I. Mechanical evolution
In 2013, I played Christian Marcussen and Kasper Aagaard’s Merchants & Marauders exactly one time. I was enthralled. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The game’s open possibility space, the sense of exploration and wonder, the ecological interactions of the players and the non-player governments just set my brain on fire. But my usual gaming groups were not down for something as long or component-heavy as Merchants & Marauders, so my self-imposed design brief when I started working on this game in 2015 was “Merchants & Marauders, but shorter and lighter.”
In 2015, I started making the game that became Ahoy. I ordered square blank tiles from The Game Crafter, spray-painted them blue in my apartment building’s laundry room, and put stickers on them to represent the “terrain” types. I knew 1) that I wanted to make a pirate game, 2) that I wanted it to feature LOTS exploration, and 3) that, based on no information whatsoever, I would use 100 tiles per game kit. I planned to make 3 kits for playtesting, so I ordered and spray-painted 300 tiles. I still have about 250 of them in my attic.
I remember two important design aspects of the first version of Untitled Pirate Game, one of which survived into Ahoy. First, I had the idea to use cards for actions. I started with a standard 52-card deck, and assigned suits: Clubs for cannons, Spades for movement, Hearts for crew, and Diamonds for… something else? I don’t even remember what “crew” did. But I wanted to get right to prototyping, and I knew I had a couple decks of cards. That central action mechanic survived until the game’s Kickstarter attempt, and it provided the architecture that underlies Ahoy’s dice-placement actions.
So, while it doesn’t make a ton of thematic sense that the factions in Ahoy are “exploring the seas” (wouldn’t the Bluefin Squadron already know where the islands are?) it taps into a gameplay element that was really important to me when I was designing. I like to handwave the narrative by saying that of course the seas have always existed in the configuration represented by the tiles, and the players are new recruits / smugglers, mapping the region for themselves for the first time. But it doesn’t really matter—just like in Betrayal, the simple act of moving a piece to the edge and then placing a new tile drives this game on a visceral level.
Of course, placing new tiles means that the board grows, and in my second or third playtest of Untitled Pirate Game, that became a problem. My friend Wes, thrilled with exploration, drove his ship to the edge of the table, and spent the entire rest of the game coming back to the central island to deliver his cargo. “Your pirate game needs hyperspace,” I remember him saying to me, and so, after a few playtests, I re-themed the game.
Hyperspace Smuggler used the conventions of sci-fi to narrativize long-distance fast travel. But since space games are a dime a dozen, I brainstormed with my local game design group (shout out to the Philly Game Makers Guild!) for a few alternate settings to mention in my pitch meetings with publishers. Weird West came up, with mystical gold mines as the hyperspace stand-in, as did high-fantasy wizards riding around on dragons or ships, Earthsea-style. Magic or magitech was always the solution. But that’s not what Nick & co. landed on with Ahoy, and I love the solution that the “Tailwinds” action provides.
Rather than saying “Your ship magically moves waaaay across the board in an impossible amount of time,” as the aforementioned narratives do, Tailwinds says “to your opponents, you appear to have moved waaaay across the board in an impossible amount of time.” This replicates a dynamic central to high-seas stories like Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey/Maturin novels. Without radar or radio communication, age-of-sail ships had to guess at one another’s locations based on their knowledge of time and place of launch, winds, currents, and other conditions. This provides dramatic fuel for an enemy ship to suddenly appear on the horizon, which is exactly what Tailwinds (to my mind) represents.
Nick and the Leder Games team provided numerous insightful edits and re-workings like this, but I’ll leave it to Nick to describe those. I will conclude this section by describing a few more big changes that defined the life of this game as it evolved from Untitled Pirate Game to Hyperspace Smuggler to Ahoy.
The first big change was the introduction of asymmetry. Hyperspace Smuggler began life as a straightforward, symmetric pick-up-and-deliver game. Everyone was a smuggler. The game featured a tile you could discover that would bring a “space pirates” pawn on to the board, and control of this non-player antagonist would pass from player to player. In one two-player test, my friend Ken and I discussed how the space pirates were the most exciting part of the two-player game. “What if somebody just played the space pirates full-time?” I remember him asking.
Rather than a fully asymmetric game, Hyperspace Smuggler now featured one to three smugglers and one space pirate, which was quickly re-themed to the Evil Space Government. I showed this lightly asymmetric game to Jon Gilmour at Unpub 9, just outside of Baltimore, MD and his feedback was simple: “Amp up the asymmetry and show it to Leder Games.” That feedback drove development. I concepted a few ways to do the asymmetry. My first thought was to have all non-government players serve as drifters and space outlaws: smugglers, bounty-hunters, rogue agents, etc. But the existence of an Empire incites Rebellion, and so my four asymmetric roles were Government, Revolution, Smuggler, and Bounty Hunter.
