The Shorts of Tripoli
The Barbary War of 1801-1805 is one of those half-forgotten conflicts, immortalized in the opening line of the Marines’ Hymn — “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli” — but also overlooked in most American high school history courses, possibly due to being sandwiched between the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. Or maybe it’s because the war’s defining battle only involved eight marines, a tiny figure next to the hundreds of Greek and Arab mercenaries who assisted in the capture of Derne. Or because the particulars of Mediterranean politics aren’t featured on the AP United States History test. “Period 4,” the AP designation for the first half of the 19th century, focuses entirely on westward expansion.
More’s the pity. The Shores of Tripoli is the first release by Kevin Bertram and Fort Circle Games, and it presents the conflict with the Barbary States as an important turning point in American military history.
The most impressive detail about The Shores of Tripoli is something you can see with your own eyes, but with implications that run deeper than Fort Circle’s lavish production. Wargames have gotten better over the past decade at expressing imbalances of power; here that’s obvious as soon as the game unfolds on the table. The United States has a few frigates while the Tripolitans are positively crawling with corsairs. Their relative strengths are pretty much what you’d expect. Frigates are big and dangerous but limited in number. Corsairs don’t pack much of a punch, but they aim to either gang up on those frigates or instead slip past them in the night to prey upon merchantmen.
To Bertram’s credit, the differences between the United States and Tripoli are more significant than a 1:2 ratio between naval units of 2:1 firepower. Both sides are also in pursuit of divergent goals, which inform pretty much everything about the actions they take, the events they play, and even how their forces move and occupy spaces on the map. Where some wargames hew too closely to a Risk-like symmetry, so wide-open to the possibilities that they clash with and possibly contradict the goals and limitations of their historical actors, it isn’t possible to play The Shores of Tripoli without earning an appreciation for what its sides hoped to accomplish. Even, if one is astute, with a sense for how those hopes reflect the limiting factors of firepower and politics that constrained them in real life.
Consider the United States. Unproven on any battlefield far from home, the US is a minor player on the world stage. This manifests in a few ways. The trickle of frigates across multiple years, only grudgingly granted by Congress as the conflict grinds on. The presence of new allies as Swedish ships help blockade Tripoli, but hamstrung by ongoing negotiations that may see the Swedes withdraw long before your own fight is finished. Your goals: either a dangerous outright invasion and occupation of Tripoli itself, or a favorable treaty that’s far more reasonable to accomplish but also attended by bullet points that read like a diplomat’s checklist. The implication is clear. You aren’t here to win the war by salting the earth. You’re here to prove to the Tripolitans — and by extension, the European powers — that you’re one of the big kids.
And then there’s Tripoli. Too lightly armed, geographically confined, and politically bound to the Ottoman Empire to undertake a shooting war, the Tripolitans must resort to piracy and attrition. In this light, their victory conditions reflect the goals of underdogs throughout history: outlast, outlast, outlast. They have three potential ways to win: sink four frigates, capture twelve gold coins from their opponent, or smash the army marching from Egypt to overthrow Yusuf Qaramanli in favor of his older brother Hamet. All are based on the idea that if they pester the Americans long enough, their blockade will dissolve along with their will to fight.
That interplay, between the brash newcomer and the Mediterranean’s established but scrappy bully, touches everything in the design, right down to the actions available to both sides. While this is appropriate, at times it funnels the game’s decision space through a series of bottlenecks.
I’ll explain. The overall template is a familiar one. Every turn requires you to play a card, whether to trigger its historical event or to take an action. Depending on their uniqueness, events either go to the discard pile or disappear from the game entirely. Don’t worry about those discards. Each play marches through both sides’ decks exactly twice, pausing every so often to deal out new cards and have you discard down to your hand size. The question isn’t whether you’ll draw a particular event, but when.
This precision cuts both ways. The good news is that it’s nice to know you’ll see certain cards again when you’re forced to discard them early. This is doubly true of the United States’ two victory events and any others that are time-limited. The event that forms Hamet’s army, for example, can’t be played until 1804, four years and a dozen American turns into the game, which is why it’s a “core” event that’s always available. But by extension, the two events for invading Derne and Benghazi could hog up space in your hand until Hamet is ready to depart Egypt. These sequences of events would have been painfully restrictive without the ability to pass through the American deck twice every play.
