Celebrate Our Differences
Since 2016’s Vast and 2018’s Root, Leder Games have quickly become the go-to company for asymmetric games. Despite 1977’s Cosmic encounters being the granddaddy of the genre, Leder Games have refined it and launched it into the mainstream. Both Vast and Root (the latter sitting comfortably in the top 30 games of all time on Board Game Geek) offer complex gameplay. Each player takes on the role of a character that plays very differently to the others. Each with their own set of win conditions and ways of interacting, they can be quite intimidating to learn, let alone teach. But now we get a more accessible game in the genre. The newest addition to their four-letter-title portfolio, Ahoy.
Ahoy Me Hearties
Ahoy is Greg Loring-Albright’s first game for the publisher, but o-boy does it make a splash. What started out as a space game, was changed to set sail on the seven seas after the announcement of Leder’s plans to release their own space game. A space campaign helmed by their in-house designer and award winning mind behind Root, Cole Wehrle is due out later this year. However, this new theme seems a much better fit. The world of pirates is usually filed with a problematic history but in-house illustrator, Kyle Ferrin, does an amazing job in brightoning up that world. The pirates are now sea based anthropomorphic characters from sharks to mollusks. The colourful designs really help to move this theme away from its dodgy history and helps to appear more inviting and friendly. But, much like Root, the juxtaposition of cutesy creature design with the antagonistic gameplay offers a really fun dynamic.
Full Sails Ahead
Before diving a little deeper into the different factions it’s worth explaining how the key elements of the game work. You will all be exploring the oceans by revealing tiles in the classic Carcassonne way. Each tile is made up of a grid of four squares, each representing different types of obstacle. You have islands, each with their own suit attached to them which will be important later.
You also have wreckages that will cause you damage to travel through but often have gold you can loot if you end your turn there. There are harbours where you can repair your ship. Fog where you can hide from battle and strong currents that will push you into another square. This system really helps with the theme of exploration, never knowing what will come up. It also means that every game will have a different map, and by removing one tile from the deck at the beginning of the game, you never know exactly will come up.
When exploring onto a new tile you will be able to place it in any orientation as long as one of the new smaller squares is adjacent to yours. No islands can be touching either. This leads to really interesting shapes in the map leaving empty areas that no one can pass through. The main mechanism of Ahoy is dice placement. Each faction will have their own set of dice and on their turn will place two of their dice into their personal play area to activate an array of actions. Some of these spots will ask for a specific number and others will not. And if you are stuck you can always pay a coin to adjust any of your dice by one.
Each faction will have certain generic actions. Sail will allow you to move. Repair will get rid of damage. And tailwind will allow you to move to any square that has a matching number to the dice you placed to do the action. Then there is battling. Each faction has a cannon on their ship. The general rule is, if you share a space with a ship that has a cannon loaded with a dice then a battle must happen. Battle is simply a die for die roll. Highest number wins.
However, the way cannons work is you can change the number of your dice placed there by any number of pips lower. Those pips are then added to your total dice roll. The loser then takes damage by placing a damage tile into a dice slot of the winners choosing. This leavEd it unusable until it is repaired. The other thing any faction can do is visit an island. When there you have access to the market row of cards representing crew you can hire. In order to hire a crew member, their suit must match that of the island you are on and you must pay their cost. Crew members will then become part of your play area giving you ongoing powers or new dice slots for new actions.
Pieces Of 8-Symmetry
What makes this game most interesting is its mix of player powers. The two main factions are the Mollusk Union and the Blue Fin Squadron. These factions have to be used at any player count. They both get their points from area control. Each tile is worth points dictated by a small dice in the middle of it, given to the player who has the most control on it.
The Blue Fins are the sharks. They are powerful fighters and have one more dice than the others giving it an extra turn every round. Their main gameplay is to place patrols around the map and strongholds on islands. This means that they can spread out quickly and if loaded with cannons can make it very difficult for others to move around.
The Mollusks are more focused on recruiting comrades on the islands. Comrades can’t be battled or battle themselves, but can spread very quickly and en mass. They also have a hand of cards that they can add to each turn, offering one off bonus actions or add to their battle rolls. When playing two players, these are the only options and so at that player count Ahoy becomes a very aggressive game.
Players three and/or four are always smugglers and both smugglers work exactly the same. This is a pick and deliver mechanism. When visiting an island a smuggler may pick up any card, matching the island’s suit, as cargo. On the bottom of each crew card it will give you a specific cargo and then where it needs to go.
Every time cargo is successfully delivered the smuggler gets a reward and increases the dice value on that specific tile. This ecosystem of growing influence from the smugglers creates a really fun dynamic with the Blue Fins and the Mollusks. The smugglers also get use each delivered cargo to bet on which of the two main factions will control certain islands at the end of the game. A small, easy mechanism but could give them a big boost of points in the last minute.
X Marks The Spot
Both main factions work well and create an enjoyable enough experience but it’s when the smugglers are added that the game comes to life. There is something so great about the interweaving factions whizzing around the board. Some will try to start fights whilst others avoid it all costs. And the way that areas go up in value after smugglers trade there creates an ever changing map. You might spend your game as the Mollusks building up comrades on one island only to find that the smugglers never go there.
Although it feels like it really needs another faction option in the mix (maybe an expansion?) the base game of Ahoy is a fantastic entry into the world of asymmetry. It is not a simple game by any means. If you are brand new to the hobby this might not be a place to start. However, it will help newer players on their journey towards other more complicated titles such as the aforementioned Root whilst also giving enough excitement and replayability to satisfy you for a long time. The world is a fun one to inhabit and each card is a joy to look at. So set sail and let yourself drift away into this whimsical addition to the hobby and enjoy raising your cutlas and shouting ‘fire the cannons’ every time you get into battle!