I haven't reviewed many board games. I like to play board games, and there's quite a few that I'd like to review. Sadly, it's been difficult to organize regular board game meetings over the past few years due to the ever-changing work schedules of my social circle and other adult responsibilities. Stupid jobs and chores, always getting in the way of the stuff I want to do! Most of the board games that I play only get played once or twice (and sessions are often months or years apart), which is certainly not enough play-time to justify writing a review, since it's barely enough time to get a really good feel for how the mechanics and strategies of the game work.
But one game that really piqued my interest was Sails of Glory: Napoleonic Wars, a game about naval combat in the age of sail. It is made by Ares Games, the same company that created the WWI and WWII dogfighting game Wings of Glory. If you've ever played the more popular Fantasy Flight games Star Wars: X-Wing or its sister game Star Wars: Armada (both being games that I'd like to review), then you should feel pretty comfortable with Sails of Glory. X-Wing was based off of Ares' Wings of Glory game, and both Armada and Sails of Glory use similar mechanics and rules. Sails of Glory certainly shares more in common with Armada though, since both games involve slow-paced battles between large capital ships, rather than the faster dogfighting mechanics of their predecessors. And both Sails of Glory and Armada simulate the lumbering nature of their respective ships with mechanics that require players to pre-plan their movements ahead of time, which adds a whole new element of strategy and challenge.
Sails of Glory includes 4 pre-assembled French and British ship miniatures.
Sails of Glory isn't a traditional board game, in that it doesn't include an actual board to play on. Instead, the game requires the players to move their ship miniatures across a playing surface (the size of which is determined by the specific scenario being played) by using a deck of maneuver cards. Movement isn't restrained to a grid of squares or hexes, so lots of careful measurement and manipulation of the models is necessary. Players must maneuver their ships in order to get the enemy ships into the firing arc of their cannons in order to attack, and the winner of the game is usually the one who destroys all the enemy ships; though, some scenarios have other winning conditions.
Another key difference between X-Wing / Armada versus Sails of Glory is that all of Sails of Glory's actions are treated as simultaneous. This helps to keep the game flowing a bit more quickly by allowing the player to move their ships and determine combat damage at the same time, rather than having to take turns moving one ship at a time. It also alters the strategy a little bit by permitting "mutual destruction". Since all ships are considered to fire at the same time, there is the possibility that ships may destroy each other in the same turn. It is only in the case of collisions (or possible collisions) that the game requires ships to be moved in a specific order.
Modular rulesets for multiple levels of complexity
Sails of Glory is simultaneously a very simple game and also a very complicated game, with multiple tiers of rules and myriad optional rules. The turn structure is divided into four parts: planning, movement, combat, and reloading. During the planning phase, each player secretly selects maneuvers for their respective ships. During the movement phase, each player executes the planned maneuvers. The combat phase involves measuring line-of-sight and range to determine if ships take damage, and then dealing the appropriate damage. And the reload phase is kind of a "clean-up" phase in which players determine which type of ammunition to load into their guns in preparation for the next turn. The rulebook includes three default rulesets: basic, standard, and advanced.
Basic rules for beginners
The basic rules have simple,
and immediate movement.
The basic ruleset is kind of a bare-bones tutorial that has very simple movement rules, only one attack type (well, two if you count musket fire), and only the basic hull and crew damage. It can be learned and played in about an hour and is designed to introduce the players to the core mechanics and teach the players the basics of moving the ships around the playing surface, determining line-of-sight for attacks, and dealing damage to each other's ships. Damage is determined by drawing chits out of a draw bag and filling hull slots on your ship's log. The more damage you take, the less effective your own ship becomes. There's even a number of "zero" tokens that don't deal damage when drawn (i.e. the enemy ship missed you).
Wind direction is included as a mechanic in this version, but it's mostly superfluous. You know exactly how your ship is oriented with respect to the wind, and so being "taken aback" by the wind isn't going to interfere with your plans. In fact, it's really easy to game the wind in order to make sharp or sudden turns. The basic ruleset has no special rules for collisions other than determining ship movement order. It's all very fundamental and a bit dull to play, but it's for first-time players, and it serves its purpose of introducing the basic mechanics.
Standard rules are for fun
The standard ruleset is where the real fun - and the real challenge - begins! In this ruleset, the game's core conceit is introduced: pre-planning your maneuvers. Using the standard ruleset, players start the game with a maneuver pre-selected, and during the planning phase of each turn, you plan out next turn's maneuver. During the movement phase, you execute the maneuver that was pre-selected in the previous turn's planning phase. This is where the wind direction mechanic starts to really come into play. In the basic ruleset, wind direction is really kind of a superfluous feature, since you have very precise control over where your ship will be at any given time. With the pre-planning of movement, you have to carefully consider the placement and orientation of your ship one turn in advance to make sure that the wind doesn't disrupt your movement. Trying to sail into the wind will interfere with your maneuver, replacing your chosen card with a "taken aback" card that either slows your ship down, or whips it around to face another direction entirely!
