Among the many things that define a 'good' game for individual players is something, for the sake of discussion, I'll call the 'after-thought' effect. You sit down and play a game, whether it be for the first time, or the 100th time. You win or lose. Doesn't matter. You pack all the bits away, as post-mortem chit-chat ensues, close up the box and move on; to another game, or home, or bed, as the case may be.
Then, it hits you . . .
"If I'd bought that (fill in the blank) sooner, I could have won that game."
You continue driving, or turn over. Thoughts will wander and then drift back.
"I wonder what would have happened if I'd move into that open territory before he did."
The specifics will differ, of course, but the relentless march of the 'after thoughts' will continue, often for hours, sometimes into the next day. Or two. They'll eventually go dormant. If they don't, you should probably just give in and buy the game. If you already own it, you'll find yourself suggesting it at the next available opportunity.
For this individual player, first time out, Upon A Salty Ocean invoked just that sort of process. I was teaching it to two others. The rule book was coherent, and while it would be a while before any of us would pick up on the ebb and flow of actual game play, we were able to set out without too much discussion.
It's about fishing. The catching and eventual sale of fish to market in the French port city of Rouen, circa 1500. You own a boat, and will likely build two more of them. You'll leave port with a load of salt (for preserving your catch), and head on out to open ocean, where you'll catch cod and herring. You'll head back to port and sell it at fluctuating market prices. You'll invest money in town buildings, which, in a variety of ways, will improve your maritime business; sometimes on an action-by-action basis and other times, with large bonuses at the end of the game.
The fishing part of the exercise is pretty straightforward. Your ships need to be loaded with salt when you head out, because you'll trade salt for fish, 1-for-1, when you reach open water (technically, you're not trading the salt, but using it to preserve your catch). As a merchant, you'll benefit at the end of each turn from production at a nearby salt mine, which is one of the 'buildings' in which you might consider investing. Such investment will increase the amount of salt production available to you on your turn, thus increasing the potential size of your catch. You sail your ship, catch your fish, return to port, and sell your catch. Money determines the winner, although it's received and dispensed on a 'scoring' track, which feels very much like a 'victory point' track.
In the parlance of the game, it is played out over five turns, and each turn is divided into three phases - Events, Actions and Turn End. The Events (prompted by turning over an event card) cause market prices to be adjusted, weather conditions on the open sea to be in effect, and announce the presence of pirates, if any. You'll actually turn over two Event cards, although only the first will be in effect for the turn; the other is displayed to allow players a glimpse into future market and weather/sea conditions.
There is virtually no limit to the number of actions you can perform during a game turn, although you will only be allowed one action at a time. Turn play will proceed in player order (determined by money, in reverse; player with lowest amount goes first, etc.) until all players have opted to pass. This signifies the end of a turn.
There are four different types of actions - Building, Navigation, Harbor and Market. Each of these actions initially costs nothing to perform, but as a turn progresses, the cost will increase. First player to perform an action pays nothing, second pays 1, third plays 2, fourth pays 3, etc., all the way to 10 coins. The increase is marked on a board 'table' that advances a black marker. At the end of a turn, the 'table' is reset; prices revert back to "0."
You build buildings with your building action, head out to and back from the ocean with navigation action, move goods on and off your ship(s) with the Harbor actions and sell your fish (or salt) with a market action. The price increase mechanism gets significant quickly. In a four-player game, for example, if you happen to be going first, you can head on out to catch fish for nothing, but if all of your opponents perform the same action (Navigation), it'll cost you four dollars to get back with your catch. The buildings can get costly, too, because early on, players will want to establish ownership of a few important ones, leading to multiple uses of the building action.
Detailing the benefits of all 15 of the buildings isn't practical here, but it's something you'll want to do for newcomers because the important ones will affect early decisions. Like the Eglise Saint Maclou, for example, which protects players from the effect of pirates. Only two players will be able to claim 'title' to that building (one in a two-player game), so knowing it's there is important to a first-time player. Same with the Notre Dame building, which offers players a growing opportunity for a huge end-game bonus of as much as 70 coins. All players in a four-player game can advance markers in Notre Dame to claim 35 bonus coins. Only three will be able to claim 45, two can claim 55, and only one will get the bonus of 70 coins. Knowing this at the beginning may affect early decisions about advancing a player marker in the Notre Dame space. It's also important to know that no one can build a new ship until two 'port' buildings have been claimed - The Marine Academy and the Shipyard. They can be claimed by one person, or two, but they need occupants before any new ships can be built. And they provide owners with three and four coins every time someone builds one (half that amount if two people place markers in the buildings).
Newcomers would also want to be alerted to the bank and vault buildings. Without a marker in the bank, you won't be able to advance your coin track beyond 40. Without the vault (which you can't purchase until after you've placed a marker in the bank), you won't be able to advance on the coin track beyond 80.
Among the many 'after-thoughts' I had after my first game was the notion that I should have been advancing in Notre Dame a little more consistently than I was. One of my opponents noted the value early and collected 70 coins, which moved him way ahead on the money track, essentially earning him the win. I did, however, reinforce my own belief that claiming the Eglise Saint Maclou building was important, because it saved me from a lot of pirate action that would have damaged my ships (by reducing cargo capacity, and requiring repair to get back to original capacity). It was the first building I claimed, and I'd look to do it again. There's a building that'll deter the effects of bad weather, which can cause you to lose salt when you head out onto the ocean, thereby reducing the size of your catch.
The building of new ships and the increase of salt and storage capacity (building actions) will grow your business, allowing more ships to catch more fish and make more money in the market. There are means by which players can manipulate the market. One commentator on BoardGameGeek (where it's been reviewed by about 280 people, with an average rating of 6.81) told of a player who never fished, but spent time buying and selling salt and using a building which allows you to order event cards to sort of 'stack the (event) deck' in his favor. This can be done, but it's risky business if someone catches on and reduces the market value of salt to "0." "Time," says another commentator, "to get out the ship and set sail."
Like a lot of Euros, Upon A Salty Ocean has a fair amount of optimization mechanics to it, where you're merely making use of available resources to do the best you can on your turn; what they call 'multi-player solitaire.' Limited space availability on certain buildings forces a degree of interaction, while understanding the market forces at work (turn-by-turn fluctuations and player manipulation) forces you to watch what other players are doing.
Nice artwork, by the way, and unlike the previously reviewed The Forgotten Planet, Under A Salty Ocean has a way of effectively marrying theme and process. You do feel like an entrepreneurial fisherman, looking to make your fortune on the high seas off the city of Rouen in the 15th century. The relationship between salt and fishing is particularly noteworthy, as is the necessity of a working shipyard and a maritime academy for the training of seamen.
The 'after-thoughts' affect is working at full throttle for me, and I'm looking forward to my next voyage 'upon a salty ocean.'
Upon A Salty Ocean, designed by Marco Pranzo, with artwork by Lamberto Azzariti, is published by Rio Grande Games here in the US. It's designed for 2-4 players, with an age range of 13 and up. It can be played in under two hours, possibly less with familiarity. It retails for just under $50, and can be found (private sales for the most part) for less than $30.