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Subject: Let's take it out for a spin! rss

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Paul Dobbins
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Herndon
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First Playtest

My first The Shores of Tripoli (SOT) playtest was a solo run through on 03/03/2019. The Barbary Pirates won during the Fall, 1803, turn by acquiring their 12th merchant ship (actually their 14th overall). Basically, my dice rolling was running hot.hot.hot for pirate raid resolution, and cold.cold.cold for interception by the US and Swedish navies. For learning purposes, the test was not so bad for naval operations, but it fell far short with regards to land operations.

Using SOT designer Kevin Bertram’s playtest kit pdf’s, I threw a prototype together in about a day. I printed the pages of the map (4) and the cards (7) on good quality photo paper. The cards were cut out, paired with regular playing cards, and then inserted into standard playing card sleeves. The map sections were mounted on corrugated cardboard using mounting spray and some packing tape. I had a number of small plastic ships to use as “frigates”. For the other vessels, I used Pericles style “sticks”. For troops, I used variously colored COIN wooden pieces. Best of all, why not use 12 real quarters for “prize money”.

I am not a solo gamer by nature, but it was fun discovering SOT’s features by playing and thinking about both sides. SOT fits into the small playable game category that seems to be steadily if not rapidly gathering adherents, such as Mark Herman’s recent Fort Sumter and Gettysburg designs, or Victory Point Games venerable State of Siege engine.

My first reaction after playing through a few seasons is the American player has little use for many of the card events in the early game, as the latter are keyed to end game actions, such as land battles and/or the great final battle for Tripoli. The players’ decks recycle for the end game, and hand capacity is a whopping 8 cards, not counting the three hole cards with which each player starts the game. So it is apparent that cards can be used aggressively for non-event specific actions, especially moving frigates (U.S.) and pirate raids (Tripoli), and will be recovered for late game hijinx.

In this first test, the U.S. was up against an aggressive pirate who was reaping steady rewards from frequent raids. Basically, 6 raids yielded 14 coins (merchant ship captures/VPs) for the cost of only 2 corsairs lost. If it weren’t for the Swedes, the game may have ended sooner, but interception rolls were so poor even the Swedes made little difference. The U.S. played Constantinople Demands Tribute [CDT] to ding the pirates 2 coins, and played Bainbridge Supplies Intel to retrieve CDT for a follow-up (sad to say, that never had a chance to fire), but overall, it was too little too late.

The problem may have been abated by packing as many frigates into the Tripoli patrol zone as early and as fast as possible. The American sent a frigate to Alexandria as it turned out too early. An interception roll sent another frigate to Malta, and a storm damaged a frigate in 1802, sending it off for repairs till it was able to return in 1803. So for most of the early game, there were only the two Swedish frigates and at best one Amercian available to patrol outside of Tripoli.

The Americans started 1803 with four frigates entering play at Gibraltar. Using Naval Operations all four were moved to Tunis to hit the Tripolitan allied fleet of 3 corsairs, who had already harvested 1 coin in late 1802. The Tunisians lost 2 corsairs, but one of the frigates was sent off to Malta. In retrospect, it would have been much better to deploy the frigates into the Tripolitan patrol zone; in response to the American naval strike on Tunis, the Swedes were forced to pay tribute and left the war, leaving a solitary American ship to patrol Tripoli.

The American early game strategy emerged. All resources must be committed to mitigate Tripolitan raiding. Nothing else matters as it is a race against time. One could imagine the pirates coming up empty with their raiding strategy, due to bad dice rolling (see game 2 below); the flow of the game will let one know. Meanwhile, me hearties, the pirates gotta raid like crazy before the American defense gels.


2nd Playtest

My second solo SOT was a different beast altogether than the first game. Once again the pirates won, but this time the American player snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, though it was a close run affair. The pirates won the big battle for Tripoli, and the game, in Winter 1805. One of the many ways either side can either win or lose the game is the Tripoli All-In Gambit. The American probably could have won handily by treaty sometime in 1806, but playtesting is all about taking chances and seeing where the new design takes you.

The American attempted the first of three naval battles in Tripoli Harbor, the first came in 1803, the second 1804, and the final, 1805. The 1803 fight was a pretty dicey affair, as 6 frigates with Preble’s Boys Take Aim squared off against 4 corsairs and The Guns of Tripoli. So 18 dice versus 16 dice. One American frigate was sunk -- the first lost -- and another damaged. The corsairs were sunk. Perhaps it was actually an American tactical defeat, but they liked the fact The Guns were now out of the game.

