Sea of Clouds pits two to four players against one another for an epic tale of swashbuckling in the skies. With gorgeous art, vibrant cards, chunky board pieces and the ever-coveted parrot, it looks the part and plays just as wonderfully.
If you're looking for the game that could well tip your casual board game friends into the greater depths of this beloved hobby, Sea of Clouds could well fit the bill.
On the island chain on the central board of Sea of Clouds, your humble reviewer has come to mentally nickname the third one in “Lightbulb Island.” That's because, nine games out of 10, that's the island gameplay reaches when everyone huddled around its adorable tiny map suddenly goes, “Ah!!! I get it!” – and that's part of Sea of Clouds' charm.
The art style of Sea of Clouds is just the whimsical brilliance you'd expect of IELLO, with sublime designs for both characters and treasures. The game features four plucky pirates to choose from, each as distinctive as the last, although they all function the same. It's a case of picking the buccaneer who best suits you, before setting your character card down around the surprisingly tiny board.
Indeed, there is portability on the side of Sea of Clouds, but don't be fooled – your character board has various spaces allocated around it. These are for crewmen, treasures, secrets, relics and rum, which are all vital components you'll pick up during play. Those various treasures and crewmen are all part of the Loot Deck, shuffled in the centre and laid out under the central map of islands gameplay will continue along. Three cards are taken from the top of the deck and placed in the three areas marked under the map.
Brilliantly, this pirate game's rules declare that whoever last drank rum is the first player, and gives them the pirate hat token and the parrot. The parrot is an especially handsome cardboard stand-up of a bird, and can change hands during the course of play. His role is to act as a tiebreaker, but you'll find that people just want to have the parrot anyway. He's adorable.
The goal of the game is to amass the most glory, represented by stars on the various cards you'll be picking up. This can come through rare rums, fine treasures or even rarer relics, which have multiple copies scattered through the deck – points are often multiplied the more of the same relic you obtain, so consider your combos carefully.
The lovely chunky coin pieces will also contribute glory at the end of a game when the points are totted up, so definitely accumulate as much wealth as you can carry. Coins come in three flavours – gold, silver and bronze – and have numbers on to help you see at a glance what amounts to what. Bronze coins are worth one point, silver are worth three and gold are worth five.
Gameplay can look difficult to newcomers, but that's not the case – it's only because a set-up board of Sea of Clouds looks like no other game around. The flow of a turn is beautifully easy, but also how cunning and strategy starts entering play.
On your turn, you will take the first of the face-down cards under the map board. You'll consider if you want it – it could be a crewman with an ability for combat (which comes later), a relic for your fledgling collection, a bottle of rum that's worth glory at the end of the game and worth keeping on hand, a treasure or even a secret. The secrets come into play at the end of the game and are concealed from all other players, often giving advantages or multipliers to tilt the odds at the last moment.
Other cards are ability cards or curses, but those are clearly marked as to how they function and add a wildcard element to play. For the sake of examples, let's say that you don't want the first card that comes up – a bottle of rather poor rum. You put that card back and lay another card atop it from the top of the big deck, thereby potentially giving the players that follow you two cards to consider. You consider the second card under the map, and if you take it, it's added to your collection, otherwise you lay a deck card atop it as before. That proceeds to the third and final card, if you rejected the other two – and if you don't want that, you have to take whatever the top card of the deck is without any comebacks.
It's a simple premise, but often decks under the map board build up enticingly as your fellow players reject what they offer. If you want a chosen deck when your turn next comes around, you get to take all the cards from it, meaning that choosing whether to take the first cards along or push your luck for later treasures becomes a fine balance.
Either way, your board is clearly marked as to where around your character you lay these cards – and you need to make sure you're balancing treasures and relics for the end-game, rum for likewise, and crewmen for combat. Talking of which...
Sea of Clouds' combat is marked by clashing sabres in the centre of the map board, with every resolved round of turns inching the voyage closer to a skirmish. When combat occurs, larger crews tend to win out, simply because combat is resolved by comparing the numbers on each of your crewmens' cards with your opponents'.
Interestingly, it's set-up like an actual ship battle. You resolve combat scores versus the player on your right and on your left – or port and starboard. That means that in a four player game, the player sitting directly opposite you, face to face, will never face you in combat. It's an interesting touch and another reason why you always have to keep an eye on what your opponents are doing.
Winning combatants resolve the rulers printed on their victorious crewmens' cards, often meaning they get to pilfer coins and rum from the loser. They might also get prize money from the bank. There are several skirmish opportunities on the game map, and one right at the end of the voyage, so long term strategies are possible – providing the card decks provide you with the crew you need. And then of course, you need to consider if you're being too gung-ho and not finding relics of your own...
Ending the voyage - Sea of Clouds
Once the islands of the map have been charted in a series of card-contemplating hijinks peppered with occasional cannonfire, your reach the end of the game – and are asked to tot up the glory you've accumulated on your splendid sojourn.
This is often as simple as adding the clearly marked starry numbers on each card, and adding the relic multipliers if you've played an especially savvy game. Secrets cards also get revealed though, so it could be that the player who gathered the most rum cards or the most relics or the most moolah gets added bonuses to the final score. Whoever has the highest glory score wins.
Sea of Clouds has simple card drafting, push your luck gameplay styles that mesh well with its need for long term thinking and strategy against the odds. You're balancing a lot of values – treasure, glory, combat capability – but it never feels overwhelming, and the mysteries of the card decks are always a joy to plunder.
It comes highly recommended for both long-time board game savants and those looking to get into the hobby for the first time, and games are often resolved well under 30 minutes. You could well find that it becomes a firm favourite among your chosen crew of scallywags.