Publisher: Czech Games Edition / Rio Grande Games
Shipyard has been on my wish list forever. It is one of the games I wanted to try but never actively sought. I knew it scored some good reviews but also had a few nebulous concerns from gamers. So when I had the opportunity to grab a copy, I hesitated a bit, but ultimately too the plunge. Truthfully, I am not sure if Shipyard’s game play has aged. It was published almost 10 years ago and the rondel system has been thoroughly mined. Even multi-rondel systems aren’t new. Shipyard though, has 5 separate rondels, which I guess makes it pretty unique.
The crux of Shipyard is really building ships to score points. Ships have a bow, stern and up to 7 mid-ship sections. Each section usually comes with a scaffold for upgrades. This includes cabins to house personnel (officers, businessmen or soldiers) or attachments for building cranes, masts, smoke stacks or even cannons. Each upgrade brings benefits in the form of points. Once ships are completed, they are tested in the open waters for speed and various upgrades. Pretty much all upgrades will score some points including speed of the ships which depends on whether the ship is outfitted with smoke stacks, masts and propellers. Finally, these ships will go on their maiden voyage called a shakedown cruise and once again score points based on the route it takes on the canal. As the ship passes through specific checkpoints (military, economic, safety or blue ribald check points), it will pick up additional points. Hence, the larger the ship, the more upgrades you have, the faster it can go which scores more points. However, larger ships also take more time to build. It’s a trade-off. To cap off the game, you also score end game VPs’ from contracts . These contracts contribute a large chunk of your total score and can shape your fleet composition. The contracts may potentially steer you toward building smaller or mid-sized ships, war-time vessels or perhaps even a fleet of mercantile boats.
So how does one pick up ship sections and upgrades? Through the rondels of course! Each rondel is tied to one action on the action track. When triggering a rondel action, a shared pawn is moved one sector clockwise and that sector’s action is triggered. One can pay additional Guilders to move the pawn even further along the rondel until the desired sector is reached. There are a total of 7 actions in a 3 player game: build ships recruit crew, purchase commodities, manufacture equipment, trade, hire employee, rent canal. In a 4 player game, another action: receive subsidy is also added to the mix. Each action is pretty self-explanatory. Building ships allow you to buy either the bow, stern or mid-ship sections for 0-2 guilders from 4 different columns; recruit crew allows you to pick up a crewman in the form of captains/officers, soldiers or businessmen. Oddly, one can pick up a propeller in this rondel as well. Manufacture equipment means picking up ship parts (i.e. cranes, cannons, masts, etc.) while hire employees gives you special ability tiles that enhances rondel actions (i.e. get a freebie when you trigger the brown rondel, etc.). Rent a canal is necessary to build a modular map for the shakedown cruise. Finally, one can get more money by picking up rail cars for 0-2 guilders via the purchase commodities action and then trading them in the exchange commodities rondel where you can convert raw goods into money or for other ship parts. The actions are pretty neat. Once you perform the action, you move the tile to the front of the line on a circular track before your next action. You cannot choose consecutive actions and your income is based on the position of your pawn on the circular track. If your action tile is behind other pawns, you gain as much income as there are pawns ahead of you. This makes players balance income and action choice. Sometimes, when money is tight, forgoing a desired action may be necessary to boost income. The action track goes around in 4 cycles before the game ends.
Shipyard has a fantastic theme. The ship building theme is very evident during game play and the immersion is fantastic. The ships look regal and when a large ship is built, it looks like a beast with the different ship sections. It always felt like I was racing to build a fleet of ships and putting them out to test their seaworthiness. Thumbs up to Suchy for the thematic design! I also quite enjoyed the rondels. Each action paired with a rondel is great but the action track is the highlight for me. Choosing actions based on future availability requires some planning. It is nice to see my plans developed into full blown ships steaming out into the canal. So I feel the mechanism meshes well with the theme.
There is a (significant?) drawback to Shipyards and I think it is what others have been complaining about: the government contracts. At the start of the game, players are given four blue and four green contracts. Midway in the game, you discard all but one of each type of contract. Contracts award additional victory points at the end of the game. This sort of thing is a very common Euro gaming feature (i.e. score 1-3-6-9-14 for an element you have on the ships, etc.) Gamers have loudly complained that the contracts are unbalanced with one particular contract awarding 32 end-game VPs’ for a player with 7 ships in the fleet. Now, from one play at least, I can understand the concerns even though they are not exactly the same. For me, the biggest flaw in the contracts isn’t that one card is unbalanced, it is that the scoring range or caps do not match up well. There are some contracts that give you 12VPs (for having all types of contracts) while others have the capacity to score upwards of 30-40VPs’. If you happen to get some of these high-end contracts, then you can work on getting points all through the game while others with weaker contracts will quickly cap out and do nothing. To top things off, some of these contracts will synergize with each other and are formidable scoring combinations. Since contracts aren’t hard to fulfill, we start seeing some disparity in end-game scoring. If you end up with a weak set of contracts, then you are handicapped right off the bat and can’t do much about it. Some will argue that you should then focus on building and sailing if you have lousy contracts. From my own experience, I bet the scores for sailing won’t be a huge disparity. Sure, large ships score more, but smaller ships score often. I just don’t think the weaker contracts will be able to offset the stronger more powerful one. To be clear, the 32 VP contract people gripe about is true, but in my 3 player game, all of us managed to get a contract that scored in the 30-ish VP range. Clearly, there are contracts that are on par if not out-compete the largest fleet contract. So, I don’t think that one contract alone is a deal breaker. The problem is whether you have a shot of getting these high value contracts to begin with. This is why some players see endgame scores range from the 20-25 VPs’ all the way to 60 VPs’. This is a problem.
Building and sailing ships are important, but when your end-game contracts are so potent that they almost double (or triple?) your final score, something is a bit off . I am not a huge fan of hidden scoring to begin with and the extremes in scoring for Shipyard does the game no favors.
Overall, I still think the game is fun and thematically quite novel. I don’t have any games with this particular genre. The rondels are cool and so are action selection mechanism. The game is weighed down by the contracts and it feels like there is an easy solution for this. Perhaps a common scoring tableau or maybe even tweaking the scoring matrix. I don’t like making house rules but I think solving this issue will make Shipyard and even more outstanding game. Perhaps a reprint with slight tweaks is in order? CGE? Anyone?
Initial impression: Good