Eric poured through the reports on his desk, looking out the window at the ships filling up the icy waters of Nunavut’s Ridback Bay. Things were working well for his fleet, with the shrimp and lobster boats both bringing in significant hauls, but now he faced tough decisions about what to do with the profits. Should he invest further in shrimp and lo to try bsterand control those markets? Opt to diversify, branching out into cod, tuna, or king crab? Build a processing fleet to control the next step of production? Or even just buy the dock’s pub to make money off the thirsty returning fishermen? All of those possibilities seemed to provide ample room for profit, but there were his rivals to consider, too. What would they do, and what opportunities would that leave for Eric?
Publisher: Eagle-Gryphon Games
(Note: this is a review just of the base game. I plan to write a review of the Arctic Bounty expansion in the future.)
I picked up Fleet a few years ago on a whim, mostly thanks to its theme. Fishing an unexplored bay in Nunavut sounded like a lot of fun, and was certainly different than anything else I had in my collection. Imagine my surprise to find out years later from the excellent designer diary that this didn’t start with a fishing theme at all, but rather as a game called Imperials, based around continents and cities. In the end, that game would be just fine as well, as there’s a rock-solid engine here that would provide plenty of fun regardless of what the game’s about, but I think the fishing theme actually translates pretty well, and it definitely helps the game stand out. It’s certainly not a theme-first game, or an overly-detailed fishing simulation, but it’s a unique engine-building game that gives you the sense of building a fishing fleet, either cornering one kind of the market or diversifying amongst different fish, and it’s one that provides a high level of replayability and interesting decisions for a low cost, a short play time and minimal table space. From this corner, this is a sure keeper, not one to throw back.
What’s Fleet all about? In a word, multi-use cards, which is a key reason it’s able to deliver such a solid experience without a huge number of components and for a low price. Setup is pretty quick, only requiring giving each player one of each boat card, modifying the numbers of available licenses and fish crates depending on the number of players, and setting the premium licenses further down in the deck. The boat cards you get can be used as boats, captains, or money to pay for licenses and launching boats. The goal’s to get the most victory points, and there are multiple ways to do that. Each launched boat is worth a certain number of victory points (depending on the boat type), and each crate of fish on a boat at the end of the game is worth one victory point. Each basic license you buy is worth a certain number of victory points (depending on type), and premium licenses are worth more (to be discussed a little later).
The game goes through five steps each round, beginning with an auction for the available licenses (paying with boat cards) and progressing through launching boats (paying the boat’s cost), captaining boats (discarding a card face-down onto the boat), fishing (only captained boats fish, collecting one crate per boat up to a maximum of four on any given boat), processing/trading (only if you have a processing license, which lets you bring fish in off your boats and convert them to cards and cash), and drawing two cards, then discarding one. It isn’t too hard to explain, and it’s relatively quick to play each round, especially once players get the hang of it.
That doesn’t minimize the amount of decisions here, though, and those decisions are primarily driven by the licenses. Each kind of license lets you launch ships of that kind, but also has a unique benefit; shrimp licenses give you money off each license you buy and boat you launch, cod licenses let you launch two boats per round and draw cards when you launch, lobster let you captain two boats per round and draw cards based on how many captains you have, processing vessel licenses let you bring fish in off your boats and convert them to cards and cash, and tuna licenses make your end-of-turn draw/discard more efficient. All of the licenses can be very worthwhile, and multiple licenses of one type offer expanded benefits.
This sets up all kinds of tensions and strategies; do you focus on getting licenses from a variety of categories to do everything well, or do you try to stack licenses in one category to both gain better benefits and lock your opponents out of that area? Do you focus on shrimp to get cheap cards, or lobster to draw more cards, or cod to crank more boats out? Is processing worth it to clear your ships and bring in cash, or is it a waste of victory points (every crate still on a boat is worth 1 VP at the end of the game, so processing takes those away)? There are no clear answers, and the auction mechanic makes this really interesting. The designers have discussed how wanting to counteract the randomness of card draws for particular strategies in Race For The Galaxy helped inspire them, and the auctions are a particular way to avoid that; everyone will have a chance at each license that comes up (providing they have enough cash in hand). This also helps make this highly interactive; your strategies can’t just consider what you want to do, but about what your opponents are trying to do and how high they’ll try to make you bid for certain cards.