The pirates pitched Constantinople Sends Aid to rebuild their fleet in the spring of 1804. A Storm at Sea bagged a second U.S. frigate, evening out the naval war. Various card plays brought the U.S. fleet back up to 6 American frigates, though the Swedes were soon gone.

The American prepared for the 2nd Tripoli battle by playing Thomas Jefferson at the end (winter) of 1804. This allowed the surviving 6 frigates to force a battle in Tripoli Harbor to destroy what was left of the Tripolitan fleet. Per the report above, the Americans had been concentrating on the Tripolitan fleet, which was not faring so well this game. Basically, mission accomplished – a corsair was sunk and a Tripolitan frigate damaged, at the cost of 1 American frigate damaged and two sent off to Malta.

1805. The Philadelphia Runs Aground copped a third American frigate. Yikes – three frigates down is a serious situation for American naval fortunes, as in lose four frigates and you lose the game. Derne fell to the Arab-American army so the end was coming.

The Americans only had to kill the Tripolitan frigate (which had returned to action) and pitch Treaty of Peace and Amity to win. In a series of plays not reported here, the Tripolitan allies weren’t faring too well, so the latter was currently alone. The issue was whether the American should take a gamble before the 1806 card draw, as it would have been very helpful to bag Benghazi before taking on Tripoli with Assault on Tripoli.

As noted above, the Americans tried their luck at the end 1805. With Assault on Tripoli, Send in the Marines, and Marine Sharpshooters the American put the game on the line. The dice slightly favored the American, with 3 frigates (2 gunboats which can’t fight in the ground battle) and 3 sharpshooting Marines, but 7 Tripolitan ground troops could take more losses. The last Marine died while there were still Tripolitan boots on the ground, Tripoli wins!


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Barry Kendall
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Lebanon
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Good report, Paul. I've been enjoying playtesting this gem as well.

I've found that with a game or two under the belt, a complete game can be concluded in as little as half an hour; the longest since the first couple of "learners" took 48 minutes, and that was with a lot of painful deliberating.

A couple of additional things worth mentioning . . .

Each Player draws six cards per Turn after the first, but may only hold eight cards in hand, plus however many remain of the three 'at-starts' each side begins the game with (face-up).

Part of the fun is the agonizing over which cards are disposable, and which absolutely, positively, be kept in hand.

One of my absolute favorite cards is 'Show of Force.' There are three ports along the North African coast which can join the Tripoli Pirates as allies (on the play of certain cards in the Tripoli Player's deck).

The US `Show of Force' card sees three US Frigates dispatched to a Pirate Port currently allied with Tripoli (hence harboring up to three Corsair ships). Sail in with a Show of Force, and --presto!--the dastardly Allied Pirates think better of their perfidy and become peaceful.

I've found SoF to be one of the most valuable cards in the American hand, since one of the two ways the US can win is to play the Peace Treaty card which may not be used if any of those three Ports are currently Tripoli-allied. (The card also may not be played if there's a Pirate frigate in Tripoli harbor, and such a vessel can be dratted hard to exterminate.)

"The Shores of Tripoli" features a very well-balanced asymmetrical confrontation. As Paul mentioned, certain cards can only be played at certain points in the game--Eaton, for instance, may not raise an Arab army in Egypt until a certain season in a certain year of the conflict (and a US Frigate or two must be present at Alexandria for him to do this). The card for Eaton to mobilize the Arab army is in the three "core cards" with which the US Player begins the game, so it's not a question of "if."

However, Eaton may not begin his march west toward Tripoli without a card allowing him to attack Derne, and that card is somewhere in the deck. If drawn early, the US Player is usually wise to retain it in-hand rather than to risk it not being drawn in time after the discard re-shuffle. This, obviously, takes one of those precious eight card slots in the hand.

The Tripoli player, on the other hand, must play certain cards "in time" to have an effect. One of the three "core cards" for Tripoli allows two Corsair vessels that start at Gibraltar (glaring at the American frigates which also start there) to slip out and sail to Tripoli. However, if not used by the end of the first year, these Corsairs are interned by the British and out of the game.

The US Player moves first in each Season (Turn) of each Game-Year, and may blockade Gibraltar (thus getting a shot at the Corsairs when they try their breakout) but with only a small squadron at-start, it's tough for the Americans to cover all the potential holes in the dike (even worse if, say, a Frigate is damaged in a "Storm" (Tripoli player's card) and knocked out of the war 'til next year begins.

