Words by David C. Obenour
There are many adventures to be had for the fanciful creatures who make their homes out on the tall ships of sea! Whether looking to assert domination through shot and sword, seeking to reclaim the glory of generations past, or fearlessly swashbuckling through blockades to turn a coin, the opportunities are as open as the horizon is endless.
Designed by Greg Loring-Albright and developed by Leder Games’ Nick Brachmann, Ahoy finds players taking command of the rivaling Bluefin Squadron and Mollusk Union, along with the Smuggler outfits who hold no allegiance beyond the reward promised them. Each with their own drives and desires, the gaming focuses on asymmetric play over roughly an hour of revealed tile exploration, area control, worker placement, goods delivery, and more. The design and components help to ease considerations and make for intuitive turns, while Kyle Ferrin’s illustrations instill all the signature adventure and vibrant world of previous Leder titles.
Off Shelf: Did you come up with the theme of Ahoy before considering the mechanics that would make the game? What was the first thing that clicked and excited you for its potential?
Greg Loring-Albright: Sort of. The game began its very, very early life as a pirate game, an homage to Merchants and Marauders. But in, like, the first or second playtest, it became clear that it needed fast-travel, so I re-themed it as a space game. Of course, it’s now back to being a pirate game, and the fast-travel remains! I think the germ of this game was one, my love of pirate stuff and two, my love of Betrayal at House on the Hill. Particularly the part of that game where you explore the house. It’s always been a tile exploration game, from day one. That’s a theme answer and a mechanics answer, which I think demonstrates how intertwined those two things are for me as a designer. I don’t consider them separately, except in very specific product-related conversations.
Ahoy clicked as the game that you see now when I was playing two-player with a friend who suggested that the bot I had created to liven up the two-player game become a playable faction. That put me on the path to asymmetry, which ultimately led to me pitching the game to Leder Games.
OS: No stranger to tall ships after your 1-v-1 card game Leviathan, what intrigues you about these settings?
GL-A: Thanks for shouting out Leviathan! There are things I’d change about that game, but I love that it’s still out there for people to play. And of course, while we’re on the topic, I’d advise everyone to go read Moby Dick if you haven’t. Truly a revelatory book!
The ship bug bit me when I spent a semester living, working, and studying – and reading Moby Dick for the first time – at the Mystic Seaport Museum. My classmates and I sailed for a few weeks on a sail training vessel and got to spend time aboard the historical vessels in the museum’s harbor. The tall ship is such a compelling setting – it is a traveling society in isolation while it’s at sea, and yet it’s also the most cosmopolitan place there is, as it can travel from port to port. It is both a site of oppression and a site of freedom. We don’t really have anything like it in our contemporary world.
Pirates are such a compelling signifier too. They can mean all things to all people and I include some pretty terrible people in that! Their narrative is just too cool not to want to be a part of in some way.
OS: Different from Leviathan, Ahoy is a completely fantastical tall ship setting for the adventures of the Bluefin Squadron, Mollusk Union, and two crews of anthropomorphic soggy smugglers. What did you enjoy about this twist? Did you have much guidance in the illustrations that Kyle Ferrin did?
GL-A: I love the setting! As I mentioned, tall ship sailing is near and dear to me, but this change was made almost completely in my absence. When I pitched the game to Leder, it was a Star Wars homage. In fact, the faction that is now the Bluefins actually used a little plastic Star Destroyer stolen from my childhood copy of Star Wars Monopoly as its flagship! But at our very first meeting, Cole said “If we sign this, we’re going to re-theme it. Are you okay with that?” I was ready for this question. Fantasy Flight’s lock on the Star Wars license was airtight at that point, and I knew publishers might not want to do “Star Wars but not quite.” So I had been brainstorming other settings for the game with my local design group and a return to a pirate game was high on that list.
