At some point the board game industry’s collective designers are going to stage a riot if we keep saying “It’s no Root.”
So let’s set that aside for now. Despite being published by Leder Games, illustrated by the inimitable Kyle Ferrin, and featuring four (mostly) asymmetrical factions of anthropomorphic animals fighting for control of its seascape — and despite some vaguely philosophical undertones — Greg Loring-Albright’s Ahoy is very much its own beast.
For one thing, it isn’t a hit.
Which isn’t to say there isn’t anything appealing about Ahoy. Right off the bat, it puts itself across as a lighter asymmetrical game. Unlike the game I promised I wouldn’t invoke and more recent fare like Vast: The Mysterious Manor, Crescent Moon, and Circadians: Chaos Order, the asymmetry here isn’t such a tall barrier to entry. To be sure, there’s a significant difference between “lighter” and “light,” and newcomers may still find themselves scared off by the abundance of little rules and distinctions, but for the most part Ahoy is a beer-and-pretzels affair, suitable for its breeziness if not its depth of play.
Like everything else touched by Kyle Ferrin’s pen and Leder’s development team, it’s an attractive fantasy. Starting with only two islands and growing to encompass many more, it presents a simple ecosystem of intersecting interests. The sharks of this pond are the Bluefin Squadron, and not only because they’re literal sharks. The Squadron quickly establishes itself as the game’s heavy hitter: its flagship deposits patrols in its wake, commands significant muscle in combat, and can lock off entire islands with strongholds. “Toothy” is a good word for them: the Squadron is abundant, aggressive, and initially seems unbeatable.
The Mollusk Union offers a more hopeful outlook. Like the Squadron, they too spend much of their time traveling the seas and dropping off passengers. “Comrades,” they’re called, a nod to the Union’s more labor-friendly outlook — and perhaps an acknowledgement of Loring-Albright’s disposition as well. Unlike patrols, comrades aren’t here to fight. They’re infiltrators, agitators, workers on the ground. When the time is right, sudden uprisings may cripple their opposition. Until then, the Union prepares the archipelago with the seeds of revolution.
The conflict between these two factions sets the backdrop. Their goal is raw control: patrols versus comrades, opposing flagships with cannons at the ready, naked aggression ready to quash dissatisfied rumblings and vice versa. But Ahoy doesn’t stop there. Where most designers would present the parameters of their conflict in isolation, Loring-Albright takes one more step. There’s a third side to this conflict, and potentially a fourth: the Smuggler. These rapscallions venture between the battle lines, dodging patrols and flagships, or perhaps, at times, supplying them.
This does some heavy lifting, both thematically and to further Ahoy’s race toward completion. When a Smuggler delivers cargo to an island, that island’s prosperity die ticks up a digit. From now on, that island is worth an extra point at the end of the round. Over time, islands blessed with centralized locations or favorable trade winds — or even something as simple as an absence of hostile vessels — become desirable havens, earning as many points all at once as a player might have expected from a half-dozen opening rounds. There’s real tension to be found in how the Smugglers are both essential to the archipelago’s ecosystem and parasitic of the great powers struggling for its fealty. Consider this chain of knock-on effects: the Bluefin Squadron often peaks early when it deploys all its patrols; to reclaim some manpower, it converts clusters of patrols into strongholds; strongholds always spark battle with any visiting ships; wise Smugglers are more interested in moving wares than loading cannons, so they avoid fortified islands; now the very same islands the Squadron fortified will never grow in value. Militarization has stifled that island’s ability to develop. That’s a beautiful piece of gamifying an economic statement if I’ve ever seen one.
That tension disappears entirely when Ahoy is played with two players. Instead, the Squadron and Union alternate which side gets to increase an island’s prosperity. It’s a bland solution, not to mention antithetical to the whole point of including the Smugglers in the first place. There’s nothing to stop the Squadron from increasing the prosperity of a fortified island. Nor, really, is there any sense that this ecosystem operates as anything other than a straightforward contest of manpower and maneuvers. Sadly, as an area control game it’s too anemic to bother with. It needs that third party.
Which makes it all the more disappointing that the Smugglers, despite being two of the game’s four factions, don’t offer much excitement. Where the Bluefin Squadron and Mollusk Union function at two levels, offering both a tactical movement game with their flagship and an area control game with their subordinates, the Smugglers are left with crumbs. To some degree that’s the point. They are, after all, the small folk who operate in the margins left by the greater powers. But it’s thin stuff, leaving them little to do but chart routes. Sure, they can try to influence the outcome of the wider war. Every time they deliver a crate, the Smuggler slides it under one of two cards, covertly signifying which side they supplied to win a particular type of island. When the final tally is counted, these wagers are worth spills of points, often tipping the entire conflict into their favor. But when the other great power comes along and seizes an island earmarked for their opposition, the solution to a bad bet isn’t to load the cannons, sail over to that island, and help the losing side retake it. It’s to place more bets.
The result is a game that feels markedly lopsided. In two respects, really. First, the Smugglers are essential but tedious, elevating Ahoy’s gameplay and commentary alike, but not providing much enjoyment in their own right. Second, they operate best when there are two of them in competition to prevent one Smuggler from having the run of the market. Except the presence of a rival is a downer for the first Smuggler, wares regularly sniped out from under you, making it all the harder to chart routes with any forethought. It doesn’t help that the deck is shallow enough that every session with four players saw it run dry prematurely, robbing Smugglers of much to do on their final turn or two but pick fights.
It’s a real pickle. And it means that Ahoy is never quite its best self.
I don’t want to be ungenerous toward Loring-Albright or one of the most talented development teams working right now, but Ahoy lacks shine. Like many of the titles from Leder, it clearly has big ideas on its mind. Asymmetrical design is always a challenge to begin with, and that goes double when players are asked to stand in for opposing game systems and economic concepts.
But while pirates may have afforded diminished priority to TLC, board game designers cannot. Ahoy could have been much more.
A complimentary copy was provided.