(Note: I am creating the “Seeing-Stone” category to indicate articles that focus primarily on encounter deck design.)
Warning, spoilers ahoy! (See what I did there?) Friday I finally got to sit down and break out the first quest in the Grey Havens box, Voyage Across Belegaer. Over the course of the evening, I played it three times with my buddy M, beating it on the final attempt. And can I just say…I cannot remember the last time I had this much fun with a quest out of the box. There has been a bit of grumbling on various forums in recent years that the average board state is getting more complicated, and I was worried that adding ships to the mix was going to be trouble for my poor brain, but I am happy to report that this is not the case.
Ships fit rather elegantly into the design-space of the game, acting as objective-allies with only a few simple rules about how they interact with heroes, allies, and other ships. This quest also features the Boarding X keyword. When an enemy ship engages you, you check its boarding number, and then put that many pirates from the Corsair deck into play engaged with you too. These boarding parties introduce another element of surprise in the game, since you never know exactly which pirates are going to jump into your staging area. Sometimes you get weeny pirates, and sometimes an Umbar Captain leaps aboard your ship.
While each pirate functions a little differently, these scurvy sea dogs are never in the staging area, which helps each player track their effects, since they are right in front of your face. There’s a real thrill as you engage in combat with a Corsair boarding party and try to sink their ship at the same time.
The other element introduced in the quest is the Sailing test. Simply put, before you even commit characters to the quest, you move the Heading card (which shows an “on-course” symbol and three worsening “off-course” symbols) one step off-course, then exhaust a number of characters, who are dedicating their efforts to manning the tiller, sails, etc. You then discard that number of cards from the top of the encounter deck, hunting for a Sailing symbol in the bottom left corner. For each symbol you find, you can adjust your Heading one step closer to on-course. Since the strength of your sailing is not based on a stat, but on the number of characters committed, Voyage Across Belegaer rewards you for bringing a large “crew,” that is, a deck with a number of low-cost allies who can just sail the darn ship while other allies and heroes focus on questing, attack, defense.
When laid out all together, ships, Boarding, and Sailing seems like a lot to remember, but the ships are merely new allies, Boarding only happens during engagement, and Sailing is a simple check resolved before questing. There’s a simplicity and elegance to these new elements which doesn’t tax the brain (unlike Time counters, which always felt to me like balancing your checkbook at the end of a round!). Most importantly to me, these three new wrinkles give you a real sense of story. When M and I spotted a Corsair Scout Ship in the staging area, the “Boarding 1” keyword let us know that there were only a few pirates aboard (but which one? we wondered). When the Corsair War Ship arrived on the horizon, we trembled, since it was full of bad guys (“Boarding 3”!). Rather than engage it, we ducked into a Fog Bank and tried to lose it.
Maybe the best moment of the night, however, was when Amarthuil, charged up with Steward of Gondor and Gondorian Fire, sunk an enemy light cruiser with one mighty blow. How did that happen, you wonder? Look at the card art for Gondorian Fire; he lit that sucker on fire. Yeah, that’s right, Corsairs. Flee or burn!
My final verdict: Voyage Across Belegaer introduces three new elements to the game, and they jive in such a way that my enjoyment of the game grew immensely. Sailing checks, boarding parties, locations that represent storms, waterspouts, and dense banks of fog…I could not be happier with where this cycle is headed. Cheers to the design team, especially Matt Newman, who is listed as the lead designer. Our voyage through the cycle has only begun, but it promises to be an exciting adventure.
Until next time, mára mesta: good journeys!