As for the art, and really the development process as a whole, I was engaged in empirical research and then writing my dissertation, in addition to being a stay-at-home dad to my two-year-old, so I was very hands-off for the development of Ahoy. The game owes a huge debt to everyone at Leder, but especially Nick Brachmann, who developed the shit out of it and made it better in every way.
OS: Can you talk about what stood out when you first saw Kyle’s art for Ahoy? What surprised you, what went a different way, or what really captured what you had envisioned?
GL-A: Throughout the development process, Patrick Leder would DM me art samples on Twitter and be like “Eh?” and I’d be like “Yooooooo!” and that was the extent of my involvement in the art direction process. It’s an honor to have someone as talented as Kyle Ferrin do work on your game.
One morning, I woke up and checked Twitter, and Patrick had shared a mockup of the box, complete with the cover art. I was just blown away, I showed everyone in the house, including my two-year-old. Because the game began life as a space game, I really had no expectations around the art, so every piece of art I got to see in advance was just pure joy.
I remember playing my copy of Oath with some friends during Ahoy’s development and being like “Yeah, this is the artist who’s working on my game” and having them just be blown away. I mention that because something I love about Ahoy’s art is the specificity – just like in Oath, where every unique card has a ton of personality, the crew cards in Ahoy feel like they’ve all got their own stories, they’re all just weird little folks going about their days. The fish diplomat on “Convincing Noble” is a favorite, as is the ancient, scarred shark on “Elder.”
OS: Knowing they have more of a set style than most publishers, aside from the art – did Ahoy change much after it had found its home at Leder Games?
GL-A: Yes, it definitely did. Nick took charge of the game’s development once I had signed the contract, and had been working on the game behind the scenes in anticipation of a contract being signed. I had shown the game to Jonathan Gilmour a year or so before I pitched it to Leder Games, and he was the one who suggested that I pitch it to them. I spent that year adding two asymmetric factions, one of which never worked out and is not in the finished game, refining the core gameplay, and scheduling a pitch meeting with Cole. He took a prototype home from PAX Unplugged 2019, and from that point, it was in their hands.
One little serendipitous overlap between my design process and Nick’s development is the Strongholds – the control faction, the Bluefin Squadron, can build bases on islands that really lock them down. Nick added these to the game, but what he didn’t know that I had just removed a similar piece from the version prior to the one that I pitched to Cole. The game clearly wanted them in there!
OS: Leder is also known for their well-balanced asymmetrical games, so I wanted to ask a few questions about that. First off, what do you enjoy about this style of gaming compared to the more common shared style of play?
GL-A: I love how games can present ecosystems for their players – a choice I make impacts the choice that you might make, which impacts a choice that she might make, et cetera. I think asymmetric games foreground this aspect really nicely specifically via the narrative aspect. While that dynamic is present in something like Azul, for instance, where my tile pulls influence your play, I’m not role-playing as a different kind of tile artisan than you. In Ahoy and other highly asymmetric titles, you absolutely are, and I think that’s a really fun way to foreground that ecosystemic kind of play.
OS: Had you always envisioned Ahoy as asymmetrical? What made you want to explore this kind of game?
GL-A: Weirdly no! Ahoy began life as a fully symmetrical game of picking up and delivering cargo, with plenty of opportunities to attack and impede one another along the way. When I pitched the game, this was part of the pitch: “A game that you can play symmetrically or asymmetrically.” The aforementioned two-player playtest led to the addition of one asymmetric faction, and my meeting with Jonathan Gilmour led to more. But the core structure, the rules of the ecosystem, serve as a little world wherein you can play in either way. While the fully-symmetric version is not in the box anymore, it is hinted at by the fact that, at four players, two of those players are playing the same role, just racing each other for points. I’ve said this elsewhere, though I have yet to try it, but I think you could mock up some player boards, find some ship minis, and play a three- or four-player game of Ahoy as a pure pickup and deliver game. It might be a disaster, because the game has been finely tuned to be what it is right now, but it is at least conceptually possible!
