A Review of Hagoth: Builder of Ships
by Jon Cooper
Mike and I know one another because of his game "Hagoth: Builder of Ships." I wrote a review of Hagoth on another website (Board Game Geek: here), and dropped Mike a note letting him know how much I enjoyed the game. We've chatted back and forth over the last few months about games and game design, and this on-going conversation has culminated in Mike asking if I'd consider writing a review of Hagoth for his blog - and I'm happy to do so.
To give you some background about myself, game-wise, I've played a variety of table top games since I was a kid. There's nothing I enjoy more than passing an evening of games with my wife and good friends...well, I guess there's one other thing: passing an entire weekend of games with my wife and good friends! Our gaming collection (my wife enjoys table top games, as well) includes traditional American board games, like Monopoly and Scrabble, party games, like Apples to Apples and Wits and Wagers, collectible/living card games, like Magic: The Gathering and Call of the Cthulhu, miniatures war games, like Warmachine, and hobby table top games, including Eurogames (like Caylus and Finca) and American-style games (like A Touch of Evil and Arkham Horror). You might say that I'm a relatively well-rounded gamer: if it has dice, cards, chits, tokens, a board, or pawns, I'm there!
There are numerous reasons why I game, and my reasons have certainly evolved since I was a teenager. Being a husband and a father, one of my motivations for gaming is to spend time with my family. For us, "spending time together" can take just a little bit of work. If we don't spend some time thinking about what to do together, well, we end up in front of the television - which some nights is fine. But as a source of quality family interaction, "let's just watch whatever's on" is a bit low on the "time well spent" scale. Table top games provide us with a qualitatively better experience.
But playing table top games as a family is not exactly a silver bullet. The reality of it is that many of the games that we as consumers can pick up at the local department store have limited replayability. This is to say that most games on the shelves of popular department stores can get boring to play rather quickly. And boring does not equal fun. One of the reasons that these department store games lack table top longevity, among other reasons, is because they remove the agency of the players: roll a die, move a pawn, do whatever the board says. Or some variation on this theme. And many of the games that seem to offer more are simply a bit more clever at hiding it than the others. Popular party games, while fun, generally lack any strategic or tactical depth - which means that they live or die by their novelty. By definition, after a few plays, the novelty wears off. This isn't to say that we don't enjoy department store games or party games - only that as a source of continual quality family time, they tend to be limited.
Some level of choice, then, is an important ingredient for our family in continually enjoying a game. But that's not all. Games that make it back to our kitchen table or living room floor more than once also must pass two tests for my family. First, after a game or gaming session is complete, we automatically and without planning spend the next fifteen or twenty minutes talking about high and low points, turning points, what we should have done or tried to do, etc. In other words, we relive the fun moments of the game - whether those moments are devastating or glorious! The second test is that we want to play again. If the game is short enough or if we have enough time (or enough energy: I miss being able to stay up past ten playing games...), we'll combine our strategy talk with setting the game up again. If we don't have time or energy or whatever, then the game is sure to make an appearance as soon as possible - usually the next night.
The point of this review is to evaluate Hagoth given these criteria, as well as some extra criteria that Mike asked of me, namely: game play for families and ease of learning. The target audience for this review is families who may play table top games together from time to time, but are not into table top gaming as a hobby. This is not to suggest that I'm out to convert anyone. But it is my hope that by the end of this review, not only will you have a good idea of the quality of Hagoth as a game, but that you may even have an interest in using table top games as facilitators of quality family time.
This review is divided into the following sections: first, there is a brief outline of the rules and a quick overview of the components (the bits and pieces that the game comes with). Then, a quick example of play will be presented so potential players can have an idea of what a few turns of Hagoth look like. Finally, Hagoth will be evaluated according to the criteria I outlined above.
In Hagoth, players take on the role of ship builders who compete to build ships and successfully sail them from Bountiful to the Land Northward. Completing ships as well as arriving at the Land Northward score players victory points (VPs); the first to 25 VPs wins.
Players start out with 5 cards; on their turn, they can either play two cards, or take a free action. If a player chooses to play two cards, they must also draw two cards. Taking a free action means that a player cannot draw new cards. There are two types of cards: cards that let you do something, and cards that are parts of ship blueprints. Blueprint cards are used in the construction of ships: players use them to complete one of five ship designs. Different designs are worth different point values, and also take different amounts of time to sail. Designs that require more cards are worth more points and take longer to sail. Once a ship blueprint is complete, it must be built. This is done by first, collecting wood (this is done through cards or as a free action, and employs a four-sided dice, popularly referred to as a d4), then placing that wood on the completed blueprint (also done through cards or a free action). Once all parts of the blueprint are built, the ship sets sail. When a ship sets sail, the player immediately scores points. The player will again score points once the ship reaches the Land Northward. Sailing is accomplished through playing cards or through a free action. There are also cards that hinder your opponent, either by skipping their turn, removing pieces from their blueprints, sending their sailing ships back a space, or even removing a piece of wood from a blueprint card. Players can only sail two ships at a time, and can only work on two ships at a time - they can, however, swap blueprint cards between ships that are not being built at any time, and can use any combination of ship designs as they choose.
The box comes with 100 playing cards, 50 wood tokens, 8 ship tokens, 4 victory point markers, a d4, a game board, and a rules book. Many of the components are top notch: the rules book is on glossy paper, full color, and filled with illustrations and examples. The board is of exceptionally good quality: sturdy, functional, and certainly able to stand up to repeated use. The artwork is outstanding, both on the board and on the cards. Further, the tokens are of the quality one would expect from the industry's leader in Eurogame accessories, Mayday Games. Each color gets two ships, each pair of which are of different sizes - that's a nice touch.
