Upon a Salty Ocean
Designer: Marco Pranzo
Ages: 13 and up
Time: 120 mins
Review by Nathan Beeler
“We should not pretend to understand the world only by the intellect.” – Carl Gustav Jung
There is something stark and beautiful about Lamberto Azzariti’s artwork for Upon a Salty Ocean: dark sketch-like drawings that are something evocative of a simple time that probably never was. Why the game and its art would call out to me, though, is a bit of a mystery. Generally, it could be said that I have zero desire to muck about as a 16th century fishing magnate; buying ships, trading salt, and investing in the local economy are activities as appealing to me as my morning commute. I get ill just imagining the open sea rolling beneath my feet on a fishing Caravel. That I grabbed the box from a pile of new games (many months ago now) and asked if anyone could teach it, something I rarely do as a Cult of the Great* member, speaks volumes to me about the allure of the game’s artwork. Fortunately, judging a game by the cover works out sometimes.
Upon a Salty Ocean is focused on players finishing five rounds of play with the most coins, which serve double duty as both the currency used to feed a player’s machine and the sole victory condition. The game is relatively light on rules but the play is thick with possibilities; the rulebook has something like four easy to read pages of English rules (missing from them are the answers to some simple questions, however). A lot of the promise of the game lies in its free and open feel, of what you can do within those rules. A player can choose to to do one of four types of actions on her turn, or she may pass. The cost, in coins/vps, to perform each type of action is tracked on a chart, which gets more expensive by one coin each time someone chooses that action in a given round. As long as she can afford it, a player can keep taking any actions she wants. And people who previously passed can come back in and take an action later, though probably under worse conditions or at a more hefty price (there are reasons to do this, as will be discussed later). The round doesn’t end until everyone passes in order.
“Business is the salt of life.” – Voltaire
The various actions a player can do consist of increasing his presence in the buildings of Rouen, building ships for his fleet, loading them with salt and sending them out to sea, bringing them back with herring and cod stored on the salt, and buying and selling fish or salt for the precious coins. In a game centered around the business of fishing, the activity of converting salt to fish to coin is fairly straightforward, if occasionally fraught with hazards. When a ship goes out to sea, each of its stored salt cubes is converted directly to a fish cube of the player’s choice (which is often dependent on the price of each fish in the market).
Each turn a randomized event tile dictates the starting market and fishing conditions, the latter of which can involve storms, poor fishing, or even pirate attacks. The end result of those events is either loss of salt/fish or damage to a ship for those heading to sea. These events are assessed on the outbound journey only, so once a player has his fish he is free to bring them back unmolested and sell them for only the cost of the actions. Once in port, fish can be sold directly from the ship to the market, and the coin goes directly into his account (the scoring track) where it can be spent immediately, possibly on more salt. Easy peasy.
But what if a player wants to protect herself from pirates? Presence in the Eglise Saint Maclou building will give her that. Or what if she’d like to be able to store more than 40 coins at the end of the turn? Having contributed to the Banque building will allow her to store up to 80 coins. Increasing the player’s level on the Saline track is how she can increase her salt income every round, a necessary step in increasing her fishing production. Doing all these things requires taking the highly prized building action. Getting in the buildings cannot be entirely ignored, as there are a lot of benefits to be derived that are necessary to winning. The city/building action is often fought over early in a round when it is still cheap, and it is one that regularly gets taken even after it has reached the maximum cost of 10 coins. Fishing, by contrast, can almost be ignored and a player can still be competitive; by simply selling the salt income directly to the market and saving the money and actions that would be spent in the conversion processes, a player has the ability to earn a modest living and look for other ways to win. That fishing does not have to be the focus is an odd thing in a game about the business of fishing (though possibly obvious when looking at the board, which is dominated by the town and only has a tiny bit of actual ocean in the corner). The idea that a player may ignore fishing leads to my most obvious observation about Upon a Salty Ocean; it’s one of those games where it’s good to zag when others zig.
“What would an ocean be without a monster lurking in the dark?” – Werner Herzog
Nowhere is this more obvious than with one of the more important aspects to the game: the turn order track. At the end of every round, the turn order is reset based on the current cash holdings of each of the players. The poorer a player is, the earlier in the turn he will go, which can be a huge benefit during the course of the next turn. All the actions are reset to a cost of zero every round, so right off the bat everything is much cheaper when you go early. Additionally, having the first crack at selling previously caught fish at the best market prices, or loading up the newly earned salt and either selling it or fishing with it can be a difference of dozens of coins, as the markets drop every time a good is sold. Going earlier is such a large benefit, that people will often spend their coins seemingly frivolously at the end of a round in order to drop down in the turn order. Of course, once a player has overspent someone, that player can jump back in and spend more to get below them. And on and on until someone relents. Players may borrow up to 22 coins (with some nominal penalties), so a game may frequently see players ending a round at or around the maximum debt level.