In addition to pre-planning your maneuvers, the standard ruleset also introduces alternate ammunition types for your guns, allowing you to fire grapeshot and chain shot to deal different types of damage to the enemy at different ranges. Standard shot deals hull damage, grapeshot deals damage directly to the crew, and chain shot deals a combination of the two. I wasn't terribly happy with the chain or grape shot implementation. The range of those attack types seems so short as to make them virtually useless. The difficulty in anticipating where any given ships are going to be in the combat phase of any given turn makes it very hard and risky to go to the trouble of loading these shot types in advance and possibly losing the chance of doing any damage at all if the enemy is out of range. An enemy ship basically needs to be immobilized in order for you to use these shot types, which only defeats the purpose of using them. Of course, you could always play a scenario in which you need to immobilize each other's ship instead of sink them, in which case, chain and grape shot become a necessity.
Grape shot, chain shot, and collision damage are added in the standard ruleset.
The standard ruleset also adds damage from collisions, and this damage can be pretty brutal! In my first game with the standard ruleset, my opponent and I both ran our own ships into each other on one turn, and then ran our ships into each other's ships on the next turn. The net effect was that both our fleets were halfway destroyed from collisions with only one volley of cannon fire having been exchanged between us. It takes a few games to really get a good feel for how maneuvering works. Pre-planning your movement one turn ahead, while taking wind into consideration, and having to anticipate your enemy's moves one turn ahead is quite a mental challenge, but a very satisfying one. Picking the perfect maneuver to line up your broadsides against the front or back of an enemy, or narrowly-avoiding a collision is tense and exhilarating. And having your planned movement interrupted by a poor wind or being just out of firing range can be equally frustrating (but in a good way).
Advanced rules are for simulation
The advanced ruleset adds even further complexity by introducing mechanics for planning crew actions. In this version, you must queue up actions to fire or reload your guns, set your sailing speed, or to repair damage to the ship. This rule makes crew damage from chain shot more important, since losing crew reduces the number of actions that you can take in a given turn.
Special damage types can be inflicted on ships that have various effects. Masts or rudders can be damaged or destroyed that immobilize your ship. Fires and leaks can break out that can deal automatic damage on subsequent turns if not repaired. These rules make managing the condition of your ship and crew just as important (or more important) as maneuvering the ship and lining up your guns. It starts to make you feel more like a captain rather than a pilot. You aren't making split-second decisions and seeing their effects instantly. Instead, you have to plan ahead, delegate actions to your crew, and then hope that they are able to execute them. Sadly, the rules for mast and sail damage didn't make chain shot any more useful than it was in the standard rules. Destroying a mast can be devastating if it happens, but the range is still so short that it's difficult to justify loading chain shot and hoping you'll be in range to use it.
Having to assign crew to repair damage might prevent you from being able to fire at an enemy,
and could force you to temporarily retreat in order to avoid sustaining additional damage.
This ruleset ebbs and flows a bit more than the other sets. There's a lot of action and tension when ships are in range and firing at each other, as each player scrambles to repair damage and keep out of the range of the enemy guns. But you'll often sail away from each other, and the slow movement of the ships means you'll likely have several idle turns to recover before maneuvering back into firing position. Fortunately, the simultaneous turns keeps the pace of such idle turns very rapid, but it may still turn off some gamers who prefer faster, more active gameplay.
Optional rules in case the game isn't complex enough for you
And then there's an appendix of optional rules and variants, as if the advanced rules weren't already complex enough. These include rules for changing wind direction and speed (which adds additional unpredictability to your maneuver pre-planning), rules for adjacent ships to possibly entangle their sails and get stuck to each other, rules for adjacent ships to attempt to board and capture each other, the ability to heal your crew by giving them beer, adding terrain obstacles that can beach your ship and permanently disable it, and numerous other rules that add complexity or modify existing rules from the basic, standard, or advanced rulesets.
Pre-planning your maneuvers is challenging, and becomes moreso with advanced rules that add
variable wind direction, crew actions, entanglements, and special damage types.
