin for wasted moves. If you have ever played games like Twilight Struggle or 1960, then you will recognize the card driven mechanic of using cards in your hand either as a discard to move ships or create more ships, or for the action (called an “event” here) depicted on the cards. (Some of those are discarded, while the most powerful are usually removed from the game entirely).

For the Barbary states, exerting pressure on the merchant ships and Americans to extract 12 gold pieces in “tribute” means an immediate win, or causing the American player to lose four frigates (which demoralizes the American side enough to capitulate). On the American side, capturing Tripoli or force the Tripolitan government into a “treaty” (peace with the Mediterranean allies, no frigates in Tripoli, etc.)

Players will move ships around, play cards to cause major events from the historical timeline occur, and forge alliances with neighboring countries or bring more and more firepower online. The cards and movement can trigger other small scale events, like trying to intercept pirate corsairs, or fighting a large naval or ground battle, but all of it is geared toward the Barbary States trying to demoralize the American side through piracy or destruction of the fleet, while the American side is trying its best to survive the first few years in order to build up their fleet and ground units for a potential victory.

PRODUCTION:

The designer notes that are helpfully included in the box promise a beautiful game, and Fort Circle delivers in a big way. This is a vessel ready for its maiden voyage, with the decks swabbed to perfection and the crew’s shirts brand new and shornless. The cards are standard size but have a linen finish that only enhances the beautiful paintings that make up the art on the cards. Depicted are the notable figures in the history line or paintings of the battle areas, significant vessels, and documents that occurred.

Each side also is assigned large, chunky, painted wooden pieces representing the corsairs, gun boats, and frigates of the line, each in the unique colors of their side (and orange for the Mediterranean allies of Tripoli as well as two beautiful yellow frigates representing Sweden’s minor attempt to help the Americans.) Throw in a big pile of dice for Tripoli, America and Sweden, plus a nice sized and gorgeous map board of the southern Mediterranean, and this is a well-made game.

I love the fact that the designer included a nice long designer diary in the game, complete with an explanation of the development of the game and some of the historical inaccuracies that Bertram had to choose to make the game more playable. They even include a nice four page recap of the history of the American interactions with Tripoli that led up to the war, and its aftermath. The historical recap is well written and engaging.

All in all, this is a production that will look amazing on your game table, and if you are teaching any people new to our hobby — and Fort Circle’s excellent rule book will not be a problem in guiding you and your friends to this game — they will certainly be impressed. There are only a few cubes representing the marine infantry and ground troops of the Tripoli; all the rest of the game is well represented with quality components.

BUT IS IT ANY FUN?

What I am looking for in an experience like this? My wife is not really interested in historical games like Watergate or Twilight Struggle, but luckily, I have two sons who are not only fans of history but are also Marine reservists. They are usually up for playing a relatively short war game, especially if it is a tight chess battle like The Shores of Tripoli. So that’s what I’m looking for in a game like The Shores of Tripoli — a fairly uncomplicated rule set, decisions that are meaningful, and just enough randomness to make things interesting. (If I wanted to play chess, I would just pull out our family board and pieces.)

But most importantly, I want lots of mid-to-late game tension. Despite what you might think, the dense books of the Master & Commander universe have moments of absolutely tense action. When a ship is spotted, and the bells are rung, the crews spring into action and the nervous excitement of the Marines on board is palpable even through the fictional pages of a novel written dozens of years ago.

Same here with The Shores of Tripoli. The first half of our very first game was a little tedious, as we worked to learn the rules and the game play and were kind of taken out of our immersion into the game. But the back half of the first game, and every game since then, has rocketed along. Once the mechanics are second nature, the theme shines through, making the game that much more enjoyable.

When the pirates are rolling luckily with the dice, the American player senses that they don’t have a long time to build up their frigate arsenal, and will maybe take more chances. If the Tripolitan player loses some early battles or watches as Hamet marches successfully to Tripoli, they may abandon piracy to completely concentrate on digging for cards that will help defend the walls of their beloved city.

Every game has been tight, even if the wins have come in different year spans from 1803 to the end. Each play feels like either side could have done one thing differently, just one thing, to change the outcome of that game. And not all of it is luck (although luck plays a big part of this game, between the dice rolls and the card draws), because each side has the ability to feint as to its actions. Is Tripoli aiming to have all of its allies on line early, pirating the merchant ships with reckless abandon? Can the Americans pull the Naval Movement cards that they need to blanket the coastline and enforce the blockade with its meager early fleet? Or will they use those cards istead to max out the available cannons in frigate and gun boats?

With only four actions (not counting upgrades like battle cards, or cards that react to earlier events played that season), each decision is meaningful. I can almost hear the drums beating the call to arms as Tripoli gets more and more ships in its harbor, as each side fans and closes and fans out again their hand, trying to put together a combination of actions and events in the last two years that will assure victory. Each decision to discard a card to take an action feels monumental, each event played that moves that card into the box, never to be used again, feels important. As naval warfare should be, each game leaves certain cerebral fingerprints that eventually fade, but ever so slowly.

Games like this can be abstracted, sure, but there is nothing in The Shores of Tripoli that at least at first glance suggests any abstraction to other periods. It feels like the designer thoughtfully included mechanics that were destined to recapture this particular conflict, such as the gunboat support from off of the Maltan coast, or the eastern front that the Americans try to exploit with Hamut’s army, or the way the designer handled the piracy of the merchant ships in the first few years. You can tell your friends that this isn’t about pushing chits around a bland board. The Shores of Tripoli represents an excellent way to introduce card driven games to anyone.

A surprising element for me was how much fun it was to play the different sides. When I play a game like Unmatched or Funkoverse, I am inevitably drawn to one side or the other, or one particular set of characters against another set. Sometimes it is because of the IP — maybe I really want to play Robin Hood or play Watson & Sherlock or even Blanche & Hermione against Batman & Robin — and sometimes it is because of the mechanics built in. But usually there’s an attraction.

In Shores of Tripoli, I’ve had as much fun with one side as the other. When I am the American side, I’m constantly scanning the coastline, looking for signs that the allies will pop up and give me trouble, all the while slowly building up my fleet and ground support. And when I’m the Barbary State, I kind of figured I would enjoy the dice and chance based winning condition of skating past the blockades to steal little wooden coins from the merchant ships, and I did. Credit to the designer — both sides have interesting mechanics, both sides have different strategies, and both sides feel well balanced.

CONCLUSION:

So there it is. All you need is an hour and a modicum of interest in how our early Republic fashioned itself from backwater naval power under the protection of the English crown to undisputed ruler of the seas just a World War or two later. Or, just be a big fan of chess matches, but where each side has a unique goal, and where the chess board starts in a late game state with each side only a set number of moves away from victory.

Or be like me, a fan of the Patrick O’Brien novels, who just for an hour wants to feel what Lucky Jack must have felt as he got promoted up the line. Dashing forward into the mist and spray of the sea as a smaller ship tries to evade capture. Politicking back home to upgrade the fleet. Playing mind games with your considerable opponent to cancel and overcome their strategic moves.

Hey, you can play that favorite euro or ameritrash game of yours anytime. Just this once, choose to relive six years of burgeoning American history instead. Choose to live the life of a sailor and patriot and politician at the turn of the 19th century.

Choose the lesser of two weevils.

Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!

— BJ

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