Monday, July 25, 2016

Partly Cloudy

In the recently released board game Sea of Clouds, each player is the captain of a pirate ship, sailing from island to island is search of relics, rum, and new crew. I had a chance to try the game recently, and had a mixed reaction at best.

The game unfolds over a prescribed number of rounds. About one-third of the way through (and again, at the two-thirds mark, and at the end), you clash 7 Wonders style with the players on your immediate left and right. Each of the crew cards you've acquired adds to your battle strength; if you defeat a neighbor, each of those same crew cards provides its own reward for victory. You also have to keep an eye on end-game scoring, which comes primarily from two sources: gathering relics (an open set collection mechanic) and hording rum (a hidden information collection mechanic).

How you acquire your crew, relics, rum, and other cards is where the game is hoping to hook you. Three face down cards start off in three numbered locations. When it's your turn, you look at card #1. If you want it, you take it (and refill the slot with a card from the deck). If you don't want it, you add a new face down card to it (without looking), then proceed to look at Card #2 and repeat the process. If nothing in slots 1, 2, or 3 suit your tastes, you get the top card of the deck -- and because the card backs of each card type are distinct, that's not necessarily a total shot in the dark.

One player's trash is another player's treasure. When your turn comes, each rejection from an opponent has sweetened the pot. There may be two cards now in slot #1... and if you reject them, it will gain a third for the next player to consider. Each slot can hold three cards before the bribes start coming in the form of money -- 1 gold piece added to the three cards with each rejection.

It's an interesting "draft" mechanic, but I'm unsure how well the card set itself actually supports that mechanic. It feels as though a lot of the cards in the deck are negative. There are loads of hot potatoes you don't want to be stuck with, and all of the relics you collect actually start with a negative point value -- you have to get sets of them going before they flip around and become worth something. Avoiding a bad outcome doesn't strike me as nearly as compelling a decision as choosing between two good outcomes. And taking a bullet to stop the plans of an opponent is more palatable when it's simply "not as good for you"; here you have to put yourself in the hole relative to all players just to slow down the perceived leader.

The theme is also a bit hit-and-miss in this game. And while that's not normally a super-important consideration for me, I thought it significant enough to mention here. The cards are certainly filled with images of enough parrots, rum, treasures, and scurvy dogs to convey "pirate." But it feels like a thin and sometimes unfitting veneer on the game's mechanics at large. And worth noting, I only found out in preparing this review that the game is called Sea of Clouds because you're supposed to be in flying pirate ships; nothing overt in the game's visuals actually conveyed that element. (Even the front of the box is pretty subtle.)

The game's drafting mechanic is intriguing, but not by enough. Other games feel close to it, from Puerto Rico's "bribe the untaken jobs" system, or any game where opponents draft cards from your rejects (Notre Dame comes to mind, though there are a great many). So as a whole, Sea of Clouds just doesn't stand out as something I'd be eager to try again. I give the game a C+.

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