Forty Fathoms and a Chicken of the Sea
It’s not that I’ve forgotten Flotilla exists. I’ve just forgotten what you do in it. Something about diving for resources and then trading them? Ships that hold barrels? Colors without meaning?
Apart from its wallpaper, Seastead doesn’t have much to do with Flotilla. It wasn’t even designed by the same duo. Jan Gonzalez and Ian Cooper are on the job, and they’ve gone out of their way to make this foray into Flotilla’s waterlogged world more memorable than the last. They even assigned names to the resources.
Snark aside, Gonzalez and Cooper have done something unexpected with Seastead — they’ve made me care about a place that undoubtedly smells of soggy rigging and discarded fish parts. And without a motion sickness tablet in sight.
The gist is right there in the title. The game’s two players are competing seasteaders, a fifty-fifty split between diving scavenger and enterprising builder. As descriptions go, that even manages to sum up the game’s two available actions. Diving is about securing resources. Building is about spending them. Simple though it sounds, the interesting bits dwell in the cracks between the broad strokes. The result is a game that explains its particulars without hesitation, only to see you hemming and hawing over details that might seem benign to those who haven’t earned their sea legs.
We’ll start with the simpler portion. Diving dredges resources from the old world. Unlike Flotilla’s reds, greens, blues, and yellows, everything has at least been given a veneer of purpose. These resources are still largely interchangeable. Of the game’s four flotillas, one wants kelp, another metal, another fish, another artifacts, with identical exchange rates and outputs, at least at the game’s beginning. But veneers aren’t without function. Thanks to something as simple as an icon for each resource, diving feels like you’re undertaking a tangible task rather than merely looking for matching colors.
I digress. What makes this interesting — and a bit of a bummer — is that each dive awards a single card showing a handful of resources. What happens next is a classic board game decision, one with heritage stretching all the way back to the pie rule used to mitigate first-player advantage in abstract games such as chess. By picking how the card is placed in the discard, you’re splitting the dive’s haul between yourself and your opponent. Sometimes this decision is obvious. I get three resources, you get two. But it isn’t long before a few nuances appear. What are both players holding? Will turning over the better haul to your opponent keep their warehouse relatively short-stocked on any given item? Which resources will keep you building longer?
Let’s not oversell this. Much of the decision’s subtlety lies in examining the resources on both sides of the table. Plenty of games feature as much. But this pronged decision soon becomes a hallmark of everything else in Seastead. An action that seems to benefit you may also benefit your opponent, even when building.
There are three structures that can be built across Seastead’s four flotillas. At their most straightforward, each grants an ongoing perk. Academies produce experts, cards with single-use effects. Shipyards deploy ships, which decrease the cost of building for either player. Most interesting are ports, which establish scoring criteria for endgame resources and nearby buildings. In the latter case, those points can be claimed by either player, so it’s a good idea to wager on spots your opponent can’t afford to build on.
This is further complicated once the flotillas’ resource demand tokens start hopping around. There’s a keen edge to these decisions, no matter how minor they seem. By swapping the right token onto a flotilla where all the cheap spaces have been claimed, it’s possible to force your opponent to dive for more resources. Ships can be deployed to the spots your rival hopes to build in, granting them a discount but earning you a resource of your choosing. If you pick the best building spots, you can even force a hoarding rival to lose their hard-earned resources, clean up the ocean’s toxic ooze for some easy points, or earn enough resources to keep building one turn after another.
It should be said that this results in a particular sort of thrill, based on minute exchanges and the parsing of small values, often represented by tiny icons on crowded backgrounds. It’s also balanced in such a way that most contests seem carefully arranged, even artificially arranged, to result in neck-and-neck races.
To some degree, however, I’m praising it with faint damnation. For all the ways it seems too small or too compressed or too artificially generous with its points, all those little intersections result in a series of compelling tradeoffs between rival players. It’s the sort of contest where every turn will result in n points over the long run, so your goal becomes the acquisition of n plus, I dunno, a quarter point. Coupled with the possibility of occasionally locking your opponent out of the running for a turn or two, those fractions manage to feel considerable in a way that traditional designs don’t often manage.
Seastead mostly plays it safe, and those moments are its least interesting. But every so often it shows gumption. Unexpected combinations, a resource card that keeps your rival treading water, stolen port bonuses — little things, but impactful things. It’s a species of fish that swims at its own pace and seems easy prey, except once in a while it gets fed up and gives its pursuers a thrashing. In those moments, it becomes memorable. If only they happened a little more often.
A complimentary copy was provided.