Today I plan to speedrun you through all of the development — that I can remember — that eventually turned Hyperspace Smuggler into Ahoy. So buckle up, we have a lot to cover!
Development is a weird nebulous process and no project is the same but I’ve gradually developed some common practices when reviewing a design in development. My first goal is to identify the most important and likely unchanging parts of the game. I pick those few things and dismantle everything else in the design. For Ahoy there were two key things: first, the dynamic of smugglers increasing the value of regions for the other players and, second, the modular map.
The first dynamic is just soooo juicy. When the game was first pitched to us, it was the thing that grabbed our attention. The other one, the map, is just fun! Exploring the unknown and getting lucky finding the perfect island or running into a tile with no gold and sandbars brings such consistent joy to every play of Ahoy. The map did eventually see some small changes, islands lost their names, sandbars were added, strong currents were pushed around but the basics remained unchanged. As Greg already mentioned, one of my favorite aspects is the variety of shapes people will generate when playing. Be it vast contiguous ocean or narrow paths riddled with wreckage and gold, every map contains some unique character.
Something I was initially less confident about was the game's scoring. It seemed like each player had different problems.
With the smugglers I saw two main problems with point projection and choice. By projection, I mean that it was too easy for players to determine in the final round if the Smuggler was capable of winning. At the time the only points Smugglers gained was through delivering goods, they’d have a color they needed to be delivered to and a base value of points, additionally they would gain extra points if delivered to a specifically named island or one controlled by a specific faction. These cards exist in a face up row called the Market and at the time looked something like this:
The problem I found was that as the game progressed and the map solidified and distances became more known, there wasn't enough uncertainty about how difficult a specific delivery was and therefore there was no uncertainty about how much you could score. Ahoy is a pretty quick game only lasting 4-5 rounds, so it's critical that each round feels meaningful.
The second aspect about choice was a connected issue. At first glance the original design appeared to have plenty of interesting choices. Players pick up goods and can consider where they wanna deliver it, maybe the named island is very far away or with the above card they can consider if increasing a revolution region is worth those extra points. In practice this simply wasn't the case, again Ahoy is a quick game and doing the shortest delivery was almost always better than trying for a more difficult or further one.
My first attempt to fix this was with cards I called “Titles”. They were essentially public objectives that upon completing you’d gain a special power. For example, you could gain 3 crew members to become “The Party Boat” from then on you'd gain points every time you gained crew. The idea was to give players side objectives that they could then milk for additional points. Now for the smuggler it wasn't just about doing deliveries but how many titles can I gain for the most points. This almost worked. It was doing some things I really liked. For instance, players were more encouraged to do things outside their direct role and larger choices about where your points would come from had been made. Perfect! Right? No. The titles which had been created for smugglers were mainly getting claimed by the Bluefin and Mollusks. The problem was that the smugglers had to actively score their points and the game didn't have the spare actions for the smuggler to do the things required to claim these titles. While the Bluefin and Mollusks who passively score each round could regularly afford to spare some of their actions if it meant more points. So “Titles” went in the bin.
What they highlighted so clearly though was how whatever additional scoring I wanted to give them needed to exist within the action structure as it stood. I need to introduce a new choice or form of planning. From that the reward chart was born!
This works in a few ways. All goods now had a color to be delivered to, were worth 3 points and had no bonus. Now, the smuggler has a reward marker that starts in the center of the board above and upon making a delivery they move the marker one space and take that reward. They then place another marker in the space they moved from to indicate they can't take that reward next turn. (They move around the board snake-style.) This worked wonderfully, by making the choice at the moment of delivery they now have some flexibility about what reward they need at the moment, while also allowing them to start planning for a reward 2-3 deliveries away. Smugglers are also able to claim rewards for winning combat so they now can build strategies not solely around delivering if they have more aggressive tendencies.
However what this system didn’t cover for was the problem of point projection. Even with the reward chart in the final round if a player couldn't deliver or fight, they couldn’t meaningfully score. So I still needed something to introduce a bit of point uncertainty and I believe it was Cole who initially had the idea for “Pledges”. After delivering and receiving your points + reward you pledge the card privately, to either the Bluefin or Mollusks, indicating you think they will control that card's suit (the top left) at the end of the game. Each card will score you 1 point per matching region that player controls. This was the final piece of the smugglers scoring puzzle! With the introduction of an action that could allow smugglers to remove Mollusk comrades — they could already remove Bluefin pieces via combat — they now could manipulate private elements about their scoring all the way through their final action!
