Ahoy Review

Hijinks On The High Seas

Aug 14, 2023
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Leder Games has been publishing hit title after title these days à la Pixar making movies in the earlier 2000s. Everything is fantastic, and they can seemingly do no wrong. Ahoy is yet another offering in asymmetry, players controlling factions that all play a little differently, and if you were wondering if this was going to be the game where they finally dropped the ball, I have some disappointing news. Ahoy is yet another fantastic title that delivers on the promise of its theme: in this case, pirate adventure on the high seas!

It’s no exaggeration to say it’s taken over our local board game nights, a solid staple often broken out when four players are deciding what the evening’s main event will be at our weekly game night. But what makes it such an ever-requested favorite? And perhaps more importantly, we should figure out if it belongs on your game night table as well.

ahoy header.jpg Ahoy

Designer: Greg Loring-Albright
Publisher: Leder Games, MS Edizioni, Portal Games
Number of Players: 2 - 4
Play Time: 45 - 75 minuntes
Price: $40 USD
Copy provided by publisher
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Who doesn't love an adventure on the high seas? This ocean board will be different every time your friends lay down a tile.

A Pirate’s Life

What is Ahoy, you may be asking. And what is asymmetry, another word that often gets thrown around in Leder Games titles. Answering those questions respectively, Ahoy is a game where players earn victory points for fulfilling objectives specific to their chosen faction, all themed around a battle for area control around a chain of tropical islands. The asymmetry is that players aren’t all playing the same mini games to earn those points, depending on whether they control one of the main fleet factions or a smuggler operating around the conflict. Whereas many board games give players identical starting positions, sometimes offset by special player powers, a truly asymmetrical game is a balancing act where each player is playing their own style of rules spread over a shared board and some commonalities all players use.

If only two players are playing, they are required to use the main fleet factions, one crew of sharks facing off against another made of mollusks. The sharks’ special powers revolve around dropping minions around the board (represented by adorable wooden shark fin tokens popping out from the ocean’s surface), and they use these minions all across the board to solidify their holdings and choke enemy movement. Their flagship is a powerful piece that can bombard enemy positions, and they have a limited number of forts they can build to strengthen island holdings. The mollusks, on the other hand, like to park boots on solid land as part of their control strategy, and they get a couple of big, special ships they can command as well. These dovetail into a special deck of cards that only the mollusk player draws from, a randomly drawn yet always identical assortment of tactics and surprises they can drop when they choose. Both of these players aim to control key islands by maintaining a majority of their own pieces in those tiles. Each island tile is worth points when the score is tallied each round.

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Things start out small but get out of hand real fast.

When a third or fourth player is involved, they take on the role of smugglers. These play identically to each other, though they are once again different from either of the main fleet boards. Smugglers want to pick up cargo from one island and deliver it to another where it is in demand. They then also bank smuggled cards as a sort of bet on which main fleet they think will be in control at the end of the game, earning secret bonuses for every correct guess. Of course, while it’s not a smuggler’s job to fight (unless perhaps a fleet is blockading them from a port they need), a wily smuggler can certainly fire some cannons to tip the scales in favor of a player they’ve placed more bets on.

In an interesting twist of game mechanics and theme, smugglers also have a direct effect on the wargame being played by the fleet players; for each successful smuggling of goods to an island, the value of that tile increases in victory point value. As smugglers earn points on their cargo runs, some islands will grow in point value, naturally refocusing the conflict between the large fleets. I love this little rule, adding a perfect link between the two main styles of gameplay which would otherwise feel like two smaller, separate games mashed together. Whether a player needs to then control land or smuggle goods, everyone has a role to play in this wacky naval conflict!

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I love that the player boards have rules and references printed right on them! Keeps the game flowing without the need to bust out the rulebook.

Flattening The Learning Curve

Players begin their turns by rolling a handful of dice that they will allocate to their player boards as they move and take various actions, a nice little puzzle of where to spend valuable resources when enacting a game plan each turn. In typical board game fashion, there’s never enough to get everything done in a turn that you’d like, though there is a currency system that acts as a “bump my rolls to a number I need” in emergencies. The shark player might power up one of their special abilities, moving several of their little shark scouts, along with their flagship, into new territories. They are positioned to score several tiles uncontested at the end of this turn. The mollusk player, undeterred, drops forces into one particularly valuable island, solidifying their hold. The shark player would like to bombard the island with their cannons, but it’s too far away to hit this turn and they need their dice for other tasks right now. Meanwhile, a smuggler completes a cargo run, boosting the value of another tile within mollusk control. The shark player has to decide how long they can afford to enact their own plans on more remote islands and when they may need to swoop back into the main conflict.