The symmetric game was, as I said earlier, inspired by my love of Betrayal at House on the Hill and Merchants and Marauders – I wanted to make this kind of light, sandbox-y, exploration game that would support a lot of different behaviors. In retrospect, that kind of design just calls for asymmetric factions, since a ruleset that is robust enough to support sandbox-style play should also support a game where players are instructed by their faction goals and abilities to play in a specific kind of way.
OS: What challenges did you face in designing an asymmetrical game?
GL-A: The real challenge was balance. Once I had my factions locked in, I just spent night after night solo-playing 3- and 4-player games, graphing the point curves round-over-round: Who surged early? What happened if the faction that held them in check wasn’t in the game? Who had a late burst of points and how could other players prevent that?
A lot of these problems were solved by locking in the faction sets – unlike in something like Root, you can’t just pick some factions and go. Ahoy has a core area-control tension between the Mollusk Union and the Bluefin Squadron, so those two have to be in every game. At three players, you add one smuggler and at four you add another. Nick’s development work also really shines here – he did a lot of work revamping the Smugglers to make their point-scoring curve less predictable.
Coming up with new factions was the least challenging part – once the sandbox is set up, imagining new ways to play in it is just catnip. Nick and I have had conversations about which new Ahoy factions we’d put into a hypothetical expansion [note: “A Whale of an Expansion” has since been teased through BackerKit], though nothing is locked in for certain.
OS: I really enjoy asymmetrical games but I do find them to be a little more challenging in sitting down and explaining to a new group. Do you share that? Do you have any advice for teaching new groups games like these?
GL-A: I mean, Ahoy was designed in part as an answer to this problem. One of my core design directives was asymmetry of outcomes, not asymmetry of inputs. So, unlike in, say Vast, where each player is playing a game using radically different actions, all players in Ahoy do the same thing each round: roll a pool of dice, and slot them into their player board, taking the attendant action. The asymmetry comes from what those actions are – they’re mostly shared, but each faction has a few special actions – and to what ends they are taken. This makes teaching the game up top very straightforward, and it helps the teaching player keep a handle on the learning players and make sure they’re not floundering, pun intended! When I was running the game at Unpubs and other playtesting events, my pitch to browsing players was “learn four factions in fifteen minutes, pick your favorite, then play one round in another fifteen minutes.”
As for teaching advice, I hesitate to give advice in general, but here’s an anecdote from a recent demo I was running at a local mini-con: the Smuggler player wasn’t sure what to do. I let them talk through their options, and then said “But really, your best bet is to take this action to move and then pick up that card and then you’ll be well-situated for next turn.” This is way more directive than I like to be! But because players can’t look to other players to guide their play – because they have other goals – it’s sometimes useful to have the game teacher give you a little push in the right direction. I’d never do this for a player who had played it even once before, nor would I do this if the player seemed intent on a course of action. Because they seemed adrift, I felt okay steering them onto the right course, both puns again intended.
OS: With inset tiles, custom cut wooden playing pieces, and a rainbow of dice sizes and colors, the components for Ahoy are really lovely, while remaining a modestly priced game. How involved with the development of the physical components were you? Are there any that you were particularly happy with how they fit the theme or gameplay?
GL-A: I was not involved at all, due once again to needing to juggle caring for a rambunctious child and a rambunctious dissertation. When I pitched the game to Cole, the player boards were just cardstock mats and the tiles were just flat tiles. He immediately started scheming about how to get double-layered components into the game. I received images of the wooden pieces via my unofficial back channel, but as with the art, I was too busy to even ask to be in art direction meetings. And I wouldn’t have presumed to do so even if I had the time – what could I add to an art direction meeting that includes one of the best art and graphic design teams in the industry!?
Aside from the double-layer everything, which just helps the game be so much more playable, my favorite piece in the game is the shark fins – the way they sit on top of the tiles and look like little fins piercing the surface is just so clever. I would never have come up with that in a thousand years.