There is some concern with component quality, however: The cards are not printed on the best card stock. I actually bent two during sleeving. Also, the d4 is really light weight. I replaced it with a heavier one. These concerns notwithstanding, for the MSRP and the fun game play, I'm not overly disappointed in these shortcomings. The fact that Mayday sent out a free pack of sleeves for the cards also mitigates my concern over how well the cards will stand up to game play. For being a small game company, it's a great deal.
An Example of Play
So imagine that you're playing a two player game against your spouse and it's your first turn. In your hand, you have two blueprint cards, a card that lets you Go Wooding, and a Build card with the number 2 in the corner. You choose to pay the two blueprint cards, which just so happen to fit together to complete the blueprint of a tiny ship! You end your turn by drawing two new cards: another blueprint, and one Sail card. Your spouse takes their first turn, playing one blueprint card, and attacking you with a Remove card, which allows them to remove one blueprint card from a blueprint that is not yet built - that is, that does not yet have wooden tokens on it. They draw their two new cards, and it's back to you.
Fortunately, the blueprint card you drew last turn is the same blueprint card that just got discarded, so you first play this card, and then play your Go Wooding card. You need wood to complete your blueprint, and this is the card that allows you to acquire the wood. To do so, you roll once on the d4: you roll a 3, and take three wood tokens. Your turn is over, and you draw two new cards: a blueprint, and a Sail card. Your spouse takes their turn, playing two blueprint cards, and finishes by drawing two new cards.
It's your turn, and you're ready to get your new boat built and in the water: you play your Build card with the number 2 on it, allowing you to place 2 wood tokens on the cards of any completed blueprint. You place one on each of the cards that make up your completed ship, leaving you with 1 wood token left over for future ships. This completes the ship, allowing you to place a ship token on the board on the track that matches your completed ship. This earns you an automatic 1 point, and you move your score marker accordingly on the VP track. Finally, to end your turn, you play your Sail card, moving your just completed ship to the other side of the sea to the Land Northward, earning yourself another 1 point. You draw two cards, and your turn is over.
As you can see, Hagoth is a very fast-paced game that seldom has down time. Once in awhile you may be unable to play a card, but the free actions come in handy here. And if worst comes to worse, you can always discard two cards and draw two new ones to replenish your hand as your turn actions.
Evaluation of Hagoth
This is a very fun game. It's easy to teach, easy to learn, and fun to play. What was surprising to us was the tension that the game maintained: it had an unexpected, but awesome, race-game feel to it. This, no doubt, is because of the "first to 25 VP" winning condition.
1. The "Choice" Test. As is obvious from the rules overview and the game play example, this game provides players a number of choices on their turn. But it's not just choice that the game offers, its aching choices, the kind of choices you have to make between five options, all of which you need to do now. In real life, this is a painful situation; in the world of table top gaming, however, it provides for an excellent gaming experience. By only allowing players to do a fraction of the actions that they need to take each turn, Hagoth extends the game tension already present in the racing aspect. The attack-style cards add to the tension by allowing you to mischievously usurp your opponents' choices!
2. The "That was so cool" Test. This test refers to the post-game debriefing: to what extent are we talking about the game after we finish up a session. Hagoth lends itself well to this aspect, and passes the test. For us, the conversation usually revolves around, "If I just could have..." or "I can't believe you played that card at that moment!" Hagoth is not a heavily strategic game by any stretch, so we talk less about strategy and a bit more about tactical choices. This does not mean that the game lacks strategies, however, so we do spend some time focusing on this, as well. Most of our conversation focuses on linchpin moments. In the end, it doesn't matter what we're talking about specifically. What's important is that we're talking about how much fun the game was.
3. The "Let's play again" Test. Hagoth also passes this test! We can run through 3-5 games a night before it's our bed time, and often we'll try to throw a quick game in during lunch time. Because it's a race game, it leaves us with a feeling of "Ok, ok, again, I got it this time." Basically, Hagoth is for us a text book case of the gambler's fallacy: "I lost sooooo badly this time, that there's no way I can lose that bad again. Just one...more...game!"
So what about ease of game play for families and learning the game? Without drawing out the issue, let me just say that it's a great family night game. One of the reasons it's so good is because it's rule set is quite simple. When I teach this game, it generally takes 5 minutes, and that includes an example or two of what game turns look like, as well as explaining who Hagoth is. It's also a good game for younger kids: it helps reinforce the idea of taking turns, teaches them how to plan ahead, demonstrates how choices result in consequences, and introduces them to dice with less than six sides. It's a win-win situation!
Clearly, I'm a fan of Hagoth, and feel comfortable suggesting that it would fit well in any board game collection. Even hard core gamers may find it an enjoyable light-weight Eurogame. Now the criteria that I used for evaluating Hagoth aren't all our criteria for enjoying a game, but they're some of the biggies. The fact is, this is a review, not an essay on what makes a game fun. The quick and dirty conclusion to that question is "whatever you enjoy!" and for whatever reason. Given the outstanding price-tag, there's no reason you shouldn't pick up or at least try a copy of Hagoth to find out if it's fun for you and your family. It may introduce you to a whole new way to spend time with your family.
Using Mike's system of ratings, I give this game 4 Moroni meeples - one off for some component issues.
Because I prefer probabilities over Likert scales, I will also use the d6 Generation's rating system, and give this game a 3+ (basically, using the results of a d6, what are the odds that the "average" gamer, whoever that may be, would enjoy this game; the odds of rolling a 3 or higher on a d6 are 4/6).
Review written and images supplied by Jon Cooper,
who can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org