There is a dangerous side effect to taking that pissing match to its logical extreme, which is that there is no automatic income in the game except salt (one building does give a player cash income each turn, but that is assessed before turn order is determined, so even getting that income can come back to bite a player). Going all the way negative a player may leave himself with no ability to borrow more money to pay for the actions he needs to earn the money to take advantage of going first; once someone takes a free action it will no longer be free again that round. When managed correctly, going all the way down can absolutely be the correct thing to do that will pay off huge dividends. But one misstep and that player can spend his entire turn passing, hoping to be the only completely indebted player who gets a free action to sell his wares. Losing a whole turn is a hope killer, in a game with only five rounds.
“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, not the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” – Charles Darwin
So how is zagging helpful with the turn order? One obvious way is to save money when others are fighting over the right to go first. While they are spending coin hand over fist and will be forced to sell goods first next time anyway, a player can keep the money she already has and have the luxury of taking a cheap building or two next round Alternatively, a player can zag by being the only one to drop low enough to go first. Sometimes, often later in the game, people will want to start to keep the money they’ve earned, since cash is also victory points. Reinvesting in your machine (buildings, ships) at this point could be the right thing to do, more especially if you don’t have to sink too low. Of course, she won’t know until someone starts challenging her right to be first, when suddenly she’s no longer zagging.
One place it may not be good to be different is the Notre Dame building space. Players work on building the famous Notre Dame cathedral by building on…wait, what? I thought that was built in Paris, much earlier. [One google and wikipedia later] Ah. It turns out there are Notre Dame cathedrals all over the place, and the name just refers to the virgin Mary. The one in Rouen was originally started three hundred years before the time period of this game, but work was still going on over three hundred years afterwards. So it’s appropriate that players should spend building actions working toward a large endgame bonus in the space. And if any other players are aggressively working on the cathedral, I think it would be very difficult to ignore it altogether and still do well. One player can earn as much as 70 coins by building all the way to the end of the track, which has been about half to two thirds of the winning score in my games. The winning player hasn’t necessarily been the one to finish the building (only one player may reach the end of the track), but I doubt she could have no presence there, either.
“Fishing is boring, unless you catch an actual fish, and then it is disgusting.” – Dave Barry
I’ve written a lot of words about how the game plays, but haven’t said much about how it feels, except to hint that I like it. And I do like it. But I admit, it’s a strange game. Like the art, there’s something a little off about the gameplay, something a little bleak, that I am drawn to. The whole idea of getting into a game of chicken as a bidding war with what are victory points would normally repulse me. But here a person is not just bidding with those points, he’s putting them to use. Every time he makes a bid he’s getting something out of it. Yes, he is probably overpaying to take the build action, for example, but he’s getting whatever building’s special ability out of it in addition to fighting for turn order. As a person who tends to enjoy games with special abilities like that, I’m definitely ok with that trade-off.
Then there is the strange phenomenon of laziness. There are times in the game when salt is fairly cheap, but one of the fish types might still have a little value in the market. It could be worth it to buy salt, load it, take it to sea, bring back fish, and sell it, only to make a scant few coins in profit after action costs are deducted. And yet I’ve seen players, myself included, pass up on that opportunity and let the round end, just because it’s too much work for too little gain. Or just as often, they might sell their salt simply so they don’t have to figure out if it’s still worth fishing, even when it may be. I can’t think of many other games where someone would intentionally pass up on taking points for any but strategic or tactical reasons. I guess that probably says the fishing cycle can feel a little like work if there’s not a big payout at the end. That’s not necessarily the most complimentary thing to say about a game, and honestly it’s one of the reasons I can’t wholeheartedly endorse it as an instant classic. There are times it can feel like a grind. Thankfully, those times have so far been rare for me. Mostly it’s been tense and fun and interesting and weird.
“Even in the bleakest times, there are gifts to be discovered.” – Jann Mitchell
I guess that’s it; the game is a little bit curious, but by and large I like it. As I’ve mentioned a few times, the buildings allow you different ways to break rules and that’s something I always seek out in a game design. Which buildings a person takes will probably largely dictate the flow of the game for her. In my last game I was able to ensure ship building was cheap and easy, so I sent my boats into pirate laden waters without much care, while my friend built at the Bureau des Finances and tried to corner the cheap salt markets by making a lot of sales. To me these differences are fun, though I have heard it suggested that the differences just generally lead players into one of a few patterns, and once they are known the game will have been tapped. I guess I’ll have to see. For now I’m willing to keep taking my salt out to sea.
