This Is How an Angel Cries


Hameln Cave, designed by Akiyama Koryo and Korzu Yusei, made something of a splash in the wide waters of the Japanese trick-taking market a couple years back. Enough so that it’s getting a remake courtesy of Allplay. Sail this one is called — just try to say it without periodically yelping it aloud, Awolnation style — case in point: (SAIL!) — and like its forebear it’s a two-player cooperative trick-taking game. It’s also quickly become one of my favorite trick-takers. Ever.


Setting off on a maritime adventure.

Sail opens with a full broadside. Like so many pirate captains before you, you’ve unsettled the kraken. Now you’re blindly racing through rocky shoals, dodging limbs and lighting off cannons, and above all hoping your crew can properly jig the longsail lest you run aground or get ripped apart by inky tentacles. Also, I think that’s a storm moving in. All around, a bad day.

Like many of the most aggravating cooperative games, your capacity to open your mouth and tell your partner what to do has been hampered. This is a real pickle, since the only way to move your ship — (SAIL!) — is by playing particular icons in tandem. Two helms, for instance, will nudge your ship forward. I say “nudge” because this ship’s leadership is tragically democratic. The simple act of “moving forward” generally translates to awkward diagonal scoots. And that’s if we can collaborate in the first place.

Remember, this is a trick-taking game. The lead player tosses a card onto the table, then their partner washes it down with a card of their own. Problem: You need to follow suit. Another problem: Certain icons refuse to work together. Problem the third: You cannot damn well explain what you’re hoping to accomplish. So if I reveal a helm, you might reveal something entirely pointless, like a cannon or a mermaid. I stare across at you, making little puckering mouth motions of contempt. You wriggle your grog-ingester right back at me, as though to say, “Wribble dub dub flubby nub.” Makes no sense. What exactly is your malfunction. If only you’d followed my helm with a helm of your own, we could have taken this ship forward. Instead, the kraken is yawning behind us, beak clacking, and I can translate its motions far better than I can understand your mute yawping.


The played pair’s symbols determine the behavior of your ship.

Okay, so let’s pretend we can communicate telepathically. It isn’t far-fetched. Little by little, Sail — (SAIL!) — begins to approximate the wordless communication of a well-oiled crew. It probably helps that we’ve begun to figure out the composition of the deck. It isn’t hard. There are only 27 cards in all, and six of those are locked away by the kraken at the start. Three suits, nine ranks apiece, with the same progression of symbols.

So it isn’t long before we’ve begun to communicate even though we can’t actually talk. A big part of that is the single swap we’re allowed to make at the start of each round. If I give you a cannon, there’s a good chance I’m telling you something. Maybe I’m holding an extra load of tentacles and I’m telling you to shoot them. This returns them to the kraken deck, which prolongs the duration of our attempted escape. Or maybe I’m holding that suit’s other cannon. In that case, it would be nice to play them together. That’s akin to drawing a wild card, letting us flip the top card of the remaining deck and take its action. If we’re lucky, we might even see a mermaid.

Mermaids. Ugh. Here’s the thing about mermaids. On their own, mermaids are worse than useless. We can only take a certain number of tricks per turn, so every wasted play brings us one step closer to the kraken regurgitating our flesh-stripped ivory. If you play a mermaid, there’s a good chance I’m going to make a face at you. There’s simply no match for a mermaid. Mermaid:Cannon, nope. Mermaid:Helm, get outta here. Mermaid:Tentacle, stop it with your perversions, coxswain, we’ve a kraken to outrun.

Mermaid on mermaid, though? That’s a sailor’s salty dream come true. If we successfully conjugate two mermaids, our ship darts forward — proper forward, straight forward, not this herky-jerky sidestep we can manage on our own. But there’s only one mermaid of each color. Because we’re required to follow suit, the only way to assemble this blessed pairing is by having one of us run dry of a suit entirely. So we test each other. I play a card to see if you can follow it. We count up how many cards have appeared. I prod around with icons we don’t strictly need, trying to determine what you’re holding. This is best undertaken while we accomplish other aims, such as blasting tentacles or sailing past protruding stones (SHALE!). If we can make it work, there’s nothing quite like the delight of pulling it off. More often, one of us reveals their mermaid at exactly the wrong time, leaving us with all mast and no tailwind.


The deck is easy enough even a doofus like me can count it.

This cuts right to the brackish heart of what makes Sail so special. It’s a bit like trick-taking is life and this is the final test. It even manages something similar to contract bidding, although only obliquely, in the way each round is structured. You always begin with nine cards, but you only play until one partner has taken four tricks. So there’s an ebb and flow to each turn, ups and downs — (SWALE!) — as you pass the lead back and forth. It captures how trick-taking is about avoiding tricks as much as it’s about taking them.

There are other little details that give it additional life. The obstacles that lie in your way. The storm dogging your stern. The captain powers, which seem imbalanced until you realize some of them are toothed offerings, like the one who lets you take one extra trick at the end of the round. That’s great! That is, until you can’t sustain another hit from the kraken. Have fun weathering that extra card.

More than anything else, though, Sail is tougher than sea-bleached leather without ever feeling wholly unfair. Last night, Summer and I came two spaces short of survival. Two spaces. Not bad, right? Except in these seas, second place is an extra serving of bitterness while the kraken literalizes its name on your rib cage. Sure, we’d suffered the occasional poor draw. But we could also recall where we’d flubbed. Where that sole traded card could have been selected better, where we mistimed a crucial mermaid pairing, where we should have fired off some extra cannon shots. For our next try, we lengthened the map to add some difficulty. This attempt, we came one space short.


What a shame. ... sail.

We died here.

So it goes. Maybe we’ll get it next time. And there will be a next time. Because unlike many trick-takers, which I’m content to play a few hands and then set aside, Sail has its hooks in me.



(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

A prototype copy was provided.

Posted on February 6, 2023, in Board Game and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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