Brant Guillory, 25 October 2020
The Shores of Tripoli is the first effort from Fort Circle Games, and designer Kevin Bertram. Taking it’s name from the famous Marine Corps Hymn, it covers the actions of the fledgling US Navy and their on-board Marines in attempting to contain and corral the pirate raiders operating out of North Africa, primarily from Tripoli, but with allies from other North Africa city-states.
The game itself is primarily a card-driven one, with an operational-level scope. Players manage frigates and smaller boats, and abstract “forces”, that are impacted by card play, and with a very simple roll-to-hit mechanic that eschews CRTs. The basics of the game can be learned in 30 minutes or so, and subsequent sessions can be fit inside an hour or so once both players are familiar with the rules.
The Shores of Tripoli is not trying to be a detailed look at individual ship characteristics, transatlantic logistics, or international politics. While these all factor into the game in various ways, it almost universally through the play of the cards, rather than bolted-on chrome mechanics.
click images to enlarge
PLOT & PRESENTATION
In the early 1800s, the Barbary Pirates were wreaking havoc on commercial shipping off the Atlantic coast of Europe, along with the Mediterranean, and the western shores of Africa. Many European nations chose to pay off the pirates for safe travels rather than confront them, but, well…. ‘Murica!
The US instead chose to confront the pirates, with a combination of diplomatic pressure, excellent naval crews, and the Marines that have immortalized themselves in song. Truthfully, a lot of the blow-by-blow about the campaign can be found in the detailed historical reference book that’s included in the game, so there’s not a lot of point in rehashing it all here, but the game focuses on the First Barbary War, and does not include the Swedes as a playable faction.
SET-UP, GRAPHICS, AND DOCUMENTATION
Take a look at the unboxing for a more detailed look at the game and its components, but here’s what’s in the box.
There are no counters, but there are a variety of wooden bits: larger frigates, smaller ships designated as “corsairs” or “gunboats” depending on whose side they’re on, and cubes for land forces. The sculpts are all identical, and not overly-detailed, but are still quite attractive. The cubes for land forces are a little simplistic, but given that they’ve become fairly standard for games like the COIN series, won’t seem too cheap. They are small though.
The single 4-panel map of North Africa is mounted, and sturdy enough that it could be used for armor plating in an emergency. It is an area-based map, so the playable areas are large and colorful, but not overly-detailed in their graphics.
The game comes with 2 books, the rules, and a historical reference guide. Neither of them are particularly long, and the rules, especially, are short and to the point. In fact, 30% of the book are not the rules per se but rather the solo implementation of the game.
The cards are simple, functional, and very attractive, with period-appropriate artwork from the public domain, with a variety of famous paintings and portraits. The cards, more than anything else in the box, set the tone for the game with their evocation of the era in which the game takes place.
The game does ship with a lot of dice. A LOT of dice. In fact, it ships with way more dice than a player will need to play, since no one really needs the yellow dice for the Swedish frigates. Moreover, there seems to be no circumstance under which more than 4 yellow dice might be rolled at a time; there are 8.
Overall the artwork and visual presentation is attractive without interfering with gameplay, and that’s the ideal combination in a wargame. The production values are top-notch and players will have no problem dropping this game on a table alongside any other visually attractive game for people to ask “hey, what’s that?”
The game plays out with a fairly simple turn sequence: Play a card.
OK, it’s a little more than that.
The game is divided into years, and those years into seasons. At the start of each year, the players will refill their hand of cards, and each season is a turn in which you can play a card. You can either play the card and follow the instructions for that specific event, or you can discard the card to take one of a fixed set of actions (move units, raid, etc). It is similar to the ops/event dynamic of many of GMT’s card-driven games, but all cards have an equivalent “ops value” in that they are all equally capable of the same actions when discarded.
Certain actions may trigger follow-on combat, either ship-to-ship, or a notional ‘corsair-raiding-a-faceless-merchant’ in which the Tripolitan player rolls for success in raiding, but not against a specific ship. Some actions may also trigger ground combat, as the Marines and their allies march on Tripoli from Alexandria, and have to fight their way through Derne and Benghazi to do so.
Combat is simple, with all units of the same type rolling the same number of d6s – 2 for frigates and 1 for corsairs or gunboats – and need a 6 to hit. Frigates can sustain 2 hits before succumbing, but corsairs and gunboats are eliminated with a single hit. Each ship rolls a number of dice equal to the number of hits it could sustain. So 4 frigates in a single battle against 8 corsairs will see 8 dice rolled on each side! For players who enjoy buckets of dice, this game can certainly deliver.
Ships that are hit are returned to a reinforcement pool where they may be rebuilt later in different fashions. There are also some cards that an affect combat.
Additionally, the US player might get an opportunity to bombard Tripoli itself, and both US and Swedish ships might have a chance to intercept raiding corsairs as they leave port in pursuit of plunder. Both of these combat actions have their own rules, but none are particularly difficult and they all fit nicely in the context of the events in the game.
