One of the good/bad things about Euro games, in general, is their design tendency to limit access to resources, making for what’s known as a ‘tight’ game; one in which you can never really do all that you’d like to do on your turn. Bad because it’s annoying, good because it forces you to make significant decisions at every turn, which is part of the Euro charm.
This rather random thought accompanies my exploration of a Rio Grande title, The Doge Ship, released in 2012, and one of eight games I’ll be demonstrating at the World Boardgaming Championships (WBC) from August 5-9. The gaming convention actually runs a little longer, from August 2-9, but I’m set up to host Cafe Jay, beginning on Tuesday, August 5. There are what’s known as ‘Pre-Con’ events over the opening weekend, in what’s referred to as Grognardcon. The word grognard, in French, means ‘old soldier’ and in the gaming community, it refers to a sub-set of the gaming culture which enjoys playing old (in terms of style and age) war games. The WBC began as something of a war game convention, organized by an ‘old’ war game publisher, Avalon Hill Games. Only after Avalon Hill was sold to Hasbro, did AvalonCon morph into the WBC, open to games from all publishers.
But I digress. . .The Doge Ship. . .
It’s a fairly standard worker placement exercise, in which, as noted at the outset, you never seem to have enough workers, or places to put them. Thematically, you are engaged in the construction of the titled Doge ship. The Doge was the chief magistrate and leader of the Serene Republic of Venice (“La Serenisssima”) for over a thousand years (not the same guy, of course). These Doges were elected for life by the city’s aristocracy. Nice work, if you can get it. The game presumes that sometime in the 16th century, one of these Doges ordered the construction of a state galley (“a long, low ship, moved by oars and/or sails,” not the kitchen on a ship or plane). Each player is a Construction Chief, tasked not only with building the ship, but purchasing its components, shoring up the worksite against the perennially rising waters of Venice, and making a little money on the side to keep the whole operation going. The actual construction of the ship leads to the acquisition of victory points. When the ship is completed, whoever’s contributed the most to its construction, defined by the in-game acquisition of victory points, wins the game.
You will have five workers to play with throughout the game; maybe less, if you fail to account for the rising water issue. You will be placing these workers, one at a time, on up to 36 available spaces on a central board. These spaces will diminish with fewer players; 18, in a two-player game, 24, with three players, and 30, in a four-player game. There are six ‘tracks’ with six available actions in each track. These six in each track are priced, according to the roll of dice. You roll one die per track, placing the die in its appropriate place on the track. Actions below and to the left of the dice are free. Actions to the right of the die cost the difference between the action below the die number on the track and the rolled die.
There are two basic types of actions you will be performing, buying and constructing. Thus, the addition of each component of the emerging boat, the defenses against rising water, and your little side business in gondolas, is a two-part process. You buy the stuff with one of your workers and construct it with another. There are two other types of actions you’ll be able to perform – Intrigue and Money. The latter of these two is straightforward; spaces on the board where placement of a worker will earn you either two or three dollars. . .sorry, ducats.
Intrigue, as you might suspect, is a little trickier. Worker placement on some of the Intrigue spaces will net you what are known as Approval tokens, necessary to compete in a bidding process (potentially) at the end of each turn, leading to the acquisition of victory points. Other Intrigue spaces allow a player to change a round-defining Doge tile. These Doge tiles, one drawn from a stack at the start of every round, define for all players an event that will occur (or not) at the end of a given round, and also details conditions affecting the acquisition of victory points during the round. With certain Intrigue actions on the main board, a player may draw two new Doge tiles, select one of them, and use it to replace the Doge tile currently in effect for that round. This can be helpful when the current Doge tile shows a rising water level of “4” and you have only constructed two barriers. At the end of the round, if you have more barriers constructed than the number shown as the rising water level, nothing happens. If your barriers equal the rising water level, you lose a worker. If you have less than the indicated rising water level, you lose two of your workers. Losing two workers, though it hasn’t happened in any game I’ve played of this to date (thanks to the Intrigue action), would be a game changer. I’d venture to say that you’d become instantly non-competitive in the game.
These Doge tiles, also provide bonus victory points to players who construct sections of the ship on their turn. Sections of the ship available for sale show colored boxes, which will match those on the Doge tiles. The boxes on the Doge tile have numbers in them, from “minus 1” up to “2. When you construct a section of the Galley, you multiply the boxes on the ship tile you’re building, times the number in the corresponding color box on the Doge tile. You will also see a representation of the emerging ship on the Doge tile, with certain sections, colored in purple. If the ship part you’re building matches one of the purple sections on the Doge tile, you get a single Approval token. The ship tile might or might not have other direct benefits, VPs or Approval tokens. Of course, if you change the Doge tile, with an Intrigue action, you’ll change the bonuses, associated with the current Doge tile, too, sometimes to your benefit.
It’s odd, I thought, that the Purchase action in this game does not actually entail a purchase. Though you’ll pay an amount shown on the tiles for the construction of a barrier, gondola, or Galley section, the ‘purchase’ of these components entails the selection of three from a draw deck for each component, selecting one, and putting the other two at the bottom of its appropriate draw deck. You can never have more than five unconstructed components in your play area, and never more than two Galley sections. Once constructed, gondolas (which do nothing more than earn you money) go back to the bottom of their draw pile. Constructed barriers stack, with the uppermost tile in the stack offering action bonuses. And remember those rising water levels, the highest of which is “5.”
The completed Galley will vary in length, though not height. In a two-player game, it will be six sections long, in a three-player game, it’ll be eight; four players, 10, and five players, 11. It is always two sections high, and during construction, must always conform to basic construction rules; i.e., you can’t build a top section, unless there’s a bottom section to support it.
So, ’round and ’round it goes, in player rounds, with you selecting actions with your five workers (and, as noted, at the outset, never enough workers or available spaces to do everything you want to do), until the ship is completed. It’s repetitive in that way, which is the source of some of the criticism that it’s garnered from the BoardGameGeek crowd. It’s received less than 200 ratings (to date) and has a 6.17 average.
It takes a lot to really bore me with a game. One way or another, I manage to find some level of enjoyment with almost any game, as long as its process doesn’t bog down gameplay (a game called Fagin’s Gang comes to mind), or the degree of randomness is so excessive that you’re left without any real decisions to make (the dice fiasco, LCR, comes to mind). A lot of what some people appear to find objectionable about The Doge Ship is just par for the course for this type of game. The Doge Ship doesn’t burn a lot of brain cells, or put you to sleep (some Geek respondents disagree with this). It’s a pleasant enough exercise that isn’t going to scratch any excitement itch, but should manage to hold your attention (unless you’re easily bored) throughout its suggested 90 minute playing time.
The Doge Ship, designed by Marco Canetta and Stefania Niccolini, with artwork by Lamberto Azzariti, is published by Rio Grande Games. Components are typically sturdy. It can be played by up to five players, 13 and up. Playing time, as noted on the box, is about right. It retails for around $45 with the usual bargains to be found.