"Captain!" came the shout from the deck. I turned around to see who from my Bluefin Squadron had called over to me. "What is it?" I shouted back in the general direction of my crew. "The crow's nest has spotted something. It looks like a smuggler ship." Ah, yes, the Smugglers. We were neither allies nor enemies. They would help us up to a point, while also always looking out for themselves. I only trusted them as far as my cannons could fire at them. "Fine, fine. Come about and let's see what they're up to." Minutes later the smuggler ship was upon us and I shouted "Ahoy!" by Greg Loring-Albright from Leder Games.
If you haven't yet realized it, Leder Games love their asymmetric games, where everyone plays on the same board, but nobody plays quite in the same way or has the same goal. Ahoy is slightly different though. It's asymmetric, but two of the possible four players aim for area control, while the other two play a pick-up-and-deliver game. In fact, it's only when there are at least three of you that pick-up-and-deliver comes into play. In a two-player game, both of you play for area control only. That means that you will only experience the full game if you get the opportunity to play with more than just one other person.
Tile Laying and Dice Placement
At its core, Ahoy is a tile-laying and dice-placement game. The main game board starts out as a set of two square tiles, which are each divided into a 2x2 grid of squares. As you explore the map with your ships, you add more of these square tiles. These reveal water spaces, islands, wreckage, treasure, harbours, strong currents and even sandbars. It's your choice how you connect the newly discovered square to the existing seascape, as long as you fulfil certain requirements. So you exert a certain amount of control over how easy or difficult it is to navigate the resulting map.
To carry out actions, you place the dice, that you rolled at the beginning of a round, into slots on your player board or onto crew cards that you have gained during the game. Some actions require dice of a specific value or that are even or odd. Others will accept any dice you like. So you do have to roughly plan out your actions in advance. That's not too difficult though, because everyone rolls only four dice, except the Bluefin Squadron who gets an extra dice. They are therefore a little bit quicker and play at a slightly faster pace than everyone else.
There is a wide variety of actions, from movement to loading your cannons, because, yes, there is combat in Ahoy. Combat will result in damage, which means one or more of your action slots is going to be blocked. It cannot be used until you use your repair action, which can never be damaged of course. There is also a sort of hyperspace action, where you teleport your ship to a distant location on the board that matches the pip value on your dice.
Asymmetry in Action
While every faction has similar actions, everyone also has their own specific ones. Some factions have additional mechanisms that others don't. So while the Mollusk Union carries out its actions by placing dice, just like everyone else and it plays for area control, just like the Bluefin Squadron, it can also play special cards that it draws from its own deck. These cards give the Mollusks additional actions as well as allow them to place additional ships with special abilities. The Bluefins might be faster than other factions with their extra dice, but the Mollusks can negate that by having more ships on the board that can wreak havoc and score quite heavily.
Meanwhile, the smuggler factions do their pick-up-and-deliver shenanigans, but at the same time, they place bets on which faction will control which islands at the end of the game. Every piece of loot they successfully deliver they will secretly assign to one of the two area control factions. If they get their bets right, they will score heavily and most likely win the game. If they get them wrong, they will most likely lose. They can't even try and play it safe and distribute loot evenly, because that will do nothing for their point total.
Now, I said that the smugglers will most likely lose. However, that's only true if the Bluefins and Mollusks don't leave them alone. The smugglers have the potential to score quite a bit every round, which will be enough to give them an easy victory. They're a bit like the vagabond in Root in that respect. At the same time, the smugglers increase the point potential for the Bluefins and Mollusks. A balance must be struck between keeping them down, without knocking them out altogether.
Strategy and Tactics Every Turn
It is amazing how much gameplay there is in Ahoy. Every action needs to be thought about. Even the simple act of extending the map with a new 2x2 tile needs to be carefully considered. The orientation of a tile can hugely influence who can navigate the waters. If you can sail through wreckage unharmed, you can create barriers for other ships and therefore make it harder for them to do what they need.
Deciding where to sail next is also not a simple choice. You need to try and work out what other players might be doing. You need to work out whether to block or attack an opponent. Maybe you prefer to stay away from everyone as much as possible so that you can do what you need to do.
So, a multi-player solitaire game Ahoy is definitely not. In a two-player setup, you're directly fighting over area control. You need to attack the other player to have any chance of winning. In a three or four-player game, you need to attack the smugglers from time to time to make sure they don't run away with their points. However, because everyone sort of has to attack everyone else, I don't think it feels bad when you do interfere with another player. It's just what the game expects you to do.
Also, just blindly attacking another player will not benefit you in any way. You do have to consider who you attack and when. There will always be a reason why combat happens and the reason will be about stopping another player from scoring and winning the game. So I think that justifies that battling element in Ahoy and gives players permission to negatively affect each other.
Ahoy There Sailor
I have one slight reservation about Ahoy though. I don't like three-player games. It somehow doesn't feel as satisfying to play the game with two area-control factions and one smuggler. So while the two-player battle was a lot of fun and felt really exciting, introducing a single smuggler into the mix felt somehow weird. It seemed as if the smuggler on their own could either just run away with the game or that the other two factions could suppress them so much that they stood no chance of winning. It somehow felt unbalanced, at least based on the games I played.
However, a four-player game should be great in my view, even though I've not yet had the chance to try that player count. I reckon that two smugglers competing with each other, while the Bluefins and Mollusks do the same amongst themselves, is going to be amazing to watch. At some point, the smugglers, Bluefins and Mollusks will also punch each other, which then adds another layer of interest and excitement. So, I'd say Ahoy works really great with two players and has huge potential with four. Just don't expect too much from a three-player game.
Saying that, I will always enjoy playing Ahoy. There is so much happening and like with so many other Leder Games, you read the rules and think that this will never work. Of course, it does work amazingly well. The rules are also pretty simple and after a few turns, things will really click. It will then take a couple of games for you to explore the various choices you can make and the best strategy to follow.
So, get on board and shout "Ahoy!" if you ever get the chance. You won't regret it.