Instead, they’re only somewhat restrictive. This isn’t the case with every card — and to be clear, the example of Hamet’s army is the strictest chain of events in the entire game — but there are enough events with specific triggers that The Shores of Tripoli can feel a little scripted, especially with repeat plays.
Of course, you could discard those events for actions. Both sides can do this to build an extra ship, whether a gunboat for the US or another pirate corsair for the Tripolitans. Their other action is more telling. The United States can move a pair of frigates, whether to blockade a port, bombard ground troops, or try to crush the will of Tripoli’s allies to push them out of the war. Tripoli, on the other hand, can launch pirate raids. These involve no movement visible from the board’s sky-high vantage point. Rather, any blockading ships roll to intercept, and then any surviving Tripolitan corsairs roll to possibly capture merchantmen.
Such clashes are dicey affairs. Rolls only succeed on high results — 6 for attacks, 5 or 6 for piracy — and it isn’t uncommon to find yourself tallying up entire handfuls of dice for the occasional all-out battle. To give you some sense of scale, one battle card permits the rolling of twelve extra dice. Some exist to grant two dice instead of one when rolling for specific events. These can result in wild swings: ships bound for the bottom, chests of gold hauled back home, Tripoli finally launching her own frigate. Or very little impact at all. In fact, many of the game’s most deflating moments are when you spend multiple seasons trying to undertake an action only for the dice to repeatedly fail you.
This has a mixed effect. On the one hand, the First Barbary War was a years-long exercise in frustration, and it’s appropriate for players to suffer some of the same setbacks that challenged the war’s commanders. Further, this heightened sense of risk underscores the need to play it safe, whether with additional ships or the occasional concession. Once, deflated at my inability to drive Tunisia out of the war, I settled for an event that bribed them out. This came back to bite me when Tripoli began raiding my stockpile of gold in earnest. It’s a smart design that pits my needs against themselves.
At the same time, this combination of processional events and dicey encounters often comes across as a tug of war between two competing game states. A battle or a raid swings the game to one side’s favor; an event pulls it back. Swedish frigates are causing trouble for Tripoli; a second event removes the obstacle. The Tripolitans seize enough cargo to put them within reach of victory; a sudden demand of tribute from Constantinople slaps their hand back. Sometimes one event cancels another. Other times, it’s an event canceling the hard-earned gains of those chancy rolls. In both cases, the game is quick with its swings, but also quick to course correct back to where it thinks you should be at any given moment.
I want to be careful not to overstate the game’s tendency to pull toward the status quo. History isn’t so singular that Bertram doesn’t permit deviations from what really happened. Tripoli can win. The United States can capture Tripoli by force rather than binding it by treaty. Yet the stepping stones on the paths to these alternate outcomes are the same that lead to its historical conclusion. I’ve seen a number of people accuse The Shores of Tripoli of being “on rails.” This isn’t true, although the intent behind such a phrase communicates a formidable issue. The more accurate statement would be that The Shores of Tripoli is borne by strong currents. Currents of history, of expectation, of design that strongly favors events as sequences of meaning rather than islands of meaning — and anyway, isn’t that how history functions, that one thing leads to another? That without the USS Philadelphia running aground and being repurposed as a Tripolian gun battery, the marines would never have boarded and set fire to it? Yes, of course. By sticking so closely to what really happened, Bertram succeeds at explaining why his actors undertook their historical actions. And, at the same time, stumbles at making a game where those actors might have done something else.
Is this a problem? The answer depends on how we regard our playthings, especially those that conspire to educate us. If it’s enough to say that I came away educated, that I had a better sense for the reasons behind the First Barbary War, the actions of its captains, the significance of America’s victory and the diminished reach of Barbary piracy, then the game has served its purpose. If it’s something I hope to revisit many times, to stretch the boundaries of its simulation, to explore a slice of history in all its depths, then its success is more muted.
I’d settle for calling it a qualified success. Victory by treaty. The First Barbary War established the United States as capable of waging war across an ocean. A major win for a minor power. The same seems true of The Shores of Tripoli and Fort Circle Games. As far as triumphs go, this is a small one, better as an expression of its history than as an exploration. But it’s a significant proof of concept for what Kevin Bertram and Fort Circle might accomplish going forward. I’m eager to see where they go from here.
A complimentary copy was provided.