Lots of chewy decisions to make, enough that no two games play alike despite the specificity of Victory Conditions: for the US, get the Peace Treaty signed by Game End, or conquer Tripoli in a combined sea-land battle (a risky venture, fraught with uncertainty as US and Arab Allies are thin on the ground--only four US Marine units total, plus however many Arab allied ground units survive Eaton's offensive west from Alexandria to Derbe, then Benghazi, then [if still strong enough] to Tripoli).

For Tripoli, a "win" is achieved if a net twelve "gold pieces" (representing captured merchant shipping) are accumulated, or if four US Frigates are destroyed in the game (either by battle or storm).

There are cards for all sorts of dramatic events--the USS Philadelphia grounding at Tripoli (and being captured and turned to Tripolitan service, potentially); Decatur's raid to destroy said Frigate Philadelphia); the explosives-laden "Intrepid" being sent into Tripoli in hope of destroying Corsair vessels or the Tripolitan frigate; Corsair raids, Tripolitan ground reinforcements (inconveniently, these can show up at Derne, Benghazi, or Tripoli, depending on which card is played), Swedish frigates joining the Tripoli blockade (US core card) or sailing out of the war after paying the Tripolitans two Gold as "tribute" (perfidious Swedes!) on a Tripoli card play.

Just plain fun stuff. And balanced, in the aggregate, although as with any card-directed game, a single game can seem one-sided. The beauty is that the one-sidedness can go either way (though I believe it's a little more challenging to play the US side effectively than the Pirate side).

In my games so far, I believe I have eight US wins, ten Tripoli wins, and two Draws, not counting the learning games--and I want to go back and play it again.

I've been using "Diplomacy" armies for Frigates and navies for Corsairs (and "gunboats" out of Malta, another US card, they only help at Tripoli), and "Risk" cubes for ground forces. These work fine, though Kevin hopes to have little wooden vessels for the production game (this would be very appealing, given the overall "look" of the game art-wise--lots of great period art even on the playtest-quality cards!).

The map, should you wonder, printed out as four 8.5 by 11 sheets to form a 32 by 11 inch playing area of the Barbary coast and related sea areas (which include defined "blockade zones" outside the four Pirate ports and Gibraltar). Modest size, easily accommodated on a table or desk, but the game plays so smoothly and so fast that one won't often have to leave it up--unless (as will be likely!) you want to play it again.

And again, and again. A very appealing game, on an un-explored subject, great fun to play, and accessible enough that non-wargamers can enjoy it. In my book, a home run. I'm glad I have had the privilege of playtesting TSoT.
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Paul Dobbins
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Hey Barry! great comments! I love the speed of the game, and the shifting fortunes I've seen after limited play. I just ordered some Settlers of Catan "barbarian" boats to tart up my prototype. The Catan boats will stand in for the many not-frigates.
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Barry Kendall
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Lebanon
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rddfxx wrote:
Hey Barry! great comments! I love the speed of the game, and the shifting fortunes I've seen after limited play. I just ordered some Settlers of Catan "barbarian" boats to tart up my prototype. The Catan boats will stand in for the many not-frigates.

I agree, it plays really fast but does not seem superficial. There's a lot of historical flavor built in, and despite the somewhat random nature of card draws, the draw/hold/discard mechanic works well to present enough options and still provide some suspense and uncertainty.

No two games play alike, that is for sure.

I know what you mean about decorating the prototype. To introduce a new player, I'd do the same, but my brain is a curious thing (no comments, please)--it's not long before it "envisions" frigates and xebecs when it's really looking at wooden "Diplomacy" armies and fleets (the thick ones are Frigates, the thin ones gunboats and Corsairs).

I hope this does well if it's a KS offering, and think an established publisher would be very wise to pick it up (and go with miniature ships). Really enjoyable game.

Play on, we will!
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Flawed Hero
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Great comments all. Just finished our first learning game and really anxious to play it again. Should have started earlier in the night!

I am really liking the theme I see coming though -- losing damaged frigates for the rest of the turn while they are being "repaired." All while keeping a simple ruleset and quick overall play. I also like the option frigates have to attack corsairs outright in harbors or hang out in patrol anticipating pirate raids.

The only possible hang up I see so far is the somewhat scripted play of many of the cards, such as Hamet's army created, Rais breaking out, and the Assault on Tripoli. Although necessary to the flow of the overall gameplay, I'm worried that these may dampen repeat plays of the game.

I also feel like some cards could be replaced in the Tripolitan deck in order to make a better variety - I've seen quite a bit of ally raid cards when those allies don't have any corsairs/are not at war.

Overall, awesome stuff!!
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