Ahoy! A new board game has set sail on the tabletop seas, and it’s here to fly the flag high for approachable asymmetry.
Ahoy comes from Leder Games, the studio that has made its name as arguably the foremost place to go for interesting asymmetrical board games, from the Vast dungeon-crawlers to Root and Oath.
On its surface, Ahoy has few similarities with Cole Werhle’s acclaimed game of cutthroat woodland tussling. Once you get past the poppy pastel characters of artist Kyle Ferrin that adorn both, anyway. It’s a much faster, lighter game - playing in around an hour, and taking not much longer to teach - set amongst blue waves and yellow sand rather than brown stone and orange trees.
Dig a little deeper under the sand, though, and designer Greg Loring-Albright’s pirate delight quickly starts to feel like a Root-lite with a salty hook and barnacled pegleg. That’s absolutely meant as a compliment of the highest degree.
Ahoy drops players into an ocean made up of square tiles, each of which is discovered and placed as their diddly wooden flagships sail beyond the starting pair of islands in the middle of the table.
Two of the players are naturally opposed as the domineering Bluefin Squadron and upstart Mollusk Union, feeling like seabound cousins of Root’s industrialised Marquise de Cat and rebellious Woodland Alliance.
Greg Loring-Albright’s pirate delight feels like a Root-lite with a salty hook and barnacled pegleg.
The Marquise-esque Bluefins control the waters like a nautical occupying force, continually dropping pesky patrols from their flagship and eventually constructing fortified strongholds that squat on islands, rendering them unusable for other players until defeated.
Meanwhile, the Mollusks must incite a guerrilla uprising, rallying comrades among the inhabitants of islands and steadily amassing their fighting power - with the chance to eventually build additional gunships to help clear the waters. A deck of plan cards with unique effects makes the union feel more dynamic and reactionary than its foes, able to quickly slip away from Bluefin bombardments and launch surprise counterattacks.
Between the factions at loggerheads sit one or two smugglers, depending on how many people are playing. (Like Root, Ahoy works best with at least one of each asymmetrical faction in play, though it’s a cleaner experience at three players than its bigger sibling.)
While the Mollusks and Bluefins are effectively in pursuit of the same end - holding control of each region tile to score points at the end of each round - albeit with different means, the smugglers are playing an entirely different game. One that serves as the crucial hinge on top of which the others seesaw.
True to their name, the smugglers forgo any interest in scrapping over islands to instead quietly profit from the ongoing battle. They can collect cargo from one island and deliver it to another to score points, hopping two cubes around a reward grid that offers everything from extra VP and gold to extra crew, instant repairs and bonus movement.
Vitally, that’s not where the points haul ends. Each piece of delivered cargo is secretly assigned to the Mollusks or Bluefins, building up to an end-of-game reveal that nets the smugglers bonus points if they match the cargo type to islands under the respective faction’s control. It gives the smugglers a notably different momentum, seeing them potentially zoom past their opponents in the closing stages if left to run unchecked.
Ahoy’s lighter rules make for a faster and more beginner-friendly game.
As cargo is delivered, it also increases the points netted for holding a region at the end of each round, serving as the poker that stokes the heated competition between Bluefins and Mollusks. The smugglers operate like Root’s adventurous Vagabond, seemingly detached from the main clash between factions, but subtly influencing its outcome as they go about their own business.
Ahoy’s lighter rules make for a much faster and more beginner-friendly game than Root, as each turn players assign two dice from their pool (the Bluefins get an extra turn) to their player boards to move, trade and battle, or execute one of their factions’ unique powers - usually involving spawning patrols or comrades to assert control over an island.
Battles are triggered when at least one player loads their cannons (another die) and bumps into another. They’re resolved just as quickly, with a simple who-rolls-highest competition modified by spending points from your loaded guns. A choice of spoils bags you bonus actions or resources, or inconveniences your foe by plugging up their action squares with damage.
Once everybody’s dice are placed, the controlling power in each region scores points. Dice are re-rolled and re-placed. So it goes, with the end of the game triggered when someone passes 30 (another echo of Root).
Ahoy lacks the brutal politicking and long-term strategy that made Root such a standout, but it manages to confidently cut its own course by boiling many of the same pleasures down to a tighter, less punishing experience.
Loring-Albright’s design gestures at Root without feeling like a tribute act; as easy as it is to draw comparisons (what asymmetrical game today doesn’t stand in the shadow of Root?), this is still very much its own game, albeit with some of the same love of differing faction powers and delight in watching player-driven cogs interlock and clash.
As a lover of Root, I found myself excited by discovering a game that I could teach and play with a group of friends in an hour, teasing them with threads that they might choose to follow down to the depths of asymmetrical strategy. Even with fellow Root veterans, Ahoy’s quick turns and peppy sense of adventure make it well worth a place on the shelf alongside its tougher cousin.
Even if they never dive deeper, Ahoy has more than enough to leave its mark on the burgeoning genre of asymmetrical board games. It’s a charming, entertaining romp around the seven seas that I can see myself going back to for a while yet - with the knowledge that the friendly game will likely be easier to get to the table on a more regular basis, too.
Loring-Albright has managed to step out from under the shadow of Root with a piece of pirate gold that shines very bright indeed.
Ahoy is available for pre-order from publisher Leder Games.