Now after that series of successes let me tell you about when I tried changing the Bluefin and Mollusk scoring. As has been mentioned, at the end of every round the Bluefin and Mollusk check each tile and see who has “control” of it and that player scores. Each tile starts at 1 value but increases as the smuggler makes deliveries. While reviewing this system I felt like the scoring was maybe redundant? From an ergonomic perspective it occasionally felt silly to be re-tallying areas you’ve continued to control the whole game. So I tried replacing it with something even less ergonomic! What I tried next was almost a dominance style victory condition for the Bluefin and Mollusks. In this version whenever the Bluefin or Mollusk would gain control of a tile they’d add a control marker matching their player to the middle of the tile. Or when they overtook an enemy's control they’d flip the marker to their side. A control marker in your color also provides +2 control. When smugglers delivered in this version they would now just add a control marker to that players stack (still only providing +2). The Bluefin and Mollusk now won by having ~10 markers in their stack at the end of a round.
It looked something like this! I was also experimenting with what some pieces would be like as standees (that also didn't last). This had a number of issues, it was harder to explain, players were doing math more often, and it was an even less satisfying game end.
Looking at it with some distance, it also was trying to solve the same problems I had with the smuggler about point certainty. My instinct that the Bluefin and Mollusk scoring was occasionally uninteresting was correct but it wasn’t their fault it was the smugglers. With the introduction of the smuggler changes mentioned none of this was necessary. The Bluefin and Mollusks went back to scoring almost identical to the original.
FACTION SUMMARIES AND CHANGES
The Bluefin saw easily the least amount of changes during development, like the cats in base Root their sheer numbers and presence shift the landscape for others. Every time their flagship ends movement they deploy a patrol, constantly spilling out sharks wherever they go. These sharks provide 1 value for purposes of control and when cannons are armed (die assigned to playerboard) enemies must fight them whenever they enter. With a specific action for bombarding away Mollusk comrades and one more die than the other players their goal is simple: control the ocean with pure might.
One of the few changes the Bluefin saw was the introduction of Strongholds. Strongholds can be built on an island by removing two patrols and do four things.
Count as 2 for purposes of control.
Are always treated as having cannons loaded and get +2 in combat.
You may recruit from an island with a Stronghold as if your flagship is there.
Enemies may not pick-up, deliver or recruit from there.
This provided the Bluefin more ways to interact with the market (and therefore the smugglers) and also create more interesting choke points on the map with an extra strong piece that always fights.
The Mollusk Union on the other hand is about resource management and in development I tried to highlight that. Initially the faction had a pool of ~20 comrades and could access them any time, Assembling some at their location or Inspiring them out in the field. This just felt a little too easy, and didn’t ask players to engage with the map in the ways I’d like. If you’re trying to start a revolution you probably have to move around a bit and you don't have infinite people. Players now start with a few but will need to gather more comrades onto their board by stopping at islands or Rallying. It's a small change but it creates much more planning especially with how certain Plan cards are better with more Ready Comrades. If the Bluefin is about might the Mollusk is about agility, they can change the game state faster, sharper but they need to be careful they don't find themselves stranded with nothing.
Now I’ve already talked plenty about the Smugglers so I’ll keep it shorter here. The Smugglers are all about optimizing, finding the best/cheapest way to get something done. With the ability to carry only two deliverables at a time players must maintain an active delivery loop. The reward system supplied a lot of grease here, now as a reward for combat players can claim a reward on their chart. This creates these complicated schemes of running into a patrol, winning the combat, taking a reward that lets you move further so you can deliver a good to take a reward to take a crew…and so on. The Negotiate action was added as a means to manipulate the market and Mollusk comrades, be careful though, recruit too many crew and you may find less options for delivery than you’d like!
One of the final things was polishing the market deck. Taking a note from Oath I wanted to make sure each card was interesting, maybe funny and provided new means of play. Only 2-3 are better versions of actions already in the game, the focus was on creating new opportunities. While the deck is much smaller than Oaths you’ll still find the game shift dramatically based on what Crew are recruited. We also did work to provide suit identity when dividing up the powers. Compasses typically provide movement related crew white Sword’s provide one around combat and so on. The uniqueness of the powers combined with the suit identity gives some nice grounding to the world. While I’d love to spoil all my favorite crew I feel like I have to leave something for y'all to discover on the open water. May you have fair wind and following seas!
- Nick Brachmann
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