I honed this version of the game in preparation for pitching at PAX Unplugged 2019, including at a local Unpub Mini, where the final, most crucial change was proposed. Unpub All-Star playtesters Jared and Kristi played Hyperspace Smuggler’s 30th numbered iteration, which was (I thought) in final tuning before I ordered some prototypes to give the publishers at PAX. But during the game, they made an important observation: “To the Smugglers, the board is really interesting and varied, but to the Government and Revolution, it’s pretty flat.” Control of each sector (now island) was worth the same amount. We brainstormed for a bit, and I proposed having delivery of cargo impact the value of a sector, stacking poker chips on the tile to indicate its value, but they were hard to parse in a stack. Jared grabbed some spare dice and set them on the tiles, and we played again. This final change, made just a few months before my final pitch, really tipped Hyperspace Smuggler into the game that would become Ahoy. The simple addition of texture to the map just rocketed the interactivity of the game off the charts. That Unpub Mini was my last big playtesting event, so I spent most of the nights between then and PAX Unplugged solo-testing the new game, playing three or four factions on my own in order to balance the point-scoring potential of the factions in this new environment. After tuning the factions, I finally purchased three prototypes to bring to PAX Unplugged. Each one featured a reasonable 12 (not 100!) tiles.
II. See the watery part of the world
I pitched Hyperspace Smuggler to Cole at a table in the PAX Unplugged free play area. “We almost certainly won’t keep the theme,” I remember him saying “but if you’re OK with that, I’d like to take this prototype and play it with the Leder team this weekend.”
I was of course thrilled. It was only the second copy of Hyperspace Smuggler that I’d ever handed over to a publisher. While I had no idea at the time that the game would become a pirate game, that setting was the game’s original instantiation (as I detail above). Tall ships and sailing have been and continue to be an important touchstone for me. I loved the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie when it came out (though I bailed on the series after the terrible second movie, and, for the record, fuck Johnny Depp). Pirates mean a lot of things to a lot of people. To me, as an older teen about to enter college, they meant playful anti-authoritarianism and wanderlust, and they evoked a sense of freedom and wonder about the world.
Instead of taking a semester abroad during my college years, I spent a semester at the Mystic Seaport Museum with the Williams-Mystic Program. I took classes, sang shanties, worked in the museum, learned to blacksmith, and spent two weeks aboard a sail-training vessel (the SSV Corwith Cramer) on the east coast of the US. My college-age shipmates and I learned to sail a tall ship, even bringing her to safe anchorage and standing watch on deck through a tropical storm!
I spent the better part of the next summer sailing on a museum ship, the Fifie herring drifter Reaper, on the east coast of Scotland. I was a 20-something amidst a crew of Scottish retirees, sailing our century-old fishing vessel between what amounted to coastal county fairs, welcoming tourists aboard and teaching them about fishing and sailing.
I haven’t sailed since then, but I cherish those memories, and I’m so glad to reconnect with my oceangoing self via Ahoy’s new setting. Pirates and the sea continue to be important signifiers for me. I’m midway through my first viewing of Black Sails (late to the party, I know), and my partner and I devoured Our Flag Means Death when it came out. These stories present an important site for imagination, particularly a queer, anti-authoritarian political imagination.
Ahoy, too, has a political perspective, albeit one that is less obvious than those of Black Sails or Our Flag Means Death. In Hyperspace Smuggler, I was modeling my two central factions on Star Wars: The oppressive, fascistic Empire and the scrappy, solidaristic Rebellion. But the factions work in the magical-oceanic setting of Ahoy as well. The Mollusk Union cannot hope to match the Bluefin Squadron’s military might. The Union’s power, however, resides in its people — its Comrades (a name that Nick wrote into the game; in Hyperspace Smuggler, they were “Influence,” which is way too vague). Comrades enact Plans, replicating an important dynamic of real-world anti-fascist and anti-imperial organizing: overmatched on the field of battle, revolutionaries need to inspire, maintain, and rely upon networks of Comrades to undermine and surprise the oppressor.
I’m looking forward reading Nick’s thoughts on the development of Ahoy next week, and I'm thrilled that you’ll be getting this game into your hands soon-ish. Whether you’re playing the Mollusk Union or just living in this particular moment in the world, I hope you can find your Comrades, make your plans, and overthrow oppression wherever you find it. Fair winds & solidarity forever!
- Greg Loring-Albright
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