More and more I have come to appreciate board games that introduce me to new subject matters and historical events, where Nights of Fire: Battle for Budapest and 1565, St. Elmo’s Pay stands out as some of the most interesting and engaging solitaire gaming experiences of this year. Therefore, I was excited to take a closer look at The Shores of Tripoli, a board game from first-time designer Kevin Bertram and publisher Fort Circle Games that chronicles the first Barbary Wars between the United States Navy and the pirates of the titular city.
Full disclosure: a review copy of The Shores of Tripoli was kindly provided by publisher Fort Circle Games.
For at first time publisher, I have to say that I am fairly impressed with the level of component quality and attention to detail that Fort Circle Games has poured into The Shores of Tripoli. Featuring a nice, sturdy main board and custom shaped wooden tokens representing the various ships that participated in naval combat the game does look very pretty when presented on the table. I also thoroughly enjoyed the included “historical supplement & designer’s notes” booklet which chronicles key events during each year of the conflict along with comments regarding the process of designing the game. But in terms of component quality the unquestionable pièce de résistance of The Shores of Tripoli is the artwork in the form of historical paintings that adorn each and every card of the game. Much like 1565, St. Elmo’s Pay from publisher Hall Or Nothing Productions, The Shores of Tripoli is a war game that is as enjoyable to play as it is aesthetically pleasing.
THE SOLITAIRE EXPERIENCE
“Upon hearing this reply, Sterett hauled down the British colors, which he had been sailing under in order to deceive any potential threats, and raised the American flag, firing muskets into the Tripoli.”
The Shores of Tripoli chronicles the conflict that transpired in the early years of the 19th Century on the high seas of the coast of north Africa between the United States and her ally Sweden against the pirate collation known as the Barbary states. The Shores of Tripoli is a card-driven design similar to Twilight Struggle and 1960: The Making of the President, where cards are played either for their special ability alternatively discarded as currency to perform actions like move units or build new ships. When playing the game solitaire, you always take on the role of the United States whereas the automated opponent assumes the role of the Tripolitan faction. Even though the solitaire player only has the option to play as the United States the gameplay and structure remains unaltered when compared to the multiplayer experience, a design choice that I personally really appreciate.
The game is played over a series of rounds, each representing a year of the Barbary Wars which is divided into four seasonal turns. Because the game is built upon a foundation of playing a single card and possibly performing a corresponding event the flow of The Shores of Tripoli is incredibly straight-forward, where turns are executed in no time at all whilst simultaneously providing an engaging experience in no small part due to how the game manages to recreate its historical backdrop. Playing as the United States you really get a sense of the struggles that the nation was facing during the early stages of the war, trying to expand the scope of the naval fleet whilst simultaneously patrolling the seas in an attempt to intervene with the pirate raids proved to be a difficult equation to say the least which The Shores of Tripoli conveys beautifully.
The automated opponent makes use of the same deck of cards as one would when playing the Tripolitan faction, albeit with some slight modifications. Rather than simply drawing cards blindly from the deck and resolving accordingly, your artificial adversary instead employs two distinct rows of cards to determine its course of action. The first is known as the Event card line, these specific cards are the main source for determining what action the automated opponent is attempting to perform. Starting from the far left of the line each card will be checked, if the requirements are met then the solo bot will play that card on its turn. On the other hand, if the card in question does not match the current state of the game the bot will instead progress to the next card in the line trying to find a suitable candidate to play.
Only when reaching the literal end of the line will the automated opponent draw a card from the corresponding deck and resolve its effect, again while implementing slight modifications to certain cards which are listed in the solo section of the rulebook. The second row is known as the Battle card line, as the title suggests these are activated during specific key events or situations which might allow the automated opponent to roll additional dice whilst performing raids or providing leverage against the United States during combat resolutions.
The thing about the solitaire aspect of The Shores of Tripoli that I find quite fascinating is how the implementation of knowing beforehand the key actions of the automated opponent still manages to produce a gaming experience filled with tension and uncertainty. In some ways it almost reminds me of playing a game of chess, where the opening move may be the same from game to game, but the end state will vary considerably. In The Shores of Tripoli the variation and to no small extent randomness originates from the fact that conflict is resolved primarily through rolling dice. Now, depending on your viewpoint the idea of rolling dice to determine the outcome of combat in a board game may be a blessing or a curse. As for me I find myself somewhere in the middle. There have been several instances where I would attack with a fairly impressive armada and could not roll a six to save my life simply as a result of the whims of Lady Luck not being in my favour. At the same time, I acknowledge that his element of randomness prevents The Shores of Tripoli from becoming a series of scripted moves especially given how many of the actions of the automated opponent is public information. In that perspective the act of rolling dice to resolve combat adds a much-needed counterbalance of unpredictability one would associate with the experience of playing against a real-life opponent.
For a first-time design, The Shores of Tripoli managed to pleasantly surprise me in more ways than one. It is the sort of solitaire game that manages to strike a finely tuned balance between accessible rules versus depth and nuance which rewards repeated plays. Even though a significant portion of The Shores of Tripoli can be perceived as somewhat swingy at times due to how combat is resolved the game still manages to provide an engaging experience from start to finish. Having played and thoroughly enjoyed my time with this game I am interested to see in which direction author Kevin Bertram will continue to evolve as a board game designer. If you are someone like me who is new to war games and wants to take your first steps of exploration into this genre, then I highly recommend taking a closer look at The Shores of Tripoli from publisher Fort Circle Games.