In true Leder Games fashion, Ahoy’s gameplay leads to all kinds of wacky and interesting interactions. For example, taking the “load cannons” action means you must fight if one of your pieces crosses another player’s. If you load those cannonballs, you’re committed! For the shark player in particular, that means they turn from a force prowling all over the seas to a watery minefield when they get ready to fight. Combat, by the way, is settled by a dice roll-off, and the die you spend to “load cannons” can be ticked down for bonuses to your rolls, mitigating luck to a small degree. And sure, building fortresses to control key islands is all well and good, but I found out the hard way that if you build one too soon, you’ll scare off the smugglers! As much as you don’t want them to win, you still need them to increase the value of your holdings. I “locked in” a low point value on one of my tiles by placing a fort early, leading to smugglers taking other jobs and looking for the other island with the delivery symbol I’d just put under martial law. Maybe they could’ve come in guns blazing to make that delivery, but why, they figured. I shot myself in the fin on that one and missed out on a lot of points.

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Multi-function cards are one of my all time favorite mechanics in board games. Ahoy uses its cards as crew, but also as goods for smugglers to swipe and deliver.

And yet! For all the complexity that you might think learning different, asymmetrical factions brings to the table, Ahoy is remarkably easy to pick up. The board, movement, dice placement minigame, and combat are all shared rules that don’t change, no matter who you play. Point tallying is quick and easy. There is a market of shared, face-up cards on the table that provide crew for special powers as well as cargo symbols for smugglers. And while each faction has a few specific things that only they can do, it’s all printed for reference on your player boards underneath where you place your dice; it’s never so much that it becomes unmanageable.

The game I see this compared to all the time is another Leder favorite: Root. Its adorable artwork hides rather intricate and sinister gameplay, and many who aren’t prepared for the depth of its asymmetrical rules will bounce off it. Ahoy, in this reviewer’s opinion, makes a perfect introduction into Leder Games’ signature asymmetrical game design. I have friends at our local game night who draw the line at what many consider “medium weight” board game complexity; they stick to games that are still very good but also don’t tend to melt the brain with rules explanations or multiple plays just to grasp basic gameplay. And they LOVE Ahoy! I would say that’s because, while there’s asymmetrical design in play (pun intended), there isn’t so much of it that it scares off players unused to learning a few extra rules. Granted Leder Games has a history of producing these kinds of games, but they’ve really found that magical balance with this one. Players get enough of a taste without being overwhelmed by spice.

More than perhaps any other Leder title I’ve recommended to date, that makes Ahoy a perfect entry point into this publisher’s library of titles. If you’ve been on the outside looking in, there has literally never been a better time to try one of their games!

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If you want your own fleet, along with a special deck of tactics cards, get ye the Mollusk faction!

A Treasure

I want to make something very clear before I end this review. Just because I think this is the current #1 title for Leder Games newbies to learn about asymmetrical board games doesn’t mean the veterans will get nothing out of it. The truth is that while Ahoy is fantastic as an introduction to games like Root, it stands perfectly on its own two feet! There are all sorts of advanced interactions in this game that folks will enjoy uncovering through repeated plays. I don’t want to spoil them here, as discovery with your friends and family is part of the fun, but I’ll share what I think is one of the more obvious ones. After a couple of plays, the mollusk player’s special deck of tactics cards will be known. You might not know which cards they have at any given time, but you can start planning for them. You know what they’ve already played, and you can start making educated guesses based on their gameplay behavior what they might be holding back for later. Like much more complex, card-based games such as Netrunner or Twilight Struggle, there’s an element of card counting and playing around specific “bad things I haven’t seen yet.” This kind of gameplay, alongside the modular board, really extends both the life and depth of Ahoy as you play it over and over. And my friends have fallen down that rabbit hole pretty hard since I originally introduced it at our local game night.

You’ll need at least two players to get a game going, but I really recommend this one with at least three. Four is ideal, in my opinion, but the game is at its best when you have at least one human smuggler rather than leaving island point increases to a game cleanup phase. This might make it a slightly harder recommend for some, but I feel like this is nothing new to Leder Games. I would say all of their titles are made better by a 3-4 player count, even if they support less. If you have the players, I’ll say that a copy of Ahoy belongs on your shelf for sure. Recently, it’s probably the most-played title of theirs I have, and as those game days fly by it competes with Root for most played of all time in their offerings I own.

If you like what you see here, do yourself a favor and plunder a copy of Ahoy. It’s solid gold!

Adam Factor