I wonder how the crew at Leder Games feel about every asymmetric post-2018 game being directly compared to Root. Cole Wehrle’s bellwether design has become the genre reference point, for better or for worse. Here though, it’s totally appropriate.
A competitive bout between anthropomorphs. Check.
Asymmetric factions with unique player boards and distinct mechanisms. Check.
Kyle Ferrin’s lovely artwork. Check-amundo.
The only thing missing is Cole Wehrle’s name on the box. Well, and a rich sandbox of emergent political dramatization that begs years of exploration. We will get to that.
Ahoy is a Leder Games production helmed by Greg Loring-Albright. It’s a pleasant, low overhead affair focused upon a struggle of dominance. The Bluefin Squadron is a league of sharks, a toothy cruel bunch that swims the seas and defers to the strength of their mighty flagship. They are the most violent and capable faction in this ocean. Their eternal foes are the deadly-cute Mollusk Union. These buggers rise from the depths to occupy the various islands in the region. They are protected by their small fleet of swift vessels and sheer cunning.
This feels like the heart of Ahoy. Two players, locked in an area majority battle of controlling ocean tiles. It’s a dynamic struggle with players utilizing dice placement on their personal boards to trigger both generic and faction-specific actions. The sharks are bullies, able to thrash the mollusks when they dedicate themselves to it. However, the invertebrates can turn the tables quickly through the use of their Plan cards. These can trigger unexpected ambushes or even bring additional ships into play, such as their swift cutter. The Union also spreads relentlessly, popping up all over the damn place faster than anyone can snuff them out. They’re ancient and the ocean is their home. It certainly feels that way.
And Ahoy functions fine as a two-player game. I wouldn’t claim it special or particularly noteworthy. It’s certainly no Root.
But that’s not really Ahoy. It comes to life when you add in the third faction, the Smugglers. By design, these scallywags have their own thing going on. Their premise is a relatively straightforward pick-up-and-deliver framework.
One odd thing about the smuggler role is that it’s occupied by two participants when playing with four people. The two smugglers are not on the same side and they each have their own ship and score their own victory points. Their player boards are identical and they function in the same role from a systems perspective. It’s odd in that it undermines the asymmetry proposition, but it does work to streamline the rules overhead. I’ve found this to work well enough in practice, altering the tempo of play in various ways but still hanging together in terms of balance and engagement. You may feel a little less special sharing a mechanical base with another participant, but that’s a minor complaint and one which most will overcome.
But back to smuggling. There is a public row of face-up crew cards that anyone can acquire. They offer new abilities such as hopping between islands or ignoring damage when you sail through wreckage. But they also function as cargo. Smugglers can pick up this cargo at specific islands and are then tasked with delivering the goods to another landmass. The randomness of this card market has a large impact on play, however, which is the roughest spur of this game. At times it can feel far too random relative to the experience’s integrity and strategic intentions.
But the actual process of attaining cargo and delivering it is about as simple as it gets conceptually.
Much of this game is simple and direct, actually. It’s very much intended as an accessible presentation of asymmetric design principles. Anyone would admit that Root is intimidating. Many flounder in the learning game, forever put off by the challenge of internalizing their faction’s process, much less the notion of formulating competent strategic thought. Even worse, it’s difficult to teach, placing a rather large burden on the instructor to guide and support several different sets of isolated yet interdependent systems.
Ahoy succeeds in this simplification. It manages to include enough detail and flair to provide distinct faction-specific mechanical silos, but each is quickly understood, and the bulk of playtime will be spent on strategic maneuvering.
By reducing the complexity found in the various singular processes of Root’s incredible faction spread, Ahoy manages a more friendly and accessible game. It has a different tone, one more playful and airy. It also sacrifices the rich exploration of system buried beneath the charming surface of its predecessor. Root feels like a game that can be studied. Its themes and mechanisms stand up to academic scrutiny and deserve such engagement. Ahoy feels a little more common. A little more mundane.
