DGS Games

GrogHeads Reviews Sovereign of the Sea

Global naval conflict in the Age of Sail? Yes, please! ~

Jim Owczarski, 26 August 2017

The child of many gifts who does not rise to his potential is a cliche.  Now a parent, I find that cliche, when made flesh, to be one of the most frustrating of human experiences.  After all, this is a person you love with all your heart, who you know is capable of remarkable things, and yet, in this moment, for reasons you cannot discern, is just not, well, getting it done.

Thus my summary of Compass Games’ Sovereign of the Sea, an improvisation on the theme of Avalon Hill’s legendary War at Sea that has within it some legitimately fun, if light, game play, but needed more time in development; development that now, unfortunately, is being handled after release.

I begin this review with a measure of caution as this was a game I was predisposed to like.  I’ve written of my regard for War at Sea before and my box opening video made plain my enthusiasm for having these mechanisms brought to the Age of Fighting Sail.  As with all such subjective things, your mileage may vary depending on how frequently you’ve fancied yourself the post captain of a frigate searching for Bonaparte’s fleet.

Or, in this case, a member of the Board of Admiralty coordinating the policy of a major nation as it makes war on the high seas in the era 1756-1805.  The game imagines the players as either the English or the non-English commander of sail-era fleets, moving them over a map of the world.  The English are playing a game of whack-a-mole with their vastly superior fleet, both in terms of number and quality, still unable to be everywhere.  This opens the door to the non-English — French most notably but Dutch and Russian ships both appear — to sneak into various sea areas and claim local naval superiority.  Thus, predominately for them, are victory points earned and the game won.  The English win, again predominately, by pounding on non-English ships.

Quite the footprint.

 

Each turn begins with players resetting their fleets, in secret, using lovely organizational charts.

 

Lovely, if not necessarily well proofed.

 

They are drawn from a pool of ships, the composition of which varies by scenario.  Ships must be placed into fleets and must have commanders in order to make their way through the world.

This fascinating system feels historically correct and is at the heart of the boxing match between the two sides.

Ships are moved over a map of the world divided into sea areas, some larger than others, but each separated by lines formed of symbols that regulate movement.  Reflective of prevailing winds, these symbols allow a fleet to pass without cost or in exchange for a certain number of movement points.  As movement points are scarce, ships won’t get far against the wind.  On the other hand, ships working with the wind can move vast distances.  This fascinating system feels historically correct and is at the heart of the boxing match between the two sides.

Before moving their fleets out, players place frigate counters from a small pool onto sea areas where they want to deploy these resources as an aid to reconnaissance and, more importantly, to forcing your opponent to battle.

When fleets meet, the commanders first Rocham (there’s no third option) by indicating whether they want to fight.  If both want to leave, no fighting occurs.  If both want to fight, they do.  If one wants to fight and another does not, a simple set of die rolls determines the result with the British, understandably, being better at forcing and avoiding fights.  There are counters for this but I quickly abandoned these in favor of hidden hand gestures.

Sea battles feel a whole lot like the grand old dice fests in War at Sea.  Fleets are lined up as deployed on their organizational charts and squared up against their opposite numbers.  If one side has more ships than the other, the extras are allowed to overlap and modify the combat of other ships.

They can get really big…

In an interesting twist, leaders are allowed to influence the combat effectiveness of ships within a certain distance of them in the battle line.  Each ship rolls a certain number of dice looking for what amount to wounds or hits.  Wounds require ships to return to the nearest friendly port, i.e., they may take no further part in the battle.  Hits accumulate until they exceed the defense value of the ship at which point they are compelled to return to the ship pool.  Battles once joined continue until one side is driven from the area.

Trimmed for elegance.

Note that, absent the use of an optional rule, ships are neither sunk nor captured.  This can feel a mite weird, but I’ve not played enough with the optional destruction and capture rules to determine if the overhead they create is worth the effort.  Combats are necessarily highly random with mighty ships being laid low by their inferiors for want of a die roll.

Home ports are untouchable, but, should a fleet find itself alone in a sea zone next to a port at the end of the turn, it can try to take it over for the benefit of wounded and damaged ships.  Each port is listed as having a “first owner” depending on the scenario played.

Game play continues through a set number of turns with the side receiving the most victory points declared the winner and the size of the victory determined by the margin between them.

So why, then, am I all twisted up?  Sounds like a fine game, right?  Well, it is, but…

For North of $80 (MSRP) I would have thought a mounted board at least possible.  This is, however, a quibble.  Less so is the layout which turns certain areas into counter-laden traffic jams.  I gather, just from play, that the designer was trying to make sure all the best-known areas from the epoch appeared, but, taking only the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean as examples, break-out boxes were definitely in order.  I’ve seen on-line comments that suggest he thought so as well.

There’s an ocean there.  Honestly.

And, while I very much like the counters, in the end, the map in its entirety has left me rather flat, although I freely warrant this is subjective.

I will not go into great depth re: my rantings on the rule book.  I’ve made my case fairly, um, directly in the forums.  No gentleman would ignore the fact that the designer has done much to catch up to his errors, notably the weird Pondicherry rule I reference in the above.  However, I continue to insist this rule book is un-artfully drafted, often opaque in its prose, and needed several more rounds in the hands of an editor.  I have played many hundreds of games with difficulties all along the spectrum.  These rules are far too much effort for what this game is.  A comparison to the ruleset that accompanied the game that inspired this one is instructive.

And yet…

As I have said all along, there is a game here well worth liking.  I’ve played it through several times and had great stories to tell at the end.  I shouldn’t have had to read BGG forums and the like to find it, nor have had to read the manual 12 times, but, having done so, I am glad I did.

Those things we’re fond of — children and games — can be that way.


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