We always enjoy a good sandbox game where players can explore and set their own course to victory. Xia: Legends of a Drift System (Far Off Games) is always a popular games night choice, even tho' it's a game with a lot of dice-rolling luck. You can detect the influence of Xia and of Merchants & Marauders (Z-Man Games) in Eric and Shannon Geller's design but Quests & Cannons offers a very fresh take on the sandbox game, providing the opportunity for a little more strategy and somewhat fewer vagaries of the dice.
In the nautically themed Quests & Cannons: The Risen Islands, you'll choose a character with a special ability and their own specific starting stats for the ship they command. The characters are drawn from a light fantasy back story that gives players background flavour text but otherwise doesn't overly intrude on the game. And gameplay itself is refreshingly straightforward. On your turn you get to take three actions. For each sail on your ship, you get to add to a move on an action spent on movement. There are different set ups and 'prosperity' (victory point) targets for different player counts (1-6), including team play. However you play tho' you'll be racing to rack up prosperity points by fulfilling Quests and/or by visiting the locations on map cards. Exploring islands earns you Quest cards and the chance to pick up cargo, and Quests will mostly involve pick up and deliver tasks that will have you sailing around the board, navigating the different waters and their hazards while, ideally, completing map card visits on route.
The merchandise you collect in your hold and the cash you earn for being the first to visit an island can also be exchanged for upgrades to your ship; for example, by adding sails or more cargo space. Loot will also likely to give you either a permanent ship upgrade or a helpful single-use bonus. And, of course, there are the cannons...
Every ship starts off with at least one cannon, and more can be added by way of upgrade. Another way of earning victory points is by successfully attacking the ships of other players. You get to roll one regular six-sided die for each cannon, and you score a hit for every 4 pips in your roll. That means that with one die, you'd score a hit on 4, 5 or 6, but with two cannons and two dice you'd be much more likely to score at least one hit and you'd score two hits with a roll of 8 or more; roll two sixes and that'd give you three hits! You earn a prosperity point for dishing out damage but if you manage to sink an opponent's ship (which takes a cumulative total of 5 hits for most characters) then you'll earn three prosperity.
This is where the game dynamics shift with the player count. As you increase the number of players, the prospect of ship-to-ship combat becomes more likely. In, for example, a three-player or three-team game, wearing down the hull of one opponent but not sinking them could be helping the third player by setting them up with an easy target. And firing your cannons exhausts them for the round and expends the dice you roll (the dice are considered ammo and you'll need to buy more) so you need to keep a watchful eye on the status and positions of other ships before you launch into combat.
Set up of the modular board can be initially a little fiddly but the options in the rulebook do illustrate the care that the designer has put into ensuring proper balance for each possible player count or combination. The modular design also means you can modify set up if you choose - for example, to make it initially easier for a younger or less experienced player by giving them more ready access to the islands.
Quests & Cannons delivers a great player experience with a surprisingly light rules overhead. Tho' we've so far been playing only a preview prototype of the game at Board's Eye View, we've been impressed with the clarity of the rulebook. There's attractive art from Lily Yao Lu, Tony 'MrKrane' Carter, Régis Torres, Sita Duncan and Lilia Sitailo, and publishers Short Hop certainly haven't skimped on production quality: note the multilayer player boards. The game is due to come to Kickstarter on 21 September, and we're eager to see the extras and expansions that are promised for the campaign. We'll add a link to the KS when that goes live.