Flotilla

Designer: J.B. Howell and Michael Mihealsick

Artist: Bartek Fedyczak

Publisher: Wizkids

What a bleak human existence. That’s why I prefer Star Trek. (Photo credits: Jessa@BGG)

I admit that Flotilla caught my eye because of the theme and then upon delving into the rulebook, the mechanism. I have always enjoyed how artists, writers and even board game designers visualize the future, be it a dystopian or utopian. In the case of Flotilla, the world is post-apocalyptic and is best compared to Kevin Costner’s Waterworld. Whether you like the movie, the idea that the entire world is submerged in water due to the melting of polar ice-caps is both an intriguing and frightening future to behold. The theme is not new, of course, but compared to the Fallout or Wasteland type scenarios, it is not nearly as common. Even though I am not necessarily a theme guy, I appreciate a good theme and this one drew me in.

The gameplay in Flotilla draws heavily on several different Euro mechanisms, but combined in a way that makes it feel unique. While each individual mechanism is not particularly noteworthy, the sequence of play and how these mechanism interact with each other creates a novel experience that is really bolstered by a strong theme that successfully blends the disparate mechanisms in cohesive manner. In short, the sum of the entire game is more than its individual parts and I think most cult-of-the-new members would be thrilled. Surprisingly though, Flotilla entered the market with little to no fanfare and also almost no publicity that I can remember.

As other reviewers have noted, the core action selection mechanism in Flotilla is based on a hand of crew cards that gets recycled and upgraded over time. This mechanism is probably familiar with players who have played Mac Gerdt’s Concordia or if you go back even further, Stefan Dorra’s underrated Kreta published by Goldsieber. Each player start the game of Flotilla with a hand of six “Sinkside” crew cards which are resources gathers in the surrounding ocean. Your ocean space is protected and for the most part, players play and expand in their own corner. Ocean space between players never meld. Most of the crew belong to one of 4 guilds. The “Founders” are explorers and playing a Founder usually means exploration of the oceans, drawing more tiles from the bag and expanding your own corner of the ocean. The “Delvers” are divers that operate on your explored ocean tiles and picking up different ocean resources (4 different colored-types) and artifacts. These resources can then be bought and sold by “Traders” in a dynamic and fluctuating marketplace where demand and supply will alter the prices for each type of good. Traders also purchase skiffs which are necessary to move around the ocean to load the goods that Delvers uncover and build outposts to score victory points. To expand and upgrade your hand of crew cards requires the help of “Speakers”. Playing a Speaker allows one to improve membership in the guilds by moving a marker around each individual guild rondel. By passing specific checkpoints on the rondel, players can hire new recruits from each guild in the form of higher-tiered crew cards that are more powerful. Each rondel also earns players different benefits including victory points, resources, etc. Finally, there are two crew cards that do not belong to any guilds: The “Scholar” belongs to all guilds and can copy the powers of any previously played card from an opponent’s deck and The “Captain” rally all the crew by allowing you to pick up all the previously played cards and earning some money in the process. In this way, players play crew cards, carry out the actions and then use the captain the recall all the cards into their hand to start the cycle.

There is some randomness when playing Flotilla in the form of hexagonal ocean tile draws from the bag as well as resource acquisition. When playing a Founder, players have a blind draw of ocean tiles before placing them on the ocean space. Ocean tiles come in three flavors: shallows, shelf and depths. Each tile is also paired with one of the four types of resources. Some tiles also have an outpost symbol allowing you to construct an outpost. Importantly some of the hexagonal tiles also have an artifact icon on one of its corner and when the icons from three tiles are placed together to form a complete circle, players gain a powerful artifact with special bonuses drawn blindly from another bag.

Once ocean tiles are explored, players then move their skiffs into these tiles to harvest resources. Luck of the draw also comes from the dice roll for resource acquisition. When a Delver crew card is played, players will choose and roll a set number of dice depending on which ocean tiles their skiffs are located. Each ocean depth has its own set of dice and the die faces for each die type is slightly different. For example, shallows and shelves are more easily depleted but have more die-faces that yield resources while deepest ocean tiles are riskier with a higher chance to get toxic exposure to radiation, but have a chance to find survivors. All dice also have at least one sonar icon which provides variable benefits or hazards. Once the dice are rolled, players load their skiffs with barrel of resources, examine if their tile earns a depletion token and see if survivors are found.

Flotilla would just be a ho-hum design if not for one major twist: at any point in the game after playing the Captain card, players can switch their play mode from “Sinkside” to “Skyside”. This is a major switch in the way one plays the game. Players go from explorers and resource gatherers to architects and builders of the Flotilla. The individual player boards are flipped over and so are the crew cards. All the ocean tiles are disassembled and goes into the reserve pool and the skiffs are sold for money. All the outposts are removed and the game starts afresh after the switch. In the Skyside, a Founder is now tasked with adding tiles in their reserve pool to the expanding Flotilla using resources previously gathered during the Sinkside or by purchasing from the marketplace. The Delvers are now rolling dice to earn money and research the artifacts gathered by the Sinksiders. Dice also allow players to discover breakthroughs that improve Flotilla scoring. The remaining roles including Traders, Speakers, Scholars and Captain remain largely unchanged. Outposts can still be built to score VPs’ and the marketplace is now fully interactive between the Sinksiders and Skysiders. While the Sinksiders are focused on gathering resources to earn victory points, the Skysiders need money to build the Flotilla which also translates to points. The interaction between these two modes of play is quite innovative and new to me.

