Here’s a riddle for you: how can you tell when a board game’s setting has been wallpapered over the top of an economic engine?
Flotilla blurts out the answer without even raising its hand. By giving everything a name — phases, card suits, scoring tiles, resource movers, tile bags, dice, tracks, discs, and even the little hexagons on certain tiles that appear so rarely you’ll forget they had names in the first place — except for the actual resources. You know, the things you’ll handle more regularly than any other component. In Flotilla these resource cylinders are red, green, blue, and yellow. Not medicine, food, oil, and tech. Not blood transfusions, seaweed, fresh water, and plastic. Not sneakers, fishing rods, blue raspberry bubble gum, and frequent flyer mile cards. Nor anything else with some remote connection to the game’s waterlogged setting. Red, green, blue, and yellow. Constant reminders that when you aren’t pushing cubes, you’ll be pushing cylinders.
To Flotilla’s credit, what exists of its setting is beautifully handled. If you’re going to glue wallpaper over an economic engine, at least feature it prominently. Designers J.B. Howell and Michael Mihealsick understand this maxim deep in their bones. In Flotilla, the wallpaper is a soggy apocalypse, something about bomb tests driving humanity into the sea, effectively Waterworld minus Costner. Aboard the refuges known as flotillas, people are divided into two classes: sinkside and skyside. Or, in the parlance of economic engines, resources sellers and resource buyers.
There’s some muddiness to all this jargon. Alongside sinkside and skyside, another term you’ll regularly hear is topside, which has nothing to do with resources or post-apocalyptic class dynamics. Will somebody mix those up? You betcha. But topside is fancier than saying “the topmost card of somebody’s discard pile.” How bland. If only Howell and Mihealsick had named the resources spermicide, diopside, glucoside, and pesticide, we could have had a regular hoedown on our hands.
Apart from a few quibbles, Flotilla’s setting is solid enough to carry water. Everyone begins sinkside, and some will likely die that way. Not literally. I mean they’ll still be sinkside at the end of the game. These are the flotilla’s sea captains. Their lot is to explore the ocean, dive for resources, and haul those barrels of red, green, blue, and yellow back home to sell at the market. Along the way, they’ll parlay with guilds, build the occasional outpost, and hopefully not absorb so many rads that they sprout thumbs from their pelvises.
After a time, the going rate for reds, greens, blues, and yellows bottoms out. This isn’t the only time it pays to switch to skyside — the incentives for making a career change change throughout the game — but it often nudges one or two sea dogs in that direction. Going skyside transforms Flotilla. Your skiffs are sold, all those stretches of open ocean are wiped away, and now you’re tasked with conducting research, raising funds to buy the same resources you were selling only moments ago, and spending them to build a whole bunch of buoyant shantytowns. From singing shanties to building them.
This isn’t to say the roles are entirely dissimilar. Both revolve around a handful of subsystems drawn with parallel lines. When you finally switch from one to the other, which requires you to flip over your player board, cards, and tiles to their opposite side, most of your tasks are inverted rather than transformed. Diving into the brine as a sinksider requires you to roll dice, hopefully gathering resources and survivors without absorbing radiation or depleting your tiles. Skyside research is pretty much the same: you roll dice to earn cash and upgrades, but risk wasting your action if you don’t get the right symbols. The tile-laying games are also similar. Down below, matching three tiles at their corners means you’ve found an artifact; up in the shantytown, matches mean you’ve helped develop better sonar for the entire colony. In both cases, you can expect to be rewarded.
And of course there’s the card system, which is the core of Flotilla regardless of which social class you’ve decided to align with. It’s a familiar but effective getup: each turn’s action is dictated by the card you played, which is then stuck in your discard until you release everything at once by playing your captain. Over time, new cards are added as you curry favor with the guilds. These newer options are built around the same four themes as your starting cards — trading, dice-rolling, tile placement, and guild influence — but carry a certain poise. No two cards are alike, with each of them flexing the rules in unique ways. And although there’s no penalty for loading your hand with everything you can touch, it’s often more effective to carefully select the cards that work well together.