Reinforcements are largely card-driven, although the US player has some time-determined reserves that sail into the fray. The hand of cards is refreshed at the start of each year, so there are ample opportunities to cycle through the deck.
Overall, the mechanics give the player a wide range of options to consider each turn, even beyond the cards in hand. Combat is quick, and not especially bloody, which forces players to either try to arrange for overwhelming numbers, or repeated shots at the same targets.
The victory conditions are asymmetric, but still mutually opposed. The Tripolitan player is trying to extract enough treasure from the American to force a negotiated tribute. The US player wants to sink the corsairs and cause the Pasha to submit to force. The US player will have difficulty with this in the early game, as it takes time for the US force to fully build up. The Tripolitan player will have trouble winning later in the game as the sheer volume of firepower the American player can bring to bear will disrupt the corsairs’ attempts to raid merchant shipping.
The rules are very clear and well-written. It is certainly well-edited for a new company, as many first forays into publishing are not nearly as tight as these rules. Each circumstance is explained as they would appear during the turn sequence, and bold text draws out key points.
The lack of index is not a hindrance; the rules are under 20 pages of large type.
The lack of a single reference chart for the turn sequence is a hindrance for new players, though, as they’ll flip through pages 3-6 quite a bit to make sure they’re handling each case properly the first time or two through the game.
Overall, this is an enjoyable, lightweight game. Certainly, the scenario could lend itself to much more diplomatic, logistical, or martial chrome, but it’s unnecessary for the story the game is trying to tell, and the fast-moving nature of the game keeps players fully engaged without bogging down.
The setup is quick, and likely quicker still once the players are more familiar with it. The learning curve is not steep, as there are a limited number of ‘terrain features’ and the combat model, as noted above, it not difficult.
The constant back and forth of the cards draws players into the action enough that there are times when they might forget to advance the seasonal turn track and have to count the cards they played to make sure they’re at the right place in the turn.
The only particular stumbling block we ran into was trying to figure out how gold coins (signifying success at raiding) should be counted when they are placed in a reserve box, rather than owned by either player. Otherwise, we were able to answer every question with a quick look through the rules.
What stands out the most is that the game is a joy to play. As opponent, and noted game designer/magazine publisher, Jim Werbaneth remarked after the first play-thru “that was fun!” The game doesn’t bog down into trifling details in an attempt to fully simulate every facet of the conflict. It’s stripped out anything that isn’t needed in the operational management of the campaign, and its focus allows it shine in the way the players execute the conflict as a whole, rather than a series of disconnected battles.
As opponent, and noted game designer/magazine publisher, Jim Werbaneth remarked after the first play-thru “that was fun!”
REPLAY VALUE & SOLITAIRE PLAY
There are a set of solitaire rules, and a specific couple of cards to be added to the deck for solo play. Of note, the solitaire rules only allow players to portray the Americans. There is no solitaire ‘bot option to play as the Tripolitans against the Yanks.
The variability of the cards should ensure a good bit of replay value for most players. There are several different strategies to try depending on the cards drawn, especially early in the game. Long-term / extended replay value will remain to be seen, but given that this game is light enough to serve as a compelling introduction to wargaming for non-wargamers, it’s not hard to see a higher replay value in its use as a first step into the hobby.
Overall, this is not a complex game; it doesn’t need to be. It’s a fun game, and that’s key. Moreover, it’s a fun game that informs the players on the challenges faced by the actual belligerents in the conflict. Can the Pasha inflict sufficient economic hardship on the American player so as to force a negotiated surrender? Can the Americans disrupt the pirate economy long enough to bring reinforcements to bear and overwhelm the Tripolitans? Where do you station your vessels? When do you put ground troops on the march? Are you willing to let minor raids sally forth from the other North African city-states in order to keep the main fleet bottled up in Tripoli? These are the dilemmas faced by the combatants in the campaign, and by the players in the game.
Players looking for a lighter one-session game, or something to introduce a new wargamer to the hobby, are well-advised to pick this one up. Additionally, history buffs seeking a learning opportunity about a little-known conflict in American history will find quite a bit of meat on the bone here, even without a very heavy set of rules.
Players looking to game out the detailed cannon-by-cannon shootouts between different US frigates and the Barbary corsairs would be advised to dig up something like Wooden Ships & Iron Men instead of this game, as that level of detail is well beyond what is modeled.
This one is fun, easy to learn, teaches players about a different conflict (not Waterloo, Gettysburg, Normandy, the Bulge, or Stalingrad), and looks very nice on the table. It’s got crossover appeal to non-grognards, and the included solo variant gives players the option to watch it appear on My Own Worst Enemy or the Solosaurus podcast at some point, as well as gaming by themselves if needed.
Moreover, it’s a chance to support a new publisher in the field, who went to great lengths to provide a solid, fun, attractive game, and the industry could always use more of that.
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