Hands in the Sea Review Hot

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MattDPMattDP   November 28, 2016  
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There's little sadder than finding out a favourite toy is broken. So it was with A Few Acres of Snow. After enjoying a few months in the gaming limelight, someone found out it was bust. If you don't know why it's bust you're best left in ignorance so we'll not elaborate. Suffice to say that even the designer agreed and proclaimed the game impossible to fix. And so a promising new avenue of deck-building design turned out to be a short cul-de-sac of disappointment. We all moved on.

All except for Daniel Berger.

Daniel essentially rebuilt A Few Acres of Snow, added a few new systems and moved it back about two thousand years to the First Punic War. It's a surprisingly good fit. What the two conflicts had in common was their drawn out, scrappy nature. The powers involved were unwilling to throw their full might into the fray. Instead they preferred to nibble at one another's dominions, hoping to gain a long-term advantage in territory or trade.

Most of the systems that made the original game so thrilling and still intact, and still so thrilling. Each side starts with a deck of cards, most of which represent the towns that begin under that player's control. These location cards show which other locations they're connected to on the board and whether that connection is by land or sea. To do something, you play a connected location and another card with a cart or ship icon to represent the transport. That's enough to settle an uncontrolled town. 

Sometimes you have to add a third card to the mix. To attack, you add one with a sword icon, for example, or to settle a more populous area, you need a colonist. When you take a location, you add its card to your deck, right out of your opponent's hand if need be. Even that this most basic level, it's a brilliant system that offers lots of simulation for next to nothing. As you expand, your deck bloats and you find it harder to do things: just like the logistics trying to run an increasingly large empire.

Yet it also fuels the fires of tension beneath each player. Your hand consists of five cards and to get more, you have to play or discard what you have. Trying to churn through your deck to get the right combinations feels like racing to find a prize in a tub of sawdust. Combat piles an additional pressure into the mix. Players attack and defend with sword cards, attempting to gain enough of a lead for an instant victory. But, of course, you have to have the swords in your hand to play them. There's a reserve where you can store cards, but the excitement of waiting to see who'll collapse first can be excruciating.

All the more so, because when things go wrong it's usually your fault. For all the thrills of pulling cards, it's very much a game that rewards planning and strategy. And there are so many strategies on offer! You can go toe-to-toe in traditional battles. Or recruit cavalry and use them to burn down enemy towns before settling on the ashes yourself. Or raise a pirate fleet and pillage all your opponent's money. Or build unassailable cities and fortifications to win a fast economic victory. Or use a flotilla of warships to cut supply lines and watch your foes territory wither and die. 

In truth, you'll probably end up doing most of these things in a single game. Each approach has a counter, and as each player begins to focus on a strategy it becomes a game of cat and mouse. Bolstering your deck with the cards you need to stymie the other player will, in turn, lead you to change your own plans. Strategizing becomes a living monster, snapping on your table, both players trying to pin it to the board without getting bitten. It's an absorbing dance that can make the 2-3 hour play time feel like a half hour. A half hour of tortuous brilliance.

Still, another monster is hovering close by through your first few games. It's the monster of fixed strategy, the one that ate A Few Acres of Snow. Hands in the Sea has a couple of clever tricks to keep it at bay. First, each player can buy and hold a strategy card from a limited selection that changes every so often. These don't go in your deck but instead offer a long-term, powerful effect that needs to dovetail with your overall strategy. Rome, for instance, can get a card that lets them double the rate of their ship building. Or either player might grab Siege Warfare, which makes it easier to beat otherwise impregnable fortifications. Because these cards change each game and contribute strongly to strategy, it's much harder to settle on a fixed approach. It's a great system that works well to keep each session fresh.

The other bulwark against boredom is our old friend randomness. There are random events every so often, and they can be catastrophic. The affected player gets determined by a dice roll, with some cards more likely to hit one player than the other. Storms at Sea will sink an unlucky player's entire navy, and that unlucky player will be Rome two thirds of the time. Speaking of navies, fleet combat is the other area where dice rule. Each ship rolls a dice and sinks an enemy vessel on a five or six. That makes it quite possible for sea battles, like land ones, to last several turns. But it also makes it possible for one bad fistful of rolls to scupper all your ships.