With the advanced and optional rules, the game comes very close to being a genuine simulation of Napoleonic sailing and combat. If that level of depth is your cup of tea, then by all means, go for it. But most players will probably be most comfortable with the standard rules and maybe an optional rule or two. Personally, I like to play with the standard ruleset, but include the advanced rules' ability to adjust sails (just make it part of the planning phase). Either way, it's great that the game offers such a wide variety of depth and challenge to meet the ability, tastes, and time constraints of any audience that plays it. It's like having three different games in one. The basic ruleset offers a fairly light, casual game that can be picked up and played in less than an hour, while the advanced ruleset can create a technically grueling cat-and-mouse affair that can easily go on for a whole afternoon.
The one major downside to all these moddable rulesets is that the rulebook can be a bit difficult to navigate at times. It would be nice if the game included some "rule summary" reference cards for each of the rulesets that outlines the basics of each game phase and what actions are available. But as it stands, if you have a question about a particular rule, you'll have to remember which rule tier it belongs to and look in the appropriate section of the book, and then also check to make sure that it isn't overruled by the current rule tier, or any optional rules, that you're using.
Predictability versus unpredictability
Playing with simultaneous actions certainly helps to speed up the game and keeps all players engaged throughout. It can get a bit cumbersome with more ships, since collisions are more likely in crowded game spaces, but it works well enough with the starter set. For one thing, simultaneous attacks eliminate the possibility of having your ship destroyed on another player's turn before you have a chance to make your own attack. You always get to attack if an enemy is in range (and your guns are loaded), and the enemy always draws damage tokens if their ship is targeted with an attack. I like that dice are completely removed from the equation. X-Wing has a frustrating frequency of situations in which I line up my ship perfectly only to roll blanks or have my opponent nullify my perfect positioning with lucky evasion rolls. That's less of a concern in Sails of Glory.
Damage is dealt by drawing a number of damage chits equal to the attacking vessel's current firepower.
Some chits have a "zero" on them and represent a missed shot, but you can expect to consistently do some damage.
The damage chits do contain "zero" damage tokens, which still allows for the possibility of outright missing an opponent, but it doesn't happen as often as with X-Wing's dice because the other player doesn't get to roll counter/evasion dice. In addition, the 0-damage chits are removed from the pile when drawn, so drawing a lot of misses early reduces the risk of missing later. Of course, if you draw a lot of hits early, then you'll actually increase the probability of drawing misses later on. It's a two-sided blade, but if you've been paying attention, you can anticipate the shifts in probability. In the end, I don't feel like dealing damage is as much of a crap shoot as it is in X-Wing. On top of that, ships have generally higher durability, and even a single lucky shot is never enough to obliterate a ship in a single round.
However, you can apply certain optional rules that add plenty of other sources of variability to the game experience. Changing wind directions can make it difficult to pre-plan your movements, but there is a mechanic in place to allow you to predict possible changes in wind. So even with these mechanics in place, I've always felt like mistakes are more my fault, and less the fault of randomness. Having to manage your crew's actions in the advanced game rules also provides a sense of commanding a crew rather than being in absolute control, and it adds to the sense of these ships being large, lumbering hulks that take a lot of manpower to operate. It also encourages more cat-and-mouse maneuvering, since you don't want to get up into musket or chain shot range and risk having your crew decimated.
The ship's log itself is fairly elegant and easy-to-use. The use of damage tokens to cover up destroyed blocks of hull makes it easy to see a ship's firepower at a glance. Managing actions, sail level, and ammunition is also pretty straightforward. The design is fairly elegant, as it provides lots depth and detail without the need for complicated spreadsheets, pencils, or calculators.
Definitely not a Fantasy Flight game
While Sails of Glory certainly excels in its mechanics and the extreme care that the developer put into its modular rulesets, it does falter a bit in its components. The game comes packaged with four pre-assembled, pre-painted ship miniatures. There's a lot of detail in the paint jobs, right down to the painted-on flags and presence of escape boats. I've read a lot of reports of the masts breaking off of ships (or breaking during shipping), but they seem sturdy enough for me. The plastic is just flexible enough to allow a little bit of bend without snapping, and I doubt that the ships will break as a result of normal use. But just in case, I'd advise that you be gentle with them and avoid dropping them.
The ship models look good and feel sturdy enough to hold up under normal use.
The model bases are made of sturdy blue plastic, with a clear plastic cover. The bases seem a bit wide, and I was surprised that the smaller frigates had the same size bases as the much larger ships of the line (so all ships effectively occupy the same amount of space on the board). Each ship comes with a double-sided insert that goes into the base, displaying the ship name, attributes, and firing arcs. The backside contains the same information for an alternate ship. This insert is kind of flimsy, and I have difficulty removing them from the plastic base since there's no way to push the insert out from the other side. One of the inserts also didn't fit correctly into the base, and so the insert bends and forces the cover rest loosely over it. But overall, the ship models and bases are decent, functional, and look great.