Further trickiness comes in from the aforementioned premium licenses. In the base game, these are Fisherman’s Pub (10 victory points) and King Crab (five basic victory points, plus bonuses based on captained boats, fish caught, or number of different licenses acquired) licenses, and these can expand the strategy. Some king crab licenses can be much more beneficial than others based on the strategy you’ve followed, but your opponents know that too; how much is it worth it for them to grab a license that may not be as useful to them, but prohibits you from getting a big bonus? The random time element in when these licenses will show up also adds tension; you’re never quite sure when you should launch boats or bid big on a standard license and when you should save your money in case a premium one’s coming up next round. (There is opportunity for planning, as the licenses available are refreshed at the end of the auction step, so you have a full round to prepare with knowledge of what’s coming up; still, it can be tough to figure out just when to launch your boats and when to hang on for another turn.)
The replayability comes from the combination of these factors. Yes, there are endless other cards you can add to the game, whether from Kickstarter promos, the big Arctic Bounty expansion, or the 54-card expansion pack, and they can bring in even more, but there’s a surprising amount of replayability to be found in just the base game. No two games are exactly alike thanks to the randomness in what licenses and boat cards come up when, and the player count can change things up too. (Another point in Fleet‘s favour is that while there’s plenty of player interaction with the auctions and higher player counts can increase that, having more players doesn’t really make the game run much longer, as most phases can be resolved simultaneously.)
The best thing from a replayability standpoint is the amount of balance in this game, though. No one strategy or one type of license seems universally dominant (although Riddle noted in an Inquisitive Meeple article earlier this month that newer players may feel that way about the processing vessel license, as it lets you do something in a phase where you have to pass otherwise, and that feels more powerful than it actually is), with the best way to go depending on the cards you draw, the licenses you already have, and what your opponents are trying to do. There’s both overall strategy and more reactive tactics involved, and that makes for a game that’s always an interesting puzzle.
On the puzzle front, it should be mentioned that Fleet is a phenomenal solo game, and that’s one of my favourite ways to enjoy it. The challenges of figuring out how to use each game’s setup and available licenses present a lot of fun, and there are several different low-upkeep AIs to play against, from the unofficial 2012 Ahab variant (my particular favourite at this point in time) to the unofficial Flank Speed variant to the official solo game against two captains found in the Arctic Bounty rules (which can also be tweaked for the base game). The relatively-quick setup and playtime and low table space make this an easily-portable solo game, too, which is always nice. It’s become one of my solo standbys.
Of course, not all games are going to be enjoyed by all gamers, and there are definitely some who might not like Fleet. First, you don’t need to love math to enjoy this game, but if you hate math and games that sometimes feel math-focused, this might not be the game for you. Between the auctions, the various ways you can use cards, and the various benefits from either stacking one kind of license or obtaining different licenses, there are a lot of potential cost/reward tradeoffs to consider. You certainly don’t have to thoroughly map out the full math to get you to how much a license is worth to you, but having an idea of the math is important. Beyond that, this can feel like a math-heavy game sometimes, and it can be a punishing one, especially for newbies playing against veterans; if you’re unable to get your engine going while someone else does, they can quickly pull away.
The newbie issue is another thing to consider here. In an era where there are so many good games out there, it’s often hard to get a game to the table repeatedly with the same group, and that can lead to a lot of experience differentials. There are many games where that’s not a huge deal and most new players have a full chance to win, but Fleet doesn’t feel like one of those. The auction mechanic in particular can be tough for new players if they don’t have a good sense of what licenses are worth (the minimum bids help here, as licenses don’t often need to shoot above that), and the engine construction can take a little while to get used to. It’s certainly possible for new players to win at Fleet, and some quick learners may be able to pull off first-game victories, but in general, the feedback in my group has been that it’s a tough game for new players to adapt to and that experienced players have an edge. This can be overcome (perhaps with some suggestions that go beyond just explaining the rules?), but it’s something to think about.
Overall, Fleet is an excellent game. It provides a multi-use card, engine-building feel that will appeal to those who like games like San Juan and Race for the Galaxy, but with some mechanical changes that help it stand out (less potential abilities and icons to worry about than RftG, plus draw randomness mitigation and added player interaction through auctions). It’s different enough game-to-game to provide plenty of replayability even with just the base cards, and its overall balance and mix of long-term strategy and short-term tactics provides a compelling puzzle. It doesn’t take up much space on the shelf or table, won’t set you back too much, and plays quickly (and well) with anywhere from 1-4 players. I plan to keep exploring Ridback Bay for years to come, and I think it’s a worthwhile venture for other would-be fleet captains to join me on.