I am rather partial to nautical themed adventure boardgames. There is just something compelling and inherently interesting about the age of sail, whether it be in the role of a deadly, swashbuckling pirate; a pillaging band of vikings; or as a more upstanding merchant, plying their wares across the ocean to earn a fortune buying, selling and trading goods port to port. Empires at Sea takes a higher level, more epic approach to the age of sail than quite a few other games, placing players in control of an entire nation, and, potentially, a whole fleet of ships, and manages to make an awesome first impression with some absolutely stunning artwork. While it is usually a lot of fun to play, there are a few small things that keep it from making the leap from very good to great.
One of Empires at Sea's biggest strengths is the initial learning curve. Considering the scale of the game, the rules are very streamlined and simple to learn and to teach. On each player's turn, they either play or discard one Captain card, and then take up to 5 actions. Players can Sail, Trade, Buy a Port, or Attack. Buying a Port or Attacking immediately ends the player's turn. Furthermore, each action is easy to break down and understand.
A single Sailing action involves moving one ship in one cardinal direction as many spaces as the player wants until they reach an area of the board that prevents movement in that direction. One brilliant thing about Sailing is that it is touch-move, meaning that players cannot pre-plan their movement on the board itself, and players cannot take back any movement once the ship has moved. If players aren't careful, they won't end up where they need to be, but the touch-move requirement keeps the game moving at a steady pace. It's fair, easy to understand, and thematic.
The other actions are also straightforward. Trading can be done if a player has a ship adjacent to a port by simply paying any one resource to the bank, or the port's owner, to receive one good that the port produces from the bank in return. Players can Buy a Port by paying 1 of each of the game's three resources to the bank to take ownership of an un-owned port adjacent to one of their ships, and players can Attack any enemy ship or port they have a ship adjacent to, and most attacks are handled with a single die roll.
The game isn't simply a mad rush to grab land and sink ships though, although both of those things form the core of almost all successful strategies. Empires at Sea's real strategy lies in the Captain cards. Choosing when and how to play Captain cards, or to simply discard one to boost your income, is essential to success. This is because all of the really interesting and powerful options that players have are contained in the Captain card deck, which contains four types of cards. Advancements, Industry, and Event cards can only be played at the begging of a player's turn, and allow players to do things like increase their offensive firepower, increase their overall resource production, or even launch new ships. The Captain's Orders cards can be played at any time, on any player's turn and do things like provide temporary bonuses to a single battle or allow the player to move a ship that normally would be prevented from doing so.
There are a ton of fun options in the Captain cards deck and they have a huge impact on the game. This can also be one of the game's stumbling points though, especially in games with only two players. Players hold 6 Captain cards at a time, with their hand of cards refilling to 6 cards between each round. Because players will often only be playing/discarding one card per round, players can end up with a handful of cards that don't help them in their current situation. Since all players draw from the same deck, a bad luck-of-the-draw can severely limit what some players can do. This can be especially frustrating because building new ships is entirely dependent upon drawing the cards that let you do so, so there can be entire games where a player is unable to build up their fleet while their opponent(s) are able to launch ship after ship. This tends to be mitigated in games with a higher player count as more cards are distributed around the table at any one time, especially as players usually have a natural tendency to gang up on the leader in games like this, but it can put a serious damper on one player's fun with lower player counts, and can turn a two player game into a lopsided mess.
Before players actually get to play Captain cards and take their actions each round, they must reveal a Weather and History card. These two decks are each composed of 15 cards that have various effects, and act as the game's timer. The Weather cards mostly effect ship movement, while the History cards have a wide variety of effects that can fluctuate wildly. While these two decks generally provide fun and interesting challenges to deal with, they can, like the Captain cards, come up in such a way that absolutely cripples one player, again, having a much larger effect on games with fewer players. While there are Captain cards that can allow you to move even if the Weather would normally prevent it, there is no guarantee that you will have that card when you need it, and so there can be turns where one player cannot move at all, and may not have any ships in position to take any advantageous actions. In a round where the Weather already takes your player agency away, having a History card come up that stunts, or completely halts, your nation's production can feel like an absolute punch in the gut and can severely set one player back. While there are only 18 Weather Cards in total, there are 18 History cards per era available, of which only 5 from each era are used per game, and you can remove the more punishing ones when you are building the History deck in order to try to ensure that that type of thing doesn't happen. I know there are people who will enjoy that type of possibility, but for others it can put a serious damper on their fun.
Empires at Sea also features a semi-NPC Pirate ship that players get to bid for control over at the end of each round. All gold bid, even losing bids, is placed in Pirate's Bay, and the winner gets to take 5 actions with the Pirate Ship of the Line. Usually, players will use the Pirate ship to attack and harass their opponents, but some players will attempt to win the bid simply in order to get the Pirate ship as far away from them as possible, or even to move the Pirate ship into a place where they can use their own ships to sink it. One of the best parts about the bidding process, and the gold that is stored at Pirate's Bay, is that players can raid Pirate's Bay in an attempt to take all of the gold that is stored there. A savvy player looting a large stash of gold from Pirate's Bay at the right time can snatch victory away from their opponents when the game ends, and scores are tallied.
Aside from a few hiccups that can, thankfully, be mitigated, and aren't going to rear their heads every game, Empires at Sea is quite a lot of fun. It's easy to learn and play, yet deep enough to remain interesting and fun over many plays, especially as the player count rises and inter-player conflict ramps up. Empires at Sea is a grand-scale, almost 4x-esque, age of sail game that clips along at a rapid pace that is a good choice for players who want an epic feeling game that does not require an epic ruleset, and for newer players who want a game that is easy to jump into.
A note on play time: Most games of Empires at Sea clock in at the 2 to 2.5 hour mark, with the 4 player game lasting the longest. 5 player games are played over only 12 rounds to keep the play time manageable, but the play time is easily adjusted, both up and down, by simply altering the number of Weather and History cards that are used.
A note on “chrome”: One of Empires at Sea's greatest strengths is the art on the cards. Beautiful thematic paintings adorn the cards, and the map on the board is based on actual maps of the era. The components are good quality and the rulebook is easy to use. The text on the board itself can be difficult to read, and on some areas of the board it can be hard to differentiate between areas that don't allow movement and those that do. It can also be tough to tell what resource each port produces once players have laid claim to the ports if players have placed their port tokens on top of the resource picture at the port. For the most part though, the game looks great, and is very eye catching.
The bottom line:
Empires at Sea is a very good game that has a few snags that can potentially trip players up during play. The game is easy to learn and play, with simple mechanics coupled with a ton of neat, strategic options available via Captain cards. The Captain cards can be a double edged sword though, and can severely hinder players who aren't able to draw cards that they need, especially when it comes to building new ships. The card distributions and luck factors tend to even out as player count increases though, so, as long as you aren't looking to play Empires at Sea as a primarily two player game, there is quite a lot of upside to the game, especially in the eye-candy department.
Get this game if:
You enjoy age of sail themed adventure games.
You like 4x-lite games.
You enjoy games where direct inter-player conflict is key to success.
Avoid this game if:
You play games primarily with 2 people.
You dislike games with a high luck factor.
The first print run of Empires at Sea has an incorrect component count listed. An updated version of the rulebook can be found in PDF format here.
The copy of Empires at Sea used for this review was provided by Bear and Bandit.
Empires at Sea is a lot of fun. but a bad turn of luck can really put one player behind. Players who enjoy age of sail games will find a lot to like here, as long as they intend to play with more than 2 players.