I am a bit confused by why Ares bothered to include the alternate ship stats on the backsides of the inserts. The subtle differences between the alternate ships is so minor that it has virtually no effect on gameplay, and there isn't enough tradeoff between the various stats for one version of the ship to feel more or less useful for a particular strategy or scenario than the other. Perhaps this is an area in which historical accuracy was actually a minor detriment to the gameplay, but it's not a big deal.
Measurements and maneuvers can be a bit more challenging than they need to be. X-Wing has a much more comfortable method of using cardboard maneuver patterns that fit into slots on the ship bases. Sails of Glory just has the maneuver cards which you are supposed to lay down in front of the ship, and then move the ship to the correct end point of the maneuver card (based on your sailing speed and attitude with the wind). It seems perfectly functional in principle, but it slips up a bit in practice. Sliding cards out from under the ship requires passing a tough dexterity check, and almost always results in shifting or rotating the ship slightly. In a game in which precision movement is key, that's a problem. Buying the optional game mat could probably help with this, or you could do what I did, which is buy a large sheet of [blue] felt to use as a cheaper, makeshift play area.
The box has plastic compartments for the ships, wind compass, and wind tools, but not
specific compartments for each damage type, necessitating alternative storage methods.
Using the line-of-sight ruler and wind direction pieces is also unnecessarily annoying. The physical ship models themselves get in the way, and trying to fit the ruler under the ship's sails will often result in further shifting or rotating of the ship model (and any nearby models). The height of the ship models also makes overhead measurements a little difficult. Sure, you could just play without the models. That makes everything simpler, but it doesn't look as cool. Again, X-Wing and Armada are a bit more comfortable because the space ship models are elevated above the base, which fits those games' themes and leaves room underneath for sliding maneuvers in and out and performing line-of-sight measurements. I highly recommend investing in a laser-level...
The rest of the components are all cardboard cut-outs, and are perfectly functional. I have some concerns about the long-term durability of the ship log cutouts, but they've held up so far. My line-of-sight rulers have already started to bend slightly, but they can be easily substituted for a regular ruler. The damage chits and various action tokens are all perfectly serviceable and easy-to-understand. There's a lot of them, so expect to have to spend a good chunk of time punching them all out the first time you open the box. The chits for each damage type also have to be kept separate, yet the box only has a single compartment for them. So you either have to sort them all and put them in draw piles before every game, or you'll have to find an alternative storage solution. I use Plano boxes to organize the pieces of a lot of my board games, but that seemed a bit like overkill for this game. The ships, wind compass, and wind measuring tools all fit snugly into compartments in the box, so the only real problem is with separating the damage chits. I'd like to have cloth draw bags for them, but I don't think they'd all fit. So I've resorted to keeping the chits in ziploc snack baggies. I'm thinking of trying to get some even smaller jewelry bags for some components such as ship action tokens and wind tokens.
A detailed and versatile recreation of Napoleonic naval warfare
Overall, I'm loving my time playing Sails of Glory. It takes a few games to really get the hang of maneuvering your ship with the wind and planning ahead. It includes some strategic wrinkles and challenge that aren't present in similar games like Star Wars: Armada. The flexible rules make the game accessible to younger players and beginners, while still offering plenty of options for more experienced hardcore simulation gamers (but at the cost of less clarity in the rulebook).
Some of the components feel a bit cheap, especially considering the expensive price point of the game. Its MSRP is $60, but it can be a bit hard to find, and online retailers regularly want $85 or more for it (at the time of this writing). But if you can find it at a reasonable price, then it is entertaining enough to be worth a purchase. If the subject is something that interests you, and you see it on the shelf of your local toy or hobby store, I highly recommend picking it up.
I'll probably even pick up a few of the expansion ship packs.
- Versatile ruleset accommodates varying skill and time constraints
- Challenging and detailed recreation of Napoleonic naval warfare
- Elegant design provide simulation depth without spreadsheets, pencils, or calculators
- Drawing tokens instead of die rolls makes dealing damage more reliable
- Simultaneous actions keep the game flowing at a smooth pace
- Plastic ship miniatures are detailed and look great
- Maneuvering and measuring around ship models requires a lot of manual dexterity
- Some components feel cheap and flimsy
- Player aids for the different rulesets would be helpful
Final Grade: B+
Lining up your ship for a perfect shot is exhilarating. Getting in two perfect shots with the same ship is even better!