This is the price you pay for overcoming the flaws inherent to the system. It can be flip-the-board frustrating, especially after you've put in lots of effort to make your strategy engine work. The design, however, does at least offer plenty of opportunities to come back from the brink. Achieving a truly decisive action is hard, and it doesn't take that many turns to rebuild a navy, or refill your reserve or thin your deck. There's always a chance to come back, although it gets increasingly remote as the end of the game draws closer. There are other costs, too. Hands in the Sea is longer and more complex than A Few Acres. An issue which is compounded by a dreadful rulebook.

Which begs the question of whether it's worth paying these prices to play. To which my answer is an overwhelming yes. Hands in the Sea has taken over life in a way few games have. My regular opponent and I end every session by making a date to play again. Then we fill the intervening time plotting strategies, before watching it all fall to pieces on the board. The remainder we spend circling each other, like knife fighters with cardboard knives, trying to reclaim a victory from the scraps. It's addictive and brilliant, and Martin Wallace ought to be approve of it wholeheartedly.

Posted: 28 Nov 2016 11:25 by Unicron #239254
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Great review, Matt! It's a great game about everybody's second favorite Punic War that has received very mixed reviews from folks I've played with. I would advise anyone playing with new players, to double check the starting decks before every play. It seems like everytime we finished a game, someone removed a vital starting card and place it in the empire deck.
Posted: 28 Nov 2016 12:15 by MattDP #239262
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Unicron wrote:
Great review, Matt! It's a great game about everybody's second favorite Punic War that has received very mixed reviews from folks I've played with. I would advise anyone playing with new players, to double check the starting decks before every play. It seems like everytime we finished a game, someone removed a vital starting card and place it in the empire deck.

All the starting cards in my copy are marked with an "S" so it's not too hard to check whether you've got everything you ought to have.

I'd be interested to know what negative things the folks you've played with have to say about this game?
Posted: 28 Nov 2016 17:03 by Unicron #239305
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They are marked with an "S", but opponents routinely return the starting legion and merchant cards to the empire deck and occasionally a starting location is left out (namely a green or gold location card). I played my first game as Rome without knowing that I had a starting legion, because my first four games were as Carthage.

Of my three opponents, only one enjoyed the game. Battles too often favored the defender or were just draws. There is a lot to like about the game, but I'm not having much luck finding opponents.
Posted: 28 Nov 2016 17:51 by Scott_F #239310
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I'm one of the opponents and have played 3 times total. Each time I found the game less fun.

First game we played and used the rule wrong that fights start out at the 0 space instead of the -1 space on the track - we both liked the 0 spot better than -1 since planning to win a fight takes so long to do and already at the 0 is enough of a defensive advantage. Thats an easy one to fix, just start all fights at 0 instead of -1.

Next I found the importance of pillaging using navies super frustrating once one player has a decisive naval advantage. There are two strategy cards that help out in sea fights, one adds +2 dice and the other is Roman only and allows use of heavy infantry. Oh and one other card that discards an opponent card on a successful pillage. So these are a big deal and if either player has one of them can be pretty strongly abused. Once one player has a significantly larger navy, they can camp a spot, either Sicily or Sardinia, and pillage the opponent to keep them poor and force them to build up navies. Then the huge naval fight occurs and luck determines the outcome, but odds are the larger force wins. And will chase down the smaller force to destroy it again. Then the winner continues to pillage and keep the opponent poor. This is even with the option rule of applying maintenance costs to strategy cards. Meanwhile the loser slowly puts together a new navy because there is nothing else they can do; no money means no new cards means no upgrading the deck or even paying for the cards in the reserve to attack or defend in fights. The last game I played I literally spent a full hour doing nothing but buying more ships and cycling my deck for colonists and money cards that I happen to draw on the same turn, then badly losing a naval fight, then doing it again for another few turns before resigning. I'll admit I probably am doing something wrong strategy wise, but as Carthage money is pretty tight and once Rome has a naval advantage and continues to pillage and reduce your VPs I couldn't figure out what else to do. Yes there is one strategy card that forces an opponent to pay for pillaging, but I don't have the money to buy it or my opponent can just buy and discard it instead.

