Tho' few remember the details of Thomas Jefferson's Barbary War, it involved the first military deployment of the US marines, and many with zero knowledge of relatively obscure 19th Century conflicts will nonetheless recognise the phrase 'Shores of Tripoli' from the Marines' Hymn - essentially the anthem of the US Marine Corps.
There are no end of games about trade in the Mediterranean and, that indeed was actually the background to the First Barbary War. The Barbary States exacted 'tribute' from European and American governments for the 'safe passage' of their merchant vessels. The amounts involved were so great that at their peak, these 'tributes' amounted to 20% of the US government's total revenue! But The Shores of Tripoli is not another 'trade in the Med' pick up and deliver game; it's a very accessible entry-level war game representing the early 19th Century conflict between the nascent US Navy and the pirates of the Barbary Coast (in this game represented as the Tripolitans). It's a cleverly designed asymmetric card-driven game played over six rounds, representing the six years from 1801 to 1806.
The two players each have their own decks from which they draw six cards at the start of each game year. The years are divided into their four seasons, so you each get to play four cards per game year (more where cards are played to be used, for example, as 'battle cards' to give you an advantage in combat).
Each season, you'll play a card from your hand either for its event text or discarded in order to take a basic action. For the US player, the basic actions are either to build a gunboat in Malta or to move two frigates. The Tripolitan player's basic actions are to build a corsair in Tripoli or to carry out a Pirate Raid. The US player wins by either capturing Tripoli or by meeting the specific land and sea objectives dictated by the US Peace Treaty card, which broadly mirrors the terms of the treaty that eventually ended the First Barbary War. In both cases, these victory conditions cannot be met before the game reaches Fall 1805. For the Tripolitan player, however, victory can be claimed sooner, either by sinking four American frigates or by collecting 12 gold through Pirate Raids...
An especially strong feature of Kevin Bertram's elegant game design is that at the start of each game year you know the cards that will be available to you for your next four actions, so you have the opportunity to plan your strategy. That said, it can sometimes call for some painful choices as you decide when best to play a card for its event and whether or not to hold onto cards to use to buff up your combat strength. Several of the cards are powerful but situational: do you hold onto a card whose event cannot be activated for another two game years or do you discard it for an action and hope to get the card back later in the game? You'll certainly have to discard cards to get your frigates out into the naval patrol zones around harbours from which the Tripolitans can launch Pirate Raids. And you'll need to build gunships or you'll be at risk of ceding the game through the loss of frigates.
As in most war games, dice are used in combat but The Shores of Tripoli keeps things simple. Frigates roll two dice to attack and are sunk if they take two hits; other ships roll one die and can take just one hit. Dice hit on a roll of 6. If a frigate takes only one hit, it is removed for the rest of that game year but is, in effect, repaired to come back into service at the start of the next game year. Pirate Raids are similarly resolved by dice: notionally the Tripolitan player seizes a US merchant ship (ie: collects one gold) on a roll of 5 or 6. If the US player has ships in the naval patrol zone from which the Tripolitan is raiding then the pirate corsairs first have to make it past the naval blockade: the US player rolls dice to intercept and try to sink the pirate ships...
Shores of Tripoli involves some land forces and naval bombardment as well as the ship-to-ship combat. There's a strong hand and card management element along with the deployment tactics, especially as some cards are removed from the game when used other than as discards; discarded cards can potentially recycle.
Tho' the game is played on a slightly stylised long map board showing eight harbours, five naval patrol zones and only a handful of land areas, the cards give players a good sense of the history so that we certainly got swept up in the theme: kudos here to artists Cat Bock, Marc Rodrigue and Matthew Wallhead. The game plays briskly: our plays at Board's Eye View all took less than an hour so, ideally, you can play this through then swap sides for a rematch. As an added bonus, Fort Circle Games have incorporated additional cards and rules for solo play: US against a Tripolitan Bot.
The mechanic of using cards either for their event or action will strike a chord with those who've grown up playing the now classic Cold War game Twilight Struggle (GMT). If you like that mechanic, then you should certainly check this game out. And if you're a seasoned war gamer, The Shores of Tripoli could be a great way of easing less experienced players into the genre.
(Review by Selwyn Ward)