The parts that are most interesting, however, are those that see Flotilla’s roles pulling apart while still influencing one another’s actions. The obvious example is the market. While there’s nothing preventing a sinksider from buying resources or a skysider from selling them — and in practice there are moments where it can be profitable to act against type — the give and take between sold goods and purchased goods is a constant consideration. If you’re hoping to build a deluxe shantytown, you’ll need resources. Obviously, it’s better to buy loads of cheap reds, greens, blues, and yellows than the premium stuff. Consequently, it pays to keep an eye on what those skiffs are dragging in. The same works the other direction, with captains watching to see if somebody upstairs is trying to make a color match for extra points. Bring those barrels back at the right time and you could be rolling in cash.
The market isn’t the only example. One of the ways skysiders earn points is by improving the flotilla’s sonar, which in turn makes diving safer for sinksiders. Both sides are free to wrestle over dominance of the guilds, or take advantage of artifacts, or build outposts for points. At times these goals intersect; other times they don’t. With some squinting, it could even be read as an example of how economic systems bind everybody within that system together, despite differing circumstances. Even atop an ivory tower (whale bone, I suppose), one is still reliant on the products of those toiling below them. Even those underfoot benefit from the quality of life improvements handed down from above. Simplistic, but with some degree of relevance.
Outposts, meanwhile, represent the game’s biggest score bumps. There are a handful of objectives for both sinksiders and skysiders. These are accomplished by meeting their criteria and building a outpost, expensive in its own right and likely even pricier if you haven’t found a suitable foundation. Crucially, these objectives are scored the instant they’re claimed rather than lingering until the end of the game. This creates some real tension since each objective is duplicated for decreasing amounts of points. If you’re chasing a goal that awards points for every deep ocean tile you’ve discovered, claiming it early means you’ll get more points per tile, while waiting means you have more tiles but will earn fewer points for each one. Much like deciding when to switch from a sea captain to builder baron, it behooves you to consider the when alongside the what.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, Flotilla is as much of a hodgepodge as its shantytowns. There are dice to roll, tiles to pull — from two bags, even! — and random quantities of radiation to absorb, all of which exist alongside the usual chaotic possibilities that arise when other thinking minds start claiming cards and market prices out from under you. Scary randomness, right? Well, the good news is that there’s so much capriciousness that it largely balances itself out. Everybody is rolling. Everybody is drawing. Everybody is sprouting extra thumbs.
The more relevant question is whether all these disparate elements hang together. Fortunately, they do for the most part, even if certain appendages are only barely hanging on. When it really gets rolling, Flotilla is a sight to behold. Market forces drive player behavior and vice versa; decisions both sound and foolish are made in sequence; brash plays can lead to surprising outcomes.
Getting there is the problem.
I’m not one to worry about complexity. Here, though, the issue isn’t really complexity — it’s volume. Teaching Flotilla isn’t only about explaining two layers. That already takes a while, especially when it comes to detailing the game’s more abstract concepts. But to teach the game fully also includes explaining how those layers interact with each other. When should you switch roles? Why chase certain objectives? What’s the deal with survivors, and research, and these guilds, and extra cards, and what are each role’s many scoring opportunities? On their own, the sinkside and skyside roles are actually rather thin; together, they’re almost too much. It’s the difference between going fishing and catching a bottom-feeder or Godzilla.
At its best, Flotilla may not be entirely coherent, but at least it approaches a certain lucidity. When played well, it’ sets its haves and haves-until-they-sell-their-stuff-to-the-real-haves both alongside and against each other, and against their own, and against the irradiated seas. Thematically, it’s thin; mechanically, it’s over-packed. Interactively, though, it’s largely without parallel, if only because it’s bold enough to bifurcate itself into two similar but distinct economic roles. The result hits the entire spectrum from frustrating to rewarding. Red, green, blue, and yellow.
A complimentary copy was provided.