The game starts with 100VP per player and ends when the total VP chits are depleted. Players tally up all the VP chits and add more points for unspent resources, money as well as 10VP for each majority of guild memberships. Players also reduce VPs’ based on their toxicity levels they have accumulated. While the game starts slow, it quickly accelerates to the end when a critical mass of ocean tiles or Flotilla are built. The snowballing effect is really dramatic.

There are several things about Flotilla that I enjoy. I really like the interaction between Sinkside and Skyside modes and I think the emergent play from these two sides can be outstanding. I said “can be” because we simply haven’t played enough to know if that is true yet. But my initial impressions are favorable. Because one can switch over to Skyside at anytime during the game, the timing of the switch is crucial and depends not only on the state of your player board, specifically the resources you have hoarded, but also how the other player boards look like. If it is clear that most people are ready to make the leap, staying behind in Sinkside will have its advantages. The choice to stay or switch matters because there are elements of interaction by either Sinksiders or Skysiders that have bidirectional implications to both modes of play.

There are at least three types of actions that qualify under this definition. First, and the most important, is the resource marketplace. As Sinksiders, players gather resources from the ocean and mostly sell their goods in the marketplace. As supply increase, the prices will drop. Since there are 4 types of resources, each with their own market price, Sinksiders will rush to sell their goods early on to get money to purchase skiffs and outposts. On the other hand, Skysiders need resources to build their Flotilla. Since they can no longer ocean delving, the majority of goods are either previously hoarded before the switch or purchased from the marketplace. So, Skysiders will push the market prices higher as they increase demand. The interplay between demand and supply in the game is superb and really drives home the importance of timing the switch. Switching early when supply is highest means you get resources for cheap, but with every barrel you buy, you are also enriching the Sinksiders who can sell at a much higher price.

The next element of interaction come from the sonar track. The sonar icon is found on ocean tile dice when you perform the Delver action. Each sonar icon rolled corresponds to a benefit or hazard. Early in the game, all sonar rolls are bad as you mainly accrue toxicity. However, as people switch to Skysiders and build their Flotilla by combining adjacent sonar icons (similar to finding artifacts), the sonar track market moves and the hazards will become benefits. At the end of the sonar track, for each sonar icon rolled, Sinksiders will find survivors, roll extra dice, etc. The benefits are immense. For Skysiders, moving the sonar marker will yield victory points. So, while the benefits go both ways, Sinksiders will greatly benefit when Skysiders develop the sonar track.

The final element of interaction come from the artifact tiles discovered by Sinkside Delvers. These artifacts have immediate bonuses, but each of these artifacts are also placed in their respective guilds and can further earn bonuses by Skysiders depending on their dice roll. Thematically, these artifacts allow researcher to gain bonuses in their study of the past. The bonuses aren’t enormous, but is a nice addition to how Sinksiders and Skysiders interact with each other.

It should be clear by now that I really enjoy the theme and the designers have done an excellent job marrying the mechanisms into the the design making the game flow intuitively. The ocean tile exploration at different depths makes sense: The deeper you go, the riskier it is and even the blind tile draw is understood as a facet of exploring the unknown. I don’t like blind draws, but just like the fog of war in civilization games, I understand why the blind draw instead of drafting tiles from a tableau. Most tile draws are also quite lax, allowing you to draw 3-4 tiles per action. I particularly love that artifacts that are discovered by Sinkside Delvers can aid Skyside Delvers in their research. It feels like a logical interaction between the two factions.

As I pointed out earlier, I have a few quibbles for Flotilla . First, the scoring of watercraft is a little clunky. Watercrafts are individual colonies on a Flotilla. Players try to assemble a watercraft using similarly-colored tiles to maximize scoring. After having explained the scoring, the concept is still confusing and I think the graphics is partly at fault here. The structures on the the hexagonal tiles are not always clearly drawn. Sometimes, the drawing extends along the entire edge of the tile, and somethings, half way through. It can be vague and the resulting watercraft construction looks slightly disjointed and kinda ugly. I think if there is one weakness in the game, it is how the watercrafts are assembled and scored. There is room to streamline this aspect of the game, including thematically (why do you need only single resource type to build watercraft? It’s like saying only cement is required for this watercraft and bricks for another).

Another thing that is a head scratcher for me is the color of the resources which matches the guilds. As far as I can tell, the guilds and resources are not tied together in any way, yet the barrels are of the same color and carry the same symbols of the guild. Why? Resources are guild-independent. Why not just make them a different color or have symbols represent the guilds instead? Perhaps I am missing something here as I don’t see why the resource barrels are tied to the guilds. I am not sure it makes thematic sense and can be confusing.

Finally, I wonder about the Sinkside-Skyside balance for winning the game. This is most certainly not a critique as I have not played enough to make a judgement. But Flotilla is a game with fairly innovative and complex interactions and you have to wonder if it is robust enough to support different styles of play. For example, mid-game when all players are still Sinksiders, there reaches a time when the entire marketplace is depressed and getting money is hard. There is an inherent push for someone to break ranks and become a Skysider to alleviate or take advantage of the marketplace. If everyone chose to stay Sinksider, for example, I wonder if the game would slow to a snail’s pace or collapse as money becomes too tight. While I understand it is only logical for someone to switch, I feel a game has to be able to support all styles of play.

Ultimately, my initial impression of the game is positive. I agree with one reviewer that the game designers are brave enough to try a new combination of mechanisms in novel way, at least novel enough for me to want to play the game again soon….. which is rare.

Initial impressions: Good

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