24 April 2019
A fleet treat that’s pretty neat
Endeavor is a modular civilisation Eurogame sailing under the colours of a historical nautical exploration sim. Its box comes packed with so many optional bits and pieces for rules variants there’s even room to squeeze in a spare cardboard ‘U’ to Britishise the spelling on the cover. All this probably sounds like enough to sink any hope of a tidy, reasonable-length playing experience but, like seeing tonnes of heavy wooden planks somehow float on water, Age of Sail is remarkably shipshape.
Keeping everything buoyant is the game’s hull, a tight construction that firmly nails together worker placement and area control. Players expand their onshore player board each turn with building tiles, granting the ability to deploy ships, occupy far-off cities, attack rival nations and generally spread their influence beyond Europe to the rest of the globe by placing their workforce of discs on both the tiles and the central board. This gathers the staple resources needed to grow their empire – wealth, culture, industry and influence – and ultimately propels them towards amassing the glory needed to rule supreme after seven pleasingly fast-flowing rounds.
The simplicity of the central gameplay lets the game glide smoothly between the individual progression of each player’s nation to the interactive jostling for control of regions, particularly as players race to claim the valuable position of being governor of a newly-opened part of the world.
Though its many mix-and-match rules variants, referred to as ‘exploits’ and featuring unique components and scoring objectives, take inspiration from the 16th- to mid-19th-century background, Age of Sail keeps its gameplay thoroughly dry, allowing the waves of immersive theme to lap at the edges of the game but never quite seep through to dilute the pure strategy.
This makes the inclusion of a deck of cards designed to replicate the historical presence of slavery particularly curious. The designers clearly recognise the sensitive material they’re playing with, giving an admirable amount of space in the rulebook to a justification of acknowledging their treatment of the topic and encouraging further reading. Subject aside, in play, the cards make for a genuinely intriguing mechanic – one that can grant players who choose to engage in the entirely optional business of slavery industrial benefits (at the cost of their morality, of course) but loses them glory later on if the abolition of slavery comes to pass, which other players can choose to accelerate, for social or strategic reasons.
It’s worth taking a few words here to praise Endeavor’s box, which might well be up there with the best game inserts going. Each player’s components are separated for near-instant play out of the box, and the display of building tiles similarly comes with little more setup effort than popping the clear lid off the tray. The entire game looks fantastic, but the combination of its gameplay and storage make for exceedingly smooth sailing indeed.
Endeavor’s gameplay-focused design won’t have you feeling the salty spray of the sea on your face in the same way as more immersive, thematic nautical adventures on the table, but its masterful construction as a graceful, well-paced strategy game and the astonishing level of variety offered by its exploits is impossible not to appreciate. It’s gaming’s ship in a bottle; you’ll find yourself wondering how one game fit so much inside without simply falling to pieces.
PLAY IT? – PROBABLY
Those expecting a rollicking seafaring adventure will be left high and dry. Though its presentation and setting are highly evocative, this is a game focused on the strength of its strategy gameplay – and in those terms, it’s very strong indeed.
Designer: Carl de Visser, Jarratt Gray
Artist: Josh Cappel, Noah Adelman
Time: 60-90 minutes
This review originally appeared in the January 2019 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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