By Dominique Ehrhard assisted byDuccio Vitale 1996
Board game for 2-4 players.
This game recalls the time in the Renaissance when powerful port cities were dominating the trade in the Mediterranean. The word ‘Serenissima’ is an old name for Venice.
The pretty board shows the Mediterranean, divided into sectors, and the ports around it. The land in this game is irrelevant. There are four main ports: Venice, Genoa, Valencia, and Istanbul, and these have six spaces for commodity markers. There are then medium-sized ports with four spaces, and small ports with two. The four main ports are the player ports. In a two-player game, Venice and Genoa are used, and in a three-player game, Valencia joins in. Each port has a colour, which corresponds to one of the seven commodities: cloth, spice, iron, timber, gold, gems, and wine. That is the commodity which can be bought from that port.
At the start of the game, each player has two ships, and a starting fund of money. Each turn, the players bid money to establish the playing order, then they buy commodities, recruit sailors, load up their ships, move ships, resolve any fighting, then any ports that changed hands are claimed, and then everyone sells things and gets rich.
The plastic ships, with their little flags, the little forts, and the map are pretty. The cardboard money is quite nice, and in general the physical production of the game is good. The rules are simple enough and clear, and each player gets a useful rules summary, which covers most things.
The representation of time and trade is quite abstract. In the game, a single ship sails to a port, lands a sailor to claim a neutral port, and sells for example one wine marker to that port. Once that marker is there, no more wine can ever be sold to that port. Although the rules do not state this, I think that it is better not to think of the wine marker as representing a single cargo from a single ship, but instead the establishment of a wine trade with that port.
At the end of the game, the winner is the player with the most points. Points are scored for ownership of ports, and ports whose commodity spaces (‘warehouses’) are all full are worth a lot more. Points are also gained for ducats in the treasury (unspent money), still having a capital, and there is a bonus of ten points for having a full warehouse in your own capital. I have never seen this bonus achieved. It is almost impossible, because it requires a player to get one of every single type of commodity (other than the one his capital produces) shipped back to his capital, and the game does not have many turns, and there is almost always at least one commodity which another player has a monopoly on (meaning he can charge very high prices for it).
The game is largely about the balance between aggression and peaceful trade. A ship can have lots of sailors on it, in which case it moves very fast and is powerful in a fight, but when it gets somewhere, it has nothing to trade. One vital rule is that the number of sailors recruited at a port in a turn can never be greater than the number of commodities in the port’s warehouse. This means that if a ship with sailors but no trade goods goes to a neutral port and takes it, then lands men to defend the port, it is then very vulnerable, because it cannot recruit any men to recrew the ship. The ship, with fewer crew on board, will now also be slower and perhaps unable to make it back in one turn to its mother port, and every voyage made with no trading is a waste. With four players, the game only lasts eight turns.
Every turn, players have to worry about leaving themselves vulnerable to attack. If a player is very aggressive, he will probably not win the game, because fighting is very costly, and all the time he is fighting, he is not trading, and trading is the way to make money. However, if he is naïve and does nothing to defend himself, his rivals can do him great harm. It is possible to lose one’s capital port, and this is crippling. Not only does it lose ten points at the end of the game, but also 300 ducats every turn is paid to every player still having his capital. Ships lost to combat can be taken over, and a ship carrying a sought-after commodity may be attacked in preference to a peaceful trading voyage to get that commodity.
Timber and iron are quite common, and these are needed to build new ships. Early on in the game it is vital to get a port with both of these commodities represented, in order to expand or replace a fleet. Gems are to be bought at only one port, and so it is easy to get a lucrative monopoly of gems. Spices are rare (just two ports in the east), as is gold (again, just two ports). The game often starts with a race to the gold ports. Gold is especially important because gold and wood are needed to fortify a port.
One minor niggle is that the wine ports have a dull red circle that is very easy to mistake for the dull reddish brown of the timber ports. I intend to paint these circles in a bright scarlet one day to make them clearer.
A much more major criticism I have of the game is the combat system. It is simple and quick, which is good. However, it involves having to do a calculation (you add the die roll result to the number of sailors and then divide by three (or four if attacking a fortified port), so if I have three sailors, and I roll a five, I’ve inflicted... 3+5=8, 8÷3=2.67, rounded down to 2. I don’t want to have to do this in my head every time, so I would rather have a simple chart derived from this. Note that the relative sizes of forces is not a factor – one attacker will inflict as many losses against a vast army as it will a small force of enemy. Another thing I don’t like is that if a port has a very big garrison, it becomes invulnerable. For example, if a player had a garrison of ten (not very difficult to achieve), a roll of 5 or 6 would kill five attackers in a single round, and sink their ship.
|For the convenience of those playing this game, you can download my combat table (Word .doc format), which is formatted to print three times on one sheet of A4 paper.
These, though, are minor niggles compared with another aspect of the system: it is too predictable. The only way to inflict no losses at all on the enemy is to roll a 1 when attacking with one sailor. All other rolls will certainly inflict some losses. If attacking with a full ship of five men, a roll of 1-3 kills two enemies, and a roll of 4-6 kills three. An attacker can, and usually will, attack when he is certain of victory. For example, if your ship has three men on it and mine has five, and I roll a 1 and you roll a six, I kill 2 and you kill two as well. In the next round of fighting it is three of my men versus one of yours. If I again roll 1 and you roll 6 (the worst possible result for me), you kill two of mine and I kill your last man. True, this is still a set-back for me, because I now no longer have enough men to take over your ship, but this example was of very common crew size (three) being attacked by a warship (no commodities), and so it shows you that a player can be very tempted into attacking a reasonably well-defended enemy, and be certain of victory. Real war is not that predictable.
In the last game I played before writing this review (I have played the game many times now), I was playing Venice, and while Genoa and Valencia competed for the western Mediterranean, I mugged the Istanbul player. Quickly I built ships, then sacrificed these in fights against him, sinking all but one of his ships. I had taken a gold port, but Valencia captured that from me. However, I was able to capture an Istanbul ship carrying two units of gold, and with these I was able to fortify my two spice ports, and I ended up winning the game. My tactics were fine, Istanbul’s play was weak, so that is not a flaw with the game, but the Istanbul player was dealt such a blow, and only about a third of the way into the game, that after that he lost interest in the game, seeing no way to recover from this early loss.
Combat should be less predictable, and a bit more dangerous to the attacker. In a multi-player game, this second requirement is not so important, because after a fight, a victor is usually pretty vulnerable to a vulture-like player who kept out of the first fight, but in a two-player game, the victor can be too sure of himself. I propose to use a combat system similar to that of the game Risk. This is also simple and fast, and uses d6 rolls, but it requires no tables nor calculations, gives a small advantage to the defender (defender wins in the case of a tie), limits the deadliness of large forces, and makes combat very unpredictable. In Risk, every game has in it one example of a single defender holding out against great odds.
I have not yet playtested my suggestion. When I do, I shall add the result to this review.