Hamilcar, Not Hannibal
At its height, the Carthaginian Empire was enormous. Encompassing much of northern Africa, swaths of modern-day Spain, Corsica and Sardinia, even a toehold on the jewel of the Mediterranean that was Sicily, they were one of the world’s great maritime powers — a true thalassocracy, their navy indomitable at sea — until the scrappy Roman Republic’s unification of the Italian Peninsula put them in a position to challenge Carthage’s authority. The ensuing wars spanned more than a century, and only concluded when the grand city of Carthage was burnt to the ground.
Not only is Hands in the Sea set during the first of these wars — that’s the war of Hamilcar Barca, father of the Hannibal Barca who would brashly march elephants across the Alps in the Second Punic War — it also contains some history of its own. Riffing on Martin Wallace’s innovative A Few Acres of Snow, this is Daniel Berger’s attempt at taking the system to the next level without resorting to the same fantastical measures that Wallace undertook in Mythotopia. Which is to say, this is a serious game, full of serious people undertaking serious endeavors — and it’s every bit as good as it is serious.
Picture this. There are two great powers, staring at each other over a narrow — yet still dangerous — span of too-blue, too-deep sea. Between them sits the myriad towns and independent city-states of Corsica, Sardinia, and most importantly Sicily. The simple act of getting from place to place is difficult, and neither side has the strength to beat the other outright, or at least they probably don’t. Instead, this will be a war of pillaging, of towns changing hands, of navies skirting around one another. A duel of lions fought like weasels.
If I only told you one thing about Hands in the Sea — and trust me, there’s so much to tell that it’s a tempting thought — it would be that this is a very different sort of deck-building game. Where most of these sorts of games are simple to learn and can be played almost on autopilot, Hands in the Sea wants to be taken seriously as a wargame. It wants to give you a hand of cards and watch you squirm over them, trying to figure out how you’ll wring the best possible turn out of their mismatched faces.
Which is why nothing operates quite as you may have come to expect from this genre. Sure, the game is about putting together a solid deck of cool cards, then using it to propel yourself towards victory. But where it stands out, as A Few Acres of Snow stood out before it, is by tying every single card to the ongoing struggle on the map. Rome, for instance, is a card, as is every town or city you might come into contact with. Whenever you conquer a location, you gain its card and slip it into your deck, even if it happened to be in your opponent’s hand. Similarly, a particular legion, band of mercenaries, fickle war elephants, a particular general, or even the merchant who can help you sell a bunch of cards into your discard pile for a huge windfall, are also cards. And all of them have a tangible impact on the way you move, attack, disrupt your opponent’s plans, administrate your empire, or earn money.
Here’s an example. In one recent game as Carthage, I was totally wrecking it. Rome had gotten off to a slow start, letting me blockade Sicily and spread rapidly from my starting cities, gobbling up two-thirds of the island without even a whiff of resistance. The cards I was picking up, the grape-rich hills of Hippana, Enna, and Camarina, were fueling my economy. My coffers were stuffed, my navy was steadily draining Rome’s treasury, and whenever a scoring round came around I was scooting steadily towards victory.
Unfortunately, my deck was also an administrative nightmare. Unlike most deck-building games, drawing a card in Hands in the Sea can be as much a burden as a boon. As your empire or republic grows, more and more towns falling under your influence, administrating all of them inevitably becomes unwieldy, transforming your deck from sleek trireme to garbage barge. This is made even tougher by the fact that you don’t discard your whole hand at the end of the turn — instead, stinkers will sit around until you use them in some way. In this case, every new hand I drew was likely to be crammed with worthless cities, little spots back in Africa that provided little in return for all the attention I paid them. Sure, I could have spent actions to get rid of them, whether by pawning them off to lesser administrators or “reserving” them off to the side in case I needed their services again. But I was on a roll; surely I didn’t need to waste my limited turns on bookkeeping.
Rome, on the other hand, may have gotten off to a slower start, but they were shrewder. While I’d been bulging outwards like a consul during Vinalia, they’d been expanding their cities, growing their navy, and hiring soldiery. When they invaded, I may have owned all the gold in the world — enough to pay double for some of my troops, adding them to the top of my deck rather than squirreling them away in the discard pile — but such desperate measures quickly depleted my stockpile and still didn’t let me retaliate. It wasn’t long before my border provinces started crumbling, their cards moving from my side of the table to join Rome.
The point is, this is a game that rewards careful planning over brash maneuvers, though of course there’s a place for the latter. The commonest of acts, the launching of an invasion, requires at least a trio of cards: the destination from which your army is attacking, connected via roads or sea lanes, a card to provide the proper mode of transportation (wagons or ships), and the card that will do the actual invading. Even then, a battle is a protracted affair, lasting multiple turns as both sides gradually deploy new troops to the fray in a game of one-upmanship, both generals sweating and hoping the other guy will crumble first. You’ll send a legion, they’ll counter with war elephants; you’ll hit them with specialized elephant-poking velites, they’ll return with cavalry; you’ll have your senator bribe that powerful mercenaries card out of their hand, now here come more of those dang elephants.
Meanwhile, each new combination of cards provides new opportunities and strategies, and while changing the course of the war can be slow going, it’s as simple as dipping into your empire deck and purchasing something new. Strategies have a way of trumping those that previously seemed unbeatable. Early on, for instance, Carthage sports an unmatched navy, making the sea their fight to lose. They can sail and pillage with wild abandon, draining Rome’s coffers and earning points. Rome, then, might recruit cavalry to raid on land, or launch overwhelming assaults on unprotected locations. Then both sides might begin building forts or investing in light infantry to block raids. Then someone blockades Sardinia, or invades elsewhere, or enlists powerful leaders to streamline their deck. One maneuver is countered with another, forcing both sides to choose between furthering their own plans or countering those of their enemy.
This is a tight game, is what I mean. For everything intimidating about it — and it can be intimidating, with a whole menu of actions to remember and a lot to be desired by way of reference cards or streamlined visual design — there’s some smart maneuver you can undertake, or a way to nettle at your opponent, or a way to whittle down the administration of your empire until you’re drawing from a lean deck every turn. This is the first game to fully realize the promise of A Few Acres of Snow.
For those who can handle a two-hour wargame for only two players, one that gleefully bogs you down while you’re trying to conduct a military campaign, Hands in the Sea is as polished and as razor-sharp as a centurion’s gladius. Its conflict may feel limited in scope, but it allows just enough room to gasp for air while never giving you enough space to breathe easy. Just as it should be.