* “Cult of the Great” means to me that I have a vast preference for playing games I already have a love for, and am interested in new games primarily as a way to find more great games. New games, in and of themselves, hold little charm.
Will this game bring Rouen to gamers everywhere, OGers?
Opinions from Other Opinionated Gamers
Dale Yu: Wow – not a lot left to say as Nathan has written a pretty comprehensive review of mechanics here. In short, I like the game. It’s an interesting worker placement game with a different economic system than most. The aspect which I liked (and which I figure will be the polarizing part of the game) is the spend down at the end of each round as people fight to get as low as they can on the score track vying for turn order in the next round. In my three games, I’ve never seen anyone get all the way to the maximum debt level, but I have definitely seen people one-up each other going deeper and deeper into debt. It’s definitely a mechanic that interests me and is worth further exploration. The abilities conferred by occupying the different buildings seem to be well balanced, and the variety of them allows for a number of different viable strategies. I have concentrated efforts in my first games in being able to build ships cheaply and being able to bring home the fish, but I would like to experiment at least once with commodity arbitrage. While I don’t know if this is an all-time keeper yet, I’m still looking forward to my next game of Salty Ocean, so that’s a good sign indeed.
Lorna: Only played it once, it seemed a little dry, literally! I liked the cost market for the actions. Turn order had a huge impact on players that were following in the tracks of others. Those that branched out did much better. I’d certainly be up for another game but this isn’t one I’d readily pull out when there are games that are more fun.
Larry Levy: I recognize that Upon a Salty Ocean (what a dreadful title, BTW) is a quality design. But its quality stems from vicious attempts of players trying to break their opponents and while that’s usually not a problem for me, it goes too far for my tastes in this instance. The game masquerades as a bland economic design, and of course you can play it safe and happily fish, visit the market, and buy some buildings that will earn you a few points. But you’ll probably finish behind the guy who ruthlessly manipulated the market, went as far into debt as he dared, and parlayed it into a big killing. Of course, someone could have taken steps to make sure this fellow crashed and burned, sending him from first to last. I’m sure this all sounds exciting and I expect there’s a significant group of gamers who will love this game. But the manipulation feels very artificial to me and I found I didn’t like having to live on a knife’s edge, with every opponent’s actions being scrutinized to see if it could send me over the cliff. After several games, it just stopped being fun. So it’s a game I can recommend for others, just not for me.
Mark Jackson: As others have noted, the name makes little sense: the game is mostly about what happens on land, not out “on the salty ocean.”
And what happens on land is, well, not particularly interesting. There’s nothing wrong with the game – the mechanics all work together nicely and the theme (though boring) is consistent – but there isn’t a lot of fun packed in here unless you like the manipulation of the debt system (per Dale) or the knife’s edge (per Larry).
Jonathan Franklin: This game embodies paranoia, which is odd to say for a game about fishing. I enjoyed my one play, but take these comments with a grain of salt. Larry’s comment is relevant because if someone falls on their sword, they can bring you down with them. They don’t even necessarily have to hurt themselves. For example, first turn of a later round, a player could either tank the price of salt or the price of cod by selling one or the other. It might not matter much to that player, but it will really hurt the person whose strategy or holdings rely on selling one or the other. Turn order is vital because all players are paranoid about what the first player will do and whether it will thwart all the other plans around the table.
There is a nasty aspect to turn order. The first person to a spot on the track goes after any others who arrive at that spot. The first person to negative 22 will only go first if someone else does not go to negative 22 later in that turn. If I want to sell, and take the free action, selling now costs 1. But the other person on negative 22 does not have the 1 it takes to sell, so they are toast.
Nate mentioned that the five tiles that determine price fluctuations. There is one building that can give you some control over these tiles or at least the ability to look ahead, but the difference between +1 and -1 on on commodity on the final tile can easily determine the winner of the game. I am not sure how often the optimal efficiency will win you the game relative to good fortune of synergy between your strategy and the tiles.
For now, I would play again, but it is a substantial time commitment and a bit mathy for my tastes. I do really like how the buildings offer divergent paths to victory, but acknowledge that they are really tactical differences and there are not that many broad strategies other than fish or don’t fish that I could see.
Ratings Summary from the Opinionated Gamers
I love it!…
I like it… Nathan Beeler, Dale Yu, Luke Hedgren, Tom Rosen
Neutral… Lorna, Larry Levy, Mark Jackson, Jonathan Franklin
Not for me…