Overall my bigger problem with the game is that I feel like I have very few choices each turn. To attack you need to buy the generals for that free action, plan the route and possibly even the colonist all to do one thing. Likewise upgrading navies requires colonists and money and a ship icon to pillage...there are a lot of icons that you have to lineup in advance of your turn to do this one thing. I didn't enjoy the limitations this puts on me each turn, especially in a deck system where my draws are not reliable although this did improve in later plays once we focused more on deck thinning. In contrast, other games that I really enjoy give a number of options each turn. Argent, Study in Emerald, Glory to Rome, Pax Porfiriana all offer me many choices, just not all equal each turn. In HitS I don't feel like I have the same opportunity because it takes so long to do seemingly essential things, like build ships or settle a neighboring city.

And this isn't to say that I don't see a couple great ideas in Hands in the Sea. The strategy cards (with maintenance costs) are really powerful and should help change your strategy as the game goes on. The round ending with one player exhausting his deck is great, it gives them either a gas or break pedal. Just my opinion after 3 games.
Posted: 28 Nov 2016 22:17 by KingPut #239324
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Great review Matt. You caught my exact feelings of playing A Few Acers of Snow and disappointment of finding out it was broken. Hopefully nobody will find the Hammer for Hands in the Sea. I'm looking forward to trying it out soon.
Posted: 29 Nov 2016 04:32 by MattDP #239335
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Scott_F wrote:
I'll admit I probably am doing something wrong strategy wise, but as Carthage money is pretty tight and once Rome has a naval advantage and continues to pillage and reduce your VPs I couldn't figure out what else to do.

I agree this exact situation is problematic. However, to get and maintain a decisive naval advantage, Rome really needs to have one of the three naval strategy cards. So it doesn't arise that often. We've actually had the Carthage player use an action to clear the strategy offer when one of the cards comes up to stop the Roman player getting it.

It also means that Rome doesn't have another strategy card. So a possible counter is for the Carthage player to forget about the navy and choose a land-based strategy instead. War Elephants can be terrifying in concert with the card that gives +1 to all dice rolls (and that helps the navy too). Rome doesn't have such a significant military advantage that they can't be beaten by a Carthage player with the right combination of cards. And by the time Rome has a naval advantage, Carthage often has a significant VP lead from the early game, so it's about clinging on through the end game.

But in short, you make good points, and I agree. Especially about the problem of a naval imbalance. I guess I just see them as much more minor issues that don't arise that often.
Posted: 04 Dec 2016 00:47 by KingPut #239736
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Me and Wkover played Hand in the Sea tonight for the first time. I played Carthage, Wkover played Rome. Close game but 8 straight random event went against Rome. The biggest one ended up being Rome had to lose their Greek ally strategy card (+2 navies). From their I destroyed the Rome Navy and was able to take over all of Sardina and Corsica while I held him in check in Sicily by building fortresses.

I'm so glad somebody decided to fix one of Martin Wallace's half baked ideas. So many of Wallace's games are 80% brilliant and just feel it needs a little more play testing to make the game a classic. Hands in the Sea has it's many issues, including folding the board but hopefully other game designers will attempt to fix other broken Martin Wallace games.
Posted: 28 Dec 2016 15:03 by airjudden #241426
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It is difficult for Rome to "pillage away" since a ship icon is needed to pillage and the only Roman location cards with a ship icon are Neapolis, Rhegium, Syracuse, and Pisa (assuming they get the last two). There are ways to counter the pillage, such as the location card, a fortification card, or the Trireme card. But my simple solution is that if Rome wants to play at sea, I play at land. Get the elephants and Libyan Spearman and make a bold move on Syracuse. I have seen Rome control the sea and Carthage dominate Sicily, which equates into a Carthaginian victory.

Carthage is not at a disadvantage financially. They are at a disadvantage on developing, but they have other ways to make money. The trick to this game is understanding how to counter every strategy and I find most players simply do not know how to do it.

One more thing to keep in mind. If you don't want your opponent getting a certain strategy card, use the cycle action.

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