It doesn’t lack identity, however.
Ahoy is defined by its liminal state, bridging area control fundamentals with adventure game precepts. Part of this is in the merchant role of the Smuggler. This position is free, able to sail and go wherever they like. The Bluefins and Mollusks are not caged, but they must attend to each other’s aggression and challenge their foe’s holdings if they want to achieve success. They are directly tethered to the board state and forced to fight over key locations.
It’s not just smuggling that captures a sense of adventure, however. All factions will explore and build the map. You will find neat locales, such as scattered harbors that allow you to repair and refit on the fly, or swathes of junk that will chip away at your hull but offer loot if you choose to brave it.
The focus on a single primary ship for each faction is also relevant. The sharks scatter their little fins across the map and build the occasional fort, just as the mollusk comrades rise from the ocean and dwell upon islands, but you don’t really feel a sense of embodiment in those extraneous pieces. They’re tools at your disposal. Organs to keep your body in motion. When evaluating our sense of self, our spleen isn’t part of our identity. Our self is centered in consciousness, and in Ahoy, our consciousness is our wooden flagship.
This is really the game’s big idea. The only other design that approaches this philosophy is Ryan Laukat’s Empires of the Void II, which similarly expressed an entangled relationship between area control and adventure. This intriguing blend feels more personal and there’s a stronger sense of connection. It’s very different than controlling a political revolution or a squawking hegemony. It also cleverly parallels the game’s concept of reduction and narrowed focus. Ahoy certainly teeters more towards area control, while I’d say Empires of the Void slides more strongly towards the adventure game genre.
The challenge of this design is in not allowing the adventure game conceits to thwart the sense of interdependence that Leder Games asymmetric designs are known for. This nearly occurs with the Smuggler, a faction that can almost entirely ignore the other players. One really satisfying mechanism, however, is in how these roles interface.
This is my favorite bit of the entire game. When smugglers deliver cargo to an island they of course score some fame and earn other rewards. It’s their primary task and the core of their gameplay loop. But it also increases the wealth of the isle. This directly translates into additional victory points being awarded to the shark or mollusk player that controls the tile in each subsequent round.
What this means in practice is that the smuggler must be careful. They don’t want to prop up one side of the map where the Bluefins have dug in, for instance. They also likely want to spread out their shipping lanes and really scoot about the board. There is a sense of restriction based on what cargo is available, but that offers the chief tradeoff they must consider.
How this affects the board state though is sublime. It creates hotspots of activity and provides for a different feel session to session. This rising prosperity tends to cascade as points explode and the game ends faster than you’d expect – much like Root – but it feels as though the landscape itself is altered over the arc of play, as if wealth is another element of terrain that must be considered strategically. It’s wonderful.
The more I’ve played Ahoy the more I’ve come to the comfortable conclusion that this is a microcosm of Root, a specific instance of that title’s motley game state. You see, each play of Root can feel substantially different. It entirely depends on the faction-set you’ve chosen and how they interact. There’s a central core, enforced by the Reach system. This ensures there are at least two heavyweight and aggressive roles to present a backbone of conflict for everything else to be layered atop.
We have that in Ahoy.
The heart of this game is knotted to the Bluefins and Mollusks locked in strife. They’re the equivalent of the Marquise battling the Eyrie. The Smugglers in Ahoy feel very much like Vagabonds in Root. In this way, Ahoy feels akin to a tailored Root faction set. A curated situation that you can’t mess up or topple due to poor role selection.
This is the game’s primary strength. It gives it purpose. It makes up for the lack of a vibrant exploratory sandbox. Instead of a vivid Faulkner novel, it’s just the tragic act of Addie Bundren lost in the current. Instead of the entirety of the Apocalypse Now Redux, it’s just the moments where Robert Duvall steals the scene.
Unlike Root, no one will be critiquing or analyzing Ahoy in 20 years’ time. That’s fine. Ahoy knows what it wants to be, and Ahoy embodies it.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.