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Captain's Log

Updated: May 5, 2023

I have a particular fondness for sandbox games. They are certainly the video games I most enjoy (for example, Bethesda Game Studios' Elder Scrolls and Fallout) and I never turn down an opportunity to play Xia: Legends of a Drift System (Far Off Games). The age of sail lends itself well to the sandbox format, and we have already seen other nautically themed sandbox games, most notably Shiver Me Timbers (Weltflucht Verlag). PIF Games' Captain's Log tho' is the closest we've seen yet to a salt sea version of Xia.

The setting is the colonial period of the 16th and 17th centuries. The 1-4 players start off with a basic ship exploring, trading, looking for treasure, evading pirates and hostile ships, or indulging in piracy. You start off with most of the modular board in fog but you can always explore (flip to reveal) a tile that's no more than three hexes from your ship's position, just provided you have a clear line of sight to it. There's no dice rolling for movement: ships all have their own specified movement range. However, the range is modified by your ship's heading (if you want to move in the opposite direction to your ship's heading your range will be reduced accordingly to reflect the manoeuvre). Movement may also be affected by the direction of the wind. On your turn you get either to take two actions, or take one movement and one action.

As you explore and so reveal new tiles, so you'll reveal more islands at which you can trade and pick up missions. The missions, and the 'barrels' you pick up, are similar to their equivalents in Xia, likewise the pursuit of Fame as victory points, and the upgrade paths for your ship, but trade in Captain's Log feels more thematic because your ability to trade will be affected by your reputation with the country of which the island you are visiting is a colony. During the course of the game, your interactions with the British, the French, the Spanish and the Dutch will affect your reputation with each of those countries. Reflecting the period in which the game is set, these naval powers were often at war with each other, so you might well find, for example, than acts of hostility towards one country will boost your reputation with the nation with which they are at war. You'll encounter plenty of 'NPC' (non-player character) ships from the outset; some will simply be merchant vessels plying their trade routes but others will be corsairs that will pursue the vessel that has the lowest reputation with the country under whose flag they sail. And of course some of the ships you encounter will simply be pirates intent on plunder... And because the NPC ships are on the reverse of players' ship cards, there's an inbuilt escalation: as you upgrade your ship, you can expect the NPC ships you encounter also to be stronger.

You can try to accumulate the Fame points you need for victory mainly through trade, and by scooping up the barrel tokens that are revealed on most tiles. More aggressive players may prefer to opt for piracy and sinking other vessels as their route to victory, but even the most pacifist of players will sooner or later find they come into conflict with an enemy (an NPC or another player)... You'll need cannons to attack another ship but, as with movement, the position of your ship is important: your cannon can only fire broadsides (ie: to the left or right of your ship). Players roll 12-sided dice for their cannons. Fire damage (which spreads) will mean cubes placed on the ship from left to right and top down; 'unspecified' damage causes water to enter the ship, from right to left and from the bottom up. These differences are important because all damage affects cannons and trade goods in its path.

You management of the ship then is key to this game - the game is called Captain's Log after all. Where you position your cannons and trade goods can be significant, and the more heavily laden your ship is, as you stock up with trade goods or if water floods in, then the deeper will be the ship's draught. The map tiles include many hexes that represent sand banks, and whether or not you can move into a sand bank hex will depend on the draught of the ship...

Tho' we're surely not alone in noting the several commonalities with Xia, Captain's Log is nowhere near as dependent on luck as its space-faring predecessor. It also has much less downtime: players only carry out two two actions or movements on their turn, so turns are relatively swift. Anastasio Martinez has clearly done a lot of research on the period and it comes through strongly in his design: the historicity adds greatly to the pleasure of the game to make gameplay a truly immersive experience - too much so, you may think, as your ship sinks from being holed below the water line :-)

I've only touched on some of the rules but enough that you'll probably have gathered that Captain's Log is a tad more complex than Xia; but certainly not unmanageably so. And you can approach the complexity incrementally by first mastering the 'standard' game before moving on to the 'expert' rulebook which, amongst other things, introduces boarding of enemy ships.

And because Captain's Log is a sandbox game, players should feel free to mix and match standard and expert rules as they choose. The game has already attracted an enthusiastic following on BoardGameGeek, with several players offering suggested 'house rules' to further tweak the game or deal with queries, including minor points that may have been lost in the translation from the original Spanish. Enjoy!

